Saturday, June 5, 2010
By Brad Frenette
Over the past 30 years, Jack Hodgins has written about characters from many walks of life — architects and comic artists, soldiers and strippers and steam-locomotive operators–but not until The Master of Happy Endings has the 71-year-old written about the profession he called his own for several decades.
“I swore I’d never write about a teacher,” says Hodgins, energetic in the early hours of a mid-spring morning in a Toronto hotel cafe. “Then I thought that maybe the time has come. I’m retired.”
The teacher in Hodgins’ ninth novel is Axel Thorstad, a 77-year-old retired high school teacher, a man “taller than everyone else and fiercely unbent,” who retreats to a remote island off the B.C. coast after the death of his wife, “where his size 13 soles” leave “water-filled depressions in the sand.” Thorstad becomes a recluse, but when he feels the island’s seclusion closing in on him, he places an ad in a newspaper offering to tutor in return for a place to live.
Soon, he takes up with a wealthy suburban couple and their teenage son, Travis Montana, a budding actor with a role on an American TV teen drama. Axel is hired to chaperone the boy and to ensure his eyes remain on the books while he navigates the temptations of Hollywood.
The Tinseltown research came easily to Hodgins, thanks to a close friend, Hart Hanson, creator of the TV show Bones.
“I’ve been down several times,” says Hodgins of his visits to the show’s set. “I realized I was beginning to know enough about his business that maybe I could make interest of it.”
So, just as Axel and Travis travel to L.A., Hodgins returned to Hanson’s set. “Back I went to interview all the actors on the show. Everyone thinks they know about television, but it’s the little things, like looking around and realizing there’s not a living thing around except for a few trees shaped like animals.”
Thorstad’s journey to Hollywood puts him on a direct path with his own past. His father, whom he never met, had been a stuntman who died on set. This leads Thorstad to seek out more information about his parent.
“That idea had been in my head for years,” says Hodgins, recounting a tale of a real-life Hollywood stuntman who drowned on his first day of work on a film, before his child was born. “The son got a copy of the movie. He saw this man jump into the water and die although he never saw him in real life.”
Over the course of the novel, Axel makes contact with several of his former students, some of whom have done well, others who have not.
Hodgins can relate to that. “They are still coming back. A lot of them are published writers.” At the same time, he fondly remembers a teacher of his own. “I grew up in the country. Reading books was not anything [men] did. But this young, handsome teacher right out of college came into the school to teach English. It was the year Hemingway won the Nobel Prize, and he bought 10 copies of The Old Man and the Sea, and read it to us, and gave us copies. Then I accidently discovered — by listening to his landlady complaining — that he spent his days typing away. I thought, ‘He wants to be a writer!’ And then I thought, ‘This is possible!’ ”
The Master of Happy Endings isn’t the only book by Hodgins on shelves this spring. Ronsdale Press, an independent publisher in Vancouver, has reissued The Invention of the World, Hodgins’ 1977 debut novel.
Rereading his first work as he completed his new novel, he says, was like visiting “a voice from the distant past. That book came about after I’d had several rejected novels. I’d been writing what I realized were imitative novels. I realized that maybe there is something I can do that no one has done, something that only I can do. So I took stories that were local and people who were very much like people I knew and created something around it.”
Several years, a Governor-General’s Award and a Commonwealth Prize later, Hodgins maintains a desire to keep pushing himself creatively.
“You need to look for some new way to break new ground. To write about a teacher for the first time in all these years was taking a risk. It’s not high-profile stuff.”
That said, Strident Films is at work adapting The Master of Happy Endings for a movie. Hodgins figures he’s picked up a lot thanks to his Hollywood connections, which led him to ask “a lot of tough questions.” The result: Strident has hired him as a consultant.
“I think it’s just a way of shutting me up,” he says, laughing.