Mind the Gap is mostly set in Quebec in the 1970s. This setting is important. The novel is about the fluid and often comical interactions between English- and French-speaking Quebeckers, on a quest to find their place in the world, and with one another. Montreal is a unique place in that we switch from French to English and back again, several times a day. We are continually challenged by new ways of thinking, feeling, being, communicating. The main character, Richard Grey, is from a village, grows up in a sort of bubble, and is then cast on the wide waters of McGill University – in the heart of a large international city – as he slowly reaches young manhood. Actually, he never really belongs anywhere: although the novel doesn’t “say so”, Richard is an American in Quebec, a Quebecker in Ontario, and a Canadian in the United States!
The 1970s were a period of ideological ferment in Quebec. The novel reflects this, to some extent. I poke fun at the myth of “the Two Solitudes”, Anglo Montreal and the Garrison Mentality, the Scorpion Theory of Identity, the cultural baggage people bring to their relationships. In Mind the Gap, I write about misunderstandings, people speaking at cross-purposes, characters gradually breaking free from confinement – whether physical, psychological or cultural….
McGill has a special place in the book. When I was growing up, my father loved to tell me about his friendship with Stephen Leacock, who was his Master’s thesis adviser there. I remember reading Nonsense Novels as a child. In one passage, “Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” Then and there, I decided that if McGill could hire someone who wrote like that – Leacock taught political science at McGill – then it was definitely the place for me. Eventually I did a Bachelor’s, a Master’s and a Doctorate in History – all at McGill. The eleven years I devoted to studies there stand out among the best, the warmest and the most stimulating of my life. My own thesis adviser for the MA and PhD – the late Valentin Boss – seemed like a cross between Cary Grant and Albert Einstein. He was a lovely man, a great scholar, a brilliant adviser, and incredibly witty. We must have spent 25% of our time together laughing. The PhD dissertation I did with him has morphed into a historical novel about the Renaissance – Beyond the Window of the Soul – which is coming out next year.
Some of the characters in Mind the Gap have strong McGill connections. The university cannot be held responsible for what professors did off-campus, especially in the 1970s! Let me make that clear! But there are some scenes in the novel at McGill – a goofball guest lecture which I pictured as taking place in Leacock 132, a sweaty in-class exam in the Arts Building, and of course the main character’s encounters with his fellow students. He also gets good legal advice from two students he knows, who are up at the Law Faculty. But as readers will discover, McGill is not the only university in the book. Chloé Trahan does a degree at the Sorbonne, and then the Université de Montréal….
I see McGill as both serious … and comical. I come back to Stephen Leacock. A few years ago, when my dear mother turned ninety, she would perk up each time I came to visit, because it meant I would read another chapter to her of Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. The characters in Sunshine Sketches all have their shortcomings, none of them is perfect, but there is a friendly, familiar, foreign and near feeling to the book. Once I got over the initial shock of finding myself on such a huge urban campus as McGill – like Richard Grey, I grew up in a small Quebec village – I learned university could be friendly and familiar too. I don’t know how many thousands of times I have walked past that Milton quote chiseled in stone outside the Redpath Library – “the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” Which seems very far from my reality. McGill for me brings together research and endless opportunities for laughter. Why be serious, all the way through? Why not share the humour of day-to-day life with other people? These are some of the experiences that motivated me to write Mind the Gap.