Excerpted from Black Bird by Michel Basilieres. Copyright © 2003 by Michel Basilieres. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
From the time I was a child I read and loved books. Since I’m stubborn I refused to learn any marketable skills, and by the time I was an adult couldn’t get a decent job, but I’d read more than most people do in a lifetime and had boxes full of writing. I briefly went to university and learned it wasn’t for me. Then I just kept at it. I think there’s less choice for some people than others.
2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
There weren’t any novels I could find that reflected my experience, so I set out to write one. By the time I did, I already had another one in the drawer which had gone nowhere. I realized I needed to work harder than ever before. It’s not enough to be good, or lucky, and I was far from connected. I felt I had to do something that would be impossible to ignore. During the long process I was terrified that I was wasting my time, that nothing would come of it.
3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
It’s essentially a portrait of the Montreal I knew, sort of from the bottom up. There’s precious little of this in Canadian literature — there’s enough agonizing, alright, but not much testimony from the urban working class. Though Montreal has been gifted with Mordecai Richler and David Fennario. Thematically, death and rebirth play a large part. There’s a lot of darkness in it because Montreal is so grey for so much of the year. Some Montrealers disagree with me, but it’s my experience, after all. On top of this, I was trying to tell myself a lot of jokes. Some of them will never be apparent to anyone else, but at the time I thought, “Okay, if this never gets published, you can still take it out of the drawer in twenty years, and it better please you when you do.”
4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
This is a real toss-up. I like the women over the men, I think. The women all have an honesty in their motivations, they’re just trying to be true to themselves. Bu the men are selfish and lazy. So, Marie, Aline, Mother. I must admit I’ve got a fondness for Woland, but readers of Bulgakov can see I just stole him, so that doesn’t count.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Look for the ideas. I would say that to anyone reading anything. You can ooh and aah over surface pleasures, which is where our delight in reading comes from, but if you want to think about what was in the author’s head, you’ll have to ask the same kind of questions writers do about their own work. Why these words, and what do they mean? Why do they come at this point? What comes just before, or just after? What do they add up to?
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
One thing points out the difference between reading and writing a book. An interviewer asked me to talk about the non-human character in Black Bird and I drew a blank on him. I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about and he finally had to name the crow.
7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
Well nobody ever asks if I’m going to write about Montreal again, but I’m not sure it’s a question I want to answer. And no one ever asks my personal position on Quebec independence.
8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
To a small extent they all do. It’s very difficult to understand your own work the way other people see it. So whatever someone else says is a piece of the puzzle, a view from outside. Sometimes it merely confirms something nebulous in your own thinking, sometimes it’s surprising. The bad can be as valuable as the good, though of course it can throw you off emotionally.
9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
I believe there’s two different things at work in a writer’s mind: the authors he or she loves, and those that have influenced them. They’re not at all the same thing sometimes, and I think the question of influence is best answered by others. Also, there are and have been an enormous number of excellent and fascinating writers. But so as not to dodge the question, here’s a few: Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Bulgakov, Kundera, Voltaire, Julio Cortazar, Borges, Rushdie, Angela Carter, E.T.A. Hoffman, Goethe, Diderot, Samuel R. Delany, Antonin Artaud, Barthes and Foucault. For some years my ultimate admiration has been for Italo Calvino, a great writer of enormous strength and breadth who seemed to be able to write anything better than anyone else. His work was always brief, lucid, elegant, imaginative, superbly structured and controlled, firmly anchored in both life and mind.
10) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I really like food and drink. Since moving to Toronto I’ve had to learn to cook for myself, and it turns out I really enjoy baking and otherwise using the oven. Maybe I could be a baker. It’s very satisfying. Or restaurant reviewer. Imagine being paid to eat out.
11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, having written a book myself, I feel they are so personal that you’d have to be the author to undertake the task. Borges wrote a famous short story about this: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Menard attempts to write Don Quixote and can only succeed by becoming Cervantes. Since we can never be someone other than ourselves, he fails; yet since the resulting book is the individual product of a separate person, he succeeds. So in the end, for better or worse, my own book.
1. Many reviewers have commented on Michel Basilières’s clear love for his characters, despite the sometimes awful things that they do. How did you feel about the less-than-honourable individuals in the Desouche family (such as Grandfather the misogynistic grave-robber, or Marie the terrorist and brother-tormentor)? In what ways do Basilières’s portrayals make it hard to pin anyone down as “good” or “bad”?
2. In what ways can Black Bird be seen as a portrait of Montreal? Consider not only mentions of the physical city itself — the mountain, the streets, the invisible divisions between French and English neighbourhoods — but how the character of the city can be seen in the Desouche family’s existence and activities.
3. The name “Desouche” is a play on the French expression “de vieille souche,” meaning authentically Québécois. In what ways could you consider the eccentric Desouche family “authentically Québécois”?
4. Throughout, Michel Basilières chooses names for his characters that are loaded with possible meanings and ties to moments in literature and Canadian history. Discuss the meanings of some of the names here, as well as the fact that some characters remain nameless (Father, Uncle, Mother).
5. Why does Aline stay with Grandfather? What solace does she find in the kitchen, and cooking? By the end of the novel, how well is she fitting in with the Desouche family?
6. Michel Basilières has been compared to writers such as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Gunter Grass in his ability to weave fantastic elements into his otherwise “realistic” storylines. Discuss some of the more bizarre elements of Black Bird, and what they contribute to the story.
7. Discuss the issue of separatism as it is illuminated by the events of this novel. Who is for it, who against, and why? Could you say that the tensions between the English and the French are equalled by those between the haves and the have-nots?
8. Discuss the role of Grace, the crow. How does its shift in allegiance, to Aline, affect the household? Why does it follow Grandfather to the hospital? What kind of meanings can you build into its presence, or bring in from other familiar stories or writings? Why is Black Bird the title of this novel?
9. To what extent is Marie driven by her convictions, or by her love of family? Why does she kidnap John Cross and try to get her brother out of jail?
10. “Salman Rushdie says in The Satanic Verses that to be born again, first you have to die. It happens to a bunch of characters in the book, and they’re transformed.” — Michel Basilières. Discuss the role of rebirth, and the hope it brings, in Black Bird, considering both real and metaphorical deaths (e.g. Mother’s sleep).
11. As Basilières warns us in his Author’s Note, historical facts are used and twisted throughout Black Bird in ways that play on readers’ knowledge and associations — but of course, “Facts are one thing but fiction is another, and this is fiction.” Discuss how your knowledge of Quebec and Canadian history, or other literature, came into play during your reading, and the impact of Basilières’s twists and allusions.
12. Discuss the effect of Basilières’s humour on you as a reader. Were there specific parts of the book that made you laugh out loud? How does the lightness of the novel’s tone work with some of the more dark and dramatic events at hand?
13. Why does Basilières end the novel with the same words that open it? What do you think of the link suggested between Jean-Baptiste and our narrator?
14. What do you think the future holds for the Desouche family?