Interview with Chris Tomasini

We talk with Chris about Mad Kings and loving slaves.

Chris Tomasini is the author of Close your Eyes, a medieval light fantasy where he tells a story about a storyteller. And he’s taken the time to talk with me a little about mad kings and loving slaves.

Hi Chris! Thanks for taking the time to join me today in a little parlez, I much appreciate it!

But before we get to your book, Close Your Eyes, let’s talk about your inspirations.

If you could pick any author to meet (dead, living, imagined, whatever) – who would it be?

Well, if I can cheat a little, I think I would choose Shakespeare and Marlowe. Each of them are fascinating enough in their own rights (come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove – such a great line!!) – but the bonus is that you get to say “alright – give it to me straight… who wrote what? Did you write most of those plays, Kit?”

Fascinating choice! I have to admit that it took me a second to realize that you meant Christoph Marlowe – my lazy brain was aiming for Philip Marlowe, but that would have been Raymond Chandler. But yes, Marlowe is thought to be a high possibility for Shakespeare, isn’t he? – so it would be interesting to see if one or two persons appeared for your interview!
Since we’re already talking famous writers: The way the story in Close Your Eyes unfolds reminds me of the structures often used by Umberto Eco, where the teller of the story is affiliated with the hero of the story, but isn’t the hero itself. He’s done that in The Island of the day before, where the unknown teller reconstructs the story out of some found manuscripts, and in The Name of the Rose we have Adso of Melk telling the story of his adventure with William of Baskerville. I sense both approaches in your story – Samuel is like Adso with some added scripts. What was your inspiration in choosing this structure to tell the story

Intriguing that you mention Eco. I have a fairly vivid memory of reading Name of the Rose. I was even setting my alarm in the morning so that I could wake up and read the book before going to whatever job I was working at the time (this was years ago… early 1990s). I think I tried “Island of the Day Before” but I don’t think I got through that book.

I have to admit that I’m not smart enough to craft a structure of a novel in advance – so there was no point when I was gleefully twiddling my fingers together like an evil mastermind and thinking “oooo how about this – Samuel will be the main narrator and he’ll tie together the voices of Tycho and the Bishop… and there’ll be 1431 scenes and 1435 scenes as well.”

What really happened is that I was just crunching out scenes over a long period of time, some written by Samuel, some by Tycho, some by the Bishop, and sometimes I even wrote scenes in the 3rd person narrative voice style. And then I had all these scenes to tie together, and while Tycho is perhaps the shiny star of the book, the true heart of the book is Sam, and it had to be Sam’s voice and his thoughtfulness bringing all the pieces together.

BUT… i didn’t want to lose some of those really touching entries in Tycho’s voice – like the picnic wheat field scene for example – or the Bishop’s (hopefully) fascinating voice, and so you end up with a framework where Sam is the main narrative voice – weaving in the journal entries from Tycho and the Bishop’s letters.

I’ve acceptably actually read Name of the Rose after I’ve seen the movie, so it was Christian Slater’s voice in my head (and the face of Sean Connery in my mind). Good times! At one point, Ahab asks Tycho to choose between the life of Josef and Stanislaw, slavery with love, or freedom with loneliness. So which would you rather choose – Josef or Stanislaw?

Yes, well, a prisoner who knows that someone is thinking constantly of him, and visiting him when she can, vs a rich man who is essentially nothing but alone?

In my book Festival, I reference the Ngugi line in A Grain of Wheat, where he writes “to live and die alone is the ultimate truth”, so I guess I’ve been thinking about what it means to be alone for a long time.

But, like Tycho writes at the end of Close Your Eyes, even though love is full of risk, and might lead to joy but might also lead to sorrow, this is a gamble that most people will go ahead and play. The alternative is to be empty. And no… I wouldn’t choose emptiness… I would choose love.

Speaking of Ahab – did you choose that name because Tycho is somewhat this scientist’s white whale? (Bearing in mind that his quest for Moby Dick did not end well for Captain Ahab.)

Yes… an incredibly incredibly loaded name to use, isn’t it?
When I was revisiting this book in December 2021, getting ready to publish it, I thought to myself “Oh my  God, should I change Ahab’s name? Is this too loaded a name to use?”
But, obviously I kept the name, and no, I wouldn’t say that it is because Tycho is Ahab’s white whale.

The Ahab in my book is really some mixture of Kepler and Copernicus. I had read John Banville’s books on these men around the time of writing Close Your Eyes, and so I had this sense of men in an obsessive pursuit of understanding how the heavens worked on my mind. And incidentally, I’ll add here that the name “Tycho” came from Tycho Brahe, another obsessed astronomer – but in this case I simply liked the name Tycho and felt it was a very unique name to use.

Anyway – Melville’s Ahab and my Ahab do share a few things. They have lost touch with everything except what they are pursuing – Melville’s Ahab states that he doesn’t care about filling the boat with whale oil and helping the ship-owners, his employers, earn a large profit, and he even gives up pleasure itself… taking pleasure in life… in that throwaway scene where he tosses his pipe overboard because the pleasure of smoking a pipe means nothing to him anymore.  And my Ahab knows nothing but the stars. He is forced to educate the children, the Prince and Princess, but all his intellectual energy otherwise is focused on the stars.

And .. as far as what the two men are pursuing… well, many interpretations of Moby Dick state that the whale represents God.. and God as silent and indifferent to men’s woes. If Melville’s Ahab is trying to understand (and get revenge upon) God through the white whale, my Ahab is trying to understand God via deciphering the movements and alignments of the heavens.

What piqued my interest about this name choice was exactly that biblical reference – Ahab (and probably the whole Melville cast) was pretty religious, and here we are in the fictive and very atheistic country of Gora. While we’re talking about historical figures – on whom did you base Gora’s leader, Pawel?

Oh, a few people come into the mix with Pawel. At one point in the book I name drop the Roman german Germanicus, who was a great soldier and a great leader of men. But much of the “mad King” idea comes from Peter the 1st of Portugal, who was King of Portugal in the mid 1300s. He’s the gentleman who loved Ines de Castro, and when his father had her murdered, years later when Peter was finally on the throne, he had Ines’s corpse dug up and clothed and placed on the throne beside him, and he made the nobles come up and kiss her hand. He also killed everyone he could find who’d had a hand in murdering his wife.

Oh yes, I’m pretty sure you put that into one of Tycho’s stories (the corpse on the throne who the underlings had to kiss.)

Now, Pawel doesn’t do anything that insane, but there are hints of madness with Pawel – that Pawel is struggling to hold back the full onslaught of the madness he might descend into, and that comes from Peter the 1st.

On a somewhat lighter note: you have two children, and you gave a workshop on writing for children at the University of Toronto. Did you ever write stories for your kids? And did they like them?

Oh I’ve never taught writing workshops, I was an attendee of a few writing courses at U of T, one of which was a writing for children course. And in fact what I’m working on now is a young adult trilogy with some magic and different timelines, and some connections to WWII and the expulsion of Germans from Silesia at the end of WWII. My 12 year old daughter has read book one of this trilogy and gave me a laid back “thumbs up” for it.

But no, I never necessarily wrote stories for my children. But I do remember a lot of bedtimes where I’d read the last book I was going to read for the night, and not yet tired, we would play the “build a story” game, where I start and give a few details to a story, and then it’s one of my daughters’ turn to add a few more details, and then you trade the story telling back and forth.

So we did a fair bit of that for a number of years. For some reason a pink monkey was involved a lot of the time.  🙂

I have two sons, and I remember some variations on this. Although in our case, there usually were dragons involved. Lots of them, color didn’t matter. Well, my final question is quite mandatory. While Tycho seems to have a fondling love for ale, what is your favorite drink or cocktail?

Stefan’s famous “drink” question! Oh my God, I wish I had a more interesting answer, but I am not much of a drinker. The only thing I really drink is beer, and having lived/taught in Poland ages ago, I still like Tyskie and Żywiec, and then other lagers like Stella and Heineken etc.

I’d actually drink beer even less often than I do if it wasn’t for the fact that almost daily, as I walk home from work, I pass a liquor store! So as you’re wandering past you often have that “oh crap, maybe I do want a beer tonight” idea and I’ll go in and buy a couple.

BUT, unfortunately, I know very little about alcohol and drinks. My main vice, somewhat luckily, is riding bicycles. 🙂

Riding bicycle is probably healthier than drinking lots of beer (at least while wearing a helmet, don’t forget the helmet, and never drink and drive!) And with that security advice, thank you so much for your time!

By Stefan

father of two, not enough time to read everything I want to read

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