Register Thursday | December 13 | 2018

A Banality-Free Zone

The full interview with Russell Smith

Russell Smith is well known to both perusers of The Globe and Mail, where he is a regular columnist, and to readers of shrewdly observed comic fiction. His first novel, How Insensitive, was a national bestseller, nominated for the Trillium Award, the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Governor General’s Award. His second novel, Noise, won widespread acclaim and his story collection, Young Men, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award. His latest book is an eccentric departure from his previous works. A modern-day fable, The Princess and the Whiskheads is set in the imaginary kingdom of Liralove. Unforeseen and potentially disastrous events threaten the kingdom when its beautiful princess seeks to learn first-hand about the mysterious young people called the whiskheads. These bohemian youths are known for their strange practice of inserting fine filaments of wire into their brains, allowing them enhanced perceptions and sensitivity. Meanwhile the princess must also deal with a serious crisis: the sewer system is falling apart. In order to fix it, the Architectons, beautiful buildings that were designed to serve no practical purpose, must be torn down. These buildings are home, however, to the whiskheads.

Michael Carbert interviewed Smith this past February in Toronto.

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Michael Carbert: Why write a fable?

Russell Smith: Well, for me it was a desire to write something fun. I’ve always been trying to recapture some of the experience we had in reading when we were younger that we often feel we’re lacking in reading contemporary fiction. We feel it’s work rather than fun. So the same intention that led me to write comic fiction led to the fable, in the sense that fiction has to have a certain escapist quality. I had always loved Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales for children, which are far too difficult for children now, but I always found them entrancing because they were filled with textural detail and sensuality. There’s one tale in particular that I read and reread as a teenager called “The Fisherman and his Soul,” which is a dark allegory of sensuality. I wanted to do something like that and I started with a daydream about a princess in a tower. It was really just an erotic, escapist fantasy. I started telling my roommates this story over dinner one summer night in the garden and they said, “What happens?” and I said I didn’t know. But they wanted to find out, so a few days later I told them the next chapter and more people showed up to hear the story. I had been making notes in my room every day which I didn’t read to them. Instead I told the story over about five dinner parties. This was in a garden in Little Italy. And that’s when I knew it was good because people were listening and they would question me and challenge me about different things and I would have to think on my feet. At the time I was very interested in body piercing. I was doing articles in the papers on body mutilation and tattoos, so there’s obviously an echo of that in the story, along with going to raves and so on, so in a sense Whiskheads is another commentary on urban culture. 

But it’s obviously different from anything else I’ve done in that it’s allegorical. There is a moral issue, or at least an intellectual issue, being discussed. I don’t provide an answer to this question. Some critics thought they saw some kind of message in the book, which is interesting because several have claimed the message was simple-minded and then all of them came up with a different purported message. Some saw it as elitist; some saw it as socialistic. And I think the reason for their confusion was that there was no solution proposed. People thought it was didactic, which represents a failure of the book. That wasn’t my intent at all. I simply wanted to present this issue, this conflict between art and social good, or art and public policy, and I guess if there is any message at all, it’s that the two are in conflict, which is definitely not a left-wing view. Generally I’m not socially conservative, and not conservative in a political or economic sense either. But in terms of art, I guess I am. It doesn’t seem to me to be productive to see art as a socially or morally improving thing, which appears to be the prevalent public attitude toward art. But none of the critics of the book were willing to view it in a more complicated way. Instead, some of them were really dumb about it and interpreted the book as suggesting that art is more important than sewage, which it doesn’t. The sewage is still there at the end of the story. Nobody has solved that problem and it is a serious problem.

MC: Having written works that could be termed satirical, how would you compare or contrast the intentions behind the fable with the intentions of satire? Is there a connection? 

RS: For sure. And there are satirical elements to the book, obviously. Particularly the view of the aristocracy. We all know that nobleman, Lord Lucas. We’ve all encountered him before. He’s a frat-boy jock type: hunting, archery, his come-on to the princess, which is rebuffed and he’s totally casual about it because he’s on to the next chick. This is a view of guys I went to Queen’s with. But also a part of that is his earnest social do-goodism--that his career depends on his being seen as a reformer. He’s the one who wants to redo the sewer system and tear down the Architectons. And so he is unwittingly a philistine in his social do-goodism. That’s a point that the Canadian reviewers don’t like much either.

There are some jabs too at the life of the contemporary underground, in that their [the whiskheads’] poetry is incoherent and they think they’re against the aristocracy, but the aristocracy is actually on their side. The really privileged people who actually take an interest in art, they are not their enemy. Instead they have an enemy in common. They both have this mutual enemy of suburban sprawl and the middle-class councillor who hates both the whiskheads and the aristocracy. So there was another heavy-handed point made there about underclass and overclass. And of course my big bugbear is always blandness, middle-class suburban blandness, which is really the only clear villain in the story. And when [Princess] Juliana goes to the first whiskhead meeting, she gets bored with the poetry because she realizes Count Bostock could have skewered his own kind so much more viciously, which I think is something that the earnest people who love this spoken-word poetry crap don’t realize.

But I’m getting away from your question, which is “Does the fable lend itself to satire?”, and I guess it does. It’s a way of making points in a simpler way. I can simplify the issues in a fantasy world. There is no choice in the real world between art and the sewer system. I invent this artificial situation where you have to tear down the work of art in order to include the sewer system. It’s quite contrived, though there are parallels. For example, I’m interested in the question of the Elgin Marbles. Greece wants restitution of the Elgin Marbles and it’s a difficult situation. I actually believe that they should be given back to Greece. But then you would be depleting the British Museum of a part of its heritage, which is now established as a repository of Greek art. And there you have a clear choice between a social imperative and an artistic one. If you’re in London, it’s a difficult decision. Another example from here in Toronto is the decision to build a fixed link to the Islands. That’s a clear choice between beauty and aesthetics on the one hand and practicality on the other. And there are all kinds of reasons to build a fixed link in terms of economics, social planning, urban planning. I for one think those reasons pale next to the aesthetic factor, which is usually not taken seriously. This is part of what I’m trying to speak out against in the book.

MC: The whiskheads live in buildings called Architectons which are described in the book as “towers and spires” of great beauty, but “without much function.” Do these buildings reflect a concern on your part in regards to architecture and the preservation of our most beautiful buildings?

RS: Yes, they do. And it’s very deliberate that those buildings in the book are without function. Again, this is how a fantastic setting enables you to etch these points a little more sharply because these buildings in the story are expressly without any actual function. So what is the value of these Architectons? If they are of value, it can only be as aesthetic and intellectual expressions. And this is just to bring up the point that we don’t do that here. We think everything must have a utilitarian function.

MC: And so to destroy the Architectons is a social failure, as grave a failure as not having a proper sewage system. 

RS: Yes, exactly. I wish you had reviewed the damn thing.

MC: You must be dismayed by what has been happening in Toronto the last several years. We’re losing more and more of our architectural heritage and there seems to be little anyone can do about it. 

RS: Yeah. I was upset by the plans for the renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum. I mean, I think it’s great that we spend a lot of money and have Libeskind do some dramatic thing but, come on, at least respect the original structure. There’s no attempt to enter into any kind of dialogue with the original. Instead, it’s an attempt to dwarf and hide it. I mean, the ROM is a weird building with a strange mixture of architectural styles which could have only come from one turn-of-the-century moment. It’s very colonial and it’s very Canadian. And I bet they wish they could have just torn it down.

MC: So where did you get the idea for the Architectons? 

RS: From Russian Futurist artists, in particular Kazimir Malevich who was a big hero of mine. He used to make these models that he called Architectons that were for no purpose or function. They had no doors or windows; they were simply experiments in form. All of them were incredibly ahead of their time. They’re beautiful modernist buildings that looked like cubist paintings in model form. This was between 1910 and 1920. So the Architectons in the story are an attempt to recreate these models but to make them real, to make them life-size.

MC: It seems that the audience for fiction in Canada is largely not interested in satire. Instead they choose to read more “serious” or earnest books by people like Ondaatje, Findley, Atwood. Why do you think this is the case? 

RS: I wish I knew. I’ve lamented at length about this in the past. I think it’s our Protestant heritage of mistrusting mockery of any kind because it’s not nice. But more than that, I think it’s essentially a mistrust of humour, that we think humour is not a worthy endeavour, and I think that comes from a rural, agricultural background. That’s our history. We’ve all just woken up from that. So humour is simply not trusted. Woody Allen talked about this. He said, “Everybody likes funny movies, but the comedians are never invited to sit at the grown-ups’ table.” And it’s true. You don’t see him getting the awards.

MC: My own view is this is in part due to the scale and pervasiveness of mass media. Readers are surrounded and inundated by the trivial, by television and movies based on comic books, and they crave more “serious” intentions in literature. And these intentions have to be obvious, overt. 

RS: Yeah, you’re probably right. But I think too that young people have moved away from fiction and so the readership that is left, the core readership, is middle-aged and female, and so it’s likely to be threatened by a young, male view of the world. Though I am sympathetic to that readership and they do support me. When I do readings, I look out on a sea of white heads and stretchy pants, so it’s not that I dismiss them as an audience, but we’re then left with a narrow set of tastes. And the kind of characters I write about are very young. I mean, I get older, but my protagonists stay the same. Nobody’s ever noticed that, but it’s clearly just me arrested. I don’t feel any older. I feel exactly the same age. But the world of my characters does exclude that readership. The main readership does not see itself reflected in my fiction at all, so I can understand why they might not be terribly interested in my stuff.

MC: I imagine it must be somewhat frustrating to be writing from a young, male perspective, while young men generally seem to have completely turned away from fiction and reading. In fact, what is becoming entrenched more and more is this phenomenon of “guy culture,” with its proliferation of magazines such as Maxim and FHM that celebrate a completely mindless approach to existence. And this concept of what it is to be a young male appears widely accepted. No one expects anything more from young men. 

RS: This started in England actually, in the nineties, and they called it “lad culture.” It’s an anti-PC backlash, where even educated guys started embracing their oafishness and being very proud of it and saying, “We’re sick of pretending this is not who we are.” It was also part of an anti-class backlash. So stockbrokers and lawyers and financial people in the city started embracing this new lad culture. It’s much more significant in England than it is here because of that refusal to play the social class that is expected of them. And it’s now mushroomed and I’ve been lumped in with that to some extent. 

MC: And the result is that men appear to be in full retreat. They seem to be purposely dropping out, becoming spectators.

RS: Well, if you look at the statistics about education, it’s truly frightening. The gap between females and males has worked its way up and now it’s hit university. Now there are more women than men in university and their marks are higher. It used to be that way in elementary school, but then it would tail off and even out. Now it’s like that all the way through, from start to finish. But I think the fact that young men don’t read fiction is at least partly the fault of the literary establishment here, which has pushed so hard for so long these dull, dreary books that are very earnest and good for you. Stories of family, memory and loss--does that not summarize ten recent Canadian novels? And this perpetuates in the minds of young men the idea that fiction is not for them and they shouldn’t bother looking at it. I’ve given readings at community colleges and universities and the guys are always at the back, slumped, passing notes, not paying attention. The girls are at the front, eager, looking to ask questions. And I read a racy scene or a funny scene and the guys perk right up. And you get this sense that they really didn’t know that fiction could be about sex and cocaine and parties. They’re amazed. They just don’t think that fiction can be at all relevant to them.

MC: It’s also this obsolete idea about publishing being a male domain. It’s incredible how some people still think women are underrepresented in publishing.

RS: I know. I wrote an article about this in The Globe. It was about the Marian Engel Award, which is for a female writer in mid-career, which means someone of a certain age who has not had the success she deserves. I mean, Margaret Atwood is never going to get this award. Now this was a fund set up on behalf of Marian Engel when she died, and things have changed a lot since then. So every year I went to the Writers’ Development Trust fundraising dinner, where this award is given out, and there’d be an acceptance speech. And it would always turn tearful and it would always include these references to how hard it is for a female writer. Then you look around and everybody in the room, at least 70 percent, is female. So all the male writers start rolling their eyes and we get up and go to the bar. Three years in a row this happened. The guys and I--I won’t mention names--are looking around and all these women writers are doing much better than we are. And we’d say, “Right. Let’s look at the literary establishment.” I mean, who are the most important editors of fiction in Canada? Ellen Seligman. Louise Dennys. Anne Collins. Phyllis Bruce. Iris Tupholme. Maya Mavjee. Martha Sharpe. And walk through a publishing house. Who are the editors, the copy editors, the publicists? They’re all female. So what is this male establishment you’re always hearing about? Where is it? And start putting a list of successful Canadian writers together. Atwood, Munro, Carol Shields, Jane Urquhart, Mavis Gallant, Barbara Gowdy, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Lynn Coady, Catherine Bush, Anne Michaels . . . So the myth continues. But I’ll tell you another myth that’s very prevalent right now, this myth of the urban trend that’s now dominating fiction, that people like me are unjustly rewarded and that Toronto publishers only want to publish Toronto writers. You know, the Stephen Henighan argument.

MC: I wanted to ask you about the whiskheads. They are obviously a more sensitive class of young people, with these incredibly fine filaments of wire in their brains allowing them to perceive sensations more intensely. Do you see young people as more sensitive and perceptive than adults?

RS: Yes. I’ve never thought about it in those terms really, but yes, I do.

MC: What do you think accounts for that?

RS: A willingness to experiment. I was so fascinated by body piercing back in the early nineties when it was suddenly everywhere, and I went to these pain-ritual parties. I’m not a flaky person, but I was really excited by it. The idea of enlarging perception through pain, endorphins. I loved that there were no rules, no boundaries. There was a lot of nudity and it was polysexual. The freedom to be anybody, to dress any way you like. And coming from Halifax, I’d always felt somewhat repressed in that way. I’d always been bullied by people who didn’t want anyone to look different. So that was very liberating. And I find I relate better to younger people than to people my own age because people my own age have kids.

But don’t forget, the older people in The Princess and the Whiskheads are people I very much admire, who are very sensitive to these issues. For example, the architect, Master Crivello, who comes in and is interviewed by the princess in her chambers, and picks up a glass paperweight and comments on how beautiful it is and then notes that it was probably made with child slave labour, which is, as he puts it, “a shame.” But still, it’s a very beautiful piece and he admires it. And that’s a notion that’s problematic to the contemporary Canadian left that dominates arts administration circles. We have a real problem with that, that it can’t be made by slave labour and yet also be beautiful. It can’t be written by a fascist and still be a beautiful poem. And I think that’s unsophisticated, so I’m sympathetic to Master Crivello in that regard. And I’ve said this before about John Metcalf. Metcalf picked up How Insensitive and did not see it as some kind of trendy novel about young people that had nothing to do with him. He related to it very much, even though he didn’t know the names of the drugs or what the nightclubs were like, because he related to an attitude and a literary style that comes from being an aesthete, I guess. So this sensibility is not essentially restricted to age.

MC: Given your understanding of youth culture, I’d like to ask your opinion on the question of their interest in books, in literature. How do you see the future? I think you and I would agree that in the main they are not reading. Might that change?

RS: No. I’m very pessimistic about the future. I think fiction will die out. I think what’s going to happen will be the same as what’s happened to poetry, which is very sad. I think the battle’s lost. And that’s okay because it won’t really set in until after I’m dead. And some people have argued that this is an inevitable thing that is happening in all the arts.

MC: But literature in a sense transcends the arts, doesn’t it? If we lose the ability to read on a sophisticated level, we are in essence losing the ability to think, cognition itself.

RS: Language is a very different way of interpreting the world from images. It involves a different part of the brain and I agree we need it. Also, it’s a much more active imagining. Looking at pictures is very passive. Reading is an act of constantly interpreting and reinventing meaning.

MC: The act of reading is one of decoding, of being directly involved in the process of interpreting symbols and metaphors. Words are always packed with meaning while, comparatively, images can mean nothing.

RS: Yes. Exactly.

MC: So this absurd notion of a “post-literate” culture and people like Moses Znaimer who . . .

RS: Well, he’s just a silly man. And his ideas are badly expressed. And what medium does he choose to express his ideas in? Words. I also think a scene written in words can be much more complex than a visual scene because of the overlaying of time and perception and multiple perceptions. It can be much more fragmented and actually much better at representing contemporary experience. You can move around in time in terms of point of view. You can associate political significance, historical significance and sexual desire in a single line. It’s so much denser. The French theorist Jean Ricardou posits that every word is a hub of “semantic radiation.” Every word has these spokes going out from it to different meanings. You can’t do that with images because they’re not made up of a group of symbols put together. Images just don’t have that kind of capacity. It’s a lot less complicated. I think you can cram a lot more into a line of poetry than into a rock video, in terms of larger significance, in terms of echoes, semantic echoes. 

MC: Given that, it would seem to me there’s a contradiction to some degree in your enthusiasm for youth culture, your support of it, and the recognition that by its very nature this culture is anti-intellectual. Or at the very least, sensation is far more integral to it than thought and intellectual activity. 

RS: Well, I don’t know about that. Certainly I would not agree at all that young people are less intellectual and less capable of thought. I think you need to make a distinction here. When people refer to “youth culture,” they tend to be talking about mass culture rather than high culture, and no mass culture is intellectual. But I don’t think that just because young people are reading less that they are less intellectual or less capable of thought than people of an older generation. In fact, young people are more capable of broaching innovative or difficult concepts because they’re more interested in them than older people who become more set in their ways. I mean, when you’re in university, that’s the time in your life when you read the most difficult texts. I would be very hard-pressed to read some of those texts now. And I think you’re more excited by ideas when you’re younger. And there is a great deal of writing being done by the younger generation, particularly on the Internet, because it’s much easier to get it published and young people are encouraged more to express themselves as a result. They publish long Weblogs and diaries and join chat groups which involve long email exchanges about things they’re interested in. When you consider that with computers it’s easier to make music and visual images and movies, individual creativity is really more encouraged and more prevalent than it was when we were younger. So although they may be thinking and writing in a different way from that of older generations, I don’t think they are less intellectual. And it’s a really dangerous trap to do what everyone has done throughout history, which is to say that “we are more intelligent than younger people of today.” People have never not done that, have not said that the younger generation is losing it and the world is going to hell. People were saying that in the nineteenth century, in the eighteenth century and in classical Greece and Rome.

But having said that, I do think there is a loss to society in general--and this is not the fault of young people, this is across the board--but there is a loss when we lose the habit of reading long texts, because there are things that can be expressed in long texts that cannot be summarized in a video clip or a Web-page article or a photo essay. I mean, you cannot express philosophical theory without pages and pages of text. And I also don’t think you can create the kind of fictitious universe that can exist inside your brain that you get into when reading a novel by only using images. Reading, as I’ve already said, is a far more active activity than looking at images, and I think there’s something really magical about what words do because there are so many layers of meaning involved in every word. It’s an infinitely complex process generating meaning, and receiving meaning, through text. It’s infinitely complex.

MC: But generally speaking, the culture of young people, more than in the past, is about watching television, playing video games, pursuing mindless pleasures, and this is essentially sanctioned by our educational system.

RS: I agree that that’s a loss. But I certainly wouldn’t confine such activity to younger people. I mean, I know lots of people in the media, even print media, who don’t read at all. I think it’s actually more common than not. Certainly television producers don’t read at all, even if they’re doing news. They may read newspapers occasionally. And I’m often shocked, I meet people in television who say, “I don’t read the newspaper.” And they say it very defiantly: “I don’t have time to read the newspaper.” And they also say it as if we all know it’s full of crap, that it’s not worth reading. And this is the newspaper they’re talking about, let alone novels or books. “I don’t have time to read.” Which is nonsense, because of course they watch television for hours every night.

MC: In your view, how might a society make best use of the idealism and energy of our youth?

RS: There’s a great drive in mass media and the entertainment industry to attract the younger audience. This is an issue here in Canada in regards to the CBC, and CBC Radio in particular. Everyone in the universe but, say, five CBC executives knows that what they have done to CBC Radio is a complete disaster. This is the most hilarious thing. There is this utter corruption and idiocy at the top that any person in the street can see right through. It represents such a cynical attitude toward the public. They think the most important thing for the CBC is to have a larger audience, which I don’t agree with. That’s not the role of a public broadcaster. But they want a larger audience and so they think in order to do that they need to attract younger people. Their view of younger people is incredibly condescending. They think to get a younger audience they need to dumb everything down, which is the opposite of my view of younger people. So now they want zippy, jokey, bantering delivery, a lot of really trivial subject matter, and shorter pieces with less on politics and international relations and difficult ideas and art and more about entertainment and pop stars and celebrity.

Now that’s a perfect way to eliminate your entire audience because that sort of thing is already done so much better on the commercial stations and on television. And the kind of people who are going to be loyal CBC Radio listeners for their whole lives are not going to be interested in that kind of crap at any age. I wasn’t interested in that stuff when I was seventeen and I know lots of people who I hung around with were interested in intellectual matters and serious ideas, and as I keep saying, at that age, that’s when you most want to try and establish your own identity and you’re most curious about the world around you. And you want to hear what a Marxist theorist would have to say about the Gulf War. You want to hear what really is motivating Vladimir Putin or Jacques Chirac. If somebody were on the radio to explain that kind of thing when I was seventeen, I would have been all ears. And if somebody had explained to me, “Here’s the difference between Beethoven and Mozart and here’s what you listen for and here’s why Beethoven is important,” I would have listened to that, as indeed I did on Radio Two. Now they’ve gutted Radio Two as well, so there’s nobody at all, not even in schools, explaining those kinds of important ideas to the lonely teenager in Sudbury or Timmins or Red Deer. And those teenagers are out there! There’s this incredible pessimism that thinks there’s nobody out there who’s interested in that kind of thing. This is a prosperous, educated country and we should be able to offer that to people. And public radio should have an educational function, that’s why we pay for it. So there’s one thing we could do for young people, we could try and make the media more intelligent and stimulating.

MC: As you have alluded to, your sympathies are resolutely urban. That is, you see the urban experience as being more sophisticated and more relevant. But as cities represent dynamic centres of change, rural communities absorb technology differently and preservation of customs and social codes is more possible. Is this not in some ways a positive thing?

RS: Yes, it is. And the Whiskheads are trying to reconcile these two things. That’s this ideal golden-age organic community they want to create where these things can coexist--where they are actually at the cutting edge, but also respecting and using the skills of the craftsmen of the country. And if you respect beauty, which is what I’m interested in, and I do think beauty is actually very important for one’s mental health, then you have to respect both the rural and the urban. You can’t dismiss either. I’m not anti-rural. I’m anti-suburban. I’m anti-blandness. In literary terms, yes, I’m not particularly interested in the rural Canadian novel, the Who Has Seen the Wind novel, but that’s because I find it moralizing and earnest and dull. I personally fantasize about buying a house in the country someday, so I’m not anti-rural.

MC: At the end of The Princess and the Whiskheads, the wise king proposes a plan to solicit more support for artistic endeavours. It basically involves having the people with the money competing to support the most significant artistic projects. Do you think this plan could actually work today? Is it at all feasible or realistic for our society? 

RS: No. The only way you could make that plan work would be to have a true aristocracy, as I have in the book. In some ways this book is an anti-democratic book. Now, I don’t actually believe in the idea of an aristocracy for our society. I’m a democratic person like everybody else. But this is playing with the idea that elitism has its role and can have a positive function. I think there was a time in European history--in the Renaissance, for example--when the rich people were, for a brief, golden moment, the most tasteful people as well. And that has died. It’s impossible to think now that the richest people are the people with the most taste because they’re not and I don’t have any solutions for that. 

And I’m not actually proposing an oligarchic government system or anything. What I’m trying to suggest is that if we could somehow make it cool for the wealthy to support public art and artistic initiatives, they would then compete with each other to see who would sponsor the most beautiful buildings and compete to be seen to be giving the most money to artistic projects. And even just a hundred years ago it was cooler. I think the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, the Vanderbilts--those people saw it as a social duty and a reflection of social status to contribute to universities, museums, art galleries and so on. Whereas now the wealthy want to support charities with a much more practical, social bent. Now the money goes to breast cancer and AIDS and spousal abuse and the homeless and so on. So the cultural profile and cultural status of art has declined.

And the thing is, art is not a frill. When they were rebuilding Europe after the Second World War, most European nations, and in particular Germany, put a very high priority on rebuilding opera houses and theatres and concert halls, which to a contemporary mindset would seem to be the lowest priority, but they realized the spirit of the country was broken and this is how you regain who you are. And really, life isn’t worth living without art. But one of the other measures talked about in Whiskheads was the idea of Banality Free Zones and that I do think we could actually pursue. We wouldn’t call it that, but we could do this. In Europe, in large cities, plans for large architectural projects have to pass a committee of other architects and community leaders who judge not just for how it functions and serves the community, but also for its aesthetic value. Projects can be turned down if people say, “That’s ugly.” And we desperately need that kind of regulation. We need educated architects with good taste who would say, “No, that’s not beautiful enough. We won’t approve it.”

MC: So what can fans of Russell Smith look forward to? What are you working on now?

RS: I’ve just finished a novel called Muriella Pent, and it’s about wealthy people in Toronto and a visiting writer from the Caribbean who confounds everyone’s expectations about what a “Third World” writer should be. So there’s some satire of race politics and the art world and a lot of depraved sex. So everyone can look forward to that.