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I met Timothy Findley in late August/early September 1999, when he was touring to promote Pilgrim, his penultimate novel. He died in June 2002.

Findley was challenging for a number of reasons, not least of which was my fear of speaking to Great Canadian Authors, which itself stems at least in part from my longtime dislike of Great Canadian Literature. The rest comes from imposter syndrome. That fear had led me to turn down an opportunity to interview Mordechai Richler (for which I am still kicking myself) after he published Barney’s Version, and if the chance to speak to Margaret Atwood had ever arisen, I would probably have run and hidden away. There are interviews you can phone in, there are interviews you can completely bung up, and survive. There are interviews that can be really interesting conversations that don’t translate well into an article. None of those options is open to the interviewer of a Great Canadian Author. One of my guiding influences as a book reviewer was having watched, years earlier, Pierre Berton destroy the young blond journalist interviewing him on TV because she had obviously not read any of his books, except perhaps the one he was promoting at the time. I swore that would never be me — hence my avoidance of Richler. I have read considerably more Atwood but was terrified at the thought of being pinned by one (or worse, both) of her beady dark eyes, examined and found wanting. I figured Atwood would suss me out as a complete idiot within minutes and proceed accordingly.

I expected Findley would be less frightening, overall, than other giants of CanLit, and I’d read a few of his novels, which is why when the chance to interview him came up I accepted it. But another reason why I found the interview challenging was that I didn’t like Pilgrim. It’s been nearly two decades since I read it and I don’t remember what it was I disliked about it, precisely, just that I hadn’t been engaged by the story of a man who cannot die and is doomed to watch history repeat itself across the millennia.

The first thing I said to Findley was that I was afraid of him. He quite disarmingly admitted to being a little frightened of me too — any encounter with a stranger is fraught with the possibility of disaster, he said. And the two of us proceeded to smoke like chimneys in the living room of a tatty little hotel suite in downtown Toronto (nicer hotels were apparently reserved for less-renowned but better-selling authors), with his partner Bill in the bedroom listening, perhaps, for sounds of distress, and keeping an eye on the clock.

We started out talking about the role of art in the world. He saw the job of great art as instructing humanity how not to repeat the errors of the past. It was an interesting take and relevant to the book, so that was the theme of my article in 1999, Findley’s rage over the failure of art.

I always went with a list of questions for what was generally an hour-long author interview. But the interview had to be going really badly for me to refer to them. Better interviewers than I am would probably shudder at my technique (well, let’s call it my technique, as if it was something I thought out, because that sounds better, right?) of sitting down with the author, turning on my tape recorder and letting the conversation flow freely. But I believed, and believe, that when I was able to engage with the author I got a far richer sense of him or her than would the person who remained tied to a list of pre-fabbed questions. I wasn’t always right (I thought this one author, whose entire selling point was his young age, and I had had a quite original interview until I read the same quotes, nearly word-for-word, in a story one of the Toronto papers got to press before I could publish mine), but I always enjoyed the free association of ideas when they happened.

Which is why although Findley and I started out talking about art and the book, we took a very interesting tangent into whether monsters can have artistic vision and create great art, and from there jumped into a conversation about religion.

”The artist is only human, but the vision may be a given that no one else has access to, I do believe that,” Findley said on that long-ago afternoon. ”There are so many artists who are themselves monstrous as people.” He mentions da Vinci and Jung, who both play roles in Pilgrim, as well as Rodin. ”The point is there are these visions and in a sense it doesn’t matter who they come from.”

Take, for example, religious visionaries such as Jesus, or Moses. ”Any of the great figures in any of the great religions, they were probably relatively monstrous as well. In order to get it said, you had to batter your way through to the speaking place to begin with, and then to be heard you had to shout other people down and you had to push people aside.” (Plus ca change, amirite?) And sometimes the things that they say get written down incorrectly, or misinterpreted.

”Paul was monstrous. He destroyed Christ. He destroyed what Jesus was truly about. This is where my hatred (of religion) comes from but I wouldn’t pick up a gun and do anything about it,” said Findley, who was a gay man long before gay was cool, though as an artist – first an actor, then writer and playwright – he was protected by a community that was more welcoming than most. ”I write books.”

Findley told me he didn’t believe in god, but did believe in spirit.

”There’s something that Toynbee wrote that I’ve always admired,” he said. ”His notion was that it was in the moment when Western civilization moved in the direction of creating one god only, that we were doomed. Because prior to that moment everything was holy. Every tree, every blade of grass, every thought, every dog, every person, every finger on your hand, it was all holy, it was all infused with holiness. There were individual gods for all these things and everything was therefore respected in ways that we no longer respect things. (With) one god, you can (be persuaded), ‘Well, I think you should go and kill all the Muslims. And why not go and do it now, in my name’.”

Findley said he had his most spiritual moment in the Canadian far north. ”I’ve never gotten over standing one day in this place and looking up over this landscape that had no ending. Sure the sky was above it but I knew it went so far beyond what I was seeing. I thought, there’s what we have the audacity to call ‘nothing there’ but what is there is the life of all those trees, all those animals, and the continuity of the state of what nature is about. … That was a magical moment for me because I understood partly what spirit is about. I’m connected to that, this is me standing here in this and we are one. … Maybe I will die and discover there’s some awesome, horrifying throne, (and I’ll say to God) ‘Well, we had an argument, didn’t we? I don’t like you.’ But I don’t believe that for a moment. I think it is itself, and that’s what spirit is, it is absolutely, utterly itself. And the greatest manifestation of self, nothing standing in the way or saying hide this bit of me, is nature. And every once in a while a remarkable human being joins that vision or that nature and is utterly revealed as someone who says, ‘I understand.”’

I just reread the story I wrote from that interview, and 16 years later I still think it was pretty good. Here’s how it starts:

”Timothy Findley travels with a little menagerie of toy animals. Sebastien’s the oldest, a teddy bear with all the fur loved off him, whose nose Findley rubs for good luck. There’s a little red cloth bear, a turtle, a wind-up dolphin and the latest addition, a little pink toad that Margaret Atwood gave him when he launched his latest book.

”The motley assembly on the corner of the table, and the sentiment they imply, are an odd counterpoint to Findley, sitting in his hotel room, the long ash of his cigarette holding on with a prayer, expounding on the ways in which art has failed humanity.”

Frankly it was that little menagerie that enabled me to settle down and talk to him, one human being to another. I continued to be terrified that he’d discover I’m a complete idiot and not worthy of his time, but knowing he travelled everywhere with stuffed animals brought this literary giant back down to a size I could deal with. He may have been a great thinker, a great writer, but he was also, in the end, a little old man who was just a bit precious — in all senses of that word.