On Monday, Peter Behrens was still going into bookstores and surreptitiously shifting his debut novel from the back shelves to more prominent display tables. On Tuesday, that very novel, The Law of Dreams-the story of Fergus O'Brien's odyssey through the Irish Potato Famine-snagged the most prestigious literary award in the country. On Wednesday, Behrens dished to Maisonneuve.
Nick Haramis: First of all, congratulations on your GG win. Governor generally speaking, I can't help but feel a little responsible...
Peter Behrens: You nearly blew it Nick. I watched you put your foot in your mouth, but you got it out just in time.
NH: Did you survey the competition beforehand?
PB: I read Rawi's book [Hage was nominated for De Niro's Game] and I was really impressed by it, as were you. I only know the others from hearing them read passages from their books. I think I was in pretty good company.
NH: Did you practice any good luck rituals prior to the announcement?
PB: This is going to sound false, but it really felt like a great recognition just to be nominated. I was in the middle of the book tour when I found out. The committee invited all of the nominees to meet one another and read for one another. But then of course, we had brief interactions with all of the judges, at which time I was neurotically trying to read them: She's smiling quite a bit. What does that mean?
NH: How was the ceremony?
PB: The real ceremony takes place in Rideau Hall next month, where you actually meet the Governor General-who looks amazing and sounds amazing. My first thought when they told me I'd won was, "God, now I have to buy a suit." I haven't owned a suit in years.
NH: Aside from the $15,000 cheque, do you get to take home any swag? Is there a trophy that you'll be able to display in your bathroom?
PB: I read somewhere that the winners get a specially bound copy of their book, which sounded really cool. I hope we get a ceremonial uniform that I'll be able to wear.
NH: Undeniably, the GG award is a huge boon for book sales. Can you describe the reception to The Law of Dreams leading up to the big announcement?
PB: I went into Pages [a bookstore in Toronto]. I looked around for my book. I went to the back literature shelf and there it was-one or two copies three shelves down. Concealing my affronted sense of dignity, I asked one of the clerks if I could move them up front. I had stickers that read, "Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award," and with them I humbly arranged my three books on a front table.
NH: You're also a screenwriter. What are you currently working on?
PB: I'm in the middle of a big Hollywood feature-I can't really talk about it. I intend to continue as a screenwriter. It's really hard to sustain life as a novelist.
NH: Who do you see playing Fergus O'Brien in the film adaptation of your novel?
PB: The Harry Potter kid-maybe Leonardo DiCaprio seven years ago. The problem is that in the book Fergus is no more than sixteen or seventeen. But you need somebody older to carry a movie-kids that age don't really have that much star power.
NH: I read somewhere that you had initially intended for The Law of Dreams to be about Canadian soldiers during the Second World War. Are you still working with this idea?
PB: I'm reluctant to talk much about it, because I'm just Irish enough to be superstitious. But I'll tell you this: I had begun ten years ago trying to write a novel that was mostly set in Montreal and in Europe in the 1940s. It involved characters that are sort of the descendents of Fergus. In order to understand them, I had to go back and explore what was in their family past. Fergus just took over.
NH: Is there a circle of Canadian writers today that work and hang out together?
PB: If there is, I'm not a part of it yet. I'm still a pretty big outsider. I do think, however, that we're living in the golden age of Canadian literature in English, which probably began with Alice Munro in the seventies. You could call it a renaissance, but it's really more like a naissance.
You know what's actually a little dispiriting? I wish that we hadn't had the English press conference in Toronto and the French press conference in Montreal. Why can't we mix it up a little more?
It's ridiculous how little the English know about French literature and vice versa. There's no cross-fertilization at all. Both sides are equally blind - there is such a thriving, complex, multifarious Anglo-culture that people in Quebec don't know anything about. They're dismissive, foolish, and arrogant about it. They have this vision of Toronto that was formed like fifty years ago.
NH: You now live in Maine; do your American neighbours understand the importance of your award?
PB: Most of them do. Well, my immediate neighbours are clam diggers so they don't care so much.
NH: What do you miss most about Montreal?
PB: The bagels. I miss the neighbourhoods and the Atwater market. The aspect of Montreal that most engages me-as is the case with most people-is the multiplicity of identities there. Take Outremont for example: it's half-Hasidic, half-yuppie with some Portuguese on the other side and the Greeks on Park Avenue, and the West Indians and Central Americans...I enjoy that aspect of the city, its ragged charm. So many people who don't know the city well say that Montreal resembles Paris. Those of us who know better know that Montreal ain't no Paris. It's actually a lot of like Brooklyn, New York.
NH: Do you give into any vices while writing?
PB: Coffee. I also become kind of grumpy and solitary. I tend to become really stupid because so much of my brain is engaged in my work all the time. You know, there's that myth about absent-minded writers who think that they're so brilliant. It's not that they're brilliant. It's just that you can only hook up so much stuff to the motor before it starts to lag. When you're walking around with a huge novel in your head all the time, the rest of life becomes a real challenge.
NH: Finally, and most importantly, do you intend to use snippets from my review on your book jacket?
PB: Certainly. But they have to be really, really good.