In April 2020, Post Productions managing director Michael K. Potter sat down for an interview with Windsor-based playwright and author Matthew St. Amand, the mind behind the surreal, absurd semi-autobiographical play Negatunity, set to hit the Shadowbox Theatre stage for a three-week run beginning on 9 April 2021. What followed was a free-wheeling conversation that went to places neither man could have expected.
Matthew St. Amand is a life-long resident of Windsor. Over the past thirty years, his short fiction has appeared in The Toronto Review of International Writing, Opium Magazine, FRiGG Magazine, as well as numerous online publications. His prose poetry has appeared in The North American Review, Agni, and Phoebe. His books include a collection of short fiction titled, As My Sparks Fly Upward (2004), a volume of poetry, Forever & a Day (2004), a suspense novel, Randham Acts (2006), a comic novel, Loitering With Intent to Mope (2009). His blog, Inside the Hotdog Factory, spans 740 posts of corporate and political satire, dating back to 2005. His theatrical works include Dorian (2008), directed by Mark Lefebvre, Shine on You Crazy Diamond (2013), The Uncanny Valley (2015), Moon Over Endor (2017), each directed by the indefatigable Rob Tymec. In 2018, Post Productions produced Matthew's play, Shelter in Place, along with three of his one-act plays: Want, The Marketers Have Won, and Pitch Session. Negatunity is his second play performed by Post Productions. When not obsessing over the words and actions of people who never existed, Matthew lives in LaSalle with his wife and two young sons and earns his living as a freelance writer and videographer.
Below is a transcript of the interview prepared by Fay Lynn and Nikolas Prsa.
POTTER: I’m sitting here, not in person but virtually, with Matt St. Amand, who is the author behind Negatunity, which is coming up very soon in Post Productions’ 2020 season (Note: Due to Covid-19, the production was moved to 2021). Matt was also the playwright behind Shelter in Place, which we produced in 2018. So we’re going to talk about Negatunity. I have a lot of questions for Matt, I’m hoping Matt has a lot of insight to provide, and I hope you enjoy the interview. Matt, hello.
ST. AMAND: Hello, Michael. How are you?
POTTER: I am well, thank you. Fully quarantined. Feeling good. We’ll start with the really basic stuff here. Negatunity is at once a very simple story to describe, and also a very difficult story to describe. So I’ll let you do it. What is the story of Negatunity and, perhaps more importantly, what is it about?
ST. AMAND: Negatunity follows one day in the life of technical writer, Singleton Kastamangas, and it’s a pivotal day. He has made an earth-shattering discovery in his own life days before, and the reverberations are still being felt the day that the play is taking place. It finds him attempting to do what he always does: follow routine, go to work, do what he’s supposed to do at work. But the reverberations of this discovery shake him off course and he ends up not fulfilling his day as he normally would.
POTTER: So, that’s the story. What would you say that Negatunity is about? What’s the point of Negatunity?
ST. AMAND: I began with the premise of being an artist, but also having to earn a living. I mean, we’re practical people, many of us, and maybe not so lucky or good at networking or various other… whatever. So, I would prefer to be at home writing a novel, working on writing pieces, but the reality is in order to earn a living I work as a technical writer. So, it began with, how does the artist fit into the work world? Especially in a world where it’s ruled by the marketplace. “The marketplace has spoken; it doesn’t want your work. It doesn’t want my work. So how do you continue? Do you continue to create your artistic work? Of course we do. Of course I do. While at the same time trying to fit into the structure of a day job. So, it began there. What it means beyond that is, well, it goes back to the story of him making this discovery. We are people at work. The person, much as we try and fall in line, much as we try and fit in and do what we’re supposed to do, the person will sometimes rebel. Even within our own self. I am pushing myself to follow the rules, and something inside me is kind of welling and bursting out and will not be denied.
POTTER: Your inner rebel.
ST. AMAND: I suppose. I mean, for the most part I find it very easy to follow the rules. I find most rules very ridiculous. I’m an absurdist, which helps me quite a lot. So the more absurd, the more pointless a task seems, the more I have absolutely no trouble whatsoever doing it. I went to a high school where we had to wear uniforms. Didn’t bother me a bit, ’cause it’s me inside it. I couldn’t care less if they wanted me to wear a suit of armour. That’s totally fine. ’Cause it’s just me. The people who would rebel, and “No! I can’t!” – they would alter the uniform or just could not do it. I thought if you’re that threatened by these ridiculous clothes, I mean, where are you at? I could wear that all day long. It makes no difference to me what I’m wearing, because it didn’t change what I thought or what I would say or what I would do.
POTTER: That raises an interesting point about the effect that our own conception of identity – of our self-identity – can have on the choices that we make in terms of our willingness to conform, or our likelihood to rebel. It’s an interesting way of looking at it.
ST. AMAND: I would do my best at my day jobs. I’ve had probably 30 or 40 of them because I never fit in. Sometimes the market would shake its back like a dragon and I would just be tossed off in a layoff, or the department I worked for would be made redundant or it’d be sold. And at other times I was fired. I have always done my best, I will try and fit in, but the person inside me will not be denied, I guess.
POTTER: Let’s go to something that’s really basic, and almost a silly question to ask, but I’m going to ask it because I am curious about it. What can you tell us about the choice of your protagonist’s name, Singleton Kastamangas?
ST. AMAND: I’ve worked at any number of offices, and one thing that I do like about work is that it forces me to be around people not of my own choosing, and that’s great. I hear great stories when I’m among people not of my choosing. I run into great names – very interesting experiences. I’ve run into people with unbelievable handles. I met one guy from Iran, he was the most gentlemanly, just lovely person, and quite honestly I wish I could pronounce his name for you but it had about a hundred letters in it. Backtanoosch was his first name, and his last name I can’t even begin. He was a great guy. And I just thought, wow, I’m sure back home that is “John Smith”. So, with Singleton . . . he’s a very singular person. I think somewhere along the line I’d heard the name Kastamangas. Again, I’d heard some really cool multisyllabic surnames. Every once in a while, when I’m riding my bike or walking or doing some mundane task, for some reason names come to me and I’ll make note of them. That was one that came to me. For some reason it really seemed attached to this story. It wasn’t just some random one, like, “Oh, I’ll use it somewhere.” No, that was the protagonist of Negatunity.
POTTER: I want to talk a bit about structure and location. You chose a very simple overarching structure for the story: A man’s life flashes before his eyes as he falls from the Ambassador Bridge. Very specific location. Why did you choose that specific kind of structure and that specific location?
ST. AMAND: Much is made of books, say like Ulysses, where you have this 784 page novel that takes place within the confines of a single day. I wanted to take this guy’s single day and drop it into about four seconds almost at the end of his life. The phenomenon known as tachypsychia, that slows down our perception of time and almost makes a person feel intoxicated and kind of insulated – I thought, in the smallness of that time structure I actually have infinite time. Because I’ve got kind of this amorphous experience, who is really going to say, “Well, tachypsychia will not last that long.” I’m sure there’s somebody somewhere who can tell me that, but I think for our purposes I can make it just last as long as I want, and put pretty much anything I want – It’s like endless bookshelves and I can just put up as much as I want in that structure.
POTTER: And the location? You chose the Ambassador Bridge as the central location, or the location of the framing scenes. Why the Ambassador Bridge? Further to that point, there are a lot of other details in the script that firmly situate this story in Windsor.
ST. AMAND: Certainly. I was born in Windsor, I was raised in Windsor, educated in Windsor. I had lived away for short periods of time, but this is where I live now and raise my family. I really like the area. It really means a lot to me. The Ambassador Bridge is a very iconic symbol of the area and, unfortunately, makes it into the news every once in a while. I was driving to work, I commuted to Michigan, and there was one morning – foggy, February – I saw a car. Traffic was moving slowly across the bridge, and there was a car parked over by the railing. I thought, well, who in the world is parked? It was an empty car. Of course I later learned why the car was empty. The occupant had gone out and had gone over the railing. It’s an iconic image. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a symbol of the area, but in the same way that the Empire State Building (symbolizes New York), or the Renaissance Center will symbolize Detroit, the Ambassador Bridge has always been an instantaneous, recognizable symbol of Windsor.
POTTER: It’s also, as you say, deeply connected to you and your life, because you were born and raised here. Based on our conversations, and because I read your blog, I know that there’s a fair amount of autobiography in Negatunity. In fact, you mentioned that as the impetus for starting to write it, and recently you made a documentary about one of the incidents that inspired the play. How long did you mull over this story as something that could stem from autobiography in your head before you started writing it? Was there an inciting incident that lead you to really finally start?
ST. AMAND: I began the story probably about five or six years ago. And for the longest time I had about the first ten pages, and it just stopped. It was as though I’d run into a brick wall. It was something that I would come back to. I always have any number of things I sort of started, at different points of completion. As I may get bored or get stuck with one thing, I can say, “Oh, this is the perfect time to go hop on this!” And to procrastinate constructively, I guess. So it had lain around, and I was always updating, bringing it forward to like, here’s my 2015 work folder, my 2016 work folder, on my computer. And one day it just sort of clicked. The initial thought about the artist trying to make himself fit into the working world. Then, while I was in the working world – I’d had an experience where many years ago a childhood friend of mine had passed away in a freak accident at home. It had occurred when I was seven so, much as I remembered the timeframe of it happening, I was not even clear on the year that it took place. I knew it took place around Easter, but not the day. And I had no idea where he was buried. Over the years it’s come to mind and I would do internet searches. Then there was one morning, the Friday before Labour Day 2017, I was alone in the office – I was one of the few people who could never seem to book off the day to make the long weekend longer – so I’m there kind of walking around, sort of able to do what I want, and I ran an internet search and, sure enough, that was the one time that everything was answered. I located a volunteer-run genealogy website that cataloged these things and, to be honest, careful what you wish for. It was much more than I anticipated handling that day. It was about 8:00 in the morning, and I was really surprised how much I relived the event. A picture of his tombstone had come up on the webpage, and the memories flooded back. I saw the date. I did a double-take on the date because he had died on April 12th, which turns out to be the same day that my eldest son was born. Anyway, that seemed to be kind of the missing piece to Negatunity. That the person will not be denied. That humanity in this, what can sometimes be an inhumane environment, won’t be stifled or stopped.
POTTER: So there’s even more autobiography in it than I realized, based on what you’ve just said, which is interesting to me. I find that, for me, stories that have a basis in the playwright’s own life, they always seem a little risky to me. I always worry that you could cause offence. What are the lines of demarcation for you between the autobiographical elements of a story like Negatunity and the fiction, and how do you decide where those lines are?
ST. AMAND: For me, the story is the boss. The story kind of dictates what it requires. Sometimes it has a very steep price. I’ll use autobiography because I always want to have as much realism as possible, and when you delve into tricky areas of emotions I don’t want to guess. That’s why I think sometimes as a white male writer I really don’t write much from a female point of view, because I really don’t have the depth of knowledge that I would feel comfortable to really dive deep into a story. Or a person of colour, or some other background that is not my own. So I work right from my own experience. And, certainly, I’ve sat in performances of my own plays and I have looked up at the stage and I said, “Oh my god, did I actually write that?” A couple of times. Next thought was, yes I did. Because that’s the story. So even I can be very uncomfortable in the theatre, and that’s just how it goes.
POTTER: Okay, on to something more fun. You coin a lot of really fun neologisms. “Negatunity” itself, “ordealist”, “intoxinaut”. Each of them is in itself evocative, and they almost need no explanation. And each of them, I think, serves a function in the story that wouldn’t be adequately served by an existing word. I’m curious about where these terms came from, and how they came to your mind, and how you ended up choosing to create these words rather than trying to fit what you had in your brain into what the language is already giving you.
ST. AMAND: I think it goes to the story as the guiding force, and sometimes it will go into territory where -- and these are reasons why I’ll get stuck at times, and weeks or months might go by before I can solve the problem. I’m not saying the problem can be solved just by coming up with a word, but the path that I’m going, that is my machete that I am foraging through the jungle vines with, and sometimes . . . I am glad that they’re understandable, because some writers are lauded for it, saying, “Wow, they just created all these words!” And it’s like, yeah, and you need a dictionary and a separate guide, and I don’t understand the value in that. So, with these, it was just me kind of foraging where the story was leading me to.
POTTER: Okay, so how would you define “negatunity”?
ST. AMAND: Negatunity is what I think another generation would call a blessing in disguise. Something seemingly bad happens, but you can sort of salvage a bit of dignity, or something somewhat alright. “When life hands you lemons, you make Gatorade” kind of a deal.
POTTER: Let’s talk about the bardos. A bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist concept that refers to a sort of liminal state of existence between life and death. You chose seven bardos in the play as sort of the sequential skeleton of Singleton’s story. I want to know more about that choice. Dish.
ST. AMAND: When I was reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I just liked the certainty that the author, or authors, of the book seemed to have about these things that very few people seem to be very certain about. The idea of bardo being kind of the . . . not the levels, but, in the afterlife you’re going from one level to another – it sounds like a video game – but, again this is where our words are kind of limiting. So “bardo” worked because even though my character is not physically dead and dwelling through the afterlife, he in a way has suffered a death. I mean, to a small degree with the childhood friend who had passed away – part of him went into the hole with him – and also there’s the small death of, “Well, I would love to be out publishing my novel and living this life, but it just doesn’t work out. The marketplace has spoken, so I’m now in the workplace.” Then also the breaking away from the workplace. Much as we love to see movies, or read books, or there be these heroic articles saying, “You’ve gotta be the change that you wanna be, and if you don’t like your life, well then you just have to go out and . . ..” And that’s fine, if you want to take your wallet and throw it over the fence, and take your car keys and kick them down the street. But like an hour-and-a-half later you’re going to be going, “What did I do?” So you can die while still being alive, and those are the bardos that Singleton experiences. A few of them while at the workplace, and then once he kind of bursts out of the workplace he continues moving through the bardos.
POTTER: One of the things I was thinking about when I saw that structure was this idea that perhaps we die in pieces, rather than at one time.
ST. AMAND: Yeah, absolutely I would agree.
POTTER: Speaking of the bardos then – that’s a Buddhist concept. There’s also a lot of references to Catholicism in the story. Although they seem more like superficial details of Singleton’s upbringing, rather than thematic signposts the way that the Buddhist concepts do. Did you deliberately write in some tension between Catholicism and Buddhism, or were you looking more for some points of consilience between them?
ST. AMAND: I think for a lot of people – well, I can only speak for myself, but anyone who might be similar to me, either in age or experience, is that we’re kind of patchwork people. I’m baptized over here, but then by a certain age I go, you know if I were choosing I wouldn’t have done that, and I’m going to pursue this. We can seek different things. We are these patchwork people, and that’s basically what I’m after with the patchwork approach to these philosophies. I’m not well versed on any given one. I might know Catholicism more only because I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten to grade 12.
POTTER: It was part of Singleton’s life in the same way, right? So it’s just part of the context in which he lives.
ST. AMAND: Right.
POTTER: My favourite of the bardos is Werkhorrer. I won’t explain it because I want people to see the play to find out what that is. Is Werkhorrer the kind of bardo that everybody has to pass through at some point, or is it a necessary part of existence to go through something like Werkhorrer? Or is it a byproduct of a particular form of life; a life that’s really driven by a desire for meaning?
ST. AMAND: I think your pronunciation of the word is excellent. I struggle.
POTTER: Four years of German.
ST. AMAND: I’m able to write it down on paper, but when I try, “Vûrk-Hôrr!” I always imagine Klaus Kinski spitting it out. Or “work-horror” – how it looks on the page. I came up with that while at work. Honestly it was like having a stone in my shoe, but in my head. So what I discovered was that, for me, it was what would drive me toward the door. But in fact I find it’s a state of being that most people are actually able to – it’s like being able to stay under water forever. I don’t know quite how they do it. Most people I know are in a continuous state of werkhorrer and have no idea. I’m not trying to be judgmental, or seeming that I know things they don’t know, but just as an outside observer – and I make a real point and a real practice of observing people – for me it is most certainly . . . I think many people kind of wake up to it, and that may be what drives them toward the door when you hear of these radical changes some people make in their lives.
POTTER: Perhaps for some people there’s a kind of comfort in it?
ST. AMAND: For sure.
POTTER: There’s no willingness to leave.
ST. AMAND: Lou Reed’s got a great line in a song in his New York album: “These people are happiest when they’re miserable, and that’s why they got married.” I think Endless Cycle is the song. I’m probably paraphrasing it badly, but the whole idea – even myself, I’ll freely admit that I’m only comfortable when I’m uncomfortable. In that, when I find myself in a predicament where I’m getting what I want, I suddenly feel selfish. I feel like I’m being self-indulgent and I’m waiting for someone to rip it out of my hands.
POTTER: This sounds like the very definition of a self-sabotager.
ST. AMAND: Probably, yes.
POTTER: I’m sure no one can relate to this.
ST. AMAND: I’m the ultimate sniper, and I’ve got my sights aimed at my own foot.
POTTER: We chose one of the lines from the script, “Mind the gap”, as the tagline for the poster because it seemed to provide a clue, for us, to understanding the whole story. There are several different kinds of gaps that appear in the story. Some of them are literal, or physical. Some of them are figurative, or metaphorical. You’ve got the gap between the bridge and the river that Singleton is falling through, and the bridge, of course, crosses the gap between Windsor and Detroit. You’ve also got the aspiration gap that you talk about early in the play. And, of course, an abyss, which comes into play at some point, is also a kind of gap. How did this . . . what is it? Is it a motif? It’s a recurrence? How did gaps come to play such a prominent role?
ST. AMAND: It’s, for instance with the character known as Charles Stencile – that if people come to the play they will find out who that is – even our economy is based on this – nobody is where they seem they should be. That’s why we’ve got these big trucks on the road, because something, it needs to be elsewhere. Everything needs to be elsewhere. And it needs to be elsewhere yesterday. So it’s not even not only not in the right place, it’s not even in the right time. So there’s all this displacement. Even the gap between Singleton and his co-worker named Stortz. Here’s a character who seems to have Singleton’s best interest at heart and yet there’s a gap. Singleton does not take it because of Stortz’s manner, the way he chooses to convey information. There’s a lot of a sense of displacement. Physically, figuratively, and even chronologically . . . temporally, I don’t know. The gap is everywhere. And these religions and political figures and products on the infomercials all promise to fill the gap, to fill the void. And none can ‘cause nobody even knows what it is. But it’s there.
POTTER: Right. Although, without the gap, this is something that the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer might point out too – and I’m going to bring him up again later – without that gap we might not have any motivation to do anything. If the striving is what keeps us going, then without this sort of gap we might not move. We might not get out of bed. Even though, as Schopenhauer and, of course, as Buddhism points out, that striving is also a cause of suffering.
ST. AMAND: Absolutely. Kurt Vonnegut talks about a friend of his who he was speaking to who had talked about having used heroin once. He said the moment he used it he understood its appeal. He spoke of the existential hum. He says the existential hum is what all people – your ordinary citizen who is not on drugs – that is the nagging, the niggling thing that gets us to get up out of bed, to go to work. This person who was talking with Kurt Vonnegut said when he had used this drug – he said it had quieted the existential hum. So he was content to just sit where he was sitting. He had no concerns about what he – all ambitions, aspirations went away. I mean, people can decide for themselves if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but there’s most certainly these things that drive us. On the surface I think they look bad, or get a bad wrap, and I think at times they’re beneficial.
POTTER: Vonnegut’s example points out, too, it ceased that striving. It ceased that need to fill a gap, and therefore ceased the suffering and the dissatisfaction that inevitably comes with that. Other people have talked about this in terms of dissatisfaction. Bertrand Russell talked about it in terms of boredom as a primary motivator of human activity. You seem to have hit on something, I think, that is cross-cultural, if not even, perhaps, universal.
ST. AMAND: Lenny Bruce said that himself. That one of the reasons why he felt that narcotics were made illegal ‘cause they took away people’s ambition. That you were no longer impressed by – some guy builds a building and you look up and you just go, “Oh, that’s cool” and it’s really no big deal to you. I guess the message is that we’re all doing these things to impress one another and to gain prestige. And if we’ve got something among us that nullifies that, then that might stop everything. I have no idea if that’s true.
POTTER: That desire for prestige is another gap. There’s a gap between how we believe we are perceived and how we believe we should be perceived.
ST. AMAND: Absolutely.
POTTER: You mentioned Stortz – the social gap between Singleton and Stortz – and I find that relationship in the play really interesting because, from what I can tell, Stortz is the closest thing Singleton has to a friend. And Stortz, as you pointed out too, seems to have Singleton’s best interests at heart. He’s relentlessly trying to help Singleton. No spoilers but, at the end, who’s there by Singleton’s side? Stortz again. Still trying to help. Yet Singleton hates this man. What kind of a disconnect are we looking at here between somebody who seems to genuinely want what’s best for another person, who genuinely would rather he die in a fire?
ST. AMAND: It’s the classic battle between what we want and what we need. Stortz is always coming to Singleton with what he needs, but Singleton always is preoccupied with what he wants. He wants some sense of order at work. He wants these project managers to stop making crazy demands. He makes a request for information, he would like for it to be fulfilled. That’s what he wants. He wants to feel fulfilled at work. Stortz is telling him the things that he needs to know – get rid of the very ugly golf shirt, and these other things. “The fella, Dyre, in the office who’s a big player, well you should make yourself known to him, and you should try and make a case for working for him.” Whereas Singleton’s dodging him. Stortz’s coming is basically the medicine man with the medicine nobody wants to take. I run into it too. I get preoccupied with this. When I was in my working life, well, this person they should know that I don’t have this information. And it’s like, well, how would they know this? I would get stuck in these little loops as well. I think Strotz is always trying to pull Singleton out of his loop, and Singleton’s resisting and resisting.
POTTER: Yeah, and I wonder where he ends up psychologically in that regard by the end of the story, which I won’t spoil. Because, this relates to my next question actually, there are several moments in the play – and I think it’s almost thematic in the play – there are several moments in the play that deal with changes in perspective. In at least one obvious case, with the way the story begins, a physical change of perspective. But most of them are changes that accompany aging. Or having new experiences, or finding ourselves in new roles, like parenthood and so forth, and the effect that these changes in perspective can have. Was that a conscious intent on your part as you began writing? Was it something that emerged during the process?
ST. AMAND: I would say so. I mean, the culture dictates to us that we are to worship our younger days. That everything was better when we were younger. That youth is king. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s wonderful to be able to get out of bed with fewer aches and pains, and to be able to have the energy of youth, but at the same time a lot of these things that the culture is selling to us I think are not very useful, ultimately. At the very least unattainable. We’re all heading in one direction, if we’re lucky. As soon as your conveyor belt stops, there’s no going backward. I mean, much as we try. And I’ve tried very hard at times.
POTTER: To go backward?
ST. AMAND: Yeah. Delving up memories, and working on my documentary. Delving back into old photographs, and old film footage. Going back to locations. And then going back to find the locations have been obliterated, or they’ve been moved. So I’ve made the attempt. It’s impossible.
POTTER: Even in the act of recalling a memory. Every time you recall that memory your perspective is different because you’re in a different stage in your own life. There’s been intervening experiences, changes in belief, and so forth. So the memory itself is never the same each time that you recall it. And certainly never the same as the event that you believe you’re remembering.
ST. AMAND: Certainly. And then even moving up to having children. If you read some of the mom blogs, or some of these books that just flood the bookstore. I’d always heard, in my 20’s and 30’s, as friends of mine – all my friends got married much younger than I did and their kids are in university now, my kids are in grade school – and people would go on and on, “It’s the most fulfilling thing in world. It’s the only . . ..” It was always described in these gushing terms of, like, “Well, you know, you’re just incomplete until . . ..” Now, I’m not going to say that’s not partially true. But I have to admit, when I became a dad, there are many great moments, and I was actually kind of startled about, really, how difficult it was. It was like having any number of cement blocks piled onto my back, and the incline of my daily life that I had to go up was actually made steeper. There’s really no analogy I can use that won’t get me into trouble, but it’s difficult. I just found some of the resources that people would point me toward were, well, obviously written by millionaires who had all the time in the world. Who could go get whatever they wanted, who could get up whenever they wanted, and who had help.
POTTER: If Junior won’t stop fussing, let the nanny handle it.
ST. AMAND: Exactly. Oh, and just sit on the couch with them and give them a time-out. I thought time-out was the humane thing. I didn’t get time-outs. My parents were very nice, but I mean, my generation, we were hit. And we actually learned very quickly. I mean, well, some of us. I had some friends who learned nothing, and they grew up to be able to take quite a few knocks. I find very few places where I’ve seen it discussed credibly. Just the ins and outs of having kids, and making that work, and your marriage work, and just keeping all these things on the track. Sometimes you can’t keep them on the track, and that’s how it goes. In the read-through (of thr play, by the cast) last night, I remember I hadn’t heard – I hadn’t read the play in a while myself – and that scene where Singleton’s being asked his idea about parenthood after showing someone a photograph of his two sons – these two kids, I should say – and I thought, well.. I mean, there’s not much truth surrounding parenthood in the way it’s served up in the culture. Only once you’re a parent – I remember the looks on the guys at work, their faces were like, “You’re now in the trap as well.” Now, I didn’t feel like that. These were guys who had kids in their 20’s, if not their 30’s, they were older than I was. So when I told them I had a three-year-old and a five-year-old at home, they just couldn’t believe it.
POTTER: I’m going to continue on this track of changing perspectives because I think that it’s very productive in terms of understanding the story. You bring up the concept of “slow motion perception” at one point, which is this experience in which time is perceived to move at a slower-than-normal rate. Normally that phenomenon is associated with a fear response – like I’ve experienced it during car accidents, things like that – when we find something terrifying. It can also fit in nicely with the theme of changing perspectives because – well, there are a few different moments in the play that reinforce this for me – but one of them was that for children time moves a lot more slowly than it does for adults. Our experience of time’s passage accelerates as we age. A ten-minute time-out to a five-year-old is torture. A ten-minute time-out to a forty-year-old? Well, by the time I’ve realized it’s started, it’s ended. How did that influence your storytelling choices?
ST. AMAND: I was very lucky. I’m working on another project where tachypsychia, or slow motion time perception, has come into play. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve experienced it but in, actually, a sports setting. I’ve been where they call “the zone”. Now, I’d love to weave a story of how I was in the big game with hundreds of people watching and I hit the fadeaway jump shot as I fell out of bounds, but I’d only experienced it, actually, when the game meant absolutely nothing and there was no one seeing it. I used to go to the St. Denis Centre at the University of Windsor to play basketball on Friday evenings, and there’s this contingent of fellas that came over from Detroit. I was about 14, they were in their 20’s. And they were good. I remember playing with them, and there was a couple of games where . . . it was like the Matrix. Everything slowed down, and I was able to just dribble here, dribble there, and literally just walk up to the basket and score. They would laugh because I was shorter than a lot of them. And it didn’t happen all the time, but I can remember a few games like that. So I’ve experienced that weird zone where time has almost no relationship – that you’re outside of it. So it is like Singleton at the beginning of the play. Where he can remember any number of things. There’s all the time in the world, even though there’s no time. The idea of time passing . . . Sitting at work, there is nothing more deadly than having an office job and being slow. Having a slow day, it’s murder. I now do freelance work, so I don’t have to worry about an office. When I look back on it, I was so not busy in so many of my jobs. It’s kind of a touchy thing. Yes, I would go and ask for things, and make it known that I’m available if somebody has something I can do, but at the same time like, “Why is this guy never busy?” And you don’t want to start raising the red flag because one of the bean counters or cost cutters is gonna come over and say, “You know what, I’ve got a great task for you. You can drive home and not come back.”
POTTER: Yeah, that’s a tricky situation I think a lot of people find themselves in.
ST. AMAND: Yeah, so there’s that. I’m experiencing it now with the self-quarantine. The self-isolation at home. I feel like I’m working on time capsule time. In that even getting ready for this interview is like the first thing I’ve had lined up in weeks. I’m almost feeling like, “Oh my god, what do they want from me?” It’s ridiculous. This is a pleasurable.
POTTER: Well I appreciate that you did get ready. You know, I wore clothes today just for this.
ST. AMAND: I’m even wearing trousers, and I don’t have to.
POTTER: It’s my compromise. That was one of the other things that stood out to me about the play. The necessity of compromise is something that Singleton brings up early. It also seems to recur at several points as something that the circumstances of life force us to accept. That we have to make compromises. Some people might call that adaptation. They might say it’s positive. I think that might be a little pollyannaish. Sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s negative. How do you see this issue of compromise that’s forced on us in the broader sense? You talked about it in terms of the impetus for the play coming from the necessity of trying to coexist as an artist and as a worker in the world.
ST. AMAND: When I was in university I had a writing class, and one of my classmates was obsessed with Glenn Gould. One of the things that he really liked about Glenn Gould the character, the man, was that he was absolutely uncompromising. “He lived to the exclusion of everyone else,” is how this guy described it. And when you hear that you go, “Oh wow, that’s a rugged individualist!” Like, “Wow, I should be like that!” Then I realized, I don’t play the piano like Glenn Gould. I could certainly be like that, but I’ll be holed up in a tent at the edge of town because nobody’s going to tolerate me. It’s not that my first sense of what I should do is to be mean to people or take advantage, but compromise is absolutely essential for us to get along. I mean, I’ve been around uncompromising people and I do everything I can to just limit it or not be around them at all. In the workplace I’ve got to make compromises with myself. I think that was a big thing in the beginning of Negatunity. That’s actually what sort of broke it down for me was to understand that I’ll have Singleton as the single voice, but that there would be two other kind of characters who would take on different roles all throughout. That we would have the Pragmatist come out, and we would have the Artist, and we would have a dialogue between them, because that would be going through my head. I would be sitting, having to work on some dreadfully boring project, and I’d be thinking, oh my god, any number of writers I can think of at my age would be – the ones that didn’t shoot themselves, that is – would be working. I could think of all the works they were on. It was like, oh my god. But I think of James Joyce – I’d recently read the Ellmann biography and, quite honestly, I wouldn’t trade places with him. He dragged his family through absolute misery. He had over 200 addresses, and that’s fine, to get his work done. I’m glad that he got his work done. But that – I couldn’t do that to other people, myself. I think there’s a lot of people I know who – not that I’m so great, it’s just I’m not that selfish.
POTTER: Yeah, the idea of not compromising with other people seems to be something that would only appeal to the antisocial. What about other kinds of compromise? You mentioned, for instance, the relationship between Singleton and Stortz, and how that’s the result of Singleton being focused on his wants and Stortz being focused on Singleton’s needs. That seems to be a situation where Singleton’s reluctance to compromise is maybe not only holding him back in some ways, but also keeping him isolated.
ST. AMAND: Oh yeah, absolutely. The – what would they call that? A “frenemy”. Somebody who appears to have your best interests but may be, I don’t know, envious of some skills that you have, and rather than see you excel, sort of steers you toward the ditch without you really knowing. On your theme of compromise, I just realized that I’ve been telling a great number of lies to you.
POTTER: Oh good!
ST. AMAND: And I suppose I should now come clean. Well, they were not exactly lies, but they were very self-serving truths about how I do actually find it easy to fit in. Like when I go to the workplace, and when I went to and had to wear the uniform. But I have to admit, now that I think about it, there were many times – and I don’t know if I would have had less trouble or more trouble – but where I was absolutely uncompromising. One of the things that comes through in Negatunity is that the character’s asked to not only write the instruction manuals about how these machines work, but to go off to a customer’s site and actually train people on them. That was actually something offered to me. What was interesting, the people who made the offer at first held back the offer because they wanted to go off and do all of that. You made more money when you went on the road. I didn’t realize these guys were technical writers, but they didn’t like writing. So, for them, they loved to not have to work on the manuals. For me, the only way I could exist in that environment was doing writing. I did go off and do some training, and I thought it was going to kill me. I said, “I will dig ditches before I do this again. I will sell my blood before I do this.” And with no rudeness, and with certainly no combativeness, I certainly made it known that the next time these things came up I just absolutely did not, and would not. Because somebody would come to your desk and they’d say, “Oh yeah, we need somebody in India next week.” And they would send you there for three months. I’m not gonna do that.
POTTER: Wow, yeah.
ST. AMAND: They’d say, “We need a guy in South Africa.” And they would send you there for three months. And then the day you’re packing up and you’re ready to come home, it wouldn’t be uncommon for you to get a phone call saying, “Yeah, we’re extending you two months.” And it’s like, “Oh, you have a life?” Well, they wouldn’t even ask that, because it wouldn’t dawn on them.
POTTER: And that reflects the fact that each of us is in a complex web of relationships that requires us to make compromises over here, so that we don’t have to make compromises over here, and so forth.
ST. AMAND: Right. So, much as I was painting myself as this ultra-compliant – look at how compliant and nice this guy is – I actually, even though there was certainly no shouting or arguments, it was just basically like, I not gonna do that. So, if you’d like somebody to write this manual here, that is what I do. I am not going to China for five months. I’m not going down to Brazil. And in fairness to the people who were putting these to me, there were some local, where it wouldn’t require that much travel. But the fact was, the industrial environment would have absolutely killed me. I’d be like – it’d be in a room with only carbon monoxide. It’s like, “Oh well everything looks alright, why is the guy dying?” And that’s how it was. I did contemplate for about five seconds maybe explaining, but a long career of explaining things to people only to have them look at me, like, “Okay . . . “ and not get it or not care – I just thought, no. So, in my own way, I was uncompromising when it came to things. And created work with stolen time as well.
POTTER: I mean, that seems to be essential.
ST. AMAND: Absolutely. Well, what work would get done otherwise?
POTTER: I’m struck by which events from Singleton’s life preoccupy him when he’s falling. The events that directly lead up to that moment, in the few days before the fall, I can see the obvious logic of that. But the other events are all selected. You think about how many moments each person has in their life, and depending on where you draw the boundaries, we experience dozens to hundreds of moments every day. So why do these particular moments come into Singleton’s mind at that point in time?
ST. AMAND: I think it takes a moment of strain to find out what is important. I’d seen a documentary, The Bridge, about The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. From what I understand it was actually made under false pretenses. As sort of like, “Oh, we just wanna take some lovely pictures of the bridge.” Meanwhile, the filmmaker said, “No, if we leave the camera on it long enough we’re gonna see bodies jump.” They interviewed one guy who survived his jump. He said that – and this guy was about 24, like he was not, you know – have decades under his belt and have all this wisdom and all this experience. He was a young guy, he was newly married, and was just getting started. Anyway, he said that the moment he let go of the railing – the moment he let go of the railing and was mid-air – the moment he realized there was no turning back, he realized every problem in his life that he thought was insurmountable was absolutely solvable – was ridiculously solvable. Like, “How would that even . . . but why would I even think about it?” So when as he fell he positioned himself so he landed – I think he broke his legs – but he ended up, he did survive. I mean, he was interviewed. What I took from that interview, what he was saying was that he wasn’t going over his favourite song lyrics. His thoughts in that moment were not of his own choosing. It sounded more like an explosion of realization.
POTTER: A sudden shock.
ST. AMAND: Yeah. And that, like the insulin shock that’s spoken about in the play that the old, I imagine debunked – although you hear about these horrible practices, then you go, “Oh yeah, it’s making a comeback.” So I don’t know if insulin shock therapy’s making a comeback in psychiatric circles. But I think that in that moment when Singleton is mid-air, that he is almost not in control. That he’d probably be as surprised as anyone that, “Oh, these are important?” You know, “These are what I’m gonna spend . . .?” ‘Cause we would – I would like to think that in our last moments that we would think of things that are pleasurable. That we would think of things that are enjoyable and fun memories and fond memories. In his case it’s none-of-the-above.
POTTER: Well there’s the consequence, again, of a change in perspective.
ST. AMAND: Certainly.
POTTER: Here’s a line from Negatunity: “Let’s hope you have a horse to hug.” You reference the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quite a lot in the play. Overtly in dialogue, but also more subtly in some of the themes and some of the storytelling choices. Why Nietzsche? And why those particular lines and those particular moments from his life?
ST. AMAND: One of the beauties of the internet, I was clicking through one night and, as happens to all of us, I got on this weird track and the next thing I knew I was watching a video of Jim Morrison at a piano backstage before a concert. Now, Jim Morrison didn’t know how to play any instruments, and about two seconds into the video you could say he didn’t know how to play the piano either. So he’s playing the piano just riffing on the keys and he’s reciting the story of Nietzsche witnessing the horse being whipped. Either it’s an old horse, or an injured horse, I’m not too sure what the details of it are, but the horse – the coachman is whipping the horse to get the horse moving, and for some reason the horse won’t get moving. So the guy just whips it and whips it and whips. Jim Morrison was relating this story, and the video is about a minute and fifteen seconds, and I just – He got to the point where Nietzsche goes up and throws his arms around the horse, and from there I went and read about it a bit more. Some people think he was protecting the horse, whereas I think that he wanted to receive from the horse. That he wanted contact with something that was not going to judge him or ask something of him. I’m sure somebody could say, “No, no, we know by verifiable fact he was trying to protect the horse.” But, also there’s Pete Townshend’s collection of short stories that’s called Horse’s Neck, which I’m going to take a guess and say possibly that he took the title referencing that moment. The way it was sort of presented and, again, kind of in my superficial reading, is that being a very monumental moment, or at least a pivotal moment, for Nietzsche. That he wasn’t the same afterward.
POTTER: Well he definitely wasn’t the same afterward because after that he was put in an asylum.
ST. AMAND: Absolutely. If you see one of those photos of him, I mean, he looks like he’s out of his mind, the poor guy. There’s photos online and I remember kind of looking it up and I thought, oh my god, it’s like the guy’s mind had been in a car wreck. So anyway, it was this catalyzing event. Yeah, “let’s hope you have a horse to hug” ‘cause who would want to be in a crisis like that and have no horse to hug?
POTTER: I don’t know if you intended it this way, but this is my reading of one of the Nietzschen aspects of your play – it’s Homeless Flo. What I really like about the character of Homeless Flo is that she comes across to me as the closest thing – the next best thing, anyway – to a Nietzschen Ubermensch. A self-created person who has transcended the conventions and limitations of her culture and achieved the ultimate form of power, which is power over herself – her own identity. Tell me about this character, she’s fascinating.
ST. AMAND: I think Homeless Flo is like the Glenn Gould figure; is living to the exclusion of everyone else. I think we later – we find to what degree she is uncompromising. And that these people do exist. I think it’s worth looking at them. Is it strength of character? Is it madness? Are they stubborn? I mean, what is behind this? And, ultimately, is there really any benefit? We’re all interested in extremes. I’ll be at the bookstore and see a bodybuilding magazine, and you look at these guys, you think, my god, the time they would spend building themselves up like this they could have written like 900 symphonies. You know, we’re just these extremes. Or, of course, we like the stories of people who have gone mountain climbing and it goes all disastrous. Endless movies are made of these things. We’re very interested in extremes. Here’s a person who, it’s a self-imposed extreme. ‘Cause we find out the person may or may not have to live this way. And it does begin to seem like they’re just choosing to live this way. But it looks like a very difficult way – a very uncomfortable way to live. I think ultimately, if it is a strength, it’s like the bodybuilder. It’s like, that’s what you do with your strength? That’s what you’re choosing? Now, who am I to judge? Yes, that’s what they choose to do. Okay, great. I mean, I have had many people who, in conversation when I say I’m a writer and they’ll ask, “Have you written anything?” I’ll start enumerating a few things – I’ve written a fair number of things. And I’ve had many people just say, “Wow.” Almost like, “That’s such a waste of time. Really? How could you sit at a computer . . .?” And I get really bothered because anybody who’d say such a thing . . . it’s not an opinion like, oh no I’ve got to really win them over. It’s like, okay. Okay.
POTTER: Yeah, you could have been spending that time windsurfing.
ST. AMAND: Yeah. I mean, god, look at all the reality programs I could be watching. I could be a scholar of The Bachelor or The Apprentice.
POTTER: How many seasons behind are you?
ST. AMAND: Yeah, exactly. All of them. All of them.
POTTER: Another thing that recurs – and maybe you kind of intimated, or you pointed in this direction when you were talking about our love of extremes and so forth – but one of the things that recurs in Negatunity is binary opposition. For instance, between the Pragmatist and the Artist. Between the industrial world of machines and the natural world of humans. That made me think of the Buddhist tendency – it’s not a necessity – but the Buddhist tendency to reject binaries, at least as oppositional in reality, and the Catholic tendency to accept a variety of different binaries. Then I was thinking about the frequent references to Nietzsche in the play. I found myself reminded that in what is considered by many people his masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the central character is a fictionalized version of the founder of Zoroastrianism, which not only embraces binaries, it builds the entire universe out of binaries. Everything is binaries in opposition of each other. So I’m just curious about these binaries that recur throughout the play and whether or not they’re influenced by these religious or philosophical strains, or whether they came from elsewhere and this is a coincidence?
ST. AMAND: Actually I think it’s the necessity of coexistence. Whether it was in the classroom growing up, and even more so in the workplace. Because when you’re in the classroom you’re technically in the “zone”. The zone where people have to tolerate you. Once you’re in the workplace, they don’t really have to. I mean, they will. Depends if you’ve received any amount of training, or “We’ve invested this in this person so we’re gonna give them a few chances.” I’ve worked for many nice people, where they can actually understand a mistake is a mistake, so there is that. In dealing with people not of my own choosing in an office, there are those people that I’ll run into who are not the benevolent Stortz. They’re Stortz, but they don’t have anyone’s best interest but their own at heart. I would stop and, in my mind – and there’d be a few times where I’d even ask a person, like try and boil it down – “What exactly do you want? What would make you happy?” Like, you’re hitting me with all these requests, you’re seeming to spin events this way, spin them that way, and there seems to be a lot of confusion, a lot of conflicting. If we were to just clear the deck and just say, what is it that you want? There have been a few times where I actually said it to someone, and they were surprised by the question. That kind of cleared the air. There’s other times where what they actually wanted was a pretty simple thing. Then there’s other times where, what did they want? Oh well, no, “I just am entertained by driving someone crazy.” There is that. Well, I mean, you must know the number of psychopaths – the studies done, the number of psychopaths that are out in society. I think it’s one in a hundred people?
POTTER: Yeah. It’s about one percent, yeah.
ST. AMAND: When I’d seen a documentary on it the interviewer was shocked and immediately equated psychopath with violent person. The guy who was the – the guy says, “Oh, no. What I’m talking about is the havoc they wreak on our economy.” Because they have all the – they possess all the traits that make them very successful in business. Because they’re not sentimental. They have no problem shitting on people, they have no problem cutting – of making any deals that benefit them and hurt people that are seemingly close to them, and on and on. He says it’s the havoc they wreak on the economy. It suddenly started to get a little dull there, but the one-in-a-hundred stat was pretty startling. I have run into people. But I would, at times when I find myself getting muddled, to get back to basics I’ll even ask myself – that’s where the dialogue between the Pragmatist and the Artist comes from. I’d be sitting in my cubicle – because I’ve never risen to a high where I would actually have an office, I’ve always shared space, very tiny spaces, with multiple people – I would be sitting there, and they’d be working away and seeming very content, and what is wrong with me? Then I would say, “What is it that you want?” And “How close can we get to getting that?” That’s where the dialogue – and I’d actually had some fun then spinning that out a bit. Because having the Pragmatist – and I do enjoy working from the extremes like that. ‘Cause I think the Artist in that dialogue has some valid points, but the Pragmatist, I mean, how are you going to argue with that? We’re lucky right now. I say to people that I’ve got Justin Trudeau and the Premier of Ontario have mandated that I stay home and work on the book that I’m writing. So I have finally attained it. COVID-19 is my negatunity.
POTTER: These binary oppositions then, in the play they exist in the context of that necessity of compromise that we talked about earlier?
ST. AMAND: Yeah, I mean the office – for some reason I find myself writing about the office. I have to admit, of all the heroic landscapes I would have wanted to set stories, the thin-carpeted, cruddy office that’s made of cubicles and, you know . . . the spaces I’m choosing are not . . . I have to admit, are lackluster. But I think that can make other things shine. A lot of compromise has to take place to make that kind of environment work. When you’ve got the creator of cubicles repudiating cubicles, it tells you what kind of environment it is.
POTTER: Right. Well, okay, environment. So, I was thinking about the Ordealists, and the Decriers actually, that you were just talking about – the Decriers. They’re presented, to me it seemed like, as though they were like wildlife being observed in their natural habitat. There’s even a reference to taking video of them for National Geographic. So, is that sort of what you were thinking, and is Singleton somebody who just – he’s in somebody else’s habitat, he’s in somebody else’s ecosystem or something, and he belongs elsewhere?
ST. AMAND: Absolutely. None of us is where we should be, as we find out with other characters in the play. But, yeah, as the observer, to see these people who are, like, the Ordealist lives to exclusion of everyone else. I’m not saying my way is right, but if I’ve got a line of people behind me I’m not really going to launch into a litany of questions about how exactly is that ham and cheese sandwich made? I mean, there are certain things I can guess. There are certain things I can intimate. There are certain, you know, conventions I can fall back on and understand, that I’ve experienced bread before. This bread looks exactly like the previously experienced bread. But the Ordealist – and I’ve witnessed it. I’ve honestly – and I almost wanted to interview the person after. I was at a coffee shop, and a person had the barista I think remake a coffee, and I remember hearing it, and anything that has the multiple, multiple syllables, I thought oh I gotta write that down. I like to keep it simple, myself, but I thought oh this person has no problem whipping off this thing, it almost sounds like a mantra. And she had the barista make it I think four or five times, and the barista would go through this five-seven minute process, making this very convoluted drink. The lady would bring it to her lips, literally just touch, and she’d go, “Hmmmm.” *shakes head* and then another one would be made. And then another one. And I was watching this, I was watching this like the two-headed baby being born on the Tundra. And I was watching this ‘cause I thought, oh my god this is like an eclipse.
POTTER: You kind of want to take her aside, right, and sort of point to her and say, how does this happen?
ST. AMAND: Absolutely. I wanted to interview –
POTTER: How does a woman like this come to be?
ST. AMAND: Yeah, and in not any derogatory way whatsoever – because she’s beyond help. She’s beyond all reaching of human communication. But I just wanted to like, just interview – like, well what’s next? You know? How does that rate?
POTTER: And you know if the barista’s humouring her, and she’s getting him to do this four or five times, there are others like her out there.
ST. AMAND: Oh absolutely. I’m sure there’s a whole contingent. I’m sure they drive around in a Greyhound bus, and they just offload at various places. And then they go back on, and everybody, after sweating – I’d worked in various hotels when I was in university, and I would get these people at the desk. And I get in, you know, you’re going to a hotel, I know how I am, you’re on vacation, you want things to go right. But I mean we would get some people who are absolute maniacs. And it was interesting. And luckily the absurdist in me is like, well what degree will this go to? So I would just keep giving all that I could, that I – I mean I’ve always been a low level worker bee worker, so I’m not authorized to do anything, but the few things I was authorized – I’d just keep shoveling it toward them. Like, well what’s enough? I gotta see, like, what’s the limit? There is no limit. There is no limit.
POTTER: So let’s change tacks here. One of the objects that looms large in the play is the tree. The Tree – I’m gonna capitalize Tree. And the metaphors that you use to describe it are intense, and they’re intriguing, and it gives you a sense of its grandiosity and so forth as it loomed in Singleton’s young mind. Now I was thinking about that in relation to some of the other religious and philosophical threads that I was seeing in the play, and wondering about how – you know, in Pagan religions, or many Pagan religions, trees are associated with gods, right, such as Wotan. Did you have something like that in mind when you were creating this – what seems to be a very important symbol to Singleton?
ST. AMAND: Well, often times I will admit I’m a very selfish writer, and I will carve out convenient handholds for myself. And that when I went to grade school, our school had this gargantuan tree. I knew nothing about trees at the time, but now that I think back on it, the thing must have been hundreds, hundreds of years old. It was – the trunk was wider than my car. And it was just as I describe, it went up into these two enormous trunks, each of them was imposing, but came from the single one. And it came right up out of the concrete. At our playground there was no grass at all. There were a few pebbles and broken glass, but there was no grass. So to have this bit of nature jutting up out of the pavement was unbelievable. And also I’d always equated trees with fun, and with climbing trees as a kid. And this one, even the most hardcore guy in the schoolyard I’d seen try it. There were guys who were very adept at, say, getting onto the roof of the school. And getting onto the roof of the school was a suicidal mission. But there were some guys who handled it with no problem. And I’d go up like halfway and I’d see where it got hard and I’d think, they’re nuts! But when these guys would try the tree, no luck. The tree was unclimbable. And actually I’d always thought as I grew up, ‘cause I grew up in the neighbourhood where I went to school, that the tree would just be there forever. And the school actually had been sold, and the tree was cut down at some point. Which I – it would have taken a month to – I don’t know how long it would take. It was enormous. And I just would have been fascinated to watch that process. It had been there ever since I was – I mean, it was so old. So as far as it having any sort of, you know, religious context to it, it doesn’t really have that. But for my own kind of selfish purposes, and my own memory of it, I can go back – ‘cause when you go through it the first time, like when you’re living it, when I was a kid, the tree was just like furniture. Like it was there. And it was like, (shrugs)”oh.” It was only after, as an adult, and I’d sometimes, you know, I might go back to my old neighbourhood and just see like, were these – do things look the way I thought? The tree, was it as enormous as I thought it was? And it absolutely was. It was one of the few things that my memory of it was as grand as it was in reality.
POTTER: That’s interesting. In the story too, it acquires significance for Singleton for several different reasons, right? I mean, not only would it just be impressive to a kid, and it would be, obviously. But there’s an association with his friend, and that would give it extra meaning going forward, right?
ST. AMAND: Oh, for sure.
POTTER: I want to talk about Toynbee tiles.
ST. AMAND: For sure.
POTTER: So for people who don’t know what those are, those are messages that are embedded in asphalt in streets around North America, and I think South American as well. And they contain an inscription mentioning – well, that’s mentioned twice in Negatunity at some very key moments. What led to the inclusion of that message in Negatunity?
ST. AMAND: It’s such a wonderfully cryptic message, so I’m always drawn to something like that. I’d first run into the idea of it in a four-page play by David Mamet called Four A.M. It’s a very, very short play where it’s a call-in radio show, and somebody calls in – I think it’s a conspiracy radio show host – and the guy’s talking about Toynbee, who I believe was a scientist. I forget what the man’s first name is, but Toynbee was a prominent American scientist, I believe, and factors into Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But that, “Toynbee’s idea of resurrecting the dead of Jupiter.” I just thought, okay, that sounds absolutely wild. And then on the internet I ran into sightings of the Toynbee tiles, where that, or very close variations of that phrase, as you say, are emblazoned into pavement. And it’s like, how could you even be able to do that? So the whole idea though of the resurrection of the dead – I’m just after listening to the audio book of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And the afterword where you hear the son who accompanies the dad through the book was in fact murdered. And I remember when I’d read the book for the first time, and you’re really drawn in – it was a later addition, so the guy was able to add an afterword. And this person, Robert M. Pirsig, who has proven himself to be a pretty powerful thinker, when he himself is reduced to thinking, well, his son Chris. Where did Chris go? Where did Chris go? And he also refers to, in that afterword, how the ancient Greeks, they thought of the passage of time as time approached us from our backs and actually shot into the foreground over our heads. And we would look up and we would see time passing over us. And I thought that’s a very apt way. And so this amalgamation of all these various things that I read about, like, where did the person go? Are they on Jupiter? I mean, obviously I don’t personally believe that, but just that anybody would put forward these ideas and attach this prominent scientist’s name to it. “Toynbee’s idea of resurrecting the dead on Jupiter.” And I don’t know if – when you’re desperate enough . . .
POTTER: For me it’s a nice little touch of absurdity, you know? And also you link it, or Singleton links it in the play to the Catholic version of metempsychosis. So he’s making connections too between the things that he’s experienced, the things that he’s learned, and sort of looking as Pirsig probably was in the aftermath of his son’s murder, looking for some way to bring these ideas together in a way that would point to a solution to what was bothering them, or provide some comfort if what was bothering them couldn’t be solved.
ST. AMAND: Well, I mean, it’s the ultimate experience in human life. Like, it will all come to an end. We’ve got endless recorded history of very incredible people who lived before us, DaVinci and Beethoven, I mean, any number of very accomplished people, and the one, the common denominator among us all is that we’re all on our way out. Not to sound – unfortunately there’s no speaking of it without people going, “Oh man, you’re gonna be such a downer.” And it’s like, yeah. I mean, yeah I guess I am. It’s not something I brood about. It’s not something I worry about. But I do think about it. And, I mean, in my documentary about my friend who had passed away I can remember, and I – it’s funny these things that we will keep to ourselves because we think they’re either too ridiculous or unbelievable – but I remember it was weeks, or maybe a month, or very soon after he had passed away, and my parents were actually good enough to let me go to the funeral home to see him. And because of the nature of his accident there was no harm done to his body. So I saw him and I thought, well, what’s the problem here? He looks exactly like I remember him. So anyway, I woke one morning and I’d looked up at my ceiling and there’s usually this blob of light because of these old-timey window blinds that we had on the windows. And this one particular morning, it looked very different then the blob that I was used to seeing. And as I stared at it – and I’m sure this is a human function of our minds, that we can look at clouds and see, you know, the face of Vladimir Horowitz if we want – but I really believe that I saw my friend imprinted on the ceiling in this light. And it soon went away, and I went about my – I mean, what do I do with it? But my whole thing was like, I did have a sense of a visit. And I just thought, as Pirsig was thinking about Chris, well where is this person? Where is this person? But, I mean, it’s an unknowable thing. I mean, endless – you would know better than I what’s been written about this. And I always look in unlikely places for it. Like just in cheap science fiction novels and – ‘cause you never know where you might find it. Like Martin Caidin in Cyborg might have it. You don’t know.
POTTER: I don’t know. Is it unknowable, Matt? Because I was listening to Pat Robertson the other day and he seemed pretty darn certain.
ST. AMAND: That is true. I always wanted to see the cage match between him and Jerry Falwell, and it never happened. It never happened.
POTTER: We talked a lot about the past, and really that is a huge part of Negatunity. Sort of, the passage of time and the division of time into past, present, and future. At two points in the play the colour of light is specifically mentioned. When Singleton is thinking back into the past it’s a sapphire light, which is often associated with protection, or wealth, or some sort of spiritual insight, right? And then when he’s casting his thoughts toward the future, when he’s quite inebriated and not at his best, it’s a urine-coloured light. And there is some – there are some people there that associate that colour with cleansing. Especially of cleansing of negative emotions. Did you have any of this sort of symbolism in mind when you were deciding on the colour of these lights?
ST. AMAND: Basically I chose the sapphire light because I would find that very inviting. And I find I equate the urine-coloured light with, say, the caution light on a traffic light. A caution light. Because I guess I – the future is, to a degree, unknowable. When you’re in Singleton’s shoes though, the future is all too knowable. But he’s trying to project into like that one unknowable course. Like where is some unpredictability in all this painfully crippling, paralyzing predictability? So I wanted to use a colour – again, being kind of a selfish writer – one that I equate with the sort of unpleasantness, really. Now that I think about it, yellow is equated with many happy things, now that I think of it.
POTTER: Fear too.
ST. AMAND: Okay, right, yeah.
POTTER: There was a childish part of me that wondered if maybe it was your subtle way of indicating that he was urinating all over himself as he fell.
ST. AMAND: He more than likely was. We’re not as powerful as we were in our youth when we become intoxinauts.
POTTER: So you’ve mentioned – you’ve talked about this at a couple of points already today – but it’s a theme for you, right? You know, you address office life and the corporate world. The inhumanity and the pointlessness of the corporate industrial world. You address that in Shelter in Place, which we produced a couple of years ago, and it shows up here again as well. You’ve indicated sort of why this looms so large in your work, because of your own experiences and so forth. I was wondering if part of what you were doing in this play was using it as a contrast against something better, or something that could be better.
ST. AMAND: I think so, actually, for sure. I think, you know, he’s going through the bardos, which to me is like a death. And very often death is equated with being a very negative thing. Whereas the Death card, I believe, in the Tarot deck just means change, like it’s actually seen as a positive card. But, yeah, I mean that initial setting is like, well really is anything bad lost? Like, you know, maybe this is – it’s a negatunity. Like, losing a job is bad, but oh I might just regain my sanity and a sense of humanity. And I might regain some things that are a little bit better. And it may actually be workable as well. It’s not as though you go home and just lay on the bathroom floor, and just go and become inert. I mean, you know, it may need this break to – whereas I’ve been able to, you know, I’ve been pushed rather than jumped more times. But yeah, it’s definitely that radical change of scenery.
POTTER: Yeah, and that environment and the people in that environment – or, I guess generally that people in the environment of – the various environments of Singleton’s life are really fascinating to me. There are a lot of little side characters and supporting characters and people who show up at various moments, and I find them all kind of fascinating in their own way. And one of them is Dyer, right, who is this sort of, you know, almost mythical creature. The boss of bosses who doesn’t really produce anything and everyone’s afraid of him and so forth. And we’re told at one point that Dyer has face-blindness, and it made me think that none of the people that Singleton works with seems to recognize who he is. Except Stortz.
ST. AMAND: That’s right, actually, yes. You’re correct.
POTTER: So was that an accident?
ST. AMAND: Well, again, you know, we’re never where we should be. And like all these people come running in needing something, demanding it of him. They get halfway, or all the way through their request, and he’s like looking up – the one person comes in and is demanding that their expenses be paid, “Why are you withholding these? Why won’t you own up to it? I’ve provided everything you’ve asked!” And he looks up, he goes, “I’m in technical publications. I’m not in accounting.” “Oh. But I thought we outsourced that. I thought we got rid of that.” And I mean, that absurd environment, I’ve actually been there. And I’ve said, no, I’m from technical publications, and I have had people say, “Oh, I thought we got rid of that. Didn’t we just get rid of that entirely so that we could all get a 25 cent-an-hour raise?” But, exactly, he’s not who anybody needs. And they’re nobody that he needs.
POTTER: Except Stortz. Stortz is the only one who recognizes him, and the only one who seems to go out of his way to talk to him. And Singleton hates him.
ST. AMAND: Yeah, unfortunately.
POTTER: I find that dynamic really funny. But, also, a lot of the people in the world – in the world that Singleton inhabits – and this might be – it could be a deliberate thing or it could be a consequence of the particular perspective that the story’s being told from, right? But it’s as though Singleton’s world is populated with mostly very superficial people who are thoughtlessly striving for, you know, the consumerist and materialist trappings that the North American life has just told them is the default setting for what matters. The exception, or maybe I’m reading too much into it, is the bartender. And I really like that character and I really like the scene with the bartender. I just wanted to know more about how that scene came to be and how that character of the Bartender came to be.
ST. AMAND: I keep saying how in Negatunity, the play, everybody is where they shouldn’t be. And having - Singleton Kastamangas is an alcoholic, and has recognized that in himself, and now has decided that he won’t drink anymore. So he, of course, shows up at a bar. So he’s at a place where he should not be. But he actually has a conversation that he should have. And how these things that we – I particularly want everything to be nice and neat and orderly. I would love to sit down and write a story and have my main guy just get everything he wants. Why can’t that happen? But I find myself throwing in the monkey wrenches, or just drawing from experience, and finding like, no, all these things go wrong. And people are never where – or at the very least they have the feeling. When we look back we go, oh my god, that’s exactly where . . .
POTTER: Right, with hindsight we might say, oh that was where I needed to be all along, I just didn’t have the perspective yet to see it.
ST. AMAND: Exactly. But we think we all have it figured out right now. And, you know, John Lennon says, “Life happens when we’re making other plans” or “while we’re making other plans.” And that’s just it. It’s like, ah, I’ve got everything figured out . . . but that’s why at the same time I’m very curious about people who say, oh, no, this is exactly where I should be. And I run into a lot of people – when I was at the company, the last company I worked for, I ran into any number of people, they were exactly where they should be. And of course I’d feel some envy. I mean, I might sound like I’m poking fun at them, but really no. Like I was envious. I thought, oh my god, like, look at this. And you would talk to them and they were – and any of the little things about a job that would drive you or I crazy, or someone else crazy, no, they were able to take that in stride. That’s no big deal. And I thought, well shoot. Like, how can I do what he’s doing? He’s got it figured out. And these guys, they were not like what society would consider a person who’s got it all figured out. But as far as I was concerned, they absolutely did. And quite honestly at times I could speak so frankly with them I would tell them that. And I would almost, like, you know, “Would you be my guru?” You know? Like if you have, like, an extra wrench that you don’t use I could just take home and I could hold whenever I have doubts and I’ll know that you’ll guide me?
POTTER: At least like a phone-a-friend, you know? Somebody that you could call when you’re having those doubts.
ST. AMAND: Yeah. But it’s just like what we find in Negatunity, that, you know, the bartender is asking Singleton a question that he at once can readily answer, but cannot answer for her. And then she imparts information that he – he should take her advice, but he doesn’t. I kinda hesitated writing the scene because I really hated the cliche territory of like, oh wow, he’s gonna go talk to a bartender. But I just thought, you know what, that’s where the story seems to be going, so let us go.
POTTER: And you know, I think it’s one of my favourite scenes in the entire script. I really love that scene. There’s a certain honesty, and a beauty to that scene that appealed to me right away.
ST. AMAND: Oh, nice.
POTTER: So let’s talk about love. Singleton talks, or reminisces a lot about Daisy Penmartin, right? Who is, you know, the first girl that he ever loved. And he honestly seems to be far more in love with Daisy, the girt that left when he was in grade six, than he does with his wife, who he doesn’t speak of with nearly as much fondness – well, there’s the one point. But, you know, as he’s falling he’s thinking a lot more about Daisy than about his wife anyway. And I wondered, is that because she, you know, remains an ideal to him? You know, she’s still some sort of abstraction, she’s not a real person with complexity that he would have to, you know, learn how to adapt to and deal with like he would any other real existing human being? Or is it something that he’s thinking about because there has been some sort of disappointment in his romantic life since he fell in love with this mythical girt when he was in sixth grade? What’s the story behind this fixation he has?
ST. AMAND: The human mind is an expert editing machine. It can very finely trim out any of the unpleasantness and leave us with – I mean, I find myself at times, and I laugh, I find myself looking back at times kind of fondly, and I catch myself and I go, you know when I was going through that it was not this way. Like, there were these other external things happening. And, you know, not that I try and disrupt a pleasant memory, but I always want to be real about it. And when I find myself going, oh, no that was really great, and it’s like, no it really wasn’t, you know? And to be real about it. So, it’s easy – particularly, you know, with a person where it’s like two ships passing in the night – that it’s easy to romanticize Daisy Penmartin because he never really made a move, other than that accidental move where she misses – she’s away from school one day, and that’s supposed to be her last day, and she’s moving away, and he’s riding his bike and he sees her outside her house. So he actually has one last moment to converse with her – to see her. So with so little interaction, it’s very easy to, in the same way the human mind, as he’s falling from the bridge, has like three seconds to think of all these things, our memories can look back at that and we can just read in volumes – oh, well, had we grown up together she would be so understanding if I did this.
POTTER[MP1] : If, if, if!
ST. AMAND: I can tell you - because you’re Michael Potter - I had an interesting experience like this where I had known a girl when I was 13 or 14 and she lived away. I used to go up to a cottage for the summer and she would be at the same location - she ilived elsewhere and I’d come back to Windsor. And I was able to create, I mean, this belief that she was this wonderful person - and she was. She was a really nice person. Later on in life, when I was about 20 or 21, I had soimehow worked up the nerve to look her up and call her up and I actually went to visit her. And all the times I had thought of her home where she would go home to after we had been at this lake - I had actually slept over there! She was there with her family, I had met her parents, and the whole interesting thing was this: that compared to her, I was actually - I found myself to be a very loud and obnoxious person. I couldn’t believe it!
ST. AMAND: I couldn’t believe it! I thought I was just being . . . the things I wanted to converse about - she seemed singularly horrified about every single thing I would bring up! She was very pleasant. She was very polite about it but I kind of make a point about reading people’s expressions because I like to joke and if some of the things don’t go over, I don’t want to be one of those insensitive people that really ruins a whole night. But it was a very interesting experience where reality met the fantasy and I got to see first-hand - and I thought, “This wouldn’t work for five minutes!”
POTTER: It’s interesting that the insight it gave you was an insight into - what you perceived in that moment anyway - your external identity to her, how you looked.
ST. AMAND: We were talking and at one point I go “Oh, my God, it sounds like my voice is echoing off the walls!” It’s not like I was shouting - we were kind of joking and I got onto something, and next thing I know I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, I’m being so loud” because she wasn’t really a joking-around person. I mean, she could recognize a joke was in the room but not be particularly moved by it - and certainly not really want to participate in it. As much as this sounds like I’m taking shots, I’m really not.
POTTER: You were different people!
ST. AMAND: It was kind of for myself, like “Guy, tone it down!”
POTTER: Yeah, yeah, you were just different people.
ST. AMAND: Yeah, absolutely! That’s all it was. And it was such an eye opener. I remember driving home and I thought, “Oh, my God, this wouldn’t work for five minutes! Five minutes!”
POTTER: [laughs] So, tell me about Thomas Wolfe’s poem, Look Homeward, Angel.
ST. AMAND: I love Thomas Wolfe. I just finished reading - re-reading - Look Homeward, Angel again. I was heartbroken to find there’s some racist passages in it, but for the six or seven - or I think there’s nine hundred - pages in it, very, very few. That aside, I absolutely love Thomas Wolfe’s writing. If there’s somebody who was able to kind of capture the sweep and majesty of human life, he was able to. He wasn’t great with story, but he really had insight without attempting to be very deep and trying to be life-changing; he just was very good at describing. And what I particularly enjoyed was his main character, Eugene Gant, as a young teenage boy having a paper route in the morning and he’s out walking in - what does he call it? - ‘the elfen light.’ Just endlessly great descriptions of stuff that you and I have seen ten thousand times . . . And he was convinced there was this other world, ‘the lost lane-end into Heaven-’
ST. AMAND: And that the entry point to this lost place was ‘a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.’ And it reminded me of, say, being in my grandfather’s house when I was a kid. And this house, it was old when I was a kid, and it had all these doors and you’d open up one and - I remember he has a walk-up attic and you’d open it and it was like “Okay, no way…” But the whole idea of the ‘unfound door.’ Yeah, Thomas Wolfe was a firm believer, again without there being any kind of religious import or trying to really convey some heavy-duty philosophical . . . this idea of there being this other world and this guy trying to gain entry to it - that was something that really appealed to me and re-reading the book I thought it really held up.
POTTER: So, Bono: saint or bodhisattva?
ST. AMAND: I am off the Bono train, but I had written something a little while ago and the deity that people kept referencing was Bo Schembechler, the old football coach at Michigan. But no, at one point I was an enormous fan of Bono and - just as all things come-and-go - it has gone. But, you know, I think the media has very derisively set him up as a secular saint and - I don’t know. I wanted to find a commonly-known person that would replace the name of Jesus or these various things and I thought Bono was completely suitable! I think he’s up to the task.
POTTER: [laughs] Alright, so let’s make it a little heavier. I feel - and this is obvious, actually - but there’s a sense of loss throughout the play. And that sense of loss is thick and it begins right at the beginning of the play and it goes through to the end; it’s this undertone of grief. It’s not only grief for the friend that Singleton lost when he was a child, but there’s grief for all the moments that we’ve lost to time that we can never live again and, also, all the moments that we didn’t have and will never have. And it made me think: is Negatunity ultimately a funny story about grief?
ST. AMAND: Wow. I think so. I think so. I mean, it’s the absurdity of human life that keeps me very interested and that there’s this sense of loss because there’s also this sense of wanting to keep. And why do I want to keep? Because these things were enjoyable. So many of these things were memorable. So many of these things were just great! And I just think . . . at times I can remember taking the city bus as my mode of transportation and there would be the odd time - now, I’m not one to really converse with strangers - but there’s the odd time I’d get into a conversation with somebody and go “Oh, my God! That person.” And I’d want to keep that; I’d be thinking about it all day and I’d look for the person maybe the next day on the route. For whatever reason, it was a one-off for them; they rode the bus that one day and never to be seen again.
ST. AMAND: And so much that it was a sad thing! I just thought, “Oh man, that was really cool! I’d really like a conversation like that again.” But I think the sense of loss kind of comes from a happy place. And the thing that I was conflicted with that came up in Shelter in Place, for instance, was the whole Buddhist notion of “Well, no, it’s all a matter of wanting to keep, you shouldn’t want to keep. It’s all about letting everything go.” And I just don’t understand why the human memory works the way it does, if we’re just supposed to forget everything, or if it’s better for us to forget everything. I get it; I’ve seen and also experienced what, if we obsess over things, where that can lead. So, I get it to a degree.
ST. AMAND: I think it comes, though, from a happy place. It’s from these many, very memorable great things that had happened. I really just wanted to have the taste of that food in my mouth or the ring of that music in my ear, if you had been at that U2 concert that I was at - with better seats than I had, if I recall. And I wanted that to last for days, weeks, months. I mean, I would think back on it and the whole thing was - even the inconvenience of trying to get home afterwards in the crowd, but it was just so great. And I think that’s where some of the sense of loss is just, “Oh, I’d like to regain it,” but, at the same time, there’s hope for that these things can - well, I think ultimately Negatunity is a very hopeful play.
POTTER: Yeah, I would think so too. And as you say, it comes from a happy place, it comes from a good place. And those moments that we grieve over, they don’t have to be moments of grief or they don’t have to be moments of grief only, right? We can acknowledge the loss and we can acknowledge the pleasure from the attachment or whatever it was that we found in those moments, right? And we can; simultaneously, I think, without excluding one or the other.
ST. AMAND: Oh, I agree. When I was making my documentary about my friend J.T. Hurley, who has passed away, I had gotten in touch with his remaining family; his aunt and some cousins. And they had these remaining photo albums and - as much as my natural tendency was to feel like I was intruding into kind of painful territory - quite honestly, going through the photo albums was fun! Every once in a while, I’d turn a page and I would be seeing him but with his family. There was a lot of people I didn’t recognize - and I’d turn a page and my brother and I would be there. Or, I’d see a picture of my parents before I was born - my parents were his godparents, he was a few years older than me - so I found it kind of a fun experience. And then, when I completed the documentary, I had any number of people say to me, “Oh, I tried to watch it but it was just so sad!” And I thought, “Well, a lot of things are; is that really gonna stop you?”
ST. AMAND: I mean, I’m a writer, like I’ve got the diving suit on or something. It’s like, yes that’s true, but that’s not about to stop me.
POTTER: Right. And, you know, there’s a tendency I think that many people have - maybe we all have it to some extent, I don’t know - but it is to mark off emotional territory as though the boundaries are firm and uncrossable, right? So, that if something is sad that it can’t also be happy, or it can’t also be a point of affection or that these things are one or the other. That these boundaries, these emotional boundaries that we create around objects, memories, experiences - once they’re drawn, no other emotion can cross its path. But I think, in reality, emotions are. . . the spaces in which we feel emotions are liminal spaces, which are almost indefinable in some way in the limits and the boundaries and that they cross over and it’s hard to pin them down to any one particular kind of emotion or meaning.
ST. AMAND: Yeah, and then at times the irony is that those oftentimes feel more real than reality.
POTTER: Absolutely, yeah.
ST. AMAND: They’re absolutely indefinable. But yeah, it’s that swing of the pendulum, you know, it’s either one thing or another. What you had said, the binary . . . I’ve had a very hard time with people with this all-or-nothing attitude, “You either feel this way or you feel that way.” And it’s like, are you joking? The pendulum swings this entire spectrum it covers and you’re telling me you either have this point or this point? And the hilarious thing is I’m interested in everything that’s in between it.
POTTER: Yes! That’s sort of where I’m pushing us to because this focus on memories and the association we have with memories - the emotions that we have attached to these memories and so forth - to me, that is really consistent with your use of bardos to structure the sequencing of the story because they are liminal spaces in Tibetan Buddhism and Singleton’s fixation on ‘lines of demarcation’ also hints at this idea that we need to really pay attention to liminality to understand this play. And the whole story I think takes place in this liminal space - the space between the bridge and the water - that is itself hard to define unless you’re going to focus on specific things like ‘it’s this many inches’ or something like that. But to define it in a sense that encompasses its totality, you couldn’t do that. And the whole play - all of the memories that Singleton has, all of these moments that he’s recalling - to me come across as these exquisitely emotionally-textured liminal spaces.
ST. AMAND: I would say that for the longest time, I was the kind of person that . . . It’s funny that I became a writer because I would never share my thoughts on anything, I would never share what I truly felt about anything. Just where we grew up, and I suppose it’s the same of any group of kids tha in a week moment you admit that you like this particular Supertramp song, you’re done in the neighbourhood where Supertramp is seen as not cool.
ST. AMAND: So it only goes on from there; you’re not going to admit or talk about anything heavier-duty than that. But it got to a point where - being a writer and getting older (I’m months away from my forty-ninth birthday) - and it’s like, “Okay, now’s the time to give up the goods and, alright, Michael Potter’s asking so I’m gonna spill it all!”
POTTER: [laughs] “I’ve got to get it out now while I can!”
ST. AMAND: Exactly, to share what these various memories mean. I don’t know why, but I look back and think, “Why would there be an impediment to doing this?” I don’t understand what the block was for myself at least because I think it’s a normal human thing to think about things. I realize some people make a whole career out of not thinking about things, and even what you say about these things that really don’t have boundaries that people try to set boundaries. Even in our language, where you’ll hear somebody say, “Don’t go there!” and it’s like, “Where?” I know ‘where,’ but that’s been said to me many times, “Don’t go there!” and it’s like “Okay, I won’t!” But, “Don’t go there.”
POTTER: For me, I think about moments, and the play as a series of moments. I think life is a series of moments, and moments themselves are liminal because how do you determine the beginning or ending of a moment? How long is a moment? And how do you know when a moment is over and replaced or succeeded by a different moment? They’re liminal, and I think that memories, because they’re memories of moments - they’re liminal experiences of liminal experiences. It’s even harder to define them, pin them down to determine a beginning and an end. David Lynch has talked about this; he doesn’t believe in stories having beginnings or endings; he thinks it’s artificial. He thinks you’re just putting fake boundaries on an infinite string of events. But what it made me think about when I started thinking about this liminality in Negatunity was that line that we’re using as that tagline in the poster, “Mind The Gap,” because these liminalities - they’re all gaps. The evening - evening is a liminal time of day. It’s this indeterminate time between day and night, and it’s hard to pin down exactly when evening has begun and evening has ended.
ST. AMAND: Ask a film director about ‘magic hour’ and you’ll know exactly!
POTTER: Yeah, I know that!
ST. AMAND: “Gotta shoot within the magic hour,” I should say. But I understand.
POTTER: Well, that’s a measurement of available light, that’s focusing on the one particular detail. But anyway, it made me think about the evening as a gap between day and night. And there’s so much of that going on in the play that I think - there’s a lot for me, anyway, as a reader and if I were in the audience viewing it to think about coming away from Negatunity.
ST. AMAND: Well, I think it’s something that James Joyce dealt with really well in Finnegan’s Wake where he took away all the the usual scaffolding that we’re used to as readers to guide us, and I’ll admit that, for decades, I had a copy and I’d dip in and quickly run out. But for myself, I had gotten to a point where things really didn’t bother me if they didn’t make sense, and that things could make sense in a different way. There’s only five characters in the book, really, but they go under about five thousand names. And I just find that the fluidity of it and trying to capture the dream work, whereas Ulysses was the book of the day, this is the book of night. And I really liked how things could merge and become other things without any real explanation. When I was working on Negatuinity that was, I think, one of my blocks: I was just trying to make it so rooted in reality and then I had to understand it’s really taking place in this guy’s mind as the synapses are exploding. Going back to that guy who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and the moment he let go of the railing everything sorted itself out. And you know what? If only we could figure something out, there could be a phony railing -
POTTER: Oh sure, now!
ST. AMAND: Yeah! A phony railing, and go, “Oh, my God! These are all the things I should do, I gotta stop gambling, I gotta do this – ” but no, the poor guy, he had to let go of the real railing and, luckily, was able to talk about it after and he was one of the rare people who got the insight. But yeah, it’s dwelling in this territory where there are no markers. And I think that’s where the Tibeten Book of the Dead came into existence because it was actually trying to provide some markers to someone who was traversing his journey in the afterlife.
POTTER: It’s a brave thing to do!
ST. AMAND: Exactly! I mean, it was very kind of them to try and do this.
POTTER: Well, Singleton talks about how he can only survive in the industrial environment if he’s writing, he’s interpreting it through writing. And at one point, he talks about how he did that job where he was preparing help files for tax preparation software because nobody was nudging him out of his diving bell. It seems like he wants that to happen, that he wants someone to nudge him out of his diving bell, even though if they did, he would be, as he says, metaphorically, “simultaneously drowned and crushed.” But why?
ST. AMAND: That’s right. He’d be similar to his creator in that he’s only comfortable when he’s uncomfortable. I can remember walking in that environment and . . . it was a painful conclusion, because it’s like, “I want to do what’s asked of me, for sure” but I realized that there was an absolute actual, physical limit. That I would be like that horse that was getting whipped that Nietzsche ultimately hugged, being whipped and whipped - and, for no reason, it could not get up. And I came to a point myself where, with this threat of travel and threat of having to deal with this environment where I had no tools. It was too terrifying to contemplate. And I think that with Singleton, that’s it; he understands that he needs the diving bell of writing in that environment, but what ultimately happens in the play is that he leaves that environment.
POTTER: Right, right, yeah.
ST. AMAND: We can get so busy trying to figure out how we can make it work within the environment when, really, there is a third way.
POTTER: Right. You know, there’s a moment in the play where Singleton seems to have a sudden, overwhelming realization of the enormity of loss. Of everything that’s sort of stolen away when a human singularity blinks out of existence. And it reminded me of a passage from Arthur Schopenhauer, where he says, “The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is - in every individual - something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone and, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost.” And Schopenhauer didn’t have a very high opinion of life, but he did recognize the incalculable value of every person because that particular constellation of characteristics and experiences and so forth has never existed before and will never exist again. And it seems to me that Singleton thinks in much the same way, or at least at a certain point in Negatunity. Am I reading too much into that? [laughs]
ST. AMAND: Well, I mean, at the time where my friend had passed away in 1979 - I only found out later. I asked my mother some questions about it because I had my vague memories of it. As it turns out, she had went to the hospital. The boy’s mother called our house - it was the first call she made. My mom went over there and she actually saw him in the room. But after the funeral, my grandfather - who was this old-time Irish guy, “What you do when someone dies, you always go to the funeral,” - he always paid his last respects. And in the case of my friend he was unable to. He himself had lost a child in the ‘40s, but he did go to the funeral home when my friend’s mother needed a break, had to rest. Anyway, my grandfather worked at Ford Motor Company and there was one day in the ‘50s - his daughter had died in the ‘40s - one day in the ‘50s a guy, another Irish immigrant, who never missed a day no matter what, wasn’t there. And somebody says, “Oh, my God, why isn’t he around?” His daughter had passed away. So my grandpa knew this guy, he lived out in the country and he knew he wouldn’t own a suit; very simple guy, lived out on this farm, came out into Ford Motor Company and he didn’t buy anything more than he needed. So, my grandpa went home and got him his own suits and drove out to the farm and was going to help him make the funeral arrangements and help him along, unfortunately having gone through it himself. So he gets out to the farm and he sees his friend coming in from the corner of the property with a shovel over his shoulder and he had buried the girl himself.
ST. AMAND: The different levels of these things happen. I remember hearing the story - it’s kind of one of those stories in the family. My grandpa was kind of there and watching him walk in and kind of piecing it together - with the shovel over the shoulder - and suddenly realizing that the suit he had brought is of no point whatsoever. We all have our ways - that we all do what we think is right. And I’m not about to say what the guy did was not correct, at all - I have no idea. But I remember it being a pretty startling story.
POTTER: You’re right. People deal with loss differently, and it’s hard to sensibly create rules for how that must go. Yeah, I wouldn’t have any idea where you can start and how could you possibly - what would be the basis for this? And it comes for people in waves too. And I think that’s what I’m sensing in Negatunity. There’s a moment where the enormity of the loss of his friend when they were young hits Singleton and he starts talking about all the things that should have happened, right? What he’s expressing are common experiences that people, say, in our culture, tend to have as they get older. But what he seems to be talking about, to me, is that what is gone forever - what is irretrievable - is that particular personality having those, sharing those, common experiences with everyone else. And there’s something monumental, it seems, in his heart at that point.
ST. AMAND: Right. I guess I share that story of my grandfather watching that man walk in from the corner of the property with the shovel over his shoulder as one of those moments of realization of where he pieces together what’s happened and realized. I’ve been in various situations - I don’t think quite as heavy as that - where I’ve kind of pieced it together. Yeah, definitely with Singleton, I’m using him as kind of my weather balloon; I’m sending him up into the stratosphere to kind of see what the wind currents are up there. I mena, I’ve experienced the very thing that I’m writing about him, but I’m trying to - as a middle-aged person now analyzing it. Whereas only before, up until very recently, I only had my memories as a seven-year-old that made sense to whatever certain degree but with enormous gaps in the timeline.
POTTER: So on that note and regarding that moment, tell me about that line from Isaiah that you use: “He gathers the lambs into his arms.”
ST. AMAND: That appears on my friend’s headstone. When he had passed away, his mom was one of five kids and one of his aunts had come to town - they all came of course, but one was particularly trying to help her through and get these various things organized - and that was something that was chosen there. So that’s one of those touchstones that I had put in there, like the tree from the schoolyard, that is rooted in reality.
POTTER: There’s a point in the play where you connect that verse to a famous theological puzzle known as ‘the problem of evil’ which is recited in a bathroom and, at the end of it, it’s connected to that verse. What were you thinking in regard to that connection?
ST. AMAND: I think the ‘problem of evil’ is a recitation of impossible - well, not impossible - unanswerable questions. That even though “He gathers the lambs into his arms” is not in the form of a question, it may as well be because I find these particularly religious platitudes that come up in those moments of stress or when someone’s passed away - they may bring comfort to some people, and that’s wonderful, on the whole. For myself I find them very flat and very hollow. And I do realize they’re offered because, what do you say?
ST. AMAND: You want to say something, so you do say this. But part of it is, “Explain this, Epicurus” as well. He’s not explaining anything, he’s just listing off. “Will somebody tell me, please?”
POTTER: Well, the character that recites the ‘problem of evil’ and then connects it to the verse from Isaiah - the previous scene, you just briefly, quickly, link him to the Archangel Gabriel. And I was wondering if there was a story there because Gabriel’s role was to explain Daniel’s visions to him and I was wondering if that was going on here.
ST. AMAND: I’m probably going to seem foolish - I should have checked this out ahead of time - but I thought it was the Angel Gabriel that had made the proclamation to Mary that she was . . . “Hail Mary, full of grace!”
POTTER: Yeah, I think you’re right! I can’t remember though, don’t quote me on that. [laughs]
ST. AMAND: I remember taking that in school and the whole moral of the story that I took from that is I don’t want to wake up one day and have the Angel Gabriel hovering over me. I don’t want to be in the shower, push the shower curtain aside and have the Angel Gabriel give me a heart attack.
POTTER: With one of those long horns like in the painting! [laughs]
ST. AMAND: Muffled against the wall! Yeah, the whole supernatural aspects of the Bible, I almost find quite humorous. I almost think of the Angel Gabriel as like a clownish figure, like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.
POTTER: Now, that’s a level of blasphemy, Matt, I won’t stand for. [laughs]
ST. AMAND: Well, I’m a minister so I can say that.
POTTER: [laughs] Not to beat a dead horse, but I saw it kicking, it’s not quite dead yet: go back to this idea of liminality. Another part of the play where this comes up for me is in this phenomena of social sorting and stratification. Singleton talks about this as it existed in his neighbourhood when he was a kid and how kids sort each other into these categories that are meaningful to them: who can run quickly and so forth. We place each other into those categories, we try to place ourselves in those categories, and all those categories imply certain limits. They imply certain powers. They imply certain levels of prestige. But those are also present indirectly in our lives, and certainly as adults even though maybe we don’t do as much of that categorizing - maybe we do - as we do when we’re kids, they’re always present in some way. Do you think what you’re talking about there is a childhood phenomenon, this sorting process, influences the trajectories we take in our lives and how we proceed into adulthood?
ST. AMAND: I think adults do this categorization as much or more, kids are just much less vocal about it - unless we’re saying that we say the sly to our spouse or to our buddies - but I think we’re constantly sorting the group. I think it can be positive and negative. I can remember going to a friend’s neighbourhood and there was a girl who was - if it’s possible - good-naturedly made fun of for being ‘ugly.’ And I remember being shocked and thinking the joke was on me because she was beautiful. She was really good looking! And I thought, “Are you guys insane?” In my neighbourhood, this girl is . . . everyone would be chasing after! And these people - I mean, I had no clue what the dynamic was, like if they did know that or were trying not to let her get too full, I have no clue of all this human bullshit that goes on - but I do remember going “Oh, yeah” and “Oh, she’s boring” and I thought “Are you kidding me?” I was really amazed. I thought, oh, if you were to transplant her to my neighbourhood, she would rise any number of levels in this grand video game. But I think oftentimes too there’s people - either writers, musicians, artists - who we’ll hear about and it’s because of that early animosity makes them into who they really are. That’s a ‘negatunity.’
POTTER: Oh, I think so. When I was young, I think I was driven ninety-percent by spite. [laughs] And then, hopefully it doesn’t last forever, but it can provide some motivational force, right? It can provide some energy to these kinds of things for a while. But it can also have the opposite effect. I used to refer to my older cousin as ‘Chewbacca’ and she didn’t find that at all flattering and, in fact, it hurt her quite a lot - which I didn’t realize until I was older because I was so ignorant to the effect of these things when I was a kid. And it was just because she was so tall; she was very tall for a woman and she became tall early. And I look back on that now and think, “Oh, good Lord.” And it was of no benefit to her, by the way; it provided her no motivational force. All it did was make her feel bad. But perspectives change as you get older and, hopefully, your sense of understanding and compassion widens.
ST. AMAND: Well, I’m as guilty as the next guy and it’s more being oblivious. I do care about people’s feelings but at times, as you’re describing, to me it seems like a harmless joke and in whatever context I’m not getting it. Oh, I’m marked down in many people’s books as an irredeemable asshole because of various things I’ve said - and on the very rare occasion where I have the chance to sort of confront it again, I go “It was really no big deal”. But to see that it was a big deal to somebody, then it makes me wonder, “Well, who am I to say?” And that’s where Singleton’s experience with Stencile - Homeless Flo - comes from. He’s like, “I’ve got this person completely compartmentalized; I know what you’re all about, there’s just this small mystery of your pantomime that I don’t really know but that’s almost more a joke than anything else.”
ST. AMAND: And then it turns out to be something completely different, absolutely outside of what he imagined it might be.
POTTER: Yeah, and I think you did a really good job of capturing how this works within childhood, the arbitrariness of these lines of demarcation and the boundaries that we draw, the categories that we create, and how those seep into our adult lives as well. And I think you do a wonderful job in the script of capturing the intensity of childhood friendships; we forget a lot - when we grow up - we forget how intense those bonds, those friendships are or can be when we’re kids. And there’s a sense of . . . forgetting how we remember the kinds of cruelty that children can inflict upon each other. You have one moment in the play where there is - it’s a moment of fairly brutal cruelty from one child to the other. Singleton’s mother never finds out about it because he never tells her. But I wonder, too, how much do you think we as adults just avoid seeing these kinds of things so that we don’t have to acknowledge or deal with them?
ST. AMAND: I would say absolutely - I mean, I had actually seen the incident just as it’s described in the play. I consider myself quite lucky; my childhood was very happy and, for the most part, uneventful. But when you do read stories of people who had undergone abuse, for instance, and there’s all the hallmarks where anyone with a brain or half a heart would step in and say, “Okay, something not right is happening here” and nobody does.
ST. AMAND: Maybe it’s easy from where I’m sitting to pass judgment, but I always believed it’s better to say something than to say nothing because at the end of the day I’ve got to live with myself. I agree, but as a kid I think kind of wrongly I took it onto myself that I was going to be the protector of my parents. Like, as if! I don’t know where I would get this notion. But in certain capacities - but based on the questions they would ask me - it was funny, because you would have thought, my conception was that they just kind of walked out of a cave when they were thirty-five-years-old like there’s no childhood. Because they would ask me questions - I would see things like what was described in the play and other things that would come up and they would go, “Well, why would somebody do that?” And it’s like, haven’t you ever been around kids? You know, the classic tying the shoelaces together and throwing them up on the powerlines - “Why would somebody do that? I could understand stealing the shoes to wear them; it’s not right but I’d understand it. But that . . . have you never been around human beings? Are you joking? Over and over, there’d be situations, situations would come up and I’d only kind of share benign ones because it’s too dangerous to run into that when it’s something that’s kind of serious and have them go, “Oh, well, surely that person’s your friend.” It’s like… no!
ST. AMAND: If this guy could get away with it, this guy would kill me probably!
POTTER: That’s one thing that always used to bug me, when I was a kid, was the adult assumption that someone roughly your age was, therefore, your friend.
ST. AMAND: Absolutely! And it doesn’t work the other way!
POTTER: No! And we know this, right? We’ve all been through it, so why do we hold on to this idea? Why do so many people hold on to it? I don’t know.
ST. AMAND: I know. So I kind of walked around with it - it was a self-created thing - but I just thought, “Oh, man.” And you have to understand, my dad went to Catholic school in the early 1950s. It was a terrible time to be a guy! I mean, then I hear the stories of - these would be casually thrown out at home - he was fourteen, walks into the library and he’s eating an apple, he bites into an apple and one of the Basilian priests comes up and punched him in the face. He doesn’t say, “put that away” or “don’t eat in here.” Doesn’t do any of a hundred things a normal civilized person . . . my dad bites into the apple, and a priest comes up and punches him in the face. And the whole hilarious thing, for as grand an act as that was, it basically just left my dad confused. He even didn’t understand; he didn’t equate ‘apple’ with ‘assault.’ But, now what we know about the Basilians, of course! So, these things would go on and all he would do is go to class and finish his day. His dad had passed away when he was very young, so he’s got his widowed mother at home. He’s not going to tell her any of these things; “Well, what did you do to make the priest punch you in the face?” That’s the mindset so much of these things come from. I’m not trying to throw stones or be the victim, I’m just trying to paint the picture of “why would this six-year-old kid want to feel like he’s got to protect?” And maybe, in some way, my dad would have done that, not shared that great gem at home.
POTTER: You know, a six-year-old’s perspective on that relationship is . . . going to be very different from an adult’s perspective on the relationship with their child, and an adult’s perspective on how a six-year-old should see that relationship. Yeah, and we forget a lot of these things. So, forgetting and knowledge. I have a question for you - you probably can’t answer it, I’m going to pose it to you anyway: the drunk ordealist quotes Joyce’s Ulysses, right? “Tell me the word, mother, if you know now: the word known to all men.” I have not read that book in twenty years and all I know is that it’s a question that really isn’t answered, and the mother comes back and she demands repentance: “I demand you answer this question.” What is the word?
ST. AMAND: The word is ‘love.’
POTTER: You think so?
ST. AMAND: I think so, I don’t know. I think it comes up later when Bloom is with the Citizen, in Cyclops in Kiernan’s pub, and they’re kind of going back-and-forth. They’re kind of grilling Bloom because he’s Jewish and they’re saying “Well, what’s your nation?” I mean, Leopold Bloom says “I was born in Ireland so Ireland’s my nation” and it starts coming down to . . . these guys are talking about the Irish Republican Brotherhood and nationalism, and basically there’s Bloom saying “Well, we need more of . . . “ and he can’t bring himself to say it, and he says “-well, the opposite of hate” because he doesn’t want to be mocked.
ST. AMAND: So, what’s the one word known to all men? I mean, quite honestly, I don’t know, but after the Bloom dialogue, I would take a guess - if I had to, if you’re forcing me, which it sounds like you are . . .
ST. AMAND: - I would say that the word is ‘love.’
POTTER: So, I would say that the opposite of hate is also the opposite of love; it’s indifference.
ST. AMAND: Yes!
POTTER: So, I think I have two more questions for you and then I’m going to let you go because I know this is long. Given the very different philosophical and theological views that you have fighting for power in the script - at least as I’m reading it - I’m really curious about the role played by coincidence and luck throughout the play. You know, you’ve got the date of April 12th, you’ve got the window, you’ve got the key being forgotten on a particular day, you’ve got the father’s presence just as the car rolls back; it seems that coincidences and luck seem to play a huge role in the story, at least as Singleton understands his life. Are coincidences nothing more than that, or are you trying to say that there is, perhaps, something non-random and non-arbitrary about certain events coming together?
ST, AMAND: Well, from a writing perspective, I hate coincidence;
ST. AMAND: While reading the crime novel or reading the mystery novel and a very convenient piece of information comes floating in, there’s nothing more painful than that. Here, again is where I sort of pluck it from biography. I remember being at the Beer Store with my dad and it was one of the first times where I got to see him be something other than like what I knew him. He’s a great guy, and he’s known for being extraordinarily funny, but I had just known him as my dad and I guess I had always known him as being protective of me. But here are these dumbbells in this car, and I remember looking over - I was probably four - and thinking, “My God, there’s just this gaggle of kids just mangling this car. And suddenly - it’s on the College Avenue Beer Store - and it just starts rolling down, and my dad shifts into action and gets it. So again, for all my talk of people not being in the place where they should be, there’s an example of somebody who really should have been. That car would have more than likely - well, I don’t know if it would have bumped over the cement barrier - but it may well have gone into College Avenue and been quite a problem. And with the key, these things that have happened and it’s like these moments rest on a fulcrum and it’s like, which side are these things going to fall on? I mean, I don’t know if that delves into chaos theory or something that my mind isn’t capable of grasping, but the moment balances on this fulcrum. It’s like when Singleton has a dream where he time-travels and has the capacity to save his friend, only to find out: does it seem that he cannot be saved? Because something else, some other accident happened? And it’s something that goes in my mind because my friend had grown up on a beach on Lake St. Clair and as an adult, as I think about how we used to go out on that rowboat. There would be no life jackets anywhere near us, and we’d go out in this rowboat and you knew you were far when someone finally put their beer down, they’re about this tall out on shore and you just see the arm waving back and forth and you think, “Oh, I guess we’re gonna wreck the the flow, we’ve gotta go back in” in the bloody rowboat. I’m interested in the moments that fall on this fulcrum and I am being a bit selfish by using the ones that I’ve actually seen because I want to put them in and say “This is how they fell” and this one I can vouch for. A few ones that somebody else could say “Oh, well, you’re tilting it all in your favour” But, are these things fore-ordained? I don’t know. I think everything is random, but I think even random at a certain point can show patterns.
POTTER: On a large enough scale.
ST. AMAND: Exactly.
POTTER: So my last question, because we’ve been talking about the heavier and more dramatic things in the play, but it’s actually a really funny play. So, I wanted to talk about the comedy of the play; a lot of that comedy comes in these cutscenes that come in a wide variety of bizarre characters that seem to populate Singleton’s memories They’re these half-remembered archetypes from TV shows that he watched as a kid and stuff like that. Tell me about those scenes and those characters and the decision to work them into the script, the functions they fulfill.
ST. AMAND: I grew up watching Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley and M*A*S*H and things where - I’m not sure how sophisticated the humour was - but where there was a lot going on at times and that in the midst of the chaos, some sort of pattern or something would emerge. It’s like Robert Coover’s short story, The Babysitter, where there’s this couple who goes out for the night, they come back and get the babysitter - but he re-writes the scene so that it gets stranger and stranger and stranger the party that they go to. And just all the interations - basically like going into the Multiverse, in this story at least.
POTTER: Who was the writer of that?
ST. AMAND: What’s that again?
POTTER: Who wrote that?
ST. AMAND: That’s Robert Coover.
POTTER: I’ll have to look for that, I’ve never read that.
ST. AMAND: Yeah, it’s really good. It’s one of my first introductions to metafiction and I was immediately drawn to it because the absurdity really appealed to me. I’m kind of bringing together, I guess, a bouquet of things I believe; the absurdity with kind of with the binary question where you’ve got the pragmatist and the artist arguing back and forth. See, originally, Negatunity was going to focus more heavily on just the artist trying to function in a workplace and trying to be part of society, but not as an artist; as a working person. And that’s where his experiences like working at a hotel would come up and these absolutely absurd requests or call that would come down; the man who was locked up in that room - “I’m locked in my room!” - “You’re locked in your room? Did the lock break?” - “No, I can’t find the door!” And it’s like, you’re in a box! . . . you have to be able to! But, you know, the call comes down and this poor guy is panic-stricken, “Can’t find the door to get out!” So yeah, it’s absurdity meets the binary situation and then the hope for a good outcome, where Singleton has the cheesy music with the woman who will be his wife and they dance. But yeah, I’ve always enjoyed comedy, believe it or not. It’s the thing I enjoy watching most and reading most and for all the heavy-duty things I’m preoccupied with.
POTTER: I know, I know. Because of the kinds of plays we tend to produce at Post Productions, people think that we’re very gloomy people, but we all love comedy; our backgrounds are all in comedy! So, I don’t know how we ended up this way, but I totally understand where you’re coming from. And with that, thank you very much for the interview, Matt! Is there anything that you wanted to talk about or address that we didn’t get to?
ST. AMAND: No, I’m just extremely appreciative that there’s a place like Post Productions in my humble city of Windsor - where I was born and raised and now live - to put on and read my work because I’ve been going up against the marketplace and getting the answer I don’t want, So once I ran into the Post Productions folks, everything started to move, which is just great.
POTTER: Flatterer! Well, I’m looking forward to getting this on stage, Matt, and I hope you enjoyed it once it’s up there. I hope it matches your vision, whatever your vision happens to be.
ST. AMAND: Absolutely. Thanks. The read-through last night went extremely well.
POTTER: Yeah, thank you, thank you.
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