Saturday, April 29, 2006

Type Cast 15

When interviewing Emily Schultz, it’s hard not to compare Tammy Lane, the befuddled hero of Schultz’s gorgeous debut novel Joyland, to Schultz herself – both author and creation are small, big-eyed creatures, both come from small towns (in Schultz’s case, the hamlet of Wallaceburg, Ontario), and both are prone to moments of deep silence that are either signs of equally deep thought or a paralysing shyness, or both. The major difference, of course, is that Schultz is about 20 years older than her already world wary heroine.

Canadians produce coming-of-age novels at about the same pace and with the same reliability as the French produce mid-life sex romps. Alice Munro wrote one, Mordecai Richler wrote one, W.O. Mitchell’s classic Who Has Seen The Wind is taught in schools (well, public schools at least, and sometimes with the dirty words blacked out), Camilla Gibb got rich and famous from hers, and Derek McCormack’s was made into an acclaimed short film. Even I wrote one, but the less said on that subject the better.

So, I must admit I approached Joyland with mixed feelings. Already familiar with Schultz’s writing from Black Coffee Night, her blunt and darkly hilarious collection of short stories, as well as from her tenures as editor of Broken Pencil magazine, This Magazine, and the Pocket Cannon project (a collection of naughty stories written by famous writers under the cloak of anonymity), I knew that Joyland would be well written, but … another puberty novel?

Happily, Joyland is far from “another” anything. Set in a fictional small Ontario town in the early 1980s, the novel follows the lost wanderings of tween aged Tammy and her very confused brother Chris, a video game junky. When the titular video arcade Joyland closes down, Chris spends his summer tumbling, like a player caught in an endless video game loop, from one discomforting, pre-sexual adventure to the next. Tammy watches her brother and begins to understand that the world she inhabits is far more complex, and menacing, than she has ever understood – and it is Tammy’s laser beam observations that move the narrative.

Unlike many similar heroes, however, Tammy is not a precocious, all-seeing wise child. Schultz gives Tammy exactly the right amount of brain power for her age, and Joyland revels in the half-understood world Tammy witnesses. Because I hate coming-of-age novels wherein the central kid is smarter than the reader and sounds more like Woody Allen talking to his shrink than an actual child, I loved Joyland. Tammy Lane is the most convincing child protagonist I’ve encountered in years – a cross between Lynda Barry’s innocent smart ass Marlys and Judy Blume’s truth-seeking missile Margaret. Schultz leaves the editorializing to the reader, letting us fill in the blank spots in Tammy’s knowledge with our own experience.

On a quiet Sunday evening in the dark back corner of the Gladstone Hotel’s Melody Bar, the reluctant interviewee, dressed in an innocuous black cotton dress (the better to hide with), admits she wrote Joyland in an understated style she calls “impressionistic”.

“I want to get the feel of things, not explain them. I want to write down what it feels like to do simple things, like put a cup on a table or open the microwave door, and then see if I can make that sensation match the moment in the story. I’m more like a telegrapher, and that style, that pixelization, works with the theme of videogames, with the way early videogames looked, like assembled fragments and bits of colour.”

“It’s also how the kids in the book relate to the world, from videogames – they break everything down into small moments, to better understand their world, because the bigger view is too complicated. “

“Also”, Schultz adds with a shy shrug, “I’m kind of a failed poet, so I pay attention to the way words sound next to each other, in really short sections.”

As we talk, I try to resist the temptation to ask the cheesiest question in the book – how much is Joyland an autobiography? But the novel is so achingly accurate in its depiction of early pubescence, I finally crack and let my inner hack run free. Schultz is saintly in her patience.

“I chose to make Tammy that age, 11 and a half, because at that age you are living between childhood and early adulthood. Tammy is not me, but I did go back and read my diaries from that age, and what surprised me was how in a matter of months my depth of knowledge changed. The world just sort of hits you at some point, and you have to adapt. And I was a videogame kid, part of the first generation of videogame players, but I didn’t hang out at the arcades – that was boy territory.”

“I didn’t think I was trying to write another “Canadian family book”, but I guess I did, because Joyland is so much a book about place, which is very Canadian, and about wanting to escape from a small place, which is archetypically Canadian. So, I’m fine with the label now.”

Schultz has become something of a media event in the last while – a major newspaper labelled her one of the “Best Writers under 30”, or some such thing, a few years back – but Schultz isn’t having any of that fluff. Before I even complete my question to her about the hazards of peaking young, of being called a best-of anything while one is still in one’s basement apartment years, Schultz cuts me off with her first uninhibited laugh of the night.

“I was never called Best, I was called Prominent – you know, like a nose. Let’s just say I’ve been lucky. My goals with this book were pretty simple. First, I wanted to see if I could actually do it, actually write 300 pages of text. After that, I wanted to see if the 300 pages were worth reading. And after that, I tried to give them an impact, make them hang together. Anything else will be more good luck.”

If Joyland gets the kind of attention it deserves, maybe Schultz might, just might relax enough to give herself a tentative (but not too hard!) pat on the back.