Burned by love
After tragedy, soul mates reunite in a hospital ward
Just before his 30th birthday back in 1999, Canadian Andrew Davidson realized with a start that he had not yet lived in another country. Living abroad was one of the 35 items Davidson had included on his "things to do before I die" list back in his 20s. So without much fanfare, he soon took off to Japan to teach English for a number of years.
This summer, Davidson will cross another item off his life list with the publication of his first novel, The Gargoyle. Publication, it seems, is both climax and anti-climax for Davidson. Climax because the manuscript of The Gargoyle set off a spirited bidding war that left Davidson the highest paid first-time novelist in Canada in decades. Anticlimax because Davidson has been writing seriously, "with consistency and discipline," since he was 16. The Gargoyle itself took seven years to complete, much of the work being done at night while Davidson was in Japan.
"I would work from 10 in the morning until 7 at night at my office job," Davidson says during a late-night call to, well, to his laptop in fact, located somewhere in Winnipeg, Manitoba, near where he grew up (Davidson does all his telephoning over the Internet, a holdover from working abroad). "I would walk home, which took me one hour and five minutes. That time was necessary to clear away the workday. I would spend maybe two hours watching television, answering emails, playing computer solitaire, and then I would work from 10 or 11 at night until 2 in the morning. It was the closest I could get to an overnight schedule. The natural rhythms of my body, strangely enough, are to be awake at night."Perhaps Davidson's nocturnal writing habits explain the dreamscape - or nightscape - feel of much of his first foray into long fiction. The Gargoyle tells the story of the unnamed narrator's gruesome car crash, his vividly described recovery in a hospital burn ward, and his meeting and developing relationship with Marianne Engel, a possibly insane sculptor of gargoyles who believes she has known and loved the narrator for more than 700 years.
"The book really began with the character of Marianne Engel," Davidson says. "She arrived first and she arrived with her name and with her look, which is the wild hair and the eyes that shift colors. She came in an image standing in front of a church saying things that could quite possibly sound insane. But I knew they weren't. She started intruding on my other writing until I couldn't ignore her any longer and had to give her a larger space to function in. I had worked through all the other forms - I started writing poetry and then stage plays and screenplays and short stories. I finally felt I was ready to try a novel, and Marianne Engel demanded it of me."
Fairly quickly, Davidson also realized he needed a narrator to encapsulate Marianne's story. And then, as so often happens, his narrator required a life of his own. "I get interested in the strangest things," Davidson says. "At the time I began the novel I was fascinated by the treatment of severe burn survivors. For years I've been thinking about the idea of people being 'burned by love' and I've wondered what if a romantic relationship didn't end with that feeling but began with it. So I just took it to the most literal level of having an actual burn survivor as the protagonist. I thought I just needed someone to tell the story of Marianne Engel and then I realized that the story was actually also about him."
To bring the threads of his story together, Davidson did an "an awful lot of research, from burn treatment to Dante and life in the Middle Ages to German mystic theology, from Viking times to Victorian times, from Japanese glassblowing to medieval book making."
The result is that Davidson infuses The Gargoyle with historical detail and with borrowings from earlier literary eras. With a nod to Dante, for example, Davidson's nameless narrator takes a harrowing journey through hell as he detoxes from the morphine he has subsisted on in the hospital. And, mining the Medieval tradition of stories within the story on the theme of love, Davidson offers four gem-like tales of love throughout the ages that illuminate the emotional dilemmas faced by Marianne and her beloved burn victim.
"I have a particular affection for the story of Sei, the Japanese glassblower," Davidson says of the fictional girl who filled the glass sculptures she made with the sighs of her forbidden love, sighs which burst hauntingly forth when each glass container was broken. "On one level it has to do with my affection for Japan. It's also a story that I think could go out into the world outside the context of the book."
In 2004, Davidson returned to Winnipeg to "concentrate on my writing and play old-timers hockey. I have a lot of family and friends in Manitoba. It's so cold in the winter you want to stay in, so you might as well stay in and write overnight. One of the things that I like very much about now being able to living as a professional writer is that it affords the opportunity to live anywhere. So why not Winnipeg, really?"
The move certainly didn't hurt his writing career. Last year the literary world buzzed with the news that the unknown Canadian author had landed a deal with Doubleday for more than $1.25 million for his first book.
"I understand why that's the story," Davidson says with a hint of resignation. "The book's not out there and reporters need something to write about. I'm really looking forward to publication, when the book is really out there for the public and that becomes the story. For any writer, and I'm no exception, it's about the story we want to tell."
To Davidson's apparent relief, that vivid story will finally reach readers' hands this month.
Alden Mudge writes from Berkeley, California.