The Canadian talks bears, the magic of heights, and the freckles on his late father’s forearms.
Charles Foran is the author of 12 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestselling biography of Mordecai Richler, Mordecai: The Life & Times, and the novel Planet Lolita. His work has won major literary awards, including the Hilary Weston Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Taylor Prize, a Canadian Jewish Book Award, and two QSPELL prizes. His new work is Just Once, No More: On Fathers, Sons, and Who We Are Until We Are No Longer. Foran lives in Toronto.
Just Once, No More opens before you were born with a story of your father facing down and killing a bear. Why start there?
A defining characteristic of our species is that we look for meanings to our lives while we are living them. Individual ego narratives born of roads not taken, existential “aha” moments, tragedies foretold and unfolding. We do this as though we are, what, exceptions to the planetary rules of impersonality? Mini gods? I think we are storytelling animals because we are thinking about ourselves being ourselves all the time. We are hopelessly, helplessly self-aware and — because we are engaged in this grinding metacognition — under the impression we steer the ships of our lives.
To keep up this sweet fiction involves imagination and exaggeration; in other words, telling stories that portray us in heroic mode. My father withheld most of the key details that defined his experience of being in his own skin until his final months on earth. Or he did so with me, at least. But the killing-the-bear tale was one he was happy to share with his son over and over, starting when I was a boy. A man alone in the bush, solitary and defiant, confronting a fearsome creature on a moonlit path. That is the story my father wanted me to appreciate and to remember. As I was embarking on a meditation, via a father-son relationship, on who we are until we are no longer, I decided to open the book with his heroic narrative largely to honor it and him.
While the memoir focuses on your father’s death, you also discuss the death of your friend, the painter David Bierk. Is he acting as a companion to your father? A counterpoint?
For sure, I wanted to eulogize David Bierk in the book — as I wanted to eulogize Dave Foran. During the short time I knew David Bierk, he was in [the] late stages [of] leukemia. For every minute of every day, he radiated only optimism and excitement about the future. Yet the late paintings of his I found most arresting were these landscapes that tilted clearly into the post-human. This devotion to painting himself out of the picture, in effect, was very moving — why we make art in the twilight of our lives. Twenty years later, I am even more astonished by how David managed his leave-taking, as both an artist and a man.
You organize the memoir through juxtaposition rather than chronology. What did that offer you?
The book wants to show a mind in motion. It wants to capture how we circle our preoccupations, the sadness and joy that keep us awake at night. The structure, designed to regulate the mayhem of metacognition, is of a bicycle wheel: 12 chapters, or spokes, before my father’s death, and 12 chapters/spokes afterwards. In the middle lies the hub of his final days. The reader should enjoy the motion, the movement, more than the destination. Around and around we go, right? Especially, I think, as we age.
The book contrasts your father’s refusal to look at his past with your own stories of things that didn’t actually happen — like the disastrous hike with your daughter. How is your fiction related to your father’s silence?
I sometimes wonder if deep trauma inhibits the healthy flow of fancy, of conjecture, of looking up ahead — or looking back — without instinctive anxiety and dread. My father, who experienced trauma as a boy, kept largely silent about both past and future, almost as though he was perpetually playing a bad hand of cards and needed to keep them close to his chest. Lucky me, I am largely trauma-free and almost too willing to show my cards. (See below.) At a guess, traumatized people make better card players.
How does your own health affect your relationship to the book?
Just Once, No More unfolds between 2015 and 2018. Towards the end of the narrative, I am diagnosed with coronary disease and have five stents put in my heart. I write about this upset and meditate on how I am changed by it. Then, in February of 2023, while the book was being printed, the stents collapsed, and I underwent a triple bypass. Bypasses are startling bodily intrusions. They tend to occlude all light around them. For the first few weeks after the operation, I couldn’t remember much about what I had written. Life had, in turn, occluded art, showed it who casts the BIG shadow. Now, with health returned and time passed, I am seeing more balance. Life just goes on. Art just stops. Or is it the other way around?
The anecdotes in Just Once, No More frequently involve places with great views — the Dun Aengus, the mountain trail with your daughter, the windows of your office. Why is great height important?
Apparently, most people aren’t afraid of being dead. It’s the dying that triggers the terrors. From atop a cliff, a mountain, a high floor in an office building, you sense how astonishing and beautiful the world is. Also, how impersonal: It really isn’t about you, about us. Anyway, then you take a wrong step, lean out too far, have a heart attack, and you plunge downwards. The fall is about you and is terrifying.
Your physical memory of your father centers on the freckles of his forearm — not more conventional choices like his face or his eyes. Why are those freckles so vivid?
As a kid, I sat in my father’s lap imagining I was a ship navigating the islands of freckles along his forearms. As an adult, I had those same freckle archipelagos available for my daughters to navigate. In the book, I write about “the movement of blood and memory through bodies and time.” I call this movement a “seam” and note how it keeps opening and closing. Jump in, jump out. Appear, disappear, reappear. Everyone is under the impression that faces and eyes are defining. No one thinks this about skin. But skin is what we are all in. And boy, are we all in it.
John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.