Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Interview with Jordan Tannahill

Jordan Tannahill is an award-winning playwright, director, and author. In 2016 he was described by the Toronto Star as being “widely celebrated as one of Canada’s most accomplished young playwrights, filmmakers, and all-round multidisciplinary artists.” His plays have been translated into multiple languages and honoured with prizes including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama and several Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Jordan’s films and multimedia performances have been presented at festivals and galleries such around the world and from 2012 to 2016, Jordan and William Ellis ran the influential underground art space Videofag out of their home in Toronto’s Kensington Market. While he established his writing and performance career in Toronto, Jordan is originally from Ottawa and this month he will be retuning to his hometown to talk about his novel Liminal alongside Dionne Brand on October 26

 

You've received great acclaim for your work as a playwright, but Liminal is your first novel. Why did you decide to pursue this form?
 
The basic premise of Liminal is: a young man, standing in the doorway of his mother's bedroom, experiences a cascading revelation about corporeality and consciousness within the single instant he sees his mother's body lying in bed. In that instant he cannot tell whether she is alive or dead. The idea of containing an entire narrative universe within that split second of ontological confusion struck me as an inherently literary proposal rather than a theatrical one. It felt profoundly interior. Rather than working with bodies in space, in real time, I wanted to use philosophy, language, and style to probe my protagonist's psyche. I am borrowing inspiration here from the late, modernist Brazilian author Clarice Lispector whose novel The Passion According to G.H. takes place almost entirely within the instant the protagonist closes a door on a cockroach and watches as the bug slowly succumbs to death. It is an extraordinary, ecstatic text and all the more so for its extreme temporal constraints. I was also heavily inspired by other literature I was reading at the time -- the work of autofiction writers like Sheila Heti, Chris Kraus, and Emmanuel Carrere, who craft books that hover somewhere undefinably between novels, essays, and memoirs.  
 
On your website you call it a piece of autofiction. What does that mean?
 
Simply put: a work of fiction that draws heavily on the author's life. A synthesis of memoir and novel. 
 
What was the biggest difference between writing a novel and a play?
 
The act of writing a novel feels profoundly hermetic. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, it feels like a daily battle with the self. And while I also write my plays in isolation, they are reborn in the rehearsal hall, where the text comes to life in the mouths and movements of others. Playmaking is an inherently social and collaborative venture, full of long conversations about human nature, politics, aesthetics, etc. When writing a novel, most of those conversations happen inside of you.
 
How (if at all) has Ottawa shaped your writing? 
 
Oh it's shaped it immensely! Much of Liminal is set in Ottawa, and a great deal of my work is set in suburban landscapes inspired by my east end childhood and adolescence.
 
Who or what has been your biggest influence as a writer?
 
The Internet. 
 
You've worked in theatre, dance, multidisciplinary arts, fiction, theory, virtual reality, film. You ran a performance space out of your apartment in Toronto. What has been your favourite creative pursuit to date and why?
 
I think my favourite creative pursuits have been the ones where the divisions between my life and art fall away. I would say this was certainly true of Videofag (the performance space) and Liminal
 
If you could pick anyone in space or time to collaborate with on a project, who would you pick and what project would you collaborate on?
 
I would collaborate with Adam and Eve on a biodegradable, plant-based lingerie line. 
 
When have you been the most turned on while writing?
 
Haha I love that you're asking me this! This was the question I posed to another writer for CBC Book's Magic 8 Q & A. Well... I was just writing a scene last night for my new play The Listeners in which an English teacher describes the ways a former student of hers turns her on... and I have to say I really got into it. 
 
What has been your sexiest on-stage moment? What has been your least sexiest?
 
Sexiest: when, despite the burning pyres, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci make love in Botticelli in the Fire
Least sexy: a real frat boy (not an actor) barfing all over the stage 
 
If Liminal had a soundtrack, what would it be?
 
Fun question. I suppose the music referenced in the book itself! Which includes Steve Reich, Frank Ocean, and Christeene.  
 
What's the riskiest thing a writer can do?
Not writing! You risk becoming something other than a writer. 
 
Don't miss Jordan Tannahill at our 2018 Fall Festival on October 26th with poet Dionne Brand.