25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Sky Gilbert

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Sky Gilbert

Writer and director Sky Gilbert talks to Open Book about Judy Garland at age 138, a seedy bar called the Tranquility Spa and the city of Toronto in the year 2050 — all of which you'll find in his new novel, Come Back (ECW Press).

Open Book:

Tell us about Come Back.

Sky Gilbert:

Come Back is a novel set in the future. It is a kind of speculative fiction and a kind of dystopian vision. On top of that, it is also a piece of autobiographical fiction.

In the novel, Judy Garland speaks to us from the future. It is 2050 and she is 138 years old. She has three major concerns; with her past, with her present, and with her thesis subject. On the subject of her past she can be salty and plainly pissed off. On the subject of her present she is engaged in a lengthy discussion with her best friend, Johnny (a lesbian who lives in England), about the danger that she may return to her drug addiction. In terms of her thesis subject, she is writing a book on Dash King, who was a suicidal homosexual playwright living in Toronto in the year 2011, and hell bent on killing himself via promiscuity, alcoholism and drug use. Much of the novel centres around Frances Gumm (Judy?s real name; she never uses the other one) coming to terms with her past and struggling with the demons she left behind. The demons seem to be tempting her at a bar called The Tranquility Spa.


Why did you decide to set this novel in the future, and what did you like best about imagining the world of 2050?


The idea for the novel came from my partner who is a futurist and somewhat of a computer geek. He introduced me to "the singularity" and Ray Kurzweil, and called me stupid for knowing nothing about these things (he was right!). My partner always complains about the long sequences in my novels in which the various narrators wax nostalgic about old movies. He claims that younger people know nothing about old movie stars (except in odd exceptional cases) and that there is no point in writing about them. He said ?Why don?t you write a novel about an old movie star who despises her past and wants to move on?? I took the challenge, and that was the genesis for the novel. But of course I am not a computer geek or scientist and I know very little concerning speculations about the future; so my partner sent me to Ray Kurzweil. I think that the whole idea of "non-carbon based" life forms raises some very interesting questions that are addressed in Come Back.


How does your experience with theatre and film (and as a drag queen) make you a better novelist?


Some, of course, would say it doesn?t. I stand to correct them. The drag queen part is only significant in that I think I am very able to be a ventriloquist for the voice of a woman, as I am very feminine (proud of that) and I understand what it means to be a tourist (which is what a drag queen is) in the world of being a woman. (As I like to say — I have experienced those looks of desire and contempt that come from men who are both attracted and frightened by me — what I considered to be an essential aspect of misogyny.) But lots of male writers write women and the other way around too.

My theatre experience is more relevant. I do often write monologues as novels, and also enjoy writing in the first person. (I think the first person is politically important because it does not privilege a single voice; it is not "the" omnipotent voice, it is only "one" voice.) But there has been some criticism of my novels from those who say ?these are not novels, these are monologues." I have a one word answer: ?Beckett." Of course I do not think I am Beckett or Beckett?s equivalent, but I do think that Beckett?s novels set a precedent, i.e. that it is possible to be a playwright who also writes novels that are essentially monologues. What is the difference between a theatrical monologue and a novel? Well, a novel is longer, and you read it alone; that means it must be somehow different.


What's the most important advice you can give to your creative writing students and other aspiring writers?




Where do you do your best creative work?


Paradoxically, both at my desk, and in a crowded room.


What is the arts scene like in Guelph?


I?m ashamed to say that I don?t know much about it. I spend most of my time in either Toronto (where I play) or Hamilton (where I live). I teach in Guelph (talk about compartmentalized!). I do know quite a bit about the Hamilton arts scene. I produce a one act play of my own there every year with a little theatre called hammertheatre. It usually takes place on or near James Street North — the new arts hub of the new Hamilton. What?s the difference between the new Hamilton and the old Hamilton? Well, in the new Hamilton those rumours of the smelly air have finally been put to rest, and everybody likes to go downtown at night and party.

We?re getting there.


What are you working on now?


It?s all very secret. In fact, it?s a mystery. It?s an Edwardian style novel about an older woman, written for older women. I guess all those years of reading Barbara Pym have finally paid off!

Sky Gilbert is a writer, director and drag queen extraordinaire. He was co-founder and artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (North America's largest gay and lesbian theatre) for 18 years. He is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, two poetry collections and the theatre memoir Ejaculations from the Charm Factory (ECW Press, 2000). He has received numerous awards for theatre directing, including two Dora Mavor Moore Awards and the Pauline McGibbon Award. Dr. Gilbert holds a University Research Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at The School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.

For more information about Come Back please visit the ECW Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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