True Lies

April 2, 2008

In the middle of the morning on May 27, 1992, Vaso Miskin Street, just down the way from Sarajevo’s downtown cathedral, exploded. Twenty-two civilians, in a lineup to buy bread, were killed. Steven Galloway, a 32-year-old UBC creative writing instructor with no connection to the former Yugoslavia, is not at first blush a likely candidate to tell the story of Vaso Miskin Street; or of the noted cellist Vedran Smailovic, who marked those deaths with 22 daily performances; or even of the three characters—a father whose family has fled, another whose family has stayed, and a female sniper with ethical concerns—who animate his immaculately constructed, tautly written, and utterly engrossing third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo.

Galloway’s previous novels couldn’t be more unlike Cellist in subject matter or accomplishment. Finnie Walsh is a good-hearted story about small-town hockey that was Galloway’s undergraduate thesis in the creative writing program at UBC; Ascension is a tale of Romany circus artists in the 1970s that received critical attention but sold sluggishly. “As far as writers go, I’m on the sort of extreme end,” Galloway says over lunch. There are writers who base characters on friends, acquaintances, and themselves, he explains; and then there are those who avoid the personal. “I’m obviously in the latter category. But even within the latter category, I like to write, it seems, specifically about things that I have zero experiential connection with. Like a circus, or being a Gypsy, or war. Things that I know I will never know fascinate me.”

Sarajevo under siege, as imagined by Galloway, is about to fascinate a great many other people as well. His agents—Henry Dunow in Manhattan and Michael Hayward in Melbourne—have sold the novel in 16 countries (and counting) for almost a million dollars in nonrefundable advances, and Galloway and his wife, Lara, have bought a century-old house in New Westminster with the proceeds. The book has been embraced by Nobel winner J.M. Coetzee, the Barnes & Noble Discover program, and Chapters Indigo principal Heather Reisman. A number of producers are involved in talks to option Cellist for film.

So what business does a Vancouver writer have taking on a war that raged halfway around the globe while he was still in high school? Faultlessly polite and generous (if compulsively sardonic), Galloway shrugs: “I don’t write about the worlds that I live in. I don’t write about being a 32-year-old father of two living in Vancouver with no job. That would be fascinating! Oh, the plot points! ‘Should I feed the fish now, or wait an hour?’ ” Long pause. “I’m probably the worst person to ask about why I do anything.

“I don’t feel like any of this is exotic,” he adds. “I feel more exotic in New York or Toronto than I do in Sarajevo. Sarajevo just feels like an ordinary kind of town. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s just a city. 

I don’t understand what anyone says to me there”—he spent three weeks in Sarajevo doing research—“but beyond that, it’s just buildings and people. Tasty food. What’s not to like?”

In their trajectories, Gallo-way’s principal characters navigate a series of small, telling moments that make the siege as familiar as the tragedies that befall any of us. Their struggles condense into the most ordinary decisions: how to cross a street, which signs to heed, who to trust. Life under bombardment is no different from life in this blessedly peaceful city: for us all, decency hinges on how we respond to the situations we face. It’s just that Vancouver lacks the drama and the detonation of the Bosnian civil war.

“It’s kind of the beauty and also the tragedy of living in the West,” Galloway says. “Aside from having a homeless person ask you for money, or the odd small acts of charity, you’re never really put in a moral situation where what you do is going to affect anyone else’s life that majorly or be a major test of your own humanity. It’s more like a series of tiny decisions that will make you a moral person or an immoral one.” 

Articles about Galloway tend to emphasize his youth—his goofy spirit and boyish looks. The Globe and Mail once went so far as to liken him—with his shaggy hair and big brown eyes—to a cocker spaniel puppy. “I will say, in my own defence,” he retorts, “I have never peed on the rug when excited. But yeah, I guess I’d rather be a cocker spaniel than be described as a hipster.” He chalks his success up to nothing more than hard work. “People always think this is self-deprecation, but it’s not: when I was a student at UBC, I was almost always one of the worst couple people in the workshop. My work was not that sharp. I didn’t get into the undergraduate program my first try. I was wait-listed for the MFA program.” But being a writer isn’t about talent. “It’s mostly attention to detail and a willingness to work hard.” Most beginners, he’s come to believe, arrive convinced of their own greatness. “The sad reality is you’re nowhere close to a genius. If you’re a genius, you don’t really need to go into a writing program.”

The tools that birthed The Cellist of Sarajevo weren’t the candles and feather quills of romantic garrets but gear you’d find at Staples: whiteboard, index cards, coloured markers. (He used green for the “leapy parts” that propelled the story.) And time: “Now that I’ve written enough novels I can almost do that first-draft part conceptually; I don’t actually have to write it. I can kind of just sit there and imagine.” Six months staring at the whiteboard left him with a spare framework of three interrelated experiences of the siege, and the determination to keep politics out of the story. He intentionally kept the book short—it’s an uncluttered 272 pages—and structured it to unfold like a sonata, with an exposition, the development of three braided “voices” (with the female sniper the alto to the men’s basses), and a coda. This echoes the music that the cellist Smailovic plays to commemorate the 22 dead: the “Adagio in G Minor,” a salvaged fragment of a lost sonata by Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni.

“One of the things I tell writing students on the first day of class is that there are two good reasons to be a writer. Number one: if the idea of spending all of your time living in a room by yourself in an imaginary world doesn’t turn your crank, you’re done.” Writing isn’t fun, he stresses, but it is satisfying. “The other is to realize what you get from being a writer. The example I usually use is being an orthodontist. That strikes me as a job where you probably get great hours, good pay, not a lot of stress. If you fuck up the braces, you can just redo them.” What the writer has instead, he says, is a soapbox. “You get to have your tiny, mostly insignificant little squeak about how the world is or should be or shouldn’t be. Frankly, both of those things excite me a lot. I like spending all my time in a room by myself. And I like the idea that when my time on this earth is up, I got to squeak a bit.”

Alexander McCall Smith, creator of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, says Galloway can do a lot more than squeak. The two met during a trade show in Los Angeles, and McCall Smith has championed Galloway’s books internationally ever since. “He’s got a great imagination,” the Scottish author explains, on the line from his home in Edinburgh. “And he’s got a tremendous interest in people. You realize that when you meet him. He’s very sympathetic—he’s simpatico—and you pick that up immediately. Plus that imagination and that sense of humour—all the ingredients are there. It’s very refreshing when there’s so much rather pretentious, contrived stuff being published that you get somebody you think’s a real writer who’s got—how would one put it?— just got the right vision, for want of a better cliché.”

From a practical point of view, Galloway says, he was impelled by more than his imagination: “Before this book was finished and selling, it looked very much like I was going to have to enter the job market. My wife’s business was failing. We had two kids. I’m not able to look after them both on a full-time basis, partly due to my inability to lactate, but also I’m essentially a child too. I would eat ice cream for lunch.” His job prospects, he says, were dismal. “The only job I thought I could do was driving a cab, because I can drive and I’m sarcastic.”

On the way out of the restaurant, we discover he’s been towed

One person who likely won’t be buying The Cellist of Sarajevo is Stephen Harper. 

Or if he does, he won’t be telling Yann Martel, who sent the prime minister an advance copy of Galloway’s book as part of his “What Is Stephen Harper Reading?” program. “A grand and powerful novel about how people retain or reclaim their humanity when they are under extreme duress,” Martel wrote in an accompanying letter to Harper, Cellist “transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding.”

Speaking from his home in Saskatoon, Martel (who won the Man Booker Prize for The Life of Pi) calls Cellist “a morally accurate” book. “The danger could have been to talk about the sultry weather or the history of the Ottoman Empire,” says Martel. “It could have tried to guide us through a story by dint of emphasizing the exoticism. The book I’d sent the previous time was [Northrop Frye’s] The Educated Imagination. And Galloway’s novel is a perfect example of what the imagination can do. It can show you a galaxy. It flexes the imagination by showing you different kinds of reality. And by going through that exercise, you come to realize which realities you want and which you don’t.”

With Ascension and now Cellist, has Galloway found his niche as a chronicler of the marginalized of Central Europe? “I think probably not,” says his New York agent, Henry Dunow. “This will be his Sarajevo novel. And based on his work to this point, Steven is one of those writers who doesn’t repeat himself.”

“That’s why I think he’s going to be a very interesting writer,” says McCall Smith. “Because he’s got this great imagination, and he’s prepared to let it rip. I can see him becoming a very, very good and important writer. I really think there’s that particular imaginative quality. It’s not contrived; it’s real in his case.”

Galloway, a grand believer in the glass half empty, is quick to advance the counterview: “The one drawback for me as a writer for publishers is that you don’t know what you’re going to get one book to the next, right? You can be pretty sure I don’t intend to do that [a Sarajevo novel] next time—partly because I get bored, and partly just to prove them all wrong. I don’t even know what I’m going to do next. Who does?”

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