Skip to main content

Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail

A former journalist and filmmaker, Kurt Palka is the author of five previous novels, including Equinox, Scorpio Moon and Clara (originally published as Patient Number 7), which was a finalist for the Hammett Prize. His newest novel, The Piano Maker, recently arrived in bookstores. Born and raised in Austria, he now lives in Port Hope, Ont.

Why did you write your new book?

Because I wanted to explore one person's profound moral dilemma and her way of dealing with it. When The Piano Maker finally came together for me, the wake-up call was so powerful and so immediate that the story just about dictated itself. This happened after years of travel and collecting material in Africa, Europe and Northern Canada, years of putting impressions and images on the "high shelf" for later. That "later" then appeared quite suddenly on the French Shore of Nova Scotia, the Acadian Shore. It was there that I saw how to close the circle of The Piano Maker, and I discovered both the centre and the resolution of the main character's moral conflict. It was inevitable.

Whose sentences are your favourite?

William Trevor, Elizabeth Strout, Rohinton Mistry, Cormac McCarthy, Iris Murdoch, Robertson Davies, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Elizabeth Hay. Not in all their works, but in the best of them. I dip into them quite often because these writers are so fine, and they never, or almost never, write on the nose. Good stories, good words, good sentences. In the best of writing it's the subtext, not the text, that moves you. Not frontal but oblique. It's the effect of things, the (imagined) impact, not the thing itself that illustrates and draws the image for the reader to see and taste and feel.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Keep writing about love. That was it. And she didn't mean simply romance, but she meant character-driven stories about human kindness; all sorts of relationships, the good and the bad of them, the magic as well as the horror. Who gave me that advice? She was a friend called Nessa Grieve, a woman much older than I, who had a full life behind her. It was in Toronto, at one of the last dinners we had, and one of the last times I saw her before she died of pneumonia. She had no time for TV, didn't even own one. Books and the radio, wearing outrageous hats and embroidering tablecloths were her entertainment. It was wonderful advice.

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

Albert Camus's The Wrong Side and the Right Side. I came across it in high school, and it opened an important door into French and Russian and German existentialist literature for me. At the time, The Wrong Side and the Right Side was a flimsy publication and it was hard to come by. In subsequent years, it was republished by Vintage Books in a volume called, Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays. It was Camus's first youthful and raw approach to the outsider theme, to his L'Étranger and others, and it brilliantly illustrates the use of subtext versus text: the power of subtlety and the effect of events and impressions on the observer. And it offers the unspoken reassurance to the reader: See, you are not alone in this.

Which books have you reread most in your life?

I've reread Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, William Golding's Lord of the Flies and many of Alice Munro's short stories, to name just a few. But in fact, any book worth reading once is worth reading again. The beauty of good fiction writing is that even though you know the story inside out by now, it's the quality of the writing itself that has you coming back, the fine use of language and the perfect words themselves.