Monday, 14 April 2014

Guillaume Morissette's New Tab: A Conversation Between Two Editors

by Dimitri Nasrallah, Esplanade Books Editor

New Tab, the debut novel by Montreal writer Guillaume Morissette, comes out today.  It’s the twentieth Esplanade Books title, and it introduces yet another fresh voice to a fiction line that has had a successful run developing them under founding editor Andrew Steinmetz.  The life of a video-game designer is not something you see too often in fiction, but it rings true for anyone living in Montreal these days, where companies like Ubisoft employ thousands of young people.  It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, a lifestyle entirely lost on previous generations of writers, to whom the option was largely unavailable.

As such, Morissette’s New Tab brings to life a very contemporary Montreal, one that hasn’t really settled into place just yet.  And that’s what makes it so exciting.  Here we see the city as the fluently bilingual, game-sector subsidized home to a generation of post-university youth who spends their twenties frequenting all sorts of illegal venues, going to house parties, swapping cheap apartments, and cultivating deeply complex social networking personas that are increasingly divorced from who they are in real life – whatever that may constitute these days.   Morissette has a talent for capturing this ephemeral phase of being young, both in its cultural trends and its underlying psyche of social anxiety.

New Tab ended up being Andrew Steinmetz’s final book as Esplanade’s fiction editor, as well as the first Esplanade title to see publication during my brief tenure.  As such, I decided to call up Andrew to discuss my impressions with him, seeing as how I ended up becoming one of New Tab's first readers.

DN: When did you first come across the manuscript?

AS: I don’t remember the time or date.  But [Guillaume] submitted and I opened the file, and right away I was struck by certain things.  The title, first of all, which I didn’t catch right away what it meant: New Tab.  The first sentence of the book had this effortless feel.  I thought it was striking and spoke of the now, sounded very contemporary.  It was a very cool first sentence.  Then as I read the first few pages, I understood this whole idea of how the tab, opening a new tab or a browser tab, was a great organizing principle for a book like that, where the main character is immersed in technology and communicating primarily through Facebook and his computer.  I thought it was fabulous.

DN: Seems like he’s working on quite the high-wire balancing act in the book, between the pop culture of the technology and the ultimate gravitas that comes through it.  How do you find he struck that balance?  Was it there the whole time, or was it something you two had to edit toward?

AS:  You mean the balance between the ideas and the book’s culture?

DN: Yes, between the surface of the story and its depth.  Because the surface is definitely a prominent feature, but to me the depth is what really impresses.

AS: The balance was struck from the beginning.  We had a bit of a tug of war over the character, whether he was too self-indulgent or too self-absorbed.  But of course he is, or he’s supposed to be.  The character I liked from the beginning, because he came across as being this androgynous, sexually ambivalent male, which I thought was interesting.  And of course he’s full of angst and self-criticism.  Guillaume built this persona up quite well.  At some points I thought maybe it was too much, and that’s where we ended up having our discussions about the manuscript.  But as a writer, what impressed me about Guillaume was that we always had the conversation going back and forth, and he always gave very rational reasons for keeping what he wanted to keep.  I always believe that, in the end, if the writer listens to you but says no, you have to go with them.

DN: One of the things that intrigues me most about the book is that, not only does Guillaume try to capture the inner soundtrack of someone in their mid-20s, but that he actually nails it so often, and that he does so with such brevity and simplicity.  He’s known these feelings, and he manages to get right to them in a way that’s not labored, but also quite funny.

AS: Very funny, yeah.  That’s what I was getting at, even in that first sentence.  That first sentence tells you so much about the rest of the book, how it’s going to be.  The way Guillaume meshes the character with the technology, the way he thinks effortlessly and succinctly.  Another sentence of his that I really loved goes something like, “I hate using my phone as a phone.”  I thought that was very funny, especially to someone of my generation.  Again and again, I think he nails, as you say, his own generation and how they interact, how they communicate pretty casually, openly, and informally about so many things.

DN: It’s interesting that you bring up the notion of generations.  It doesn’t address your generation, and I found while reading it that I felt a bit old to be living that way too.  But, at the same time, he’s captured something so immediate to his particular age group.

AS: We talked about that point specifically, and I said the reason I liked his book is that it reads like a fossil record of a time.  It’s a great representation of how people communicate ideas.  Coming back to this whole notion of new tabs as this organizing principle, I found it to be a perfect title and principle for the structure, but also for the cognitive mindset of people who relate that way.  New tab: it speaks to this brand of randomness where, as things come up, they can go to a certain depth and then close down as something else opens up.  It’s the multi-tasking of life’s issues.

DN: To me, that was really the universal quality of the book.  Even if you weren’t of that generation or weren’t living in Montreal, you could still walk away understanding something not only of the character, but also of a particular age group that we kind of look at from the outside now. We observe them with a sort of dispassionate marvel.  How different they seem to be in how they go about talking to one another.

AS:  He’s the first author where, for editing, we Skyped. That’s the first time I’ve done that.  We sat there staring at each other.  It was a funny experience, but I thought it was perfect for editing this book.  In the past I’ve done it on the phone or by email.  It worked well that way, but I felt like an old man sitting there, saying, ‘Okay, here’s my Skype handle’.  He was totally comfortable, and I must’ve looked very awkward (laughs).

DN: And apart from this universal quality of generational socialization that the novel handles so well, I found that if you’ve lived in Montreal, it’s got something very particular to say about the city that contrasts its universality.

AS:  Yeah, it’s something about the apartments, which was one of the main themes for me.  It was, how to put it, a reference for me, living in those Montreal apartments and apartments coming up and looking for apartments, which is all very reminiscent of that age and university. But to me it felt unique to Montreal, how people move and move through different apartments.

DN: That part I felt I could readily compare with.  I had lived through that.  It seems like a rite of passage in this city to go through those apartments and to go to those fully bilingual parties.  So by the time you were done editing, the finished novel was pretty close to how it came in?

AS: I think it’s pretty close.  I asked Guillaume to add some scenes.  I really liked the scenes of the character’s workplace, making the video games.  I thought that was a lot of fun and interesting to read.  We thought about adding more of the writing class that the character takes. But in the end, it remains almost a side-issue of the whole book.  Guillaume was against that, and I kinda liked that he didn’t want to turn it in to any level of parody.

DN: I suppose, at that point, it almost begins hitting too close to home for him, given that he was doing both the videogame work and the writing classes. 

AS: Yeah.

Guillaume Morissette will be launching the novel on Thursday, April 24th, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

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