Douglas Gardham, once described by The Globe and Mail as “the hardest-working novelist you’ve never heard of,” has been living up to that moniker. He has continued to travel extensively across Canada and parts of the United States, turning the author appearance into a sort of ironman event. Now, he has followed up his debut novel The Actor with a sequel, The Musician, about protagonist Ethan Jones’s struggles with mental health as he attempts to start a rock band in 1984. Here, Gardham recounts the books that have most influenced his reading and writing.
What did you read in grade school?
I was in Grade 6 and reading was already a big part of my life. I’d pulled a book entitled Kon-Tiki: The Greatest Sea Adventure of Our Time from my father’s bookshelf right around the time I was beginning to read the westerns of Zane Grey, Max Brand and Louis L’Amour. The Kon-Tiki expedition was named after the Inca sun god. Norwegian explorer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl was obsessed with the idea that the Peruvian people were the first to settle the Polynesian Islands. A reasonable conclusion from artifacts found on the islands, if one ignored the fact that thousands of miles of treacherous South Pacific Ocean lie between the coast of Peru and the islands. Heyerdahl believed that strong ocean currents could carry a balsa-reed raft the distance and his story recounted how he proved his theory. The seemingly impossible journey nearly cost Heyerdahl and his team their lives, but after 101 days, they made landfall. Heyerdahl became world-famous with his bestselling book and the 1951 Oscar-winning documentary film of the voyage.
The book captured my young imagination. The thought of a small raft crossing a vast sea of sharks, flying fish and giant waves was too much to contain inside my head. I wrote my first story of significance. I would like to think that this was the beginning of a long, successful literary career but the truth has a lot of meandering paths through university, an engineering degree and a career in engineering and manufacturing. But once bitten, writing and reading never left me.
What did you read in high school?
The most influential book of my high-school years I bought because of its cover. I was perusing a magazine rack at a local convenience store, distracting myself from Grade 12 exams, when the navy-blue cover of a paperback caught my attention. Menacing eyes stared back at me from the cover with the threat of take me or else. The book was thick and intimidating, but I had to have it. I knew nothing of the novel or of the little-known author at the time, Stephen King. Much more interesting than studying for physics or algebra; I couldn’t put the book down. Not long thereafter, I found out that the girl I had my eye on had read and loved the same book. That girl became my wife.
The Stand rocked my world with its worldwide killer virus, epic conflict of good and evil and undying friendship. It was my initiation into what storytelling was and what my reading would become. I followed The Stand with several of King’s other novels, including The Shining, Salem’s Lot and The Dead Zone; I couldn’t read enough from the King of Horror. At that point, I wasn’t exactly writing, but in retrospect I think of it as the beginning of my 10,000-hour writing apprenticeship (thank you, Malcolm Gladwell); I was reading with unintentional intent. Writing confounded me, with its structure and rules that were much harder for me to comprehend than the formulas of mathematics and science. I made the decision that engineering was the right compromise for my career. I still profess engineering was key in teaching me how to think, but I learned to write by reading and writing.
What did you read in university?
Though I took engineering, university renewed my interest in the literature I was introduced to in high school with classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, unaware that they were forming a strong foundation in teaching me the art of writing. But I wasn’t yet headed to writing as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged shaped my next move into industry. Atlas Shrugged is an enormous novel from an author who went to Hollywood to write screenplays. A major theme of the novel is personal responsibility and how reason and individualism would create a new world order. It was through Rand’s introduction of objectivism that I came to think that life could be planned and predictable. Her portrayal of the importance of the mind to humankind’s existence was quite convincing to my view of the world at the time.
What have you read as an adult?
For a novel that was originally entitled The Whale, the title Moby-Dick seems to have become synonymous with things epic and grand. At its core is a love story of a man and the sea, a man forever fighting the sea’s monstrous creatures and his own demons. There’s so much of humanity in its pages and all it means to be human. Herman Melville describes our basic needs, our feelings, our fears and our sufferings, and does it in an extraordinarily sensitive and meaningful way in a language that is all but forgotten. Melville’s style of writing seems to richen with age. Moby-Dick is an adventure that’s nearly unimaginable yet wanting to be believed. It’s a classic tale of overcoming fear to become who we really are. Of books that influenced how I read and what I write, it’s hard not to be put Moby-Dick at the top of the list.
What are you reading now?
After seeing the Coen brothers’ movie No Country for Old Men, I was intrigued to know more about the author of the novel by the same name. Up until the movie, Cormac McCarthy was all but unknown to me. I sought out what some call his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, and became familiar with some of his writing techniques of no quotation marks and sparse comma, colon and semi-colon usage. But in All the Pretty Horses, I’ve found a new style of western from what I’d read in my youth. McCarthy fits his words together in a way that makes it obvious when a character is speaking. But it’s the feelings his words bring out in his characters that absorb me. In reading All the Pretty Horses, the first book of the Border Trilogy, I wanted to learn more of McCarthy’s style and method but instead am captured by the story of young John Grady, his love of horses and for a woman he can never have.
When I finish this first book, I’m sure the other two books of the trilogy, The Border and Cities of the Plain, won’t be far behind.