Pyper’s Encore How to follow up a wild debut?
Andrew Pyper’s done it with The Trade Mission, a literary thriller that will keep you up till you’re done
James Macgowan, The Ottawa Citizen Sunday, September 1, 2002
‘Where was the pig scene?” Andrew Pyper is asked as he sits nursing a Diet Coke in a noisy, narrow, mostly empty diner, situated around the corner from his home in the Queen and Bathurst area of Toronto. He looks up, through a pair of thick, narrow-lens, very stylish glasses, nonplussed. The question, he quickly realizes, is in reference to his new novel, The Trade Mission, a terrific, compulsively readable thriller, and the film Deliverance, specifically the famous “squeal-like-a-pig” scene, where an over-excited hillbilly gets intimate and interactive with Ned Beatty.
Pyper breaks into a wide grin. Perhaps he has been expecting this. Though his book has drawn parallels from his publisher (HarperCollins) to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it isn’t hard to see where the inspiration for his book really came from: James Dickey’s masterpiece. Which brings us back to the swine.
“I think Deliverance has cornered the market on terrifying man-on-man rape scenes,” he says, thoughtfully, “so I respectfully left that element out of my book.”
Fair enough. There’s a sufficient amount of gruesome stuff in The Trade Mission already — both physical and psychological — as well as nearly four years of Pyper’s life. Now 34, with grey hair spreading like a stain along each of his temples, Pyper is no longer just the wunderkind who scored a huge two-book deal with a U.S. publisher — though he still looks boyish — but a maturing novelist with a second book whose expectations are exceedingly high. He’s prepared for these expectations, and the added weight of being a second novelist doesn’t faze him as much as one would think. He’s just glad the book is finished and out there.
“There’s a nervousness about whether people will get it or like it — of course. But I don’t know. I’m actually kind of looking forward to all of it. I know there’ll be some negative remarks — maybe a lot. But I hope also there’ll be positive remarks. Mainly, I’ve been working at home in the same office for three-and-a-half years, so I’m ready to get out, I’m ready to meet people again.”
He’ll get his wish. The fall is full of activity for Pyper, from the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival to Ottawa’s International Writers Festival to Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors. More immediately, however — in fact, in less than a week from the moment he sat down in this diner, the oddly named Shanghai Cowgirl — Pyper will be heading to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He’s quite excited about it, too.
“There’s a number of Canadian writers there this year (Michael Crummey, Alistair MacLeod, Michael Redhill) and some of them are going to be there at the same time I am. So we’re hoping to get together and — ”
“Yeah,” Pyper says, with a laugh. “I think we’ll represent Canada well.”
As will his book. Set in Brazil, it concerns a pair of 24-year-old Internet millionaires, Marcus Wallace and Jonathon Bates, and their entourage — a lawyer, a business manager and a translator who narrates the tale — as they try to sell a Web site called Hypothesys, which, as Wallace explains in the novel’s opening, is a “library of contemporary ethics … a universal human mind.”
In a moral quandary? Punch the relevant facts into Hypothesys.com and find out how most people would tackle the problem. Then proceed. It’s a clever idea, one which Pyper picked up from an article about a computer program that could, for instance, monitor and analyse your TV-viewing habits for various companies, which would then send you junk mail reflecting your perceived tastes. Pyper took it one step farther by coming up with a program that acts as a massive morality database. With the bottom having fallen out of the dot.com market, it’s easy to think, at least early on in the book, that Pyper has made a terrible miscalculation and used the once-explosive dot.com phenomenon to build a story. But Pyper navigates the plot away from this potential reef, when the group voyages up the Rio Negro, and their boat is taken over by a group of killers. And that’s about all you can say of the book. Any more would ruin it.
“The questions I found myself asking in 1998 and 1999 when the first few little nuggets of the book came to mind, concerned the impact the virtual age was having on most of us — those of Wallace and Bates’s age or older or younger — as we spend more and more of our time sitting in front of computer screens, clicking away on our mouse, game playing and data entry-ing. What impact does that have on the way we relate to other people in the real world? How would we face a real threat, not just losing 15 per cent on our mutual funds, but being thrown into an isolated, physically threatening place?”
Well, some of us de-evolve, apparently, which is where Deliverance comes into it.
“When I look back on the writing of The Trade Mission,” Pyper explains, taking a stab at a flaccid-looking salad, “I can now see what I was doing.”
He read Dickey’s classic tale for the first time about seven years ago, a result, he says, of being tired of his reading choices, which all seemed to involve quiet, uneventful books where the physical world was barely even acknowledged.
“The books were basically about people talking and learning about their feelings.” Then he heard the call of the Georgia wilderness. “I’d seen the movie, of course, but the book impressed me so much with the way Dickey was able to have not just an adventuresome, thrilling plot full of physical events, but the way he was able to bring out the character of these men through the actions they took. So, more than the things they said, the things they did informed their character. And I thought that that was something I’d like to do someday, or attempt to do.”
The Trade Mission may not take place in cracker country — at least, not of the U.S. variety — but there’s no question people are going to draw parallels between the two books. Which seems fine with Pyper, as long as nobody draws parallels with his first novel, the best-selling Lost Girls, the book that created so much hype, the one George Clooney was interested in filming. (Clooney has since bailed; it’s now in the hands of the people who brought us Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Erin Brockovich.)
“When I think about Lost Girls now,” he says, “or if I read from it, it just feels so far away in terms of time and in terms of whoever that guy was who wrote it. I still like it — it’s not like I’m rejecting it, but looking at it feels like looking at a picture of yourself in a high-school yearbook and kind of having an embarrassed laugh and saying, ‘Who the hell is that?’”
All in all, not a nice way to remember the book that put this Stratford-born boy on the literary map, that landed him a very un-Canadian-like six-figure, two-book advance in 1998, which, in turn, enabled him to own his own home after just his first novel. Of course, if he had followed the path his law degree could have taken him, it’s possible he would have his own home by now anyway. But the thing is, he hated law and those who were practising it. So he does know how fortunate he is to be able to do what he’s always wanted to do, always dreamt of doing.
“What’s really wonderful about it all is that in the short term, I don’t have to do anything but write to pay the mortgage. That’s a huge privilege.”
Still, it wasn’t all good. Because the amount of money he received was so unusual, everyone seemed to have an opinion about it — and him. Not to his face, of course. Behind his back, at literary parties, at casual gatherings, whenever his name would come up, some would mention how smug or pretentious or unworthy of the money he was.One writer, whose book Pyper had trashed, accused him of suffering from too many good reviews.
None of this, it should be noted, is on display this afternoon. On the contrary. Pyper is humble, funny and self-deprecating.
“It’s a strange thing to learn how powerless you can be in the face of other people’s reactions, their feelings about you, their prejudices, misinformation, hostility, envy, advantage-taking, admiration and well-wishing; that in the onslaught of these kind of wildly varying responses, you are faced with things that are unpredictable and you are powerless to change or shape them.”
He admits he’s not so different from these people, that when he reads a profile of someone he’s never met, he develops ideas about them, too.
“So if that’s true of me, reading something on Johnny Depp, surely that’ll also be true of Canadian writers reading about this guy who made all this money on his first novel. But, when it came to my friends, the people who I regarded as my friends before all this, I didn’t lose any of them and they continue to be my friends. So those dozen people that I really give a shit about — they’ve been great. “Are there people I’ve never met before who think I’m an asshole? Of course. But I don’t know them.”
If things ever do get too bad for him, he could always return to the Brazilian jungle and lose himself, just as one of his characters did. Then again, Brazil wasn’t so great for Pyper. He arrived in the spring of 2000, spent two days in Sao Paulo, then moved on to Manaus — “the one and only city in the rain forest,” he explains, and where part of the novel takes place — before taking two trips up the Rio Negro. He even got lost in the jungle, like his narrator, when he went to relieve himself, and had to wait a good four minutes for the guide to come back.
“It’s really easy to get lost,” he says. “It’s very claustrophobic. You’re outdoors and the air is hot and humid, but it’s fresh, certainly fresher than August in Toronto, and yet it’s hard to breathe, because everything is at a range of about 18 inches from your face. And even though it’s porous, it’s just a leaf, you’d pull it aside and there’d be another leaf after that. I would get quite anxious. … It was only when I was on the river, on the boat with other people and looking at the jungle that I ever stopped to recognize it as beautiful. But when I was in it, when we were hiking and camping in the jungle, I hated it, because I knew it hated me. I knew it wanted me to get lost in it. I felt a real malevolence from it.”
Then there was the time he was bitten by some type of insect, and the right side of his head blew up to the approximate size of a Buick.
“It went down after about three hours,” he says, tapping the affected area with his finger. And who could forget what happened after he swam in the Rio Negro? — a bad idea, incidentally, given that it’s teeming with spiteful organisms. His nose wouldn’t stop running; then it got into his sinuses and then … let’s just say it wasn’t pleasant. At any rate, he has no lingering effects from any bug he may have ingested or been bitten by, so he can go about the business of researching his next novel, which he is doing and which he won’t discuss. It also happens to be the first novel that doesn’t fall under that much-hyped two-book contract. In fact, officially, he doesn’t even have a publisher for it. Not that he’s concerned. He fully expects the book to be picked up by HarperCollins.
“When you’re with a publisher, and it’s clear to all that everyone’s happy and likes working with each other, the assumption is the relationship will continue. It’s just a matter of assigning a figure to it.” Isn’t it always?
James Macgowan is the Citizen’s book columnist.