Rogers Writers’ Trust 2014 shortlist: Steven Galloway

Steven Galloway on his influences, and an excerpt from his shortlisted book, ‘The Confabulist’

This year, on Nov. 4, the Rogers Writers’ Trust will be the first of Canada’s Big Three fiction prizes to announce its winner. Maclean’s asked each of the five nominees vying for the $25,000 award to comment on a past author “whose influence you feel in your own work, and how.” Their answers, and excerpts from their shortlisted books:

Steven Galloway, 39, was nominated for his novel The Confabulist, centred on the life of Harry Houdini.

The non-contemporary dead-and-gone author whose influence I can feel in my own work is Charles Dickens. Which is not to say that I write like Dickens, because I don’t, or at least I don’t think I do. Not really being able to objectively read my own work, I’m not really sure. What I like most about Dickens is the way he constructs his narratives, how the stories are intricate and yet logically linked. From him I learned to admire the power that a straight-ahead narrative has, and that admiration has led me to both use conventional narrative, and attempt to subvert it. Some of my favourite contemporary authors, like Robertson Davies and John Irving, follow, in my reading, in a direct line from Dickens, and his books are ones I can learn something from each time I read them. He’s not my favourite writer, in terms of pure pleasure, but if I’m being honest he’s the one who’s had the most influence on me. 

From The Confabulist:

A magician knows that what happened and what we will remember having happened can be two entirely different things. If he shows us A and C, we will believed we saw B. If he does his job, we will swear that we saw the impossible with our own eyes. When we close our eyes, we will see things as we believe they happened, not as they actually did. This is essential for the effect. It is what carries it forward, what propels us to seek the next effect, to keep our mortality in abeyance.

If Alice were here and I were to tell her this, she would shake her head and smile. “Martin,” she might say, “a magic trick is just a magic trick. Life is more complicated.”

She’d be wrong, though. Effect, method, misdirection, reconstruction. For me, they explain everything.

A little girl and her mother emerge from the hospital and stop beside me. The girl releases her mother’s hand while her mother searches through her purse. I smile at the child, but she doesn’t smile back. She stares at me, her face impenetrable, as though she’s not sure what she’s looking at. I’ve never been very good with children – there’s something about them that I can’t connect with. I wish this were not the case, because I like children, or at least I think I could if I’d spent more time around them and gotten over whatever this barrier is between us.

I smile at the girl again and remove a coin from my pocket. I hold it out for her to see, let her eyes take in its shiny glint. I transfer the coin from my right hand to my left, toss it in the air, and we both watch it rise, stall, and tumble down to my waiting right hand. I nod and show her the coin. Then I pass it to the other hand and toss it in the air again, higher this time. The bright sunlight makes it sparkle as it once again tries to escape gravity, fails, and returns to my waiting right hand. I open my hand and we look at the coin even more closely. She’s captivated, I can tell. I move the coin to my left hand and toss the coin in the air a third time, but this time I don’t catch it. The girl watches as it disappears into thin air; my hand, waiting to catch the coin, sits empty. She looks at me, surprised, and I raise a finger to my mouth and curl my lips to a shush. Her mother finds whatever she was looking for in her purse and takes hold of the child’s hand, pulling her away, unaware that anything has happened. As they depart the girl looks back at me and smiles. She has seen something unexpected and impossible.

Excerpted from The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. Copyright © 2014 Steven Galloway. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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