On Steven Beattie’s site last month, he and I did a joint “dialogue review” of Elyse Friedman’s short-story collection Long Story Short. Here it is. And here’s a profile of Friedman (well, one of those weird and slightly awkward review-profile combos) done for eye weekly back in 1999.
In person, Elyse Friedman offers little hint of the brash energy on view in Then Again, her debut novel. Sitting meekly in a Random House boardroom, the 36-year-old author seems quietly amused at the novelty of being an interview subject, and her responses are refreshingly free of stock sound bites. That unpretentious quality also informs Friedman’s fiction – but at a much higher pitch. Then Again is a spirited romp, full of outsized emotions and marked by a manic narrative voice.
The novel centres on a bizarre family reunion. Joel Schafer, a stinking-rich Hollywood crap merchant (think Joe Eszterhas with a Canadian birth certificate), summons his two sisters, Michelle and Marla, to their childhood home in the suburbs of Toronto. He’s restored the house to its exact 1970s state, and has even hired actors to stand in for the long-dead Schafer parents. In narrating the action, the lonely shut-in Michelle alternates the increasingly flaky present with the emotional detritus of her past, highlighted by a doomed teenage love affair that still haunts her, 20 years later.
Friedman’s work has already earned admiration from the Toronto author Paul Quarrington, who set her on the path to publication. After enrolling in a correspondence course at the Humber Writer’s Workshop, Friedman was paired with Quarrington (Whale Music, The Spirit Cabinet), who praised the short stories she turned in. Emboldened, she turned to the long form and sent her erstwhile mentor a draft of Then Again. “After the course was long over, he was kind enough to read the manuscript,” says Friedman. “And then, doubly kind, he gave it to his agent.” But the matchup was fortuitous for creative reasons as well as career ones: “I think we have a similar sensibility. I love the fact that he can write something very funny but also very poignant.”
Friedman walks that line pretty well herself in Then Again, which veers from cartoonish satire (Joel’s absurd pranks, Michelle’s dating misadventures) to grim drama (a mother lost to cancer, a father to suicide). The novel isn’t wholly free of first-fiction missteps – the prose sometimes lacks finesse, and the denouement seems contrived – but it’s readable and affecting throughout. And Joel’s mad wish to reclaim the lost suburbia of his youth gives Friedman plenty of thematic play. “One thing that interests me is selective memory,” she says. “I’ve talked to a lot of siblings who’ve grown up in the same house, and some remember it as being an utterly hellish experience, while others remember it warmly and fondly.”
The streets of Friedman’s own childhood – she was raised in North York – don’t fare well in her memories. “I didn’t enjoy the suburbs particularly. I felt like our family was just too weird to survive there. And when we moved downtown, and I saw the weirdos thriving on the street, I felt like we had come home.” Not surprisingly, in Then Again Friedman renders the downtown core much more affectionately – and compellingly – than she does the ’burbs. The novel may be a raspberry to suburbia, but it’s also an ode to Toronto life, right down to the fictional stand-ins for Book City and the By the Way Café.
While Friedman’s already started a second novel, she’s keeping her artistic options open. A graduate of a Canadian Film Centre screenwriting program, she’s written five feature-length scripts, mostly comedies. None have been produced, but Friedman’s currently negotiating to option one. She’s also sold a proposal for a TV sitcom, although no broadcaster is yet attached. “I think writing is writing,” she says. “I write poetry as well. I want to be able to move from format to format, and not get categorized or stuck into one role.” Different mediums offer their own advantages; Friedman cites film’s visual nature and narrative compression, but notes that fiction allows for time-shifting and more ambitious structure. While writing Then Again, she never slipped into screenwriter mode. “It’s all about the rhythm of the words when I’m writing fiction. I hear it, I don’t see it.”
She might have to start thinking in pictures now, though – she’s mulling over an offer to pen a screen adaptation of her own novel. “Adapting from a novel is a whole other matter,” says Friedman, swallowing with trepidation. “Obviously, I’d have to go back and revisit the story and relive it again, and try and divorce myself from the structure and the format that it’s in now and play with it. You really do have to radically alter fiction to put it on the screen.”