In the novel where I live and breathe and spend my days, I’m on a quest. I undertake this quest in Vancouver in the summer of 1998. There’s a strong resemblance between this quest of mine and a parallel project my author L undertook in Vancouver in 1998. It begins with a set of black and white photos my long-dead dad took during World War II. These shots look a lot like the photos L’s long-dead dad took during World War II. In fact, they look exactly like those photos.
I have a hunch writers do this a lot — borrow details or events from their own lives and drop them into the lives of their characters. When L dropped her dad’s photos into my story and I said, What am I supposed to do with these? she said, Deal with them. So I did. I took ownership of them so completely that their connection to L’s life got thinner and thinner. After all, L and I are two different people living two different stories. Lives, I mean.
Pretty soon it was evident that my quest would resemble L’s project only in the sense that both of us set out to track down the locations of the shots our fathers took in the 1940s and take our own present-day shots. Once L had successfully done the detective work and found the spots and taken the shots, she put the two sets of photos in a brown envelope in her desk and closed the drawer. For me, that was only the beginning. There’s a big difference between a project — which is what L was engaged in — and a quest — which is what consumed me. My quest, I hoped, would bring me back in touch with my father. And I hoped it would do even more: I wanted it to bring me back in touch with myself as well. I wanted it to save me.
My imagination is a lot more powerful than L’s, and I began to imagine scenes from my father’s life during the war, scenes L would never have been able to come up with for her own dad. I feel a little sorry for her, not having the same richness to her inner life that I have.
The photos in this post show the Marine Building, as L’s dad and my dad shot it in the 1940s, and as L and I both shot it in 1998. In 1943, the art deco palace dominated the skyline, and a person could frame up a clear picture of it. In 1998, half a dozen other buildings were in the way, and L couldn’t get a clear view of it from street level. She had to turn around and train her camera up and catch its reflection in a modern glass tower. I had to do that as well. (Our shots look exactly the same.) We had to settle for an image reflected across a hundred wavy windowpanes. You can’t stand on a street corner in 1998 and see all the way back to 1943, L said. She appeared unmoved by this fact. She tucked her camera back into her bag and made for the bus stop. Is that a metaphor? I said as she walked away. It’s an observation, she said over her shoulder. I watched her board the bus, but I stayed where I was. I was picturing time as a long band of cloth. I wanted to make a pleat in the cloth and step back over the fold to 1943 and watch my young dad with his camera. And there on the street corner in downtown Vancouver in 1998, that’s what I did, figuratively speaking. By this time, L was aboard a city bus on her way back to Kitsilano. I’d rather be me, I thought. I don’t so much care if my imagination gets it right, I just care that it takes me to Dad.
Mentioned in this post: Vancouver, Marine Building, art deco, Brown Dog Cafe (not really in this post at all, but if you’re in Vancouver, you should go), changing Vancouver (someone else with the same idea, evidently)