With the publication this month of his sixth novel, The Telling of Lies, author Timothy Findley, 55, makes a significant departure from his previous works. The creator of The Wars, a novel about a Canadian fighting in the First World War, and Not Wanted on the Voyage, a modern retelling of the legend of Noah’s Ark, has written his first murder mystery. The story follows the search for the murderer of a wealthy, contemptible pharmaceuticals manufacturer whose body is found on a busy vacation resort beach in Maine. Weaving a complex tale of CIA plots, mysterious icebergs, war crimes and opulent settings, Findley focuses on the exploits of “Vanessa X, ” a vacationing photographer who is drawn into the search for the killer, partially against her will. Findley, who lives in rural Ontario, recently spoke with Maclean’s correspondent Suzanne Sandor during a visit to Toronto.
Maclean’s: Why did you choose to write a mystery novel?
Findley: All kinds of reasons. I had the first image of the story three or four years ago. I was thinking actually of film—how images cross-fade. I saw a beach and all those people, and I saw a body—the idea of someone being murdered in the middle of all that activity. I didn’t know who it was, didn’t know if it was a man or a woman or why they were being murdered or who was murdering them. It was just an image and that stayed a long time. I was alarmed at the prospect of sitting down to do this, because it is so utterly different. On the other hand, there are a number of mystery writers, like P.D. James, Georges Simenon and Umberto Eco, who write novels in which there are killings. So that while it is primarily still a novel, it still adheres to the strictures of that other form—the mystery. There are certain givens. I would ordinarily introduce more characters in a novel and develop them far more.
Maclean’s: Would you consider writing more mysteries?
Findley: Of course. There is a wonderful other tale about Vanessa’s life in New York.
Maclean’s: I found it surprising that you used the first person in this book, especially because that person, Vanessa, the central character, was a woman. Findley: The thing I like about Vanessa is that she is a reluctant sleuth. It is the last thing she wants to do, and she does not want to know what she finds out. Once I had made the discovery that
Vanessa was the central character, I tried writing it in the third person, and that had a lot of advantages. I really wanted to write this book in the third person with Vanessa as a character observed along with a number of others. But that didn’t give the sense of “closing in,” and the best way to show that is to lock yourself into one voice.
Maclean’s: In the story, you seem to suggest that premeditated murder may be excusable in certain circumstances. Findley: Timothy Findley is not justifying murder; he is exploring why oth-
er people justify killing. In my view the victimis a monster, and it is like killing an animal that has gone crazy. I’m not saying it is right. The whole book is very much an exploration of what has become of America. But it is also a book about Canada and Canadians. To me, the essence of this book is totally political. Its method is in terms of a killing and the consequences of that killing for society. And once you get close to the end and you have discovered who and why, by then, I guess you are having to question if it was a killing which should have taken place. To be perfectly honest, I found myself saying,‘Now I know why, good.’ I didn’t want to say that.
Maclean’s: Is it fair to say that you are intrigued by violence?
Findley: It is not that I am intrigued by
violence; it is that I see it everywhere. I see it in ways that I guess do not always reach the page in other writers’works, and it is the violence we do to one another by behaving as we do : the violence of refusing to solve our problems, to confront our problems. Pride is a form of violence that is most of the basis of true violence. That physical violence comes from pride, fear, pigheadedness, greed. Instead of being merely the causes of violence, I see them as violence themselves. And so it is not necessarily that I am intrigued by violence, but that I am caught up in it. I cannot get away. That is my field as a writer. That is where I am. It is where I found myself. Because in posing that question, what you are saying is the absolute truth. Every single thing I have written hinges, turns, upon violence.
Maclean’s: You have been described as a mystical writer. Can you explain what that means?
Findley: It must be clear that it is not a mystic experience in the sense of ‘all hail the gods,’ but there is something inside. It is the mystery of how creation takes place to which I am devoted. And that never ceases to astonish me. I think I would use the word mysterious rather than mystical.
Maclean’s: This book seems to be influenced by Japanese culture.
Findley: That has, I think, to do with gardens. I am very enamored of gardens. Also, quite by chance I came upon a book called The Narrow Road to the Deep North by a Japanese poet called Basho, and it is a classic tale of journeys. I found myself enchanted with the whole way of presenting why we do things—
the most important things in our lives are presented with the coolest possible voice, yet it still carries the weight of devastation. It swept me away, not necessarily into the culture, but into the way of seeing. It was very much the writer in me having discovered a way of writing and presenting story and viewpoint that matched what I wanted to achieve myself.
Maclean’s: Does poetry inspire you a great deal?
Findley: It does. I am not a poet, but I read it avidly and as a consequence, I keep having these wonderful revelations, having a whole book deliver itself in one flash.
Maclean’s: You have just been elected president of PEN, the international association of writers, in Canada.
Findley: It is one of those things. We all kid ourselves and say it is a dumb thing to take on the chairmanship of an organization when you are in the middle of so much work. It is an issue I feel very strongly about, and I am particularly concerned with those artists who have been imprisoned because of what they believe and because of what they have written. It is fortuitous that The Telling of Lies deals with prisons, both real and symbolic. As you recognize by the end of the book, it is all a prison and it is all a prison because people have either obeyed their integrity or have refused to—that is what makes the prisons—and so it is very gratifying to have been given this opportunity to be involved with PEN at that level. Each section of PEN has six prisoners of conscience with whom they deal and try to get out of jail. And they’re chosen on the basis of deprivation of speech. Quite often we disagree with the politics of the writer who is in jail, but that is not the point. The point is, that is what freedom of speech is about. You either have it or you do not. Period.
Maclean’s: What is your next writing project?
Findley: I can really only tell you that I am working on [short] stories because I want to do another collection. Some of those are in hand, and the big piece coming, which I will probably start getting to after the New Year, is a novel which is tentatively called Michael, Olivia, Conrad and Claire, and it is the lives of four people who are totally in decline. It will be my first really extended exploration and storytelling of my own time period—no historical context. One of them is schizophrenic, one of them is a homosexual and Michael and Olivia are both academic. Much of it will be comic. I am very eager to come to this book. It is a book I really look forward to writing. Maclean’s: Will there be a crime? Findley: Several. There are always crimes.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.