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Black Migration, Living Transformations: Massy Arts interviews Suzette Mayr 

On Wednesday, April 19th at 7pm, join Massy Arts Society, Massy Books and the Beaumont Studios for Speaking the Unspeakable: Black Migration, Living Transformations, an evening of conversation in celebration of Suzette Mayr’s new award-winning book The Sleeping Car Porter. Mayr will be In conversation with Wayde Compton, author of The Blue Road and other noted books, moderated by poet and spoken word artist, Brandon Wint with a musical opening by Khari Wendell McClelland

Massy Arts interviewed Suzette Mayr in anticipation of the ticketed event: tickets for this event are $15. There are also tickets at $10 available for Indigenous, Black, queer, disabled and community members with intersections that typically exclude them from accessing literary events. 

Massy Arts: Thank you again for considering these questions. This Vancouver brings you together with writer and Hogan’s Alley scholar Wayde Compton: what does it mean to be having this conversation with him? 

Suzette Mayr: I am so happy to have this conversation with Wayde – he has done so much for the understanding of Black history in Vancouver and in Canada really, and I interviewed him while I was writing the manuscript for The Sleeping Car Porter so that I could learn more about the history of the Black community in Vancouver. He was also kind enough to read a draft of the manuscript and give me his feedback. I can’t wait to sit down with him and let him know how much his conversations with me and his feedback helped me steer the book.

MA: What a wonderful full circle moment – and now I’m thinking about Brandon Wint’s contribution to poetic life not just here but beyond and Khari Wendell McClelland’s music, which itself often reinscribes Black historical experience… 

SM: I’m excited about the gathering of artists who work in different media but who are exploring the same area of interest. I am sure there will be wonderful artistic overlaps. 

MA: In The Sleeping Car Porter, I love how the train timetable is intrinsic to the book’s architecture – there’s a way in which this also seeps into the language as well – and I love how the work itself contends with and undermines the rigidity in play. Could you speak a little about how this emerged for you? 

SM: Once I’d sketched out the rough plot and setting of the book, I figured out that the timetable could serve as a really helpful constraint for me because I could hook different events and characters to different components of the Montréal-Vancouver train trip that serves as the “spine” of the narrative: I could figure out character development and plot points based on where the train was physically located as it travelled across Canada, and what time the train reached a particular destination. 

For example, there are two characters who board the train in Montréal, and are desperate to get to Sicamous, BC, by a certain time and date, and if they don’t make it to Sicamous on time, bad things will happen. I built into these characters that initial anticipation of making it to Sicamous on time, and then eventual dawning horror as the train slows down and one of them realizes they’re not going to make it to Sicamous on time. 

The timetable is also an essential part of the main character Baxter’s job – it’s his way of counting down the time to a day off and “freedom” at the end of the trip, but the day off keeps getting delayed. 

MA: Such intricate work! This is your sixth novel, and you mention in a previous interview that you began working on The Sleeping Car Porter “in-between projects” – is there anything specific that comes to mind that you learned in the process of a previous project that deeply informed your approach to this one? 

SM: I had a lot of false starts early on when I was writing The Sleeping Car Porter. I know that part of my early frustration in the writing of the book was because I was sometimes overly concerned with the historical setting, but I think the difficulty too was that I didn’t quite have the writing chops yet to tackle a historical fiction and the psychology of the main character and the other characters until I’d written all those other books. I really feel I had to write the first five books in order to figure out how to translate the often cloudy or muddy story threads and moods in my head into the words on the page. 

In writing my fourth novel Monoceros, for example, I learned how to juggle a large ensemble of characters, and I learned how to write from the perspective of a queer man; in writing Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall – the book I published just before The Sleeping Car Porter – I figured out how to write claustrophobic physical space as a sustained setting. Writing those books before I wrote The Sleeping Car Porter was essential, now that I look back on it.  

MA: That’s such a powerful thing to know – the way that each project can become a kind of guide. One selfish question – is there any chance that some of the intersecting experiences (or even characters) whose expansiveness you had to refrain from including in the book might end up with their own future projects? 

SM: Good question! I’m not sure. There are definitely characters in the book whom I would love to explore more – the Spider is one character who has a lot of potential; Templeton, Ferdinand, and the little girl Esme are pretty interesting to me. We’ll see!

MA: If willing, please share a short passage from the book that feels most responsive to the event title: “Speaking the Unspeakable: Black Migration, Living Transformations.”

 [Baxter] rambled through more trees and bush, his skin blooming like a flower, the rustles of small animals around his feet, an occasional bat silhouetted up high, the hoot of an owl, mosquitoes clustering to his exposed skin as he slapped at them. 

Behind him, someone cleared their throat.

A tall man leaning against a tree. His skin an indeterminate colour in the dark. 

Lesiuk had tracked him in the dark. Baxter curled his fists, ready to fight. Lesiuk strolled toward him. . . . 

Baxter held his breath, standing too close to Lesiuk, reading him. His nose in line with Lesiuk’s chin, both giving the nod to their invisible contract. 

Lesiuk clenched his jaw, tucked the cigarette behind his ear, and leaned down and kissed Baxter square on the lips.

MA: Thank you again – this book is so powerful, as is your approach – I’m moved and grateful. 

SM: Thank you!