Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.4

October 23, 2003


Peter Such returns to Montreal as visiting scholar

by Scott McRae

Photo of  Peter Such

Writer, screenwriter and dramatist Peter Such joins Concordia’s English Department as its newest visiting scholar. In his position, he is finishing his latest book, The Shrapnel Generation, and is teaching his “Fearless Fiction” class, which encourages students to write about things they have self-censored.
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

As a teenager, Peter Such arrived in Montreal on a small, half-century-old steamboat that carried him across the Atlantic. He came to start a new life in Canada.

Last month, the British-born author returned to Montreal in a car that carried him across the continent. He came to work as the English Department’s new visiting scholar. For the next year, the self-described intellectual migrant worker will make Concordia his home.

Such, an interdisciplinary scholar who previously taught at York University and the University of Helsinki, forged an artistic career filled with variety.

He directed Free Dive, a documentary film, which followed six wheelchair-bound children as they learned how to scuba dive. He wrote for the television series Home Fires. He published a book on the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland. And he penned the libretto for Loom Sword River, a Chalmer’s-winning opera based on Ugro-Finnish legends similar to the Norse sagas. All this in addition to writing five novels that range from bracing speculative fiction to a roman à clef to what some call Canada’s first post-modern novel.

Such said his work is infused with eclecticism and a working class spirit.

“I’m not an intellectual writer,” he said. “I don’t have a signature [style]. I’m not Michael Ondaatje writing the same book over and over again. I’m a democratic writer and want to reach beyond the literary world. I want to write books that people can enjoy but that still have something important to say.”

Such wears a broad smile and a chunky-knit Cowichan sweater with three circling orcas on the back, a traditional native symbol of community and a symbol Such has taken to heart.

Community building has been an integral part of his life’s work. Perhaps the most visible symbol of this is the bed and breakfast he and his wife, artist Joyce Kline, have established during their four-year stay in Victoria. The Earle Clarke House has become a literary centre for the area. Carol Shields used to live down the street. Toronto author Ann-Marie MacDonald recently completed an extended stay there, where Such and his wife frequently held salons.

Such has also been heavily involved in founding some of the major institutions that support and lobby for Canadian artists including The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Canadian Magazine Publisher’s Association, the Writers Development Trust and ACTRA-Screenwriters Guild of Canada.

This year, Such will be focusing on finishing his latest book, The Shrapnel Generation.

In his “Fearless Fiction” class, he encourages students to push themselves to write about subjects that they had previously self-censored. This is advice he is also trying to take to heart.

The subject of his new book, orphaned World War II children, who are spread across the globe at the war’s end, is one Such knows well. It is his own story. Growing up in a “very severe and nasty school,” a Masonic orphanage in London, Such learned first-hand the devastation and tribulations faced by thousands of British children. Now, he faces the trial of portraying it all on paper.

“It has been difficult,” he said, “because it’s all so close to me.”

Peter Such will be reading from his work-in-progress as part of the Writers Read series Wednesday, October 29, at 6 p.m. in room H-762 of the Hall Building.