Anthony Bidulka On the Road to Beautiful
June 2, 2022 / E.B. Boatner
Photo courtesy of Anthony Bidulka
Anthony Bidulka’s Going to Beautiful marks an even dozen mysteries; one stand- alone, two Adam Saints, eight Russell Quants (with Flight of Aquavit making Bidulka the first Canadian Lambda Award winner.) But before becoming a gay Lambda-Award-winning mystery writer, he had a thriving career as a (gay) CPA. Why the change? To what benefit?
“My husband, Herb, and I had a tradition where every year, usually in January, when there’s plenty of snow on the ground [in Saskatoon], we’d escape to somewhere hot, sit on the beach, drink too many umbrella drinks, review the year past and make plans for the coming one.
“Unbeknownst to me, I’d become a broken record, always making the same promise: “This year I will make time for writing.” I never did. Problem was, I had a very busy and challenging career as a CPA, on track to make partner. At the end of 70-90 hour work week, I rarely wanted to use my downtime to sit in front of a computer. I know, I know, some would say that if the passion was great enough, I’d make the time. But for me, it wasn’t going to work. I was going to be a CPA, or I was going to be a writer. It couldn’t be both.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Bidulka
“It was Herb who first suggested I put my money where my mouth is, quit my job, and try writing full-time. I was fast approaching one of those milestone ages where you sit back and take stock of your life, the life already behind you, and what’s ahead. I knew that if I didn’t at least give writing a try, even for a little while, it would be something I’d regret when my days were done. After that, it was a slippery slope. I gave my notice and bing-bang-boom, before I knew it, I was spending my days in my home office writing a book.
“People often comment how different the careers of CPA and writer are. That is true, yet I credit my accounting background for giving me an advantage when dealing with the business aspects of being a writer, something many authors dislike. I know how to read royalty statements, I know about contracts, I’m familiar with marketing and promotion. Being a writer who is a CPA is actually a pretty good combination.”
Russell Quant’s acutely aware of his age, years, and Beautiful’s protagonist, Jake Hardy, mentions his 55th birthday party even before revealing the sudden, violent death of husband Eddie Kravets. Implacable Time is harvesting Beautiful’s ageing citizenry. Is Beautiful‘s ending a work-around to Time’s sweeping scythe?
“One of the things I love about the writing process is that it gives us writers a place to explore our inner feelings, investigate our opinions, air our grievances, wrestle with our worries, argue with ourselves, challenge ourselves, find out who we really are.
“Some present it front and center in works of non-fiction, others, like myself, have the benefit of camouflaging it in the façade of fiction, like ingredients in a tasty cake. With the Quant books, although Russell himself had some concerns about growing older, I don’t know if it was as much a concern for me, the author. It was more my curiosity about developing a character who changed and aged along with the books.
“In the early books I was very keen on presenting a gay man heading into middle age who, as a valid life choice, was content to be single. Believe me, I had some push-back on that from readers. The older Russell got, the more readers wanted him to be coupled. It took me a while to recognize this as a compliment, they cared about Russell and wanted him to be happy, as they defined it.
“Jump ahead almost 20 years to the writing of Going to Beautiful, and I have a much different relationship with aging. I always had an inkling that the 50s would be a challenging decade for me in terms of aging. It’s a time when you are making a solid move away from being able to refer to yourself as middle-aged; there is likely more behind you than ahead of you, there is a strong likelihood that you will be dealing with aging parents, deaths in the family, and other long-lived challenges. The 50s tend to be when your body begins to show you how it might/will eventually betray you. Between my husband and me we now have three new hips, so I was right!
“All that boo-hoo, woe-is-me being said, I also believe growing older is a privilege. My motto is: life is short so you’ve got to make it wide. That’s true whether you’re 20, 40, 75 or 97.
“In Going to Beautiful I wanted to create a cast where not only are most of them under- represented characters (a bunch of Ukrainians, a Chinee café owner, a transgender best friend, and a nun) living in an under-represented setting (rural Saskatchewan), most over 55.
“I wanted to investigate who these people were, what their lives were like, the challenges, the woes and losses and heartbreaks, but also the likelihood of hope and joy. I don’t shy away from the tough stuff, but I make room for the possibility that new beginning can happen at any time in our lives. At any age, in any circumstance, there has to be hope. Without it, we’d be lost.
You’ve called Going to Beautiful one of the most personal of your novels; many have termed it a “love letter to life on the prairies.” But it also mixes in a great deal of the threads woven into your Quant mysteries.
“After I published [stand-alone] Set Free in 2016, I felt drawn to take a hiatus from publishing. I’d been doing it for a decade and a half, getting a book out every 12-18 months. It was beginning to feel a little like [being on] a treadmill and I did not want to feel that way about my beloved, hard-won career. I wanted to take time to stretch my writing muscles in different ways, something I’d talked about for years, to try writing in different genres. I did a bit of ghost-writing to see if that appealed to me (it did not).
“I needed to pay attention to things that were beginning to happen in my personal life. There were deaths in the family, health issues, aging parents. And then a little something called a pandemic came along. I know many fine writers will provide us with many wonderful works on that topic in the months and years to come, but I wanted to write about what’s on the other side, like a tonic for what we’d all been through.
“During the course of those years, I came to understand something about myself as a writer. I need joy in my life to write. Even if I’m writing about murders and bad people doing bad things, I needed to do it from a place of personal joy. Without some level of consistent joy, my writing, well, it sucked. Ironically, it was in the midst of one of the most joyless stretches of time in recent history, mid-pandemic, when I had a bit of an eureka: what if I write about joy?
“I began to think about writing about all the joy-suckers that had impacted my life, flip it on its ass and turn it into joy. That thought, that concept was the seed of an idea that was sown into the soil of why I write and became Going to Beautiful.
“Everything that happens in Going to Beautiful, although none of it a fact of my own life, is a reflection of bits and pieces of my life and the lives of those around me, told in a way that I hope is honest and respectful and yes, entertaining.
Quant himself celebrates prairie life; his Saskatoon would be “bright lights, big city” to Beautiful denizens. Quant’s mom doesn’t want to leave her farm in even more rural Hollis, while Quant wouldn’t enjoy the rushed urbanity of Jake and Eddie’s Toronto, where they had highly successful careers as celebrity chef and fashion designer. Is space as crucial a factor as time? Quant travels the world, Beautiful contains a world.
“When I ask myself the question: Why do I write?, although the answer may never be complete, the answer is: I want to write about under-represented characters and under- represented settings in a way that is accessible and entertaining. Put in another way, I write traditional stories (mystery genre) in untraditional ways. Space and time are crucial in achieving that.
“I had Russell travelling the world for two very specific reasons. The first, simpler one, I wanted to marry two things I love, writing and travel. The second, less obvious, is I wanted to place Saskatchewan (which most people have never heard of or know little about) on an even playing field with Paris and Barcelona and the wilds of Africa; not to prove that one is better than the other, but [to show] that each could be equally exotic and interesting and compelling.
“With Going to Beautiful, I aimed at the same target from a different direction. I transplanted two sophisticated urbanites into a setting as far from their comfort zone as possible. I challenged them to find fault and hightail it back to the lives they cherished. Again, my goal was not to convince the character or the reader that the life they lived was not a good one, god knows I love a well-made martini in a swanky big-city gin trap as much as [anyone].
“Different doesn’t have to be better, sometimes it’s just different. And sometimes that’s what you need, whether you know it or not. Space and time, setting and circumstance, are so important in figuring that out.”
What do you treasure most about prairie life? Do you and Herb come from similar backgrounds?
“Not many people know this, but when Herb and I first met, he was days away from moving away from Saskatoon to a much bigger city. He’d opened an office in that city and had a place to live. His reason, in part, was that he wanted to be coupled. The LGBTQ community in Saskatchewan was small, and he felt the best chance for him to find a mate who suited him was to move to a bigger city. Many, many had done the same thing before him, with varying results.
“Then he met me. We had a farewell lunch, tried to ignore the signs of true love (how corny is that???), and he left Saskatoon. It’s a long story, but the spark, or whatever it was, was simply too strong. We did the long-term relationship thing for two years and eventually he moved back to Saskatoon. Thirty-plus years later we are still going strong.
“I tell this story to get to this point: yes, we treasure our prairie life, but only because this is where our roots happen to be, this is where our parents and friends and cousins are, this is where our dogs live, this is where we volunteer and serve the community and support our neighbours; this is where our home is. It’s our life and we’ve worked hard to make it something fantastic. Yes, there are things that are unique, things that I cherish: I love the change of seasons. I love dramatic weather. I love easy access to countryside. That being said, through work and personally, I have been fortunate to do a great deal of travelling. I can honestly say that there is something special about every place I’ve been. When people tell me they live in the best place in the world, I believe them. Home is not about geography.”
Johanna Bidulka painting Easter eggs. Photo courtesy of Anthony Bidulka
Where does your own mother (of the wonderful foodstuffs and painted Easter eggs) live? Is she as independent as is Kay Wistonchuk Quant?
“Until recently (immediately pre-pandemic), Mom, who is turning 90 this summer, lived on the family farm, an hour away from us, by herself; a place not unlike Kay Quant’s homestead. Today, she lives 10 minutes away but hates every second of city living. She is a fiercely independent farm woman who would rather die with her boots on tilling the garden and shooing coyotes away from the chicken coop!
Photo courtesy of Anthony Bidulka
There are many strong–to the point of mystical–women in your novels: Quant’s neighbor Sereena Orion (plus other names)Smith; Jake’s multi-named “Baz,” accompanying and protecting him, bearing another gender in her portfolio, nonagenarian Sister Genowefa. How would you define them?
“If I had to define these women in one word, that word would be: teachers. I’ve had the good fortune to have had an abundance of strong, smart women in my life. From my mother, sisters, friends, bosses, neighbours. They have taught me, guided me, protected me, buoyed me, entertained me.
“Sereena, and in part, Baz, are based on a dear friend of ours. She was an entrepreneur, a world-traveler, an adventurer, an art enthusiast, a raconteur. She left behind a series of husbands who adored her long past the marriage end-date. She did not suffer fools gladly; she told stories that defied belief and then you’d find out they were true. She was larger than life, laughed loud, drank to excess, and never missed an opportunity to hold your hand, touch your face or call you by a pet name.
“For Russell Quant and, years later, Jake Hardy, the women who shared the pages of books with them played similar roles. Russell and Jake are made better for knowing them.
Like nested Matryoshka, your characters reveal themselves over time in the Quant books. Beautiful’s time is Brigadoon slow, the but the characters’ stories reveal in one volume. Twins also feature in several of your books, including Beautiful. Does twinship hold a non-literary meaning for you? Do you have siblings?
“I have two sisters. One passed away in 2016, the same year I began my hiatus from publishing. I know now this was not a coincidence. Some of what I learned during that difficult time shows up in Going to Beautiful.
“Growing up the only boy on a farm, trying to figure out why I was different from other boys, and being isolated because of it, I was drawn to books and TV shows that featured twins. I have no idea if this is true, but I imagined it would be wonderful, feeling as alone and confused as I did, to have someone just like me to help figure things out, or at least to talk to.
Your own mom is a Pysanky virtuoso. One of your celebrated hobbies is themed Christmas tree decorating. You also, pre-Covid, threw–will throw again?–parties for your many friends. How much of you is distilled into celebrity-chef Jake? Food, flash, friends, family; and the many animals; Quant’s Schnauzers, Barbra and Brutus, Jake and Eddie’s Lulu. Your own?
“There are parts of me in Russell, and in his best friend, Anthony, other parts in Jake and his husband Eddie. If you put them all together, add a dash of this and that, take away bits and pieces, a Frankenstein version of me might emerge. Can’t give it all
away! From my experience, when I conceptualize a character and decide to ‘lend’ them part of who I am, even if it’s just a little thing like a mannerism or hobby or physical attribute, they immediately become more real to me. What I build on top of that kernel of reality is much stronger for it.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Bidulka
“Having dogs for example. I’ve read books where a character has a dog, then they find themselves embroiled in some caper and don’t make it home for several days. All I can think about is: what about the poor dog? Who’s feeding it? Who’s letting it out? Will it still be alive when the caper is over? As a dog owner myself, if I’ve written a dog into a book, I never forget about them. If you can’t do it in real life, you shouldn’t do it in a book.
What constitutes family?
“To me, a family member is someone who cares about what happens to you, whether it’s a bad haircut or a serious illness. Family is not defined by blood or proximity or time spent together. Family is never having to feel alone.
“I’m not the kind of person who needs daily contact with people (good thing for a writer). I rarely have long—or even short—chats on the phone. I’m never bored by myself. I’ve travelled solo. I like fine dining with only a book as company. The important thing is this: I really believe that I am happy in all those circumstances not because I’m alone, but because I know I’m not. I have family I can count on. If I ever need a hug or solace or cheering up, I have people—Herb being #1 on that list—who do that for me. That’s family.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Bidulka
You blend humor, horror, and happiness, stretching, but never breaking, the thread suspending disbelief. Beautiful wraps with a magnificent, deus /dei ex machina. Will Beautiful reappear? Is there a Work in Progress?
I loved Going to Beautiful as I created it. That doesn’t happen with every book, or it might but in different degrees. When you love something, you do not want to let it go. I immediately began thinking about how I could expand the world and return to Beautiful. I toyed around with the idea of creating a trilogy, in each book we’d meet the characters 5 years after the one before it. Especially with an aging cast of characters, this would be a fascinating study. Going to Beautiful was written to be a stand-alone novel, and perhaps it should stay that way. I’m still mulling that one over. But in the meantime, I am on to something new.
“True to my desire to tell traditional stories in untraditional ways, stories of under- represented characters in under-represented settings, I found myself developing another book with potential to be a mystery series. The main character is a transgender woman, one of her sidekicks is a cross-dresser. The first book is called Livingsky, and I am excited to say that a contract has just been signed and the book is set to be published May 2023.
####See Going to Beautiful review in “Books” issue 703
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