A long time ago, when I was taking my first steps to becoming a teacher and a writer, one of the first kindred spirits I met was Leo Brent Robillard. He was then the editor and publisher of a literary journal called The Backwater Review, and had not yet written his first novel. He was already an excellent teacher; as a teacher-in-training, I did a practicum under his guidance, in a senior Writer’s Craft class. I have always found our conversations about literature, music and film nourishing.
I recently had the chance to read his fourth novel, The Road To Atlantis, about the aftermath of the death of one child in a family. Robillard writes with great empathy and little sympathy; the characters are exposed, their emotions raw, their actions perhaps as regrettable as they are understandable and also, possibly, inevitable.
The central tragedy of the story is compellingly told. And yet as I read, I was aware of being attuned to certain resonances that stem from being a writer and teacher. I wondered about some of the decisions made in telling the story and other elements of craft, and how it might feel to paint such an uncompromisingly complicated picture of high school life while also being a teacher in a high school where it might better serve to ignore some of those challenging realities.
It is not unusual for me to formulate questions I would like to ask authors while reading their books. It is rather unusual to have the opportunity to ask them. If you have not yet read The Road To Atlantis, there may be some spoilers ahead. Hopefully, just vague ones that wouldn’t ruin anything for you, but certainly, there are references to things that happen. So if you want to read the book first, go ahead. We’ll be here when you get back. I am happy to have another chance to talk about books and literature and writing with Leo Brent Robillard.
“I wanted the reader to feel a sense of inevitability – that events and decisions could not be changed.”
DP: I am interested in how you decide how to tell a story. Even if you know what the events of a story are, you have to decide how to present them to an audience. How do you choose a tense to write in, present or past, or a narrational voice, say, first or third person?
LBR: In some ways, the story demands to be told a certain way. I have a preference for third person limited, so perhaps I dream up characters and stories that cry out for that point of view. This form of narration allows for multiple perspectives and voices which not only contribute to plot, but to characterization as well. Characters are developed by what they do and say, but also by how others perceive and respond to them. Third person limited is perfect for establishing the latter.
When writing historical fiction I favour the present tense. It invests the story with a sense of immediacy, in spite of the difference in time period. The Road to Atlantis, being contemporary, was my first novel written in the past tense. I think I opted for the past because I wanted the reader to feel a sense of inevitability – that events and decisions could not be changed. It was a question of atmosphere and mood, rather than necessity.
DP: Through the first section, “Cape May,” we see the story through the perspective of David and Anne respectively. We are made aware of what’s happening with Matty, but only as it is seen by David or by Anne. It isn’t until the second section, when Matty is a teenager, that we get access to his perspective directly. Was that a conscious decision?
LBR: Withholding Matty’s perspective was certainly conscious. In fact, almost half the book transpires before he enters as a point-of-view character. I made this decision in order to have Matty “disappear” physically from the text. It is a reflection of his metaphorical disappearance to David. His re-emergence as an older adolescent in the second half also allows for an intimate and judgemental perspective on both Anne and his father. It is easy, I think, to feel sympathy for Anne and David (if not understanding). Matty calls reader loyalties into question. His parents have every right to be broken and devastated, but they are quite selfish in their grief. Matty reminds us of this.
DP: The story begins with David as its protagonist, in his perspective. Conventionally, we might expect this to be consistent throughout the novel, but the reader comes to the end of the novel in Anne’s perspective, rather than David’s. Was there a point where you saw the story as belonging more to David or to Anne, or does that shift in perspective from beginning to end suggest that story belongs to both of them?
“I see the end of the novel as a carnivalesque Pieta.”
LBR: Ultimately, I do not think that the novel belongs to any one person. I see both David and Anne as equals. But I do feel, in retrospect, that the novel has a lot to do with men and fathers. I think it has something to do with the fact that women are commonly viewed as emotional beings – as being “in touch” or “in tune” with themselves. Whereas men are often expected to master their emotions. I see the end of the novel as a carnivalesque Pieta. The fact that Anne is the witness of this moment just seemed satisfying and cathartic to me.
DP: When I started reading The Road to Atlantis, I was aware of a lot of short sentences that I didn’t remember from your early works like Leaving Wyoming or Houdini’s Shadow. I wondered what you might have observed about the evolution of your own prose style?
LBR: I wanted to be as direct and unsentimental as possible with the characters and the story of Atlantis. I felt as though its brutality was laid bare that way. I take great pains in editing every sentence. I am not sure if this is reflective of and an evolution in style so much as a creative choice for this particular novel.
DP: I thought as I read that there is an interesting parallel between Sarah and Kim. Both are young women whose value is, at least initially, presented in terms of their physical attractiveness, and both face the possibility of a relationship with an older male teacher. In the case of Sarah and David, they move past that potential moment, but in Kim’s case, we learn that she did have an affair with her teacher in Germany. I wondered if that is an intentional juxtaposition meant as a comment on the impact that such relationships can have developmentally, for better and for worse?
LBR: Adults have a responsibility toward children. The irony in David’s treatment of Sarah is that he takes his responsibility seriously, while at the same time he is neglecting his responsibility toward Matty. He is, I think, endeavouring to recapture what he lost with his own daughter, to the detriment of his son. I feel a great deal of sympathy toward the character of Kim, as well, because certainly her development has been damaged by adults – and not just by her teacher. She would make a strong protagonist in her own novel – say ten or fifteen years later — as she sorts through the impact of her upbringing and her own poor decisions.
“I wanted a young man charged with caring for and raising a woman. Because I think it is possible. Because I think men can be nurturers.”
DP: There is a moment when Anne is watching Melanie drink wine and she starts counting the gulps. It is the first time that she counts the behaviours of a character other than herself; there is a kind of breaking of containment. Do you see this as a kind of climax for Anne?
LBR: I am not sure if this is the climax, but it is a symbol of her unravelling. To quote Yeats, “The centre cannot hold.”
DP: Ten years after David has his altercation with Dallas in class, Dallas gets his revenge. At the time that it happens in the novel, it seems like a stand-alone event. David goes home, but no one else seems to notice that he’s been in a fight; it doesn’t have an impact on anything else that’s happening at the time. Was there a sense for you that karmically, David needed to be punished for what he did to Dallas as teacher, or did it just seem like a logical extrapolation of Dallas’ character?
LBR: I think the scene works, because it is a logical extension of Dallas. However, karma was the driving force behind it. As I mentioned earlier, adults have a responsibility towards children. Even children like Dallas and Kim. David experienced a lapse in judgement. He was under great strain. While I am sure many readers (and many teachers) might cheer for David in that moment, the truth is, Dallas was a target of displaced anger. We have to realize that Dallas, like Kim, is damaged goods. Adults did this damage. Adults should be responsible for fixing it. David erred. Dallas paid him back.
DP: Similarly, the birth of Matty’s child seems to begin a healing process for the family, or at least the beginning of the rebuilding of the family as a community. Was there a sense that the loss of a girl-child as the cause of the family’s trauma needed to be balanced by the return of a girl-child in order to heal it? I’m intrigued by these kinds of symmetries in fiction, where at worst, they can feel like contrived coincidences, but when they are working, as I would argue is the case in Atlantis, they can also feel inevitable and deeply satisfactory to a reader.
LBR: Symbolically, I wanted Matty to be holding a girl in that final scene. I wanted a young man charged with caring for and raising a woman. Because I think it is possible. Because I think men can be nurturers. Because I wanted a cycle that went at least as far back as David’s father to be broken. Brooke is not meant to replace Nat. But life does go on. Kahlil Gibran says, “One may not reach the dawn save by the path of the night.” This is the dawn after a long night.
DP: You are a working teacher, in addition to being an author. You write candidly and, I think, realistically and unapologetically, about teenagers and their interactions with adults. Realistically, teachers find some students challenging, though that reality is rarely spoken of, since the conviction that all students can learn and grow is the fundamental starting point for education. But as an author, you have provided a glimpse behind that curtain. Do you ever feel that your life as a teacher and as a writer are in conflict? How do real teachers and students respond to your depictions of teachers and students in print?
“A good book does not have to be a moral one; but a good teacher does.”
LBR: That’s a tough one. Teachers are both revered and despised in our culture. Revered for the task with which they are charged, and despised as well-paid public servants in a time of economic instability. But no matter which camp you fall into, a lot is expected of a teacher. To begin, all students can learn and grow. Unfortunately, some will require more than a good teacher to achieve this. Having good teachers is integral, but so is having good parents and access to good mental health specialists, good social workers, good coaches, and good friends. It takes a village to raise a child.
Writing can sometimes be in conflict with teaching. A good book does not have to be a moral one; but a good teacher does. My books say things I could not say in a classroom. But books are what we use to educate. When a student leaves the classroom forever, it is one of the only things that will continue to further his education. In this way, the job of a writer is not that different than the job of a teacher.
My older students and their parents have both read my books now and in the past. If there has ever been an issue, it hasn’t made it back to me. In many ways, that I am a writer can be helpful in my English classes and fundamental in my Creative Writing class. Writing and publishing becomes a living thing to them, and not just something dead people did a long time ago.
DP: Because I know you, I recognize the names of people in your life amongst the characters in your novel, though the characters do not necessarily represent the people whose names they bear. Is it important to you to include the real people in your life in your work? Is it a coincidence, or perhaps a kind of dedication?
LBR: Names. Honestly, I dread coming up with names. Sometimes I just write the down the first one that comes to mind – that of a friend, say – just to get it out of the way. I probably intend to change it, and then it grows on me, until changing it just seems wrong. It isn’t meant as flattery, nor is it meant as revenge. It’s just my one moment of laziness in the trenches of creation.
Character traits and character development, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. That one’s all about revenge.
Leo Brent Robillard is an award-winning author and educator. His novels include Leaving Wyoming, which was listed in Bartley’s Top Five in the Globe and Mail for Best First Fiction; Houdini’s Shadow, which was translated into Spanish; and, most recently, Drift. In 2011, he received the Premier’s Award for Teacher of the Year. He lives in Eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.