North Shore Writers Festival, West Vancouver Memorial Library, April 20 and 21. For full schedule visit northshorewritersfestival.com.
One figure emerges from the plane’s battered fuselage.
There are a few other passengers who live past the plane’s terminal stop but only one who is, as Samuel L. Jackson intoned in Unbreakable: “miraculously unharmed.”
In his new book The Rule of Stephens, author and UBC professor Timothy Taylor ponders that miracle deplaning through protagonist Catherine Bach, a character who feels she’s: “run out of luck all at once.”
With final exams imminent UBC’s halls are oddly hushed as Taylor discusses the darkness that often looms over survivors.
The Rule of Stephens refers to the notion that the universe is controlled by either the natural laws observed by Stephen Hawkins or the unnatural ones described by Stephen King. Taylor’s book opens with Bach negotiating life after the plane crash and navigating a single, repeated question:
Do you feel blessed?
In Taylor’s prose the question is an attempted trespass into the most closely guarded part of Bach. Of course Bach responds to the questioners as society’s norms dictate she should. But the real answer to the question – the answer that would rob the smiles from Bach’s oblivious interrogators – is inside her. Those are the nightmare thoughts. Those are the thoughts she keeps from her therapist. After all, the other survivors paid for their luck with their physical wellbeing. By comparison, Bach is luck’s freeloader.
In researching his previous books, including his debut Stanley Park, Taylor has been a: “bit of a cultural anthropologist,” spending time with cooks and street artists in order to write about those communities.
The process of researching The Rule of Stephens was decidedly different.
“I did not survive an airline disaster myself,” he offers.
But within the space of a few months he lost a parent, a “much loved mother-in-law” and a close friend.
As his own world felt like it was off the rails, he found himself channeling those feelings into his writing.
“That’s not something I was even really aware of at the time. . . . I ended up going to a bit of a dark place as I was writing and it ended up being a weirdly complementary place to the one that my character goes,” he says. “As a kind of cosmic coincidence I ended up in a place that was sort of emotionally connected to (Bach).”
Much like the rabbit ear antennae on your (great) grandmother’s television, writers are often guided by simultaneous and contradictory frequencies, Taylor explains.
“I’d really like to engage with people and give them an experience that they will find stimulating and that will involve them emotionally and intellectually. That is writing with one eye on the reader,” Taylor explains. “On the other hand, you kind of have to write in response to the currents flowing within.”
Those inner currents are the elements that can’t be entirely harness or shaped, “with the receiver in mind,” Taylor says.
“Ultimately, I’m kind of helpless to the things that fascinate me and inspire me to write.”
While the story of The Rule of Stephens is about a rational person’s reaction to what feels like divine intervention, the book’s plot is about corporate mercenaries determined to rip Bach’s biotech startup from her control.
Bach develops something interesting, “and the sharks start to circle,” Taylor says. And one of those sharks looks a little like Bach.
“For a long time this antagonist remains in the weeds – tantalizingly close but not showing herself,” Taylor says. “Eventually, they have to be in the same room.”
The author says he wrote that book without knowing what would happen when the two characters got into that room, only that the book would resolve itself afterward.
“That’s more or less how it happened,” he says.
Taylor is already at work on his next book – a personal rarity, he says.
“I always have tried to get into something right away (after finishing a book) and I have always failed,” he laughs.
This time, however, he’s locked into a story that mirrors the path of his world adventurer father and his holocaust survivor mother. His parents met at a house party in Guayaquil, Ecuador. It’s a meeting that could be explained rationally, but also seems somewhat miraculous.