Readers of Timothy Taylor will know that the "where" of a story has always been of prime importance in his fiction, arguably as essential as the "who."
In his novels, that "where" has been unabashedly Vancouver, where Taylor lives. His debut novel, Stanley Park, explored the city's rich-poor divide and its preoccupation with food: eating well for the rich; simply eating for the homeless. In Story House, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside leaped off the pages, as did the city's obsession with real estate.
His new novel, The Blue Light Project, marks a departure. The story - which revolves around a hostage-taking during a live studio broadcast of a Canadian Idol-type talent show called KiddieFame - is not set in Vancouver, or in any named or identifiable place. It's Any City, Canada. Or Any City, U.S.A.
This is televised terror, a story that could happen anywhere and be told everywhere. This is globalization. This is our story, happening to all of us.
"I wanted this to be a city where everybody lived," Taylor, 47, said during a recent interview in his book- and art-filled office. He has kept an office in a heritage building on the edge of the Downtown Eastside since he gave up banking for writing full time. The career move has worked out - and then some. Stanley Park was a bestseller, and short-listed for the Giller Prize in 2001; the movie rights were optioned by actor Bruce Greenwood (that option has since lapsed).
Story House was also a bestseller. And Taylor is a busy and prolific freelance writer, focusing mostly on culture, travel, food and business (he writes a regular column for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business magazine).
The Blue Light Project is set in the near future, 2013. The hostage crisis at the Meme Media complex drags on for three days; the assailant offers no clues as to motive. Meanwhile the information-starved television news coverage continues around the clock, and protests and police enforcement escalate on the square outside the television studios. The chaos is contagious.
The real-life event that immediately comes to mind is the 2002 siege at a crowded Moscow theatre, which was carried out by Chechen terrorists and which left 170 people dead.
That tragedy was very much on Taylor's mind when writing the book, even more so when paired with an experience in a Dublin theatre five years later. Invited by the Dublin Writers Festival in 2007 to deliver an essay about that city (it was an exchange with the Vancouver International Festival of Writers and Readers), he was in the audience enjoying a reading by IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner Per Petterson, when a man burst into the theatre.
Taylor was immediately reminded of the Chechen hostage crisis: "One of the most chilling and yet riveting common themes that ran through survivors' accounts is that they would say they thought it was part of the show when these guys came running in." (The man in Dublin, it turned out, was harmless; he had just stumbled into the wrong theatre.)
In creating his mid-sized Everycity for the book, Taylor was heavily influenced by Minneapolis and Vancouver, with a bit of Chicago thrown in. But he ultimately constructed a fictional city with made-up neighbourhood names and geography.
"I had to draw little maps for myself and just start putting the thing together physically. I didn't get too geeky about it with measuring exact distances or anything, but … that's how I built it. It felt like I was doing a literary SimCity," he says.
Taylor doesn't watch much television - not the Idol shows, not TV news (although he counts competitive food shows such as Chopped among his guilty pleasures; he often watches it with his seven-year-old son). So to research the TV side of things, he spent a lot of time on YouTube, viewing not just snippets of TV talent shows, but videos of fans taping themselves watching the results from various rounds of those programs.
"I feel fairly safe saying there are thousands of such videos out there," Taylor said. "That, to me, is quite fascinating stuff. And, yes, they scream and they weep and it's real."
He also watched a lot of footage of protests from around the world and read extensively about interrogation tactics. "That was difficult research," he says.
In his first two novels he wrote painstaking, heavily researched and reworked first drafts in the comfort of his office, but he changed his method for The Blue Light Project, writing a rough first draft in at a table in his bedroom.
"The idea was almost to make myself uncomfortable," he says, noting that he didn't even have the room to spread out research materials and that he wrote quickly, producing a first draft in six months.
"I wished there to be an urgency to this book," he says. "I thought I might achieve that more if I really sat down and hammered it right from the start to the ending."
At the periphery of the hostage drama, but central to the novel, is a former Olympic biathlete trying to find her place years after her famous, heroic race. When the reader meets Eve, she is still mourning the sudden death of her journalist father.
Taylor was grieving the death of his own mother when writing the book; she died days before Story House was published in 2006. "That has no doubt informed my take on how a person's feeling about life can be altered, and really shaken in many cases, by the loss of a parent," Taylor says. "It was a much bigger deal than I expected." The book is dedicated to her memory.
The other main characters include a disgraced newspaper columnist, now writing for a fluffy Hollywood publication, and a street artist with a secret.
Street art plays a central role in The Blue Light Project. While writing it, Taylor spent a lot of time with a group of conceptual and street artists in Vancouver, and was inspired by what they did on occasion to the point of goose pimples. Photos of their work can be found in the book (and also in his office).
Then, in a case of real art imitating imagined art, Taylor showed early drafts of the book to some of these artists, and they in turn created physical work based on the street art he was describing in the novel.
It's the art for art's sake motif that provides the most hopeful tone to Taylor's ominous story. When society crumbles around us, when we hit a faith wall and aren't sure who can be trusted any more - the media, police, even fellow protesters - there is still art, created not for money or acclaim, but in response to an impulse that is stronger than any commercial or ego-related calling.
"If kids are still out there and they're putting up art on walls … spontaneously to create something because they feel this is important, we're not done yet," Taylor says.
"It's not that art will necessarily save us," he adds later. "But creativity just might."
The Blue Light Project will be reviewed in next week's Globe BooksReport Typo/Error