This past November 2020 we had a chat with Eddy Boudel Tan, author of the brilliantly heart-rending AFTER ELIAS – a story of love lost and found, fears confirmed and overcome, of moving through profound loss. Below is a transcript of that twitter interaction, edited for maximum blog readability. To interact with the original thread, click here.
WOTS: Eddy, this is your debut novel – congratulations! With 2020 being a challenging landscape for the majority of us, what brings you hope right now amidst the fear of losing everything?
Eddy Boudel Tan: Thanks for having me! It’s been a dreadful year in many ways, but I’m hopeful about the positive change this current reckoning will bring. Leaps in human progress have often been preceded by catastrophe, and I think this will be no different… The events this year have merely exposed the cracks that have always existed in our society. Now they’re plain to see, and we can all choose to fight for something better: a more equitable society, better access to healthcare, a fairer economy, a healthier environment… I think we could be on the cusp of a renaissance, but then again I’ve been known to be a hopeless optimist.
WOTS: That’s an uplifting take! I think a lot of us are hopeful that the exposure to and awareness of social & environmental justice issues this year will create real, lasting change.
WOTS: In what way do your characters and their demands inform and shape the direction of the narrative? Do you consider your settings characters as well?
EBT: After Elias is told through the eyes of the protagonist, Coen, who has just learned that his fiancé, Elias, has flown a plane into the sea one week before their wedding day. This is truly Coen’s story, and the reader gains access to his head and heart. As he confronts the aftermath of the tragedy, as well as his own fears and grief, his decisions (which may often seem strange) drive the story forward as it ultimately converges with Elias’s story in surprising ways.
The novel takes place on a mysterious island in the Gulf of Mexico, where the locals drink tea and pray to skeletons in hidden caves. It’s a fictitious place inspired by places I’ve visited travelling through Mexico. The setting definitely has a mind and heart of its own.
WOTS: Speaking of this being very much Coen’s story, your protagonist is an unreliable narrator; as his family and friends point out, he’s “good at pretending.” How did this element of Coen affect your narrative choices?
EBT: I think all narrators are unreliable. They’re usually human, after all, and so their version of a story is always tinted by their biases and understanding of the world. As you’ve pointed out, Coen has his own special way of seeing the world and himself which can be obscuring for an outside observer. The truth reveals itself as the story progresses, not to be manipulative to the reader, but because the reader is joining Coen on his journey experiencing everything at the same time as him, confronting every uncomfortable revelation along the way.
WOTS: I completely agree that human narrators are consequentially biased and unreliable narrators—and stories like After Elias that recognize it and infuse that truth into the plot are some of my favourites!
WOTS: What are some of your writing rituals, and what inspires you when you feel blocked? I think most of us could use a few writing productivity tips right now!
EBT: I need silence while I’m actually writing, but I’ll often fire myself up beforehand by blasting some good music, sort of like what athletes probably do before a big tournament! (I’m not much of an athlete, so I wouldn’t really know.) I’ve gotten into the habit of creating soundtracks that fit the novels I’m writing. For After Elias, the Battle Born album by The Killers and the Conscious album by Broods were pretty much on repeat throughout the entire writing process!
WOTS: We loved your call-out to make Canadian publishing more diverse on the debutiful.net blog – who are some of your favourite Canadian publishers, journals, etc.?
EBT: Go #CanLit! There are too many for me to attempt to name, but I’m especially excited for
Flying Books Toronto and Hush Harbour, two fresh new faces that are poised to take Canadian publishing in powerful, diverse new directions. For journals, I love the energy and commitment to inclusiveness from Plenitude, Grain Magazine, and Yolk Literary. Plus, I’m inspired to see new journals continue to emerge and push the boundaries, such as Thorn Literary, Cloud Lake Literary, and Quarantine Magazine.
I must also give a shout-out to my publisher, Dundurn Press. It’s inspiring to watch an established house reinvent themselves to become a champion for underrepresented storytellers. I couldn’t have wished for a better home for my debut novel.
WOTS: Tell us more about your love of theatre arts – do you think After Elias would ever translate to the stage?
EBT: YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES! I would love nothing more than to see After Elias produced for the stage, even more so than the screen. There are so many creative tools employed by theatres that could bring Coen’s introspective and tragic story to life in such surprising and intimate ways. This intimacy is why I’ve always loved the theatre, the thrill of the energy that passes between performer and spectator. Something magical is shared in every performance, if the audience is open to it… Playwrights and producers: don’t be shy to contact my agent, @BookEndsJessica!
WOTS: What is your top piece of advice to writers trying to break out and build their audience?
EBT: Know who you’re writing for, figure out how to reach them (and how to make yourself easy to find by them), and read the books they’re reading. This doesn’t mean you should tailor your work to them, but building an audience is easier to do when you understand who they are.
WOTS: Your next novel is already in the works, and will be released Summer 2021 – what can you tell us about The Rebellious Tide?
EBT: Time flies! The Rebellious Tide tells the story of Sebastien, a troubled young man whose search for his estranged father leads him to a ship with a dangerous secret. It’s a story about blame, obsession, and identity set on the Mediterranean Sea. I’m very excited for it!