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Truth-telling with Christopher DiRaddo

Christopher DiRaddo’s The Geography of Pluto is a fierce and frank story of a young guy searching for love in Montreal. Will is a geography teacher dealing both with his mother’s recent cancer diagnosis and a difficult and ambivalent relationship with his first love and ex-boyfriend, Max.

This is a strong and beautifully written debut novel which mines the cultural, physical and emotional geography of Montreal to enact a story of longing and discovery. Among other highlights, DiRaddo is pitch-perfect at capturing the exuberant, heady freedom of 1990s Montreal. I was impressed with so much about the book that I tracked down Christopher and was grateful when he agreed to answer a few questions.

Christopher DiRaddo has published four short stories in anthologies by Arsenal Pulp Press, including the Lambda Literary Award-winning First Person Queer. Currently, he works for CBC Radio in Montreal as a content editor for Canada Writes. The Geography of Pluto is his first novel.

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Congrats on the publication of The Geography of Pluto! From what I understand, this book has been a labour of love for 14 years. How does it finally feel to have it out there into the world? Have you been surprised in any way by the reception to the book?

Thanks Trevor! I’m thrilled to have the book out in the universe. As a writer, you work in isolation for so long. Now I get to talk to readers about their thoughts on the story and its themes. My characters now live on in the minds and imaginations of others. It’s wonderful. A highlight is hearing from people like you – voracious readers I don’t know with whom the book resonated. It makes me feel like I’m not crazy.

I’m always interested in writers and process—particularly when it comes to putting together a large project like a novel. This being your first novel, what were some of the things you learned as you wrote the book?

So many things. Read a lot. Omit needless words. Cut useless dialogue. Trust your instincts. One of the most important things I learned was how to take in criticism – figure out what is helpful and what is not. I’ve learned that you can’t romanticize your writing; you have to be brutal with it. And above all – Tell the truth!

In one interview, you suggested that the novel is in some ways a love letter to Montreal. I’ve spent a lot of time in Montreal and feel like you really nail the city—the quiet atmosphere of the Plateau’s back streets, the stunning views from the top of the mountain, the lively social world of the Village. How has Montreal shaped you as a writer—both its geography and literary community?

Montreal has always had a huge influence on me. It’s beautiful. It inspires me. I’m probably one of the few people who actually like winter. And I appreciate the confluence of languages and cultures you encounter on the street. I fell in love for the first time in Montreal, and I think – when you fall in love in a city – it marks you forever. I don’t think there is any other place like it.

As for the literary community, I feel lucky to be part of such a supportive network of writers. I’ve been a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation for 10 years and benefited from their workshops and mentorship program. I have also worked closely with the Blue Metropolis Foundation for a number of years and got to meet some incredible writers. I have learned so much and made so many great friends.

Another thing I loved about the book is how the narrator, Will, moves between English- and French-speaking Montreal. Will is an Anglo, but his first big love is a francophone guy named Max who lives in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. In many ways you situate the Village as a point of overlap between the city’s French- and English-speaking communities. How important is this fluidity to Will’s identity?

It’s very important. If you really are a citizen of this city you don’t live your life in a bubble. If you’re English you have French friends, you read French newspapers, watch French movies. You are aware of the culture you are surrounded by. I couldn’t imagine Will not knowing who Michel Tremblay is or not being able to see a play in French. I always find it odd when I see a movie or pick up a book that is set in Montreal and the other culture remains invisible.

The novel also explores Will’s coming out story and the terrain of first love with Max. Reading the novel made me think of how few iconic LGBTQ novels are reflected in the Canadian mainstream, despite a relatively large and active number of LGBTQ-identified writers. Who are some of the writers, gay or otherwise, who have influenced your own development? Do you feel part of a larger gay or queer writing community?

I try to read as many books by queer writers as I can. I’m a fan of Edmund White, Felice Picano, Ethan Mordden, Sarah Waters, Scott Heim, Sarah Schulman, Joe Keenan, Chistopher Isherwood. Andrew Holleran had a HUGE influence on me. I reread his books every few years and when I find my prose getting stale I’ll pick up Dancer from the Dance and read several pages in the hopes I can reset my rhythm.

In terms of Can lit, I think Brian Francis’ Fruit is a Canadian classic. Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts was also an important novel for me. It reflected a queer Montreal I remember well (I knew I wanted my book to try and do the same). I’m also a fan of other queer Canadian writers – Peter Dubé, Neil Smith, Daniel Allen Cox, Ivan Coyote, Barry Webster, Greg Kearney. And that’s only naming a few.

I also love that you handle sex with frankness and honesty. Some of the sex scenes are hot, others pretty awkward—but they’re always truthful. This is difficult to do, and sex in general—particularly sex between guys—is often invisible in much Canlit writing. How did you approach writing about sex in your book? What are your thoughts on the politics of sex and sexuality in Canadian literature?

Sex is such a great opportunity for character development. You learn a lot about a person by how they have sex. You’re seeing them at their most vulnerable and exposed. The sex in my book isn’t gratuitous. It helps put you inside Will’s head, whether the scene is erotic or not. I also didn’t want to sanitize the book either. The book is about how gay men search for connection and it would be wrong to not include sex in that story.

The Geography of Pluto is also concerned with exploring the world through geography—physical, emotional, psychic. I was a budding geographer at a younger age and even asked for a globe as a birthday gift when I was in fourth grade. Was geography always so central to the novel, or was it a concern that developed as you wrote?

Geography was always a part of the book (I even had to scale it back a bit). Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by maps. I’d stare at different maps and look for the invisible. People, places, moments. I like looking at things from a different perspective, from above (and I’m addicted to Google Street View).

When I first started writing the book I resisted giving Will a vocation, but the more I wrote the more it made sense for him to see his life through his career. Making him a geography teacher allowed me to explore the nature of geography without it coming out of nowhere or seeming too heavy-handed.

Will is also coming to terms with his relationship with his mother, who we learn early on is struggling with cancer. Your description of their relationship is infused with such tenderness and a deep, if often unspoken, mutual love. Ultimately, the highs and lows of their relationship encourage both Will and his mom to set outside their comfort zones. What were your challenges in creating her character? How has your own mother reacted to the book and to your life as a writer?

The mother character was very difficult to write. I was often thinking of my own mother as I wrote and I kept having to make changes. Although I wanted the closeness that I share with my own mother to be represented in the book I didn’t want the character of Katherine to be my mother.

My mother has always been a great supporter. She is now reading the book, slowly. It’s an emotional experience for her.

You launched the book last month in Montreal and were recently featured in a great profile piece in the Gazette. What are your plans for the book in the coming months? Where can readers and fans see you in action?

I will be reading in Montreal on Saturday, June 14 as part of the “Magical Evening of Canadian Authors”. I’ll also be reading in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal for gay pride celebrations. I’ll add any future events to my EVENTS page. I want to find ways to bring the book to a larger audience so I will continue to look for opportunities to engage with potential readers.

Finally, what’s next for Chris DiRaddo? What are you working on currently?

I’ve taken a little time off from writing, but I hope to get back to it soon. I have three projects currently on the go, but I am at the point now where I need to pick one and go with it. Hopefully it won’t take me another 14 years.

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To learn more about Chris DiRaddo, check out his website or find him on Twitter. He will be reading in Toronto as part of World Pride events on June 29.

Author photo courtesy of Paul Specht.

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