This debut novel by Emil Sher is quite honestly one of the most extraordinary and challenging books I've ever worked on--an incredible example of voice; a narrative that will ask you to think about the interplay between language and images, what you expect from a narrative, what makes a good ending in books and in life. It came over the transom to my colleague Anne Shone of Scholastic Canada, who shared it with me, and is illustrated throughout with richly evocative black-and-white photos. This past week, it was nominated for Canada's Governor General's Award -- their equivalent of the National Book Award.
Without further ado, Five Questions for Emil:
1. Tell us a little bit about your book.
At first blush,
Young Man with Camera
is about bullying. But as T— would likely ask: “What about the second blush?” At its core, I believe this novel is about a lifelong friendship between T— and Sean that is tested in ways that reveal the breadth and depth of their bond. It’s also about a blossoming friendship between T— and a homeless woman named Lucy that is cut short. T— values both relationships, and both are brought into sharp relief at the hands of Ryan, who is not simply a garden-variety bully: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath. T— has long been in the crosshairs of "Joined at the Hip," his name for Ryan and the minions who have tormented him ever since a kitchen fire accident left him with facial burns. His perch on the margins gives T— a singular perspective that he captures in striking black-and-white photographs. When he bears witness to an assault, camera in hand, he is forced to make some very difficult, life-changing decisions. To keep silent is to bury the truth. To speak out is to put the lives of loved ones at risk. For a young man who hungers for the truth, T— moves forward by being true to himself.
2. If this book had a spirit animal or theme song, what would it be and why?
In a world of tortoises and hares, it’s a tortoise that would feel most at home between the covers of this book. Tortoises often go unnoticed; they slowly make their way beneath the radar, so to speak, with none of the eye-catching speed of a hare. I think T— would feel a kinship with a tortoise. They may not make a move for a long time but you can practically hear their thoughts tumbling inside. And like a tortoise, T— needs a protective shell of his own as he navigates the bruising bumps of life.
And while I don’t know if T— would ever finding himself listening to Stephen Sondheim’s "Send in the Clowns," I do know it would resonate with him. Listen to it once and you would think it’s about a trapeze artist who has lost her timing. But, in fact, she is speaking of a whole other loss altogether that has nothing to do with circuses and clowns. There’s what you hear and then there’s what is actually being said. Just as there’s more than meets the eye in a photograph, this song takes on a very different meaning when placed in a larger context. Context, as T— believes, is a synonym for the larger truth. In that way, "Send in the Clowns" is of a piece with T—‘s world: there’s more to it than meets the ear.
3. Please name and elaborate on at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.
It is sometimes said that “Character is plot,” which I believe to be true to the extent that I have long been drawn to stories anchored by compelling, complex characters. But a memorable protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean that the story will engage and keep us connected from start to finish. And so it was with T—, who I took a shining to from the get-go but whose motivations and intentions and reactions and decisions all had to be cracked open and justified and structured so they moved the story forward. One of my favorite photographs in
Young Man with Camera
(artfully shot by David Wyman) is of a bicycle half-buried in snow. “It makes me think of a story that ends before it’s over,” says T—. “There’s no And then.” No matter how rich and varied characters may be, they need an “And then….”
4. What is your favorite scene in the book?
There are three moments in the novel that have stayed with me, and they are all linked to friendship. There is the scene early in the story when Ruby appears from the back of her father’s store with a paper towel she offers to T—. It’s a lovely gesture, made all the lovelier because of the loveless humiliation we know T— has just endured at the hands of Joined at the Hip.
T— is not accustomed to a lot of physical contact, other than being tripped and shoved, which makes what Lucy does all the more meaningful. During the scene where they look at a photograph together — "Girl with Striped Face" — Lucy reaches out and gently touches T— ’s scars, without judgment.
T— and Sean have long shared the same boat. We learn that boat is made from different stuff when T— describes the importance, the necessity of being by his best friend’s side as Sean wades through some very difficult waters: “If there’s something you really don’t want to do, it helps to have someone help you not do it. Not right away. Not for a while. Not until you’re ready.”
5. What are you working on now?
Is it premature to share a working title?
: a fish-out-of-water story about a seventeen-year-old single father.