I am an author, actor, and visual artist living in Toronto, Ontario. Educated as an anthropologist with field experience in Kenya, my primary interests orbit the binary system of science and history, although I have a natural inclination for the uncomfortable, the unintuitive, and the deeply weird. The Perpetual Now is my first novel. You can find out more about me and my process by visiting my personal blog at JeromeBourgault.com.
What inspired you to write this book?
I worked as a French tutor a few years ago, and I was using Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince to teach reading and comprehension. My mind kept coming back to the idea of an encounter between a young boy (who was a skeptic like myself) and an extraordinary entity taking the form of a human child. The exchanges between my two protagonists were originally full of sweet and whimsical banter, replete with “Why is the sky blue?” -kind of reflections. Had the novel been published in those early days, it would have been a children’s book, lavishly illustrated in watercolours and pastels.
But, as it turns out, I’m not that kind of writer. My voice, I discovered, was something more akin to David Mitchell with a healthy dollop of Stephen King. I still loved the idea of the fantastic encounter with an otherworldly being, but I knew it had to be rooted in reality and presented in a context that felt familiar. The narrative was then set in rural northern Ontario, a place I know well, and the novel took on a much darker, grittier tone.
Where did you get the inspiration for your characters?
I’d too often seen skeptics depicted in popular culture as nerdy nay-sayers, aloof, over-educated, and generally uninteresting. It’s a portrayal that had always saddened me, so I created a family of critical thinkers that, despite a few flaws, was an antidote to that stereotype : funny, whip-smart, and deeply compassionate, full of love and curiosity. I didn’t have to look far for inspiration: this was pretty much the household I grew up in.
The fictional town of Ferguston features very prominently in the novel. It feels very much like a real place: how did it come into being?
To set the right tone in this book, I needed to capture the feeling of isolation and the vulnerability of being cut off from larger segments of society. There aren’t that many places in the province where you can feel that as acutely as up north. Plus I have some personal history there: I know the landscape, the people, the politics. I also I wanted to give it the distinctly francophone flavour that I grew up with. All that describes northern Ontario.
So, I had a general idea of the location, but because my town was going to be a decisively nasty place, with more than its share of anger, violence, intolerance, and economic stagnation, I knew I couldn’t use an actual existing community. It also needed to be relatively small because I wanted the distinct character and colour of a modest northern hamlet — the kind of place where everyone knows everybody else’s business — but large enough that the action of the story could be easily contained within its borders. Thus was born Ferguston, Ontario (population: 8,078).
Each part of the novel is prefaced by a quotation from one of the characters. The first one, attributed to Justin’s dad, could be seen as a bit provocative: “Someday, and that day may never come, you’ll find you’re the only person in the room who’s right.” Can you talk a bit about that?
Yes, it is a bit provocative and I almost didn’t include it. Some readers might object to what sounds like an unfashionable lack of relativism: that it’s possible for one person to be right while everyone else is wrong. It’s a situation that skeptics and critical thinkers (like Justin, my central character) may experience if they find themselves alone in rejecting popular misconceptions, urban legends, old wives’ tales, etc. It happened to me as a kid. You see it most typically in populations that are demographically homogenous, which wouldn’t be unusual in Ferguston.
But there are three important reasons why I chose to include the quotation. One, that the popularity of a position doesn’t make it correct. This may seem obvious, but as a young person I was always annoyed by the attitude that “x-number of people can’t be wrong.” Well of course they can. I remember a high school teacher who actually asked for a show of hands in order to prove to me that the premise of a very popular pseudo-documentary film about aliens was correct, and that I (the lone outlier who disagreed with it) was wrong. I was devastated. The validity of an idea should be determined by evidence, not a vote. Two, the important thing that Martin Lambert is trying to communicate to his son is not that you should be content and smug in knowing you’re right and everyone else is wrong, but rather how you handle yourself in that kind of situation: with grace and patience and diplomacy, knowing that the facts are on your side even if others don’t see it right away, and that you’ll never succeed in changing everyone’s minds. Third, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself in such a situation anyway, and it would be the very pinacle of hubris to assume you’re always the sole voice of reason.
Tell us about your influences, for this book and generally. What were you reading when you wrote your novel?
There was a lot! Initially I wanted to read how other authors got into the heads of young people, particularly kids who were somehow a bit unusual, on the fringe in some way. There was no shortage. The highlights for me were The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, the WWW trilogy (Wake, Watch, Wonder) by Robert J Sawyer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Mitchell and Tartt in particular had an immense impact on me and my characters for a major part of my journey.
Also looming large me, for different reasons, was Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. I found his imagery and the way he conveys the sense of isolation to be absolutely haunting.
Then, of course, there were the authors whose works had lived with me for years, decades even, before I even began. Carl Sagan’s one and only work of fiction, Contact, is one of them, along with The Demon-Haunted World, an absolutely essential book on skepticism and critical thinking. Stephen King helped inspire my vision for Ferguston, and his influence can be seen in a lot of the dialogue as well. And as I mentioned earlier, one of the original inspirations for the novel was de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. The character of Billie was largely born out of that and, oddly enough, the Netflix series Stranger Things.
And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the music that was playing in the background much of the time. If this novel had a soundtrack, it would be dominated by the likes of Daniel Lanois, Cowboy Junkies, and the Tragically Hip.