Not so black and white

For the first thirty years of my life as a writer, I had a day job as a librarian. The public library proved to be an ideal side hustle because it put me in contact with dozens of people each week: the young, the old, the jaunty, the grumpy, the loopy, the lonely, the clever, and the kind. Every one of them had a story. A small branch in the suburbs of Vancouver was my fair field full of folk.

Like any librarian worth her salt, I had my favourites. One of them, Philip, was an intense and solitary nine-year-old with deep, focused interests that included cemeteries and winemaking. This was in the days before the ­internet, and Philip’s informational needs taxed the resources of our team, but we did our best for him. I respected his enthusiasm for facts, but as I’ve lived my life based on the Gospel According to Fiction, every once in a while I would try to tempt Philip with a story. Could I find a character who would resonate with him? He liked rules and predictability. What about the tale of the little chimp who wanted everything to be just so? That was a rare success. But, after we determined that another book exactly like that one would actually be the same thing, Philip was just as happy to return to a discussion of the mossy headstones of Greyfriars Kirkyard. For many months, he visited my library regularly. Then he and his family moved away. Over the years, I’ve thought of him often and hoped that he managed to find himself in a book.

Fast-forward a couple of decades. Bereavement and COVID hit in quick succession and shook my lifelong faith in narrative. I seemed unable to construct a story. But I did need to write. As I riffled through a file of old ideas, I came across notes I had made when I first read Kevin Bazzana’s masterly 2003 biography, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. I reread my notes and then I reread the work. In it, I found an intense, focused, square-peg kid with painful sensitivities who was looking to make his way in the world. I found Philip.

To introduce Gould to a young audience, I decided to tackle the text of a picture book. Here, the words are designed to be read aloud; they’re all about sound and the beat of the turning page. This seemed an approach that would suit my musical subject. And, of course, there would be illustrations. Because I was presenting one art form through the medium of another, it made sense to add pictures as a parallel route to the heart of Gould.

As I researched the man behind the piano, two distinct themes emerged. The first was that Gould embodied contradictions, which to me suggested a pattern of sentences hinged in the middle with “but.” This was the repeating rhythm I needed. Second was the search for an authentic self. This theme gave me the shape of the whole: desire followed by intensifying setbacks, followed by, naturally, a happy ending. What I had produced wasn’t quite a story, though I was back in a familiar writing territory where I felt confident.

After reciting the text over and over and tweaking the words, as I imagined the turn of each page, I felt I had what I wanted. But this was where the rubber met the road. The lines needed to work on paper, not just in my head. The initial test happens when the text goes to an editor. The next is when it’s presented to an illustrator. I was excited when my publisher sent my manuscript to Nancy Vo, whose work I admired for its draftsmanship and ability to convey a mood. I included no illustration notes. It was in her hands.

To my delight, Nancy found her own vocabulary of rhythm and pattern. A line of telephone poles, a piano keyboard, radio waves, an ECG tape, row upon row of empty auditorium seats — every spread suggested its individual tempo marking. She also found her own theme, placing Gould firmly in his historical and cultural context with the subtle use of newspaper clippings as a collage in backgrounds and shadows. Together, with the additional artistry of the book designers, we made a portrait.

Glenn Gould would likely never have seen his life and art as inspiration for the Philips of the world. Still less could he ever have imagined leading an aging and somewhat shaken writer back to her craft.