Sitting at Pearson Airport waiting to hop on a flight to the Yukon for a reading tour through the Canadian Children’s Book Centre is Emil Sher. Sponsored through TD, the “TD Canadian Children’s Book Week” happens each spring and invites authors and illustrators to “foreign lands.” The main rule when applying is that one may not tour within their own province. Emil applied for B.C., Newfoundland and the Yukon and will be giving talks in schools and other communities throughout the course of the week on his books, Away (2017) and Young Man with Camera (2015).
In a thirty-five minute conversation, we bonded over our love of Montréal, theatre, and academia.
Emil was born and raised in Montréal and one of our initial talking points was how we both were in the same undergraduate program with the same major at McGill University. Just recently graduating from McGill, it has provided me with some solace to see a former graduate of the same program as finding a great deal of success within a creative field. This of course is not without years of hard work and nurturing relationships.
After his time at McGill, Sher went to Africa for two years to teach, and later returned to Montreal where he achieved his MA in Creative Writing. Upon graduating, Sher considered his options.
“Do I go the academic route? Which was one path to take, and obviously an honourable one. Or do I freelance and stitch together a living? That’s the choice I made. Despite the odds, and common sense, I’ve managed.”
Within his choice of becoming a freelance writer, Sher has had considerable success as an author of many genres. As Sher puts it, he “wears many hats” which showcases his endless creative capabilities and success within whatever field he chooses to navigate. Sher has engineered two lives within one lifetime. On one hand, he has had great success with his writing, and at the same time, he continues to teach and hold workshops for young writers. He has successfully fulfilled both prophecies.
We had the opportunity to speak with Emil about The Boy in the Moon, his upcoming projects, and why theatre should not set up an audience member with the expectation to learn something, but rather, provide the spectator with an onslaught of new questions about life and human nature.
Kimberley Drapack: How did you first begin writing?
Emil Sher: God Bless Canada, we have wonderful arts funding. I received a Canada Council Grant for $10,000 in my early twenties. $10,000 now barely covers my daughter’s tuition, but then, it went a long way.
I started down that path and worked on a novel that didn’t get published but was great apprenticeship of sorts. I ended up doing a fair bit of Radio Drama for CBC, some children’s animations, and a screenplay that was shot in Montréal.
It was just a matter of nurturing relationships. Since these projects take so long, you really want to make sure you are working with the right people because it’s always a challenging journey. You can never control the outcome.
You work on a project, whether it’s a book, a play, or a film, and there is absolutely no control over how people will respond to the story. So much of the gratification and the hard work comes from shaping the story, and that goes back to finding fellow travellers who are in for the long haul.
K: What was it about Walker’s story that made you want to adapt The Boy in the Moon into a play?
ES: I’ve long known Ian Brown and I think he’s one of the finest writers in the country. He has a lovely hybrid of humour, self-deprecation and real heartwarming insights. He writes beautifully crafted phrases.
It began as a series on Walker with beautiful photographs and I almost instinctually knew it was going to be a book. Of course, that’s exactly what happened and he nurtured that into The Boy in the Moon.
I read The Boy in the Moon and because I wear different hats and have my toes in different waters – I’ve done children’s fiction, I’ve done non-fiction essays in the Globe, and I do theatre for both children and adults – and I saw a play called A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a beautiful non-fiction book about her husband who keeled over one day from a heart attack when they were having dinner. She writes about that process. As it turns out, that book was turned into a stage play and they lifted whole pages out of the book whole with no effort to dramatize it, but just simply present her thoughts and insights on stage. I thought it worked beautifully. It wasn’t a conventional play, but it was a beautiful narrative.
So then I thought, this has been done before. You can take a non-fiction, first-person voice and transfer it onto the stage. Ian’s book is entirely first-person and told through his eyes but I knew that Ian alone did not raise Walker. Joanna Schneller, his wife, is a film columnist for the Globe and Mail, and I knew it was essential to weave Joanna’s voice into this story as well.
The third act I call “Planet Walker.” It is made up of all the people who have formed and shaped Walker’s life, primarily his sister Hayley, Olga, the family nanny, and all the doctors and social workers who stepped into Ian and Joanna’s life and had an impact.
In some cases, I took words that he had crafted and gave them to Joanna, because I knew that these would have been shared thoughts and shared perspective, and on top of that, I interviewed Joanna on my own. One of the most gratifying moments was seeing Ian at the Ottawa premiere in 2014 learn things about his wife that he heard on stage for the first time.
I also spoke with Hayley, their daughter. I spent a morning with Olga, the nanny, and I wove all those interviews into the fabric of the play. What you see in the play is large chunks of Ian’s book, but also original material that you wouldn’t find in the book. It added layers to the narrative.
K: What were the main surprises or challenges that came up for you through this process?
ES: Chris Abraham, who is directing the Toronto premiere at Crow’s Theatre, has done verbatim theatre before. I thought, why not only approach a great director, but one whose mined this territory before. It takes a certain sensibility.
Verbatim theatre is not necessarily inherently dramatic. It’s not like taking dialogue between two characters where you can take it where you want to. Here, are spoken words that have already been expressed, and you sort of have to shape it. That was probably the biggest challenge; taking something that seems static and making it dramatic.
One thing that Chris has done is he has added a third actor, Kelly McNamee, who plays Hayley and a host of other roles. One beautiful layer to this production is dance. There are some really lovely movement pieces, where it becomes its own character almost.
I knew ultimately that we could harness the tools of theatre in ways that could really underscore of what I think is the power and beauty of the story. There is an intimacy to theatre that you don’t have in other forms of storytelling. It’s so live and so present.
K: Along with The Boy in the Moon, you also translated the story, Hannah’s Suitcase into a play. What are the difficulties in adapting works with such sensitive subject matters? What role or responsibility does a playwright have in this situation?
ES: The book is called Hannah’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, who is a CBC producer. I read that book to my children about ten or eleven years ago. I knew about the book and that it was about the Holocaust. My late mother was a Holocaust survivor, so there was that draw of course, and I thought it was a beautiful story. You rarely hear the words “hope” and “Holocaust” paired together. It’s a hopeful story because its largely driven by this Japanese teacher who was relentless in uncovering Hannah’s story. I found that profoundly moving and inspiring.
I migrate towards the dark because that’s where I think a lot of hard, but important truths are about human nature.
I think ultimately, you have to honour the story. That’s probably the biggest challenge and responsibility. I think it’s so important to preserve the core of the story which could be tricky in the first place. You can add layers, but you have a responsibility to be faithful with that core.
K: Chris Abraham, (the director of The Boy in the Moon) commented that this show “makes a very intangible experience tangible.” What does this comment mean to you? How does it relate to your specific style of writing?
ES: You have on a page, a story in a newspaper or in a book, that visually comes to life. That goes back to the intimacy and power of live theatre. When you hear Ian’s struggle, his quest and his journey, visually given voice to by an actor, that’s very different than reading it off a page.
When you read a book, it’s unmediated, which is part of the power of reading, (which is why I write novels as well) and theatre by its very nature, has to be mediated. There is the actor interpreting the story. When it’s in the right hands, it can be absolutely transcendent and that’s what makes it so tangible, because you literally hear the emotion in someone’s voice.
On the other hand, the power of theatre often comes from what isn’t said. You can have moments of silence on stage that are just so powerful and so weighted. To me, that’s taking the tangible, which is often emotions, what we experience but can’t often express, and what theatre does, is gives it expression.
K: It seems as if there are a lot of layers to this production.
ES: There is movement, sound, and gorgeous lighting by Kimberley Purtell and Thomas Payne. They are all threads, that when woven together, creates a singular experience.
K: Do you find that theatre is a way to teach people these certain aspects of storytelling?
ES: I’m always reluctant to be any type of teacher on stage. I don’t think a play should provide any lessons or that audiences should arrive expecting to learn something. Rather, I feel a play should challenge us in ways where we don’t leave the theatre with answers so much as a raft of questions.
A stage is not the place for tidy answers. An audience shouldn’t step into a theatre expecting any. Life is layered and complicated, all the more so when it means weaving a boy like Walker into the fabric of our lives. Adapting The Boy in the Moon was more than simply a great privilege linked to a deep responsibility. It was a reminder that theatre is a communal experience, and it is in community where we find the answers to the questions — raw, necessary, urgent — laid bare on stage.
K: You’ve spent a lot of time working with children through various workshops that you hold. What inspired this process? What have you learned through it?
ES: Childhood is so formative. This is PSYCH 101; but I think that to work with children is such a wonderful and marvelous opportunity to help create an environment they can carry with them, long after childhood. I don’t know if they will, but it’s a privilege to till that soil.
I may go and plant some seeds, but what they do with those seeds is up to them. If one or two bear fruit that I may have had a hand in nurturing, then it doesn’t get better than that. There is no question that childhood experiences are formative. They shape who we are.
Childhood is still an opportunity for hope.
K: What can The Boy in the Moon teach us about childhood and growing up?
ES: It’s complex and layered, tangled and beautiful. It can take years to understand. Like all the chapters of our lives, I think there’s much there to unravel. I don’t think we should feel the need to understand everything at a given point. There is something that may have happened to us in childhood that may only make sense to us while we’re adults and that is OK.
K: In stories dealing with tough subject matters, authors will often include moments of comic relief. Do you find this necessary within a story like The Boy in the Moon?
ES: That’s definitely part of it – there is humour in The Boy in the Moon. I think it almost becomes a pressure valve of sorts, but it also is more than that. Humour can reveal some important truths.
I think humour is essential to navigate life. There is a lot of darkness out there and if you look hard and long enough. Humour is one way of coping with the darkness and maybe subvert things when they need to be subverted.
K: Do you find this has been a useful tool within your writing?
ES: Definitely. Humour is really hard to pull off well, and when it fails, it really falls flat. It’s often at one’s own expense, so of course we are going to laugh.
K: What advice do you have for young writers/authors who wish to tackle sensitive subject matters within their work?
ES: The golden rule for anyone who wants to write is: write. We can spend a lot of time thinking about writing, and far less time actually writing. Don’t hold back and don’t censor yourself. Don’t question it, just get it down, because then you have a ball of clay to work with. Otherwise, you are dealing with air.
In terms of sensitivity, I think you have to be sensitive to any stuff that you are tackling. Whether it is a family with a profoundly disabled son, because we are all ultimately human and vulnerable and fallible, I think you should use the same sensitivity no matter what story you are telling.
Don’t get distracted by bells and whistles or prose that can ultimately be more of a detour than the destination.
K: What would you want audiences to take away from The Boy in the Moon?
ES: If they leave with a question they hadn’t considered before they arrived, that would be terrific. That would be gratifying.
After The Boy in the Moon, Sher will continue with his adapted musical version of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater that’s opening this October at the Segal Centre in Montreal. He is writing the book and co-writing the lyrics with composer and lyricist Jonathan Monro. The show is being directed by Donna Feore, whom Sher describes as “one of the country’s finest musical theatre directors.”