When we met in the autumn of 1986 to conduct this interview in front of an audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York, Robertson Davies was already famous not only as a novelist, critic, and man of letters, but as a compelling performer of literature: his readings and lectures were always given to sold-out houses. The robust presence of this “wizard of the North” (characteristically he was as gratified to inherit this title from Walter Scott as he was amused that few people any longer knew where it came from) came as no surprise: a filled-out broad-chested figure, clad in slightly old-fashioned clothes (that evening he wore his signature leather waistcoat, all the better looking for age, beneath a well-cut jacket), with an easy, erect carriage; a deep, skillfully-modulated voice; fine straight nose; luxuriant white beard and hair.
“The introducer has approached me by what may be called the biographical path,” Davies once wrote. “He begins by telling that I was born, and when, and where. As soon as he mentions the date of my birth I can see the audience doing a little sum in their heads, after which they look at me with renewed interest to see how I am carrying the burden of my years. He is all kindness; he romps through the public details of my life, but under the circumstances I cannot laugh or weep.”
Voilà. Mr. Davies was born in 1913 in Ontario and educated in Canada and at Balliol College, Oxford. He worked at the Old Vic as writer, teacher of drama history, and actor; it was there that he worked with Tyrone Guthrie, and there that he met his wife, whom he married in 1940. Upon his return to Canada, Davies embarked on a career as a kind of one-man Canadian cultural center, embassy, and gadfly; apparently he had little difficulty doing several full-time jobs at once, as well as writing plays and novels, stories, lectures, and critical essays. In 1942 he became editorial writer for the Peterborough, Ontario, Examiner; he was the paper’s editor and publisher from 1946 until 1963. He also wrote a column under the pseudonym of Samuel Marchbanks, as well as other reviews and criticism.
During the 1950s, Davies’s first novels—the three that are now called the Salterton Trilogy—were published; he became literary editor of a publication called Saturday Night, for which he wrote book reviews; he was elected to the board of governors of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a position he held until 1971; and with Guthrie he documented, in three books, the festival’s activities in its initial years. In 1959 he began another newspaper column—“Writer’s Diary”—in the Toronto Daily Star.
In 1963, Davies moved to Massey College at the University of Toronto as master, a position that kept him at the center of Canadian academic life until his retirement in 1981. Meanwhile, he composed the novels of the Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders) and the first book of a third trilogy, Rebel Angels. Since his retirement, the best-selling What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus have completed this threesome.
Throughout these years, in countless lectures, articles, and public appearances, Mr. Davies continually urged upon his sometimes unwilling, unready, or unable countrymen the delights, rewards, and indispensable glories of art. “What does Canada expect from her writers?” he asked. “Canada expects nothing from her writers. But what may Canada expect from her writers? She may reasonably expect what other countries get from a national literature. First a sense of national character. Second, vigilance on behalf of intellectual freedom and moral vigor. Last, we may expect a true depiction of the essence of what our life in Canada is.” And what kind of literature is that? “Works with completely irrefutable power to convince,” he continued, “works that cause the reader to be visited, dimly, briefly, by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking. Works in which you can see not yourself but, for one second, the inaccessible. Ah, but to have glimpsed the inaccessible is, however imperfectly, to have gained access to it. That is what your writers can give you, if you want it, and let them know that you want it. The decision rests with you.”
You’ve just returned from a triumphant trip to Scandinavia and also to London. In the past you’ve remarked that the British view of “colonial” writers was not as generous as it might be. How was it this time?
Well, it was a mingled greeting. A great many people were extremely kind and friendly, and of course the more informed British—that is, roughly ten percent of the population—no longer regard Canadians as colonials. But some do, and one or two quite influential reviewers made it very, very clear that they expect little from Canada. One of the strangest experiences that I’ve had as an author was some years ago when a novel of mine was reviewed in The Times of London, and reviewed very favorably. But the review began with these chilling words: “To speak of a good novel from a Canadian writer sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?
This travel must be gratifying, but surely it takes time and energy away from your writing, and you’ve told me that life has been very hectic since you retired from Massey College in 1981. How do you manage all these public engagements?
It’s difficult to manage public engagements particularly when you’re retired. When people ask me what I’m doing, I have to tell them that I’m doing very much what I did before I retired, except that now I have secretarial assistance only one day a week. People deluge me with things to be done and when I say I am busy, they fall into extravagant mirth and shout: “You can’t be busy, you’re retired!” I have been wasting my time doing things which seem to be imperative without being in the least important. I think you know that it is very unfortunate for a writer to spend too much time jaunting about talking, for although that is flattering, and it is delightful to appear before audiences and to meet people directly in this way, you really ought to be home working at your desk. Quite honestly, if you wanted to, you could as a writer spend twelve months of the year at conferences, pep groups and ginger sessions, talking to students and doing all kinds of things except your proper work. You just simply have to get down to it. Meanwhile, I have sat in a sort of pen at the Booksellers’ Fair, autographing copies of bound proofs for supposedly eager booksellers, and otherwise making myself a motley to the view, as Shakespeare, who knew all about it, says. My publishers are anxious that I should rush about and talk to people, but I have laid down a few ground rules: I will not drive wildly fifty miles at dawn in order to breakfast with fourteen librarians in a cellar somewhere, nor will I speak to schools. My agent is anxious that I should be on something called The Today Show, which is apparently big magic, but I daren’t tell him I have never heard of it. I recall once being “cased” by one of Dick Cavett’s underlings to see if I would be any good on his show, but I was found unworthy. Ah, if all this brouhaha had happened thirty years ago, when I had energy and appetite for it! As I once said of George Bernard Shaw, he bloomed at twenty, but nobody smelled him till he was forty. My scent has been even later in catching the breeze. The BBC also wanted a film about me for its Authors and Places series, so I had to hie me to the beautiful old city of Kingston where I grew up—a very beautiful Loyalist place, full of domes and towers and looking altogether more like Bath than a place on this continent—and revive my childhood and youth for the camera. Great fun; we had horses, and soldiers, and all sorts of gaudy delights. And the weather was good to us.
What are you working on now? Or do you resist being asked this?
No, no. I am at the moment winding up to write another novel, and when I say “winding up” I mean I am making notes and plans and perpetually building up what I will eventually write; that is the way I work. I make very, very careful plans and a great many notes—so many notes indeed that sometimes they are as long or longer than the eventual book. And sketches of characters and suggestions and references to things that will be useful. All that takes a long time. Getting to work on a new novel is a dismal business, for the beginnings never seem to get any easier with the passing of time. I toil like a swimmer who feels himself about to sink beneath the waves at any moment. Like all my novels, this one began with quite a simple idea, but as I work on it a mass of complexities assert themselves, and I have to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by extraneous detail. But then—at least the way I work—when you begin to write, you can write quite briskly because you have done all the preparatory work beforehand. I hope it turns out well. But with novels, like cakes, you never know. Even when I finish a book, I’m never sure whether it is good or rubbish. This new one has a few characters of marked oddity, some explorations of realms of knowledge not visited by everybody, and a view of life and people that is decidedly unsentimental, though not wanting in pity. My books come in threes, and though not really trilogies or series, they are linked by characters and a point of view. But they are tedious about chronology: What’s Bred in the Bone leaps backward in time from Rebel Angels, and this third book—its name is The Lyre of Orpheus—moves forward in time. If I planned them, this would not happen, but I don’t: they just occur.
What gets you started? Do you start with the characters, with a situation, with a dramatic kernel of something? In the actual drafting of the text, do you start at the beginning and go right to the end?
The kernel is something that recurs to me over and over and over again, that will not be escaped and that I realize finally is demanding to be written about. It may be either a picture in my mind of something happening, or an idea of something that might conceivably come about. If it is appreciably insistent, I eventually know that it must take the form of a novel and I must get busy on it. The book forces itself into my mind when I am lugging furniture, or pulling weeds, and I have hopes of it. I often read, with amazement, of people who suffer from writer’s block; I might enjoy a wee block, just to have time to catch my breath. I find in the initial, discovery stage that a great deal of other matter that is supportive to the kernel idea has also been building up. That’s when the note taking begins, and it moves quite rapidly. For instance, I did not write Fifth Business until ten years had passed since I first became aware of the idea that lay behind it: it was simply a scene that kept occurring in my mind, which was of two boys on a village street on a winter night—I knew from the look of the atmosphere that it must be just around Christmastime—and one boy threw a snowball at the other boy. Well, that was all there was to it, but it came so often and was so insistent that I had to ask myself, Why is that boy doing that and what is behind this and what is going on? Then the story emerged quite rapidly.