Zoomer sat down with the Governor General award-winning author of The Law of Dreams to talk inspiration, writing as a competitive sport and car obsessions.
Athena McKenzie: You say in the author's note that some characters are inspired by real people. Who inspired the O'Briens?
Peter Behrens: Well, my mother Frankie O'Brien and my aunts and uncles are in the photograph used on the cover. But this is fiction and I certainly don't want to pretend it's anything other than fiction. I will say that the character at the centre of the book, Joe O'Brien, is to some considerable degree inspired by my limited and boyish understanding of my grandfather. I was 17 when he died. But it is not his biography by any means. I invented big chunks, but I certainly would not have written this if I had not known my grandfather - "Granddaddy," as we called him.
AM: This picks up the story of the O'Briens from your first novel, The Law of Dreams. Would you say you need to read that one first?
PB: You don't need to at all. I just needed as a writer to write that one first. I started writing this book and I found I couldn't understand these people well enough without knowing more about the famine [Ireland's potato famine], which I felt was lurking unseen in their family background. So I cut away and I wrote that novel about the famine. But all it's stuff I needed to know. It's nothing a reader needs to know. The famine was a lurking darkness, behind them, through Joe, through them all. But it certainly wasn't part of my family's discourse with itself. They were thoroughly uninterested in that stuff. I'm the only one who even knows anything about it. People move on, people move forward and that's why you need storytellers like me to dig out that stuff and be interested in it and try to bring it to life again.
AM: Your use of letters as a narrative element, especially during the war, is wonderfully effective. Was this something you planned from the beginning?
PB: That was an experiment. I've never done it before. I'll tell you a little secret. Some of them are actually taken from the family files and are almost word for word. The ones that are really painful for me are the medical records. I started researching my family's past not really knowing why I was doing it because I'm not really interested in genealogy. I guess I was working towards this novel.
AM: Some authors have said that winning a prize is a mixed blessing. Do you agree with that?
PB: Not at all. Winning the Governor General was a wholly unmixed blessing. It felt like a huge gift. There was nothing about it I didn't like. It was wonderful. It was a thrill to be welcomed back to Canada in that way. No mixed blessing at all. Here's the only thing, there is a kind of prize mania in the world today. And that's not an entirely healthy thing, because if you win, you win it, if you don't, you tank. That's not the way it should be. I read with this great Irish novelist Patrick McCabe and we were talking about this prize thing and I said to him, until this prize thing started happening literature was not a competitive sport. It's like we're sports stars. I don't like that aspect of it that the culture has produced.
AM: Tell us about your blog, autoliterate.blogspot.com?
PB: The blog reflects this secret, somewhat shameful obsession I've had since I was a little boy with cars and trucks. It goes back to a kind of infancy. I remember when I was four, I was the kind of kid who could tell a 58 Chevy from a 57 Chevy. And I don't know why, because my family was totally uninterested. And most of the people around me throughout my life have been totally uninterested in car culture. But it stayed with me and I finally decided to give into it. I've always owned old cars. I had a lovely old Chevy when I lived in Santa Barbara that I had to give up when I moved to California. We spend our winters in Texas and two years ago my wife flew to New York for work and within twenty-four hours of her departure, myself and my four-year-old had bought a thirty-four year old pickup truck. It reignited the whole thing. The rest of the posts are thinking and writing about cars in various views. I'm interested in aesthetics and design. I think it's sad that aesthetics is a discipline and a discussion that we apply to art, when it should be applied to everyday things. It sounds highfalutin, but that is sort of what the blog is. It's really just a guy car obsession.
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