By Gregory Betts
What makes a writer a local writer? There is in the phrase the idea that the place speaks through the writing, that if you were to read a local writer — the way some people eat local food — you would, as it were, gain a taste of the place.
But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the phrase “local writer” is a contradiction of terms. The local is the world that already exists. A writer, in contrast, never merely describes what already is. Leave that dead task for the reporter, the agent, or the bureaucrat.
The writer invents a world, populates it with a varying accumulation of whim, wit, and wanton. Maybe wisdom, too, but that’s hardly the thing any more, is it? The writer presents something new, or else why bother?
There’s a way to fit these two together: the local writer as one who writes against the local as it is. Writing not what it is but what it needs – or harsher yet, what it needs to hear. Giving us glimpses of a place that is at once more interesting, more story-worthy, than it ever seems while there.
This is the kind of local writing you will find highlighted in this column. This is also the kind of local writing you will find in Tim Conley’s latest book, Dance Moves of the Near Future. Conley’s collection of stories presents an array of sketches of indistinct people touched by the exceptional, at home with the unusual, or else overwhelmed by secret impossibilities.
You won’t find Niagara as-it-is in his stories. Conley’s world is much more suggestive, polite, and grammatical. You will find, however, in his stories a series of ambiguous men cast suddenly in the presence of some sonorous and sharply realized particularity.
Like St. Catharines waking up to an emerging new identity, almost the opposite of what it once was, Conley gives us the man late for a party, struggling to find a gift for his ten year old in a mysterious store, while his car is towed away. Car culture becomes pedestrian, artisan. We meet the inefficient by-law officer who loses a goat in a small basement, and blames the absence on the homeowner. We meet the man who discovers, eight years into a marriage, that his wife has a wooden leg. How do you recover yourself when you realize you are not who you were?
It was appropriate for this book to be launched at the Niagara Artists Centre’s new rooftop patio, a gorgeous secret space tucked in the most urban moment of St. Catharines. With the new Performing Arts Centre in view, the patio is a space of the city’s future, of its potential. Where the city’s odd misshapen architecture becomes suggestive, interesting, and filled with potential art, flux, and wonder. This book and this patio are holding out a hand to you, inviting you to try a number on the dance floor of the future.