Timothy Quinn

{ "On Writing, with Timothy Quinn" - Interview with Open Book: October 23, 2009 }


Q: What is Octopus Intelligence?

TQ: Octopus Intelligence is the story of a disillusioned paleontologist and a retired cold war intelligence operative, each of whom is struggling in a very unique way with the notion of self.

Actually, there are a lot of interesting congruences between the realm of natural science and the world of espionage - suppression of ego to collective identity; political symbiosis - and what I discovered, as I wrote these two narratives, is that the characters I was writing about, the paleontologist and the spy, were very much mirror images of each other.

Q: Where does the octopus come in?

TQ: Well, the octopus is an extremely smart, albeit not particularly social, fish. It abandons its young once they hatch and dies soon thereafter, alone on the ocean bottom. So I felt there were certain parallels with the sorts of people I was writing about.

Q: Which character is more autobiographical? The scientist or the spy?

TQ: There's certainly a bit of me in each of them. The bad parts, mainly.

Q: The museum described in the book sounds a lot like the Museum of Natural History in New York.

TQ: I think of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum as archetypal museums. They're what I think museums SHOULD be, and so there are elements of both in the book. The exterior scenes belong to the Natural History Museum, while the interior borrows more from the British Museum.

Q: The story is set primarily in New York, with scenes in Iran, Morocco, Haiti, Guatemala and Honduras. What drew you to these locations?

TQ: Like many writers, I find I'm often motivated to write about people behaving badly, and so my stories inevitably end up happening in the sort of places where people have been known to behave truly reprehensibly.

Q: There's a sort of free-floating existential dread which permeates the story. Why are your characters so terrified of oblivion?

TQ: Why shouldn't they be? It amazes me that, somehow, the vast majority of people I know manage to get up, go about their day, come home, watch a bit of CSI, go to bed, without ONCE stopping dead in the middle of the street at the thought that, one day soon, they'll simply not be there. Gone. Now I don't know if this sort of myopia is a good thing or a bad thing - I guess it's a good thing for CSI, because god knows they don't want you thinking about DEATH - but I find it fascinating.

Q: Where do you do most of your writing?

TQ: I have an office at home, but it's really just my business space. I use it for email, scheduling, print runs, that sort of thing. I've built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along most of the walls, and then I've got a couple desks jammed together at one end of the room, and that's it. Over the past few years, I'm managed to virtualize a lot of what I do so that I'm not tied to physical space.

I try to write outside when it's warm enough. Parts of Octopus Intelligence were written in Riverside Park in New York City, which is probably one reason I set a scene there. One of the things I really like about New York is that you don't need to look around for stories; if you sit anywhere within the five boroughs long enough, those stories will come looking for you.

If it's too cold outside, I haunt libraries, restaurants, university cafeterias. I used to spend time in train stations and bus depots, but I seem to have a sixth sense for sitting where someone's been recently sick, so I try to avoid commuter routes now. Like just about everyone else, I've tried to work productively at Starbucks, but I think there's a limit to the amount of Sheryl Crow anyone should have to listen to, for any reason.

Q: The back of your book says simply that you live in Toronto. Is there anything else your readers should know about you? Are you a native of Toronto?

TQ: I moved here when I was eighteen. Since then I've lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Vancouver. For some odd reason, I keep winding up in Toronto, which Dos Passos famously called "a beastly place." In all fairness, that was before we got a Chili's.

Q: What one book would you have with you on a desert island?

TQ: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Jesus, I'd like to get through that.

Q: Do you find it difficult to read aloud from your work?

TQ: I've got two young children at home, and one of the things I've found from reading to them (not from my book - I'm insecure, but I'm not THAT insecure) is that there are favorite books of mine which read well but narrate very poorly. What works on the page doesn't necessarily work off the page. I'll be reading to them and I'll notice that something that had seemed very clever to me suddenly sounds ponderous, or a particular image that seemed very evocative suddenly sounds trite or awkward.

But I guess that's de Sade for you.

Q: You're joking, of course.

TQ: I am. Everybody loves hearing me read de Sade.

Timothy Quinn is the author of Octopus Intelligence, recently published by Guernica Editions. The official launch is at Bar Italia on October 25 at 2:00 p.m. and is open to all. Read more about Timothy Quinn and Octopus Intelligence at octopusintelligence.com. Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.