Two timelines blend together in novel written as sequel to another writer’s 1941 tale

Readers looking for a good story won’t need to be familiar with the original, Gowan promises

“The best thing about writing is the process itself,” says author Lee Gowan about his fourth novel, The Beautiful Place. It’s a contemporary story about a man who loses his job, wife, and home, and then tries to rescue his grandfather’s frozen body from a high-security cryonics facility – the titular Beautiful Place, named after the place where ancient Egyptian pharaohs were prepared for the afterlife.

This particular writing process took 11 years, and Gowan drew inspiration from several sources, especially Sinclair Ross’s 1941 novel As For Me and My House.

“I grew up on a farm near Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and the fictional town Sinclair wrote about in his novel,” says Gowan. “This book was important to me as a young writer because it demonstrated that you could write a great novel about the place where I was born.”

When, in 2009, his boss Ed Carson at the University of Toronto suggested he write a sequel to Sinclair’s novel, Gowan took up the challenge.

“The idea intrigued me and I went back to read [Sinclair’s] book again and again,” says Gowan. He also read Keath Fraser’s memoir about Ross. “At that point, my novel began to take on shape and form.”

Gowan’s novel follows the grandson of Ross’s character Philip Bentley. As Gowan explains, “Philip Bentley, one of the main characters in As For Me and My House, is a minister who doesn’t believe in God. In The Beautiful Place, the Bentley character also struggles with the hypocrisy of his chosen path; he’s a cryonics salesman who doesn’t believe in cryonics.” Both characters share artistic leanings – the grandfather toward painting, the grandson toward writing.

Other devices reminiscent of Ross’s book provide rewards for readers of both novels. One similarity is the journal format. In Gowan’s novel, however, the narrative hopscotches between 1986 Vancouver and 2012 Toronto. “The alternating timelines reflect Bentley’s struggle to come to terms with his past in order to find his beautiful place,” says Gowan.

Lee Gowan
Lee Gowan

This technique proved challenging. “It’s tricky working with two different timelines in a novel, but it’s something I’m drawn to and have done before,” he says. “It made the revision process a bit like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, as I searched for places where I could weave from present to past and back again without, hopefully, distracting the reader too much. The hardest part was finding the right place to start.”

Gowan also strayed from the strict realism of Ross, introducing the element of cryonics, a concept to which Gowan’s son had introduced him. “Writing a sci-fi As For Me and My House appealed to me because I like mixing genres and straining the conventions of genre.”

Readers of this novel do not have to be familiar with As For Me and My House to appreciate it, however.

The Beautiful Place should have a particular resonance for Canadians, but I think it might also appeal to readers from anywhere in the world,” says Gowan, “as long as they like a good story. Most of all, I hope they can see themselves in my characters.”