In August I was invited to participate in a blog tour for Leo Brent Robillard’s fourth novel, The Road to Atlantis which was published on September 15th. Here is the conversation that unfolded over the next month.
I read your novel as a former teacher of English lit, as a voracious reader, as someone who is currently writing a novel, and as your friend. All of those selves unite to say congratulations on this gorgeous, tragic and sweet novel. Thank you for writing this story and for sharing it with me in this way. I feel really proud of you ~ and happy for you.
MM: In the opening scenes of The Road to Atlantis the family is quite similar to your own. I felt as though this story could be another branch of your own story, a life unlived through the grace of the universe or chance or whatever you believe in. Could you talk about this. How did you look after yourself emotionally while you wrote this novel?
LBR: The opening scene of the novel is based on an experience I had during a family road trip back in 2006. Just prior to leaving the beach in Cape May, we – my wife and I – lost track of our daughter on the busy beach. The entire experience did not last more than five minutes, and yet it escalated very quickly toward hysteria. Unlike David, I did not hear the lifeguard’s whistle. For that, I am eternally grateful. However, I did have that moment, thirty seconds before my daughter was located, when I thought, “So this is how my life is meant to be.” This novel almost wrote itself, but it took me close to a decade to finally sit down and put pen to paper. In the end, it was almost a relief to write it. The characters lived a dozen different lives in my mind, and none of them were comforting. Writing the book was how I looked after myself emotionally.
MM: You are both a writer and a teacher of literature but these roles are, I think, not entirely compatible. Was there anything in your lit analysis training that you needed to unlearn, or place on pause, in order to create the world of a novel?
LBR: I think that my training as an English major in university is much more evident in my three earlier novels – certainly in the first two. I don’t think of this as a bad thing at all. However, I must admit that I was much less self-conscious in the writing of The Road to Atlantis. I was not thinking about craft or language. This may have something to do with experience, or it may have more to do with the fact that the subject was so much more personal. I became a teacher of literature, and later of languages and creative writing, because I loved books from an early age. I want to deal with them always. But it is true that analysis and creativity are two different paths. I could never wholly abandon either.
MM: Trains, and specifically model trains, play an important role in the second part of the novel. Tell us the story of you and trains.
LBR: I had a model train set when I was a child. It was built on a simple plywood board. I do not think that it was an expensive set, but at the end of each pay period my father would take me to the local hobby shop to buy a new piece for it – a train station, a hotel, etc. They were models that required assembly. We worked on them together. It was a small part of my own history with my father, in whose memory this book is dedicated.
MM: A character who has not seen the protagonist, David, in a long time thinks that he is a mess. I disagreed. I respected the way that he was living and thought he was really onto something good. Simpler. Why do you think people will have different interpretations of his living situation?
LBR: This is a particularly astute question. And I’m so glad you asked it. David is on to something. We all need to live simpler. It is perhaps the manner in which David arrives at simplicity that is hard. He takes the slash and burn approach, which hurts those around him – particularly Matty. But one reviewer remarked that “the great truth” about this novel is that “when you find yourself again you can be a better parent.” We can, none of us, be the people that we are without having lived the lives we have lived. Or, as Kahlil Gibran said, “One may not reach the dawn save by the path of the night.” David could not seek redemption, nor could he achieve reconnection with his son at the end of the novel, without having travelled “by the path of the night.”
MM: The novel, which explores the life of a family, after the death of one of its members is, in part, a story of brokenness yet you managed to keep the story fresh, free of cliches and moving quickly. How did you do this?
LBR: The last thing that I wanted to write was a novel about the “Five Stages of Loss and Grief.” So I didn’t. I couldn’t even tell you what they are. I only know that they exist because of a disparaging reviewer’s remark concerning another writer’s work. This is a novel of the imagination. It isn’t written to prove or support a theory. I did not want to be reductive or to belittle anyone to whom this has occurred. I tried to envision what would become of me in such a circumstance and I went from there.
MM: If you were to write another novel about one of the characters from The Road to Atlantis, which character would you choose. Why?
LBR: My knee-jerk response is to say Matty, because his story is far from over. The story of Larry’s “lost” years would also be interesting. But the real novel belongs to Kim. She is the sort of character who deserves a novel. I’m imagining her future already.
MM: Tell us about your writing process. Do you write every day or do you write in bursts scheduled/squeezed between other things?
LBR: Bursts. I call them appointments. If my son has three hours of dance practice then I will drop him off, hit the nearest coffee shop, and write like crazy for three hours. I keep big, fat, spiral bound notebooks into which a stick everything in the interim period. I also plot meticulously so that I do not waste a single minute of those three hours. I edit nothing until I begin entering the story into a word processor. God forbid I ever lose my notebooks.
MM: An eclectic playlist of music is weaved into the very fabric of The Road to Atlantis. What singers and songwriters inspire you? What did you listen to while writing this novel?
LBR: First, I am an aural leaner, so I cannot listen to music while I write – especially the music that I like. I want white noise, idle chatter, the sound of a coffee grinder in the background. I will actually wear headphones when I’m writing in a public space, but I never play music through them. The headphones mute the ambient noise slightly, and they also discourage people from speaking to me. Does that sound bad? I’m not anti-social or anything, but writing takes focus, and more importantly, flow. I am, however, constantly inspired by music. I listen to Preservation Hall Jazz, nineties grunge, dirty blues, and classic rock. I like folk and alt-country. I even play and build guitars. If there is music in Atlantis, it’s because life is suffused with music.
MM: In The Road to Atlantis, all of the characters leave each other. Some come back. In our own lives, we leave each other in all kinds of small ways, every day, don’t we?
LBR: People come and go from our lives, physically and emotionally. We never know if they are truly gone until they never come back. I know a woman who married her high school sweetheart more than a decade after they broke up and went on to live very different lives. I’m sure neither of them saw that coming. Departures are often sad, because they remind us of our own mortality, the possibility of never again. But we have to be open to leaving and to being left. That what stories are made of.
||Leo Brent Robillard is an award-winning author and educator. His novels include Leaving Wyoming, which was listed in Bartley’s Top Five in the Globe and Mail for Best First Fiction; Houdini’s Shadow, which was translated into Spanish; and, most recently, Drift. In 2011, he received the Premier’s Award for Teacher of the Year. He lives in Eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.