Q and A with Tony Ardizzone, author of THE WHALE CHASER
The Whale Chaser is now in paperback from the Chicago Review Press.
Tell us a little about The Whale Chaser.
The Whale Chaser is about Vincent Sansone, the only son in a large Italian American family, who flees from Chicago to Canada during the turbulent Vietnam era for reasons other than avoiding the draft. His father is the sort who shows his affection with his fists. Vince ends up in Tofino, a hip little fishing town on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where he is eventually hired by Tofino’s most colorful dealer, Mr. Zig-Zag, and joins the thriving marijuana trade. Ultimately, through his friendship with Ignatius George, an Ahousaht native, Vince finds his calling as a whale guide. He tells his story in retrospect, alternating chapters between Chicago and Tofino.
Your main character, Vince Sansone, doesn't always make the best choices - romantic or career-related, but he's so compelling (and of course you need conflict to have a story.) Where did he come from?
I drew from my own experiences, the mishaps of my friends, and my imagination. You know how you can look back at periods in your life and realize that if one or two details had changed, your life would have turned out very differently? Vince has a good heart but like a lot of us he ends up making a lot of well-intentioned mistakes. For one, he feels the need to understand his father’s brutality and rage, which relates to a secret story about the grandfather’s imprisonment during the second World War. Vince also becomes enmeshed in a complex romantic triangle. He’s the fisherman’s son who’s in love with the butcher’s daughter, but at the same time he gets close to an older girl who’s also from an abusive family. It makes for an explosive mix.
So the novel also concerns itself with issues of abuse?
Absolutely. Childhood abuse on all three levels: verbal, physical, sexual. Trauma is central to “The Whale Chaser.” As the novel opens the adult Vince suffers from panic attacks so severe they stop him cold on the street. He’s a member of a therapy group that meets in the back room of Catholic church in Tofino. The book is also about drug and alcohol abuse, as well as Vince’s search for forgiveness and redemption.
Though I’m an abuse survivor, I seldom talk about it. Writing this book and facing some of its subject matter was far from easy. I dedicated the book to a dear friend who was also a writer, a brilliant woman who was sexually abused as a child and later took her life.
The novel spans many years; did you know it would be sweeping in scope when you began?
I do my best to write widely. I’m not the sort of writer who plots or outlines things beforehand. I look at the characters as they stand on the page and do my best to explore them. Vince began as a kid whose father regularly beats him, who needs to escape in some real way. Will it be marrying the butcher’s daughter? Becoming more involved with the older girl? Running away and leaving everything behind? What all of this means is that as I wrote the novel I felt I needed to create or uncover reasons why Vince would do what he does, why his father does what he does, and so on. I needed to explore their backstories as well as move their actions toward resolution.
You write so well about Chicago and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. You're from Chicago and know it well, but did you travel to BC at least once while writing The Whale Chaser?
Nearly twenty years ago I was lucky enough to meet a man from Seattle who owns a house up on the San Juan islands, near the border with Canada, accessible only by float plane or ferry. I’ve gone there every summer since and soon was traveling to nearby Vancouver Island. Tofino is on the island’s far west coast, the literal end of the road, the western terminus of the trans-Canada highway. It’s a town with a single stop light. The end of the road seemed a suitable place for Vince to go once he fled Chicago.
During my stays in Tofino I was helped by several people who very generously taught this kid from Chicago about life on the island, the Pacific ocean, the local marijuana trade, and the whales.
What are you working on now if you don't mind sharing this?
Like so many other people, I’m in love with Rome. My latest work is a linked collection of stories set in Rome between the morning of the devastating December 2004 South-Asian tsunami and the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. The book is tentatively titled By the Fountain of the Four Rivers. The stories cycle around these events as well as the concerns of several characters, both North American and Italian, as well as several recurring figures who live and work in Rome. The book is very Catholic, very much about Rome’s monuments and churches, its essence.