Learn more about The Bliss House by Jim Bartley in this insightful and entertaining Q&A!
Q: Jim, seems like you've got a story here about a misfit family living on a farm in 1963. Not only are they majorly dysfunctional, they're drawing the interest of police and nosy neighbours from their habit of messing around with dead bodies.
A: All true. But don't forget the live bodies. There's some life-affirming "messing around" there to compensate.
Q: You're talking about Cam and Wes, your two lead characters?
A: I am. "Kissin' cousins," they used to call them back in the day. Life on the farm has always had its secrets.
Q: Including some incinerated human bones down in the swamp?
A: Wes makes bad choices. Cam tries to fix them. What they can't fix is the bad luck of being queer in a time and place where nobody, not even themselves, can really define it or live it.
Q: So you've written a fractured love story?
A: That's really how I saw it as it emerged from my subconscious. I'm a mix of total romantic and societal cynic. I guess the 1963 setting was a way of punching up the moralist dogmas that still oppress those of us whose love or sexuality challenges the so-called norm. Cam and Wes are basically lost and damaged teenagers, even though one of them is 27.
Q: Your third major character is a 6-year-old girl who gets almost as much page time as the guys. Why that choice?
A: Ah, little Dorie -- quite a handful that girl. I think she's the wild child still buried inside me. As she evolved with the story, I realized she was what made Cam and Wes a family. With Gran dead and buried and Gramp's charred body parts out in the marshland, there's no one in charge anymore. Wes and Cam accept that they are the caregivers and guardians now. But it's a steep learning curve.
Q: And one that ends in blood. Some might call Wes homicidal, a sociopath even.
A: He's got a temper, absolutely, and maybe an issue with impulse control. But in his heart he's not a killer. He puts his life on the line for Cam.
Q: Let’s talk setting. You move from pastoral countryside to remote northern wilderness. The landscapes – and the period particulars — cars and farm machinery and so on — often feel as present as the characters.
A: That’s intentional. I wanted a world that’s not like the one we live in now, blighted by screen time and the virtual. A world that's closer to primal things. Closer to the human desires and needs and failures that tech wizardry will never change.
Q: At one point you have Wes face-down in the dirt, an enraged “wild man” tasting mud and blood.
A: Right. As he chokes the life out of Dorie’s deadbeat Dad.
Q: Just a question of impulse control?
A: Just a guy who knows his chosen family, and defends it to the max.
Q: And, of course, none of your characters represent real people.
A: Oh, they do. But people I’ve never met. Or parts of myself I wisely keep suppressed.
Jim Bartley was a playwright before he took to prose. His first two novels were set mainly in Balkan war zones. The Bliss House breaks the mould, riffing on Jim’s powerful love of rural and wild landscapes. He lives in Toronto and Dufferin County, Ontario.