13 minute read

Timothy Findley Biography

Timothy Findley comments:

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, Ontario, 1930. Education: Rosedale Public School, Toronto; St. Andrews College, Aurora, Ontario; Jarvis Collegiate, Toronto; Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, 1950-53; Central School of Speech and Drama, London. Career: Stage, television, and radio actor, 1951-62; charter member, Stratford Shakespearean Festival, Ontario, 1953; contract player with H.M. Tennent, London, 1953-56; toured U.S. in The Matchmaker, 1956-57; studio writer, CBS, Hollywood, 1957-58; copywriter, CFGM Radio, Richmond Hill, Ontario. Playwright-in-residence, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, 1974-75; writer-in-residence, University of Toronto, 1979-80, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, 1984, and University of Winnipeg, 1985.Chair, Writers Union of Canada, 1977-78; president, English-Canadian Centre, International P.E.N., 1986-87. Awards: Canada Council award, 1968, 1978; Armstrong award, for radio writing, 1971; ACTRA award, for television documentary, 1975; Governor General's award, 1977; City of Toronto Book award, 1977, 1994; Anik award, for television writing, 1980; Canadian Authors Association prize, 1985, 1991, 1994; Western Magazine award, 1988; Government of Ontario Trillium award, 1989; Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, 1989; National Radio award, 1989, 1990; Gabriel award, 1990; Crime Writers of Canada award, for drama, 1994; Toronto Arts award, 1994; Gemini award, 1995; Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1996. D. Litt.: Trent University, 1982; University of Guelph, Ontario, 1984; York University, Ontario, 1989; Lakehead University, Ontario, 1995; Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland, 1996. Officer, Order of Canada, 1986. Agent: Virginia Barber Literary Agency, 353 West 21st Street, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.



The Last of the Crazy People. New York, Meredith Press, andLondon, Macdonald, 1967.

The Butterfly Plague. New York, Viking Press, 1969; London, Deutsch, 1970.

The Wars. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1977; New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Macmillan, 1978.

Famous Last Words. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, and New York, DelacortePress, 1981; London, Macmillan, 1987.

Not Wanted on the Voyage. Toronto, Viking, 1984; New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Macmillan, 1985.

The Telling of Lies. Toronto, Penguin, 1986; London, Macmillan, andNew York, Dell, 1988.

Headhunter. Toronto, HarperCollins, 1993; New York, Crown, 1994.

The Piano Man's Daughter. Toronto, HarperCollins, and New York, Crown, 1995.

Pilgrim. New York, HarperCollins, 1999.

Short Stories

Dinner Along the Amazon. Toronto and London, Penguin, 1984; NewYork, Penguin, 1985.

Stones. Toronto, Penguin, 1988; New York, Delta, 1990.

Dust to Dust: Stories. Toronto, HarperCollins, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Island" and "The Long Walk" in The Newcomers, edited byCharles E. Israel. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1979.


The Paper People (televised 1968). Published in Canadian Drama(Toronto), vol. 9, no. 1, 1983.

The Journey (broadcast 1971). Published in Canadian Drama (Toronto), vol. 10, no. 1, 1984.

Can You See Me Yet? (produced Ottawa, 1976). Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1977.

John A. Himself music by Berthold Carriere (produced London, Ontario, 1979).

Strangers at the Door (radio script), in Quarry (Kingston, Ontario), 1982.

Daybreak at Pisa: 1945, in Tamarack Review (Toronto), Winter1982.

The Stillborn Lover (produced London, 1993). Winnipeg, Blizzard, 1993.

The Trials of Ezra Pound. Winnipeg, Blizzard, 1994.


Don't Let the Angels Fall, 1970; The Wars, 1983.

Radio Plays and Documentaries:

The Learning Stage and Ideas series, 1963-73; Adrift, 1968; Matinee series, 1970-71; The Journey, 1971; Missionaries, 1973; The Trials of Ezra Pound, 1990.

Television Plays and Documentaries:

Umbrella series, 1964-66; Who Crucified Christ?, 1966; The Paper People, 1968; The Whiteoaks of Jalna (7 episodes), from books by Mazo de la Roche, 1971-72; The National Dream series (8 episodes), with William Whitehead, 1974; The Garden and the Cage, with William Whitehead, 1977; 1832 and 1911 (The Newcomers series), 1978-79; Dieppe 1942, with William Whitehead, 1979; Other People's Children, 1981; Islands in the Sun and Turn the World Around (Belafonte Sings series), with William Whitehead, 1983.


Imaginings, with Janis Rapaport, illustrated by Heather Cooper. Toronto, Ethos, 1982.

Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer's Workbook. Toronto, HarperCollins, 1990.

From Stone Orchard: A Collection of Memories. Toronto, HarperFlamingo Canada, 1998.



Timothy Findley: An Annotated Bibliography by Carol Roberts and Lynne Macdonald, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1990.

Manuscript Collection:

Historical Resources Branch, National Archives of Canada.

Critical Studies:

Eleven Canadian Novelists by Graeme Gibson, Toronto, Anansi, 1973; Conversations with Canadian Novelists by Silver Donald Cameron, Toronto, Macmillan, 1973; "An Interview with Timothy Findley," in University of Toronto Review, 1980; "Timothy Findley Issue" of Canadian Literature (Vancouver), Winter 1981; Timothy Findley by Wilfred Cude, Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1982; "The Marvel of Reality" (interview) with Bruce Meyer and Brian O'Riordan, in Waves (Toronto), vol. 10, no. 4, 1982; "Prayers Against Despair" by Gilbert Drolet, in Journal of Canadian Fiction 33 (Montreal), 1982; "Whispers of Chaos" by Eugene Benson, in World Literature Written in English (Guelph, Ontario), Autumn 1982; Second Words: Selected Critical Prose by Margaret Atwood, Toronto, Anansi, 1982, Boston, Beacon Press, 1984; "The Dubious Battle of Storytelling: Narrative Strategies in Timothy Findley's The Wars " by Simone Vauthier, in Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature edited by Robert Kroetsch and Reingard M. Nischik, Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1985; Timothy Findley's "The Wars": A Study Guide, Toronto, ECW Press, 1990, and "Front Lines": The Fiction of Timothy Findley, Toronto, ECW Press, 1991, both by Lorraine York; Moral Metafiction: The Novels of Timothy Findley, Toronto, ECW Press, 1991; Praying for Rain: Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, Toronto, ECW Press, 1992, both by Donna Pennee; Timothy Findley: Stories from a Life by Carol Roberts, Toronto, ECW Press, 1994; Writing on Trial: Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words by Diana Brydon, Toronto, ECW Press, 1995; The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje by John Cooke. Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1996; Timothy Findley by Diana Brydon. New York, Twayne, 1998; Paying Attention: Critical Essays on Timothy Findley, edited by Anne Geddes Bailey and Karen Grandy. Toronto, ECW Press, 1998; Buffalo, New York, General Distribution Services, 1998.

There are some who say you should only and always write about what you know. If I had taken this advise, then all my books would be about the theatre, rabbits and cats, a fairly standard version of family life and the road between the farm where I live and the City of Toronto. The fact is, only the rabbits and the cats have made it into my fiction—in one book as the companions of a man in World War I and in another as stowaways on Noah's Ark. Without apology, I must admit that I cannot imagine why I have written what I have. It does occur to me, however, that a thread runs through all my work that has to do with unlikely people being confronted with uncommon events.

* * *

It is an understatement to say that in his writing Timothy Findley engages with the history of the twentieth century. His novels span the Edwardian era, World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, and the end of the millennium. His emphasis on these central historical events is often highly critical. At the end of The Butterfly Plague the narrator paradoxically states "We know that history repeats itself. We also know that it does not." Although reevaluating history is a preoccupation in his writing and although some of his writing has been labeled "historiographic metafiction," Findley's style changes with each novel. He is a literary experimenter—with form, with setting, and with voice—experimenting in the service of social, historical, and political exposition. It is remarkable to think that the stylistically diverse novels Pilgrim, The Piano Man's Daughter, The Wars and Not Wanted on the Voyage are creations of the same author, yet it is less surprising if one considers the similarities in the novels' central thematic concerns.

Although the stories differ dramatically in plot and form, the symbolic content of Findley's work is often predictable. His writing proliferates with scenes of violence, loneliness, animal rights, abuses of power, madness, and apocalyptic visions. Indeed, Findley himself jokingly points to his own recurring images and themes: "It came as something of a shock…to discover that for over thirty years of writing my attention has turned again and again to the same unvarying gamut of sounds and images…. I wish I hadn't noticed this. In fact, it became an embarrassment and I began to wonder if I should file A CATALOGUE OF PERSONAL OBSESSIONS. The sound of screen doors banging; evening lamplight; music held at a distance—always being played on a gramophone; letters written on blue-tinted note paper; robins making forays onto summer lawns to murder worms; photographs in cardboard boxes; Colt revolvers hidden in bureau drawers and a chair that is always falling over." Added to this list should be the butterfly—an image that proliferates in works ranging from the Butterfly Plague to Pilgrim. This catalogue also points to Findley's favorite technique of dramatically placing disturbing elements in an ordinary context (a gun in a drawer).

Findley began professional life as an actor touring Canada, the United States, and Britain but turned to writing in his early thirties with the encouragement of his mentor, the playwright, Thornton Wilder. Over the course of his career he has written several notable plays: John A. Himself, The Stillborn Lover, and Can You See Me Yet? Nevertheless, he is most well known for his fiction, which, indeed, retains a sense of drama in its evocation of startling visual images, its ear for dialogue, and most interestingly, the way in which characters momentarily step out of a scene to comment on their own actions within the scene. This is done with the use of "voices" that follow central characters throughout the narratives. In Not Wanted on the Voyage, the voices of Mottyl the Cat repeatedly come to her rescue, whereas in Pilgrim, the voices of Carl Gustav Jung are his conscience and are always in judgment of his actions. The use of the "voices" technique provides yet another layer of narration in what are already multi-voiced narratives. We know we are never to trust anything as the "truth" in Findley's works and, indeed, we are never really able to know what are "the telling of lies."

In his first novel, The Last of the Crazy People, Findley presents a child, obsessed by the futility of his family's existence in a post-war world, who eventually massacres his entire family as the logic of childhood and the logic of insanity blend together. In The Butterfly Plague Findley takes us into the late thirties in Hollywood, where the fate of a family threatened with an inherited disease parallels the rise of the Nazism and the breakdown of civilization in Europe.

In his next two novels, Findley revisits the horrors of the First and Second World Wars. In The Wars, the story of the breakdown of Robert Ross, a young Canadian soldier, is pieced together by a researcher searching through boxes of letters and photographs that provide only clues to Robert's life. Like his researcher in this novel, Findley's research is impeccable. He knows the periods of which he writes in depth, and in The Wars, he actually creates a deeper illusion of authenticity by presenting the story as the product of an intensive reconstruction of events, even to the extent of inventing taped interviews with survivors of the war who remember Robert and his quixotic attempt to rescue a troop of horses doomed to death.

Moving from the First to the second World War, Famous Last Words is a work of elaborate artifice in which fictional figures mingle with "real" famous people in history. Famous Last Words tells the story of a writer who relates his flirtation with fascism and with fascists such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Ezra Pound by writing on the walls of the Grand Elyseum Hotel. For Diana Brydon, the novel is significant because it tries to understand the attraction of fascism (and other forms of intolerance) without trying to "demonize" it. The novel is narrated by Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a minor character in the work of Ezra Pound made major by Findley. Mauberley has written his version of history on sixteen walls of the hotel. The story is only found by American soldiers along with Mauberley's frozen, mutilated corpse well after his death.

Not Wanted on the Voyage takes us far back from the world of war to Genesis. A retelling of the Noah's ark story from Genesis, the story features a decrepit lozenge-sucking Yaweh; a domineering, vivisecting, rapist patriarch, Noah Noyes; a marinated blue embittered Japeth; a gin-drinking and Edwardian song piano playing Mrs. Noyes; a largely benevolent androgynous Lucy/Lucifer figure; a blind cat named Mottyl; and a host of other talking animals (including sheep that sing hymns). This novel literally pits the marginalized figures of the lower orders on the lower decks of the ark (women, children, workers, animals) against the upper orders, or those with power. Findley bravely challenges the biblical story of Noah's ark from the opening line of the novel: "Everyone knows it wasn't like that" to the closing line when Mrs. Noyes prays: "She prayed. But not to an absent God. Never, never again to the absent God, but to the absent clouds, she prayed. And to the empty sky. She prayed for rain."

In The Telling of Lies, Findley takes another turn, this time towards mystery. It is the unraveling of the death of pharmaceutical industrialist Calder Maddox. Set in a seaside hotel in Maine, the novel intricately weaves together a story of personal loss and corporate greed. The mystery is complicated by the gradual emergence of the story of the narrator's time in a Japanese concentration camp in World War II.

While The Telling of Lies takes on the pharmaceutical companies, Headhunter addresses the structural problems of psychiatric institutions while delving deeply into intertextual worlds. The novel opens: "On a winter's day, while a blizzard raged through the streets of Toronto, Lilah Kemp inadvertently set Kurtz free from page 92 of Heart of Darkness." The story follows both Kurtz and Lilah through the streets of Toronto as Lilah searches for a Marlow to help her capture Kurtz and return him to Conrad's novel. However, Kurtz has become the head of the fictional Parkin Institute of Psychiatric Research. He has become a modern day "harbinger of darkness…horror-meister…headhunter." Writing about Headhunter, critic Marlene Goldman demonstrates Findley's incorporation and secularization of the apocalyptic paradigm through the recursive use of literary intertextuality; a visionary narrator with a transhistorical perspective; and a small group of "the elect" who battle the corrupt forces at work in their community. Yet, Goldman notes that while this narrative invokes the apocalyptic vision, Findley "simultaneously counters this vision with a more earthly and historically oriented perspective." Even his futuristic vision is somewhat grounded in the problems of history.

If Headhunter is a horrific vision of the future, then The Piano Man's Daughter is a more optimistic vision of the past. Twenty-nine-year-old piano tuner Charlie Kilworth tells the story of his mother's life, death, schizophrenia, and pyromania and in the process reveals his own story and the story of past and future generations. The novel explores the inheritance of "madness" as a blessing and a curse. Two of Findley's most vividly painted tableaus are in this novel. The first is the act of giving birth in a field and the second is the act of performing emergency brain surgery on a kitchen table. The beauty and precision of each of these scenes remains with the reader well after the story has been read.

Pilgrim is another foray into the world of the insane (and another questioning of what it means to be labeled insane). The central character, Pilgrim, is "a determined suicide who, by all appearances [is] unable to die." The novel shifts between a mental institution in Zurich in 1912 and Florence in 1497. It, too, unravels like a mystery as Carl Gustav Jung, the psychiatrist in charge of Pilgrim, reads the journals of a man who appears to have been as present in 1497 as he is in 1912. The elegance of this novel lies in the manner in which Findley reveals 400 years of stories with such suspense that it is sometimes nearly impossible not to continue reading. The craftsmanship of Pilgrim surpasses Findley's other works, except perhaps Not Wanted on the Voyage, as he beautifully draws us into a world of deceit, betrayal, power, love, and death (again). Somehow, however, although Findley has returned to his favorite obsessions and we know that he repeats himself, we also know that he does not.

—Laura Moss

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Trevor Edwards Biography - Accepted Wisdom from His Mother to Francisco Franco (1892–1975) Biography