Quill & Quire, May 1999

Man of Mystery

by Derek Weiler, Quill & Quire, May 1999

Andrew Pyper’s first novel features missing children and a haunted lake — but this is no ordinary thriller.

Last fall, Andrew Pyper’s life changed. In the space of one week in November, the young Toronto author’s upcoming literary thriller Lost Girls earned him not one but two substantial six-figure advances from international publishers. Freed form the financial worries that vandalize the psyches of many of his peers. Pyper is now secure in the knowledge that he need do nothing with his time but write. Not bad for a 31-year-old who only three years ago was doing time as an unhappy lawyer-in-training.

Sipping cappuccino in a Toronto cafe, Pyper seems distinctly unaffected by his success. “It hasn’t been as life-changing as I thought,” he insists. “I’ve been given a job bow I have to do the job.” When talk of film deals arises (much has been made of George Clooney’s interest in Lost Girls, although Pyper’s agent, Anne McDermid says she’s lately looking into other options), Pyper laughs and shrugs in obvious embarrassment: “I try to stay as aloof from all that as I can.”

A cool head will serve Pyper well if his career continues its sharp upward trajectory. With one short story collection to his credit, the author scored big with Lost Girls which Delacorte/Dell and Macmillan will issue in the spring of 2000, in the U.S. and U.K respectively. (Pyper has two-book deals with both publishers.) In the meantime, Canadian readers will get first look when the Harper Flamingo Canada edition hits shelves this month (see review p.28).

Pyper’s new work marks a departure from the meditative stories of his first collection, Kiss Me, published by the literary press The Porcupine’s Quill. Lost Girls derives much of its momentum from its plot, in which several suspense forms – legal thriller, murder mystery, ghost story – intersect with careful literary prose. McDermid notes that Pyper “has chosen quite consciously and knowingly to write a certain kind of plotline…literary novelists didn’t use to think like this necessarily.” Mari Evans, who acquired Lost Girls for Macmillan, was struck by the quality of Pyper’s writing, but also, she says, by the book’s spooky atmosphere and compelling plot. Although Pyper’s international publishers have not yet formalized marketing plans, it’s a safe bet they’ll make the most of those elements.

Still, Pyper points out that Lost Girls owes more to Henry James than Stephen King, and he’s leery to label it a thriller. “Unfortunately, when most people use the word I think it means a ghetto for formulaic, often poorly written stuff,” says Pyper. “If that’s the definition, I don’t think I’m really interested in participating.” Pyper suggests that the t-word is especially loaded in the Canadian market. “You could say thriller in the United States or Britain, and that could mean William Trevor or it could mean pulp schlock. In Canada, there’s still a certain amount of ‘Oh, a thriller couldn’t possibly be literary.”

Local Mythology

Pyper believes that thriller conventions and literary intent need not be mutually exclusive. “I think there are literary writers in Canada who have always been goofing around with genre,” he says, pointing out that Margaret Atwood has engaged murder-mystery form in Alias Grace and the science-fiction dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale. “As Canadian literary culture becomes more sophisticated, a lot of these categories are going to dissolve,” he predicts, hoping to see the genre rag reserved for “decidedly non -literary” books. When asked about qualifiers for literariness, Pyper points to narrative voice, careful prose, and themes that extend beyond the what-happens-next concerns of plot. Lost Girls has all of the above, with Pyper exploring his avowed obsessions: fantasy vs. reality, the power of local mythology, the phenomena of disappearances.

Narrated by Bartholomew Crane, a corrupt Toronto lawyer, the book centres on a small-town disappearance. Two teenage girls are missing and presumed dead, and their creepy English teacher, Thom Tripp, has been charged with the murders. As Crane mounts a legal defence and fends off hostile townsfolk, he becomes obsessed with the area’s history, and a local ghost story in particular. Did the special Lady in the Lake carry off the missing girls?

The book’s structure — 49 chapters, many of them quite short –reflects an emphasis on plot. “The number of chapters grew as I realized I was writing a plot-driven novel, and I hated that for a long time,” says Pyper, who was often frustrated by details of mechanics and pacing. “I completely underestimated the thought and labour that goes into constructing a good plot,” he says, comparing the process to circuit-board electronics. “You change one thing and you realize that this one change in turn causes a chain reaction where now nothing else works.” Pyper credits Jacob Hoye, his Delacorte editor with tuning up the “plot machine”, by tinkering with “the tone and timing of certain events,” Hoye also suggested a reworked ending–one that turned out to be richer and more complex, in Pyper’s estimation.

Anne McDermid suggests that Hoye’s eye for plot may be a cultural thing. “an American’s perception of where the tension lies is more finely tuned,” she says, while Canadian and British counterparts “will be more interested in the words.” Pyper’s experience seems to bear this out. He first worked for several months with Iris Tupholme and Karen Hanson of Harper-Collins Canada, then found Hoye and Evans added to the mix, “It really did feel like wrestling with a hydra,” he says. “There are three heads and you only have two hands, so there’s always one that’s out of control.” However, in most cases he found the three perspectives complementary, with Tupholme and Evans concentrating more on prose and balancing Hoye’s focus on plot.

Pyper’s steady rise from disgruntled law student to international novelist will perhaps instill hope — or maybe just envy — in other young writers. He attended the University of Toronto’s law school even as he was publishing shorts stories in literary magazines like Quarry and The New Quarterly. “It was a classic writerly compromise,” he says, “I thought, ‘I’ll get a job and hopefully make enough money working part-time to feed the writing.’ What I didn’t anticipate was how much I’d hate the law,” It was while articling on Bay street following graduation that Pyper decided to make fiction his priority: “I was even caught by managing partners a couple times with short stories up on the screen. They didn’t care, I think they thought I was a freak, and they kind of left me alone.”

Although, he passed Ontario’s bar admission exams in 1996, Pyper has never practiced law. He published Kiss Me in the fall of that year, ahead of even his own dream schedule. “It was kind of a goal to have a book published before I was 30,” says Pyper but he adds he was also keenly aware of the unlikelihood of realizing that ambition. However, the writer Steven Heighton, an early Pyper supporter and at the time editor of Quarry , helped him beat the deadline by sending ahandful of Pyper’s stories (without the author’s knowledge) to The Porcupine’s Quill. “The next thing I knew (editor) John Metcalf was on the phone,” says Pyper.

A Larger House

Emboldened by Kiss Me’s publication, Pyper forsook the law in favour of the full-time writing life. “I scared up some grants, was lucky enough to get a couple writer-in-residencies, freelanced, did whatever it took, “he says of his “hand-to-mouth” days. (His writer-in-residence career includes stints at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario and Berton House in Dawson Creek, Yukon, as a freelancer, he has been a Q&Q contributor since 1994.) Pyper also got himself an agent after meeting McDermid at a party, and a new publisher, after Iris Tupholme acquired Lost Girls for HarperCollins in a preemptive bid. “I knew Lost Girls wasn’t a Porcupine’s Quill book,” says Pyper of his move, “and I also wanted to go to a larger house if I could”.

He got his wish. HarperCollins will keep Pyper busy this spring, says publicist Sara James, who’s planning, among other appearances, a reading tour of the summer-theatre circuit in Ontario’s cottage country (where Lost Girls is set). Pyper will also visit the U.S. when Delacorte releases the book next spring. He’s also mulling over his next book, though he hasn’t yet put fingertips to keyboard and won’t give up any details at this point. Although Pyper believes that strong storylines and an interest in the grotesque will resurface in his fiction, anyone expecting a Lost Girls redux will be disappointed. As McDermid says, “Andrew has said very firmly from the beginning that he doesn’t want to be limited by expectations.