Thomas Trofimuk talks about his latest novel, the writing life, and what it means to be a clown
By Cory Schachtel | January 5, 2023
Imagine this. You’re a 20-something college student taking night classes to get your degree in professional writing. One night, your teacher invites a local author to speak to the class about what his writing life is like. A thousand words a day, he says, no matter what. Rain, shine, sickness or Christmas — until the word count breaks a grand, the day isn’t done. That’s what his writing life is like.
Now imagine 15 years later. You’re a magazine writer producing about a thousand words per week, interviewing that author about his new book over a shared plate of fries. You bring up your college memory, which he vaguely recalls.
“I’m up to 1,500 words,” he says, “but that’s only when I’m working on a novel. Did I also tell the class how when I first started writing, I thought women were gonna swoon and I was gonna get laid a lot?” He grabs a fry. “That didn’t happen.”
However many words he tallies daily, Thomas Trofimuk writes a lot — he didn’t even notice me approach the table as he scribbled in his notebook. Between novels, instructing at YouthWrite and sending out his weekly short story Sorbet newsletter (which often starts by telling the reader to imagine this), the self-described “failed Buddhist” is always writing — or helping others write — another story to send out into the world.
The story of his latest novel is simple, in one sense: There’s an elephant on a bridge, and it needs to escape. But the bridge is in Prague, Czechia, a city of over a million people, and The Elephant on Karlův Bridge tells damn near every one of their stories (or at least the stories of the people hanging around the bridge).
We start with the bridge itself, which has a centuries-old voice as a secondary, intermittent narrator that opens the book and many chapters. We meet the zoo’s nightwatchman, who wasn’t watching when Sal the elephant escaped. Then we meet his psychologist wife, who’s thinking about having a baby — and about her ballet dancer client who’s been discussing the nearing end of her career with a long-dead, legendary ballerina. We meet three sisters whose cab, in a rush to get them to the hospital to visit their dying father, hits a street-performing clown. And we meet the clown.
There’s the former special forces lieutenant now guarding the pregnant body of an ultra-rich socialite, both of whom have “issues with morality.” Through the internal voice of Sal, and his elephant ancestors, we hear stories and hymns about African elephant life and find out how this one ended up in Prague to begin with. There’s a conductor and a choir. There are fantasies, memories and affairs scattered across the single-degree stories that give a 360-view of the story of an elephant escaping a bridge.
If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. A time-and-world-spanning story bricked together by a bunch of seemingly bonus stories is part of Trofimuk’s style, and he’s at the height of his engineering powers. “I’m not sure I’ll write another book with this many characters — I really don’t know,” he says. “But I love when I read a book and I notice one little detail from way back in the beginning reverberates at the end, and so I tried to do that. But even if you’re just reading it for the stories alone, it still works.”
The main narrative idea came from Edmonton, nearly a century ago. “There was a really bad circus that came to Edmonton in 1926, around the beginning of August. A dog spooked the herd of 14 elephants, and they ran down Jasper Avenue. Eventually, they contained them, except for one that roamed Edmonton for an entire day. And I just thought, How the fuck do you lose an elephant?”
Then the research started. Trofimuk spent a day with Lucy the elephant at the Valley Zoo, and longer on Google Street View, virtually wandering the many streets and bridges in Prague until he picked the Karlův. He used the life experience of watching a knee injury force his daughter out of dance classes after eight years, then sought out new experiences by going to clown school, where he “learned that clowns never try to be funny, they try to be honest, and they’re self-centred about it,” and seeing a psychiatrist, which “after three sessions, I found that I fucking loved it — for an entire hour someone was focused on me!”
So, five novels in, what would the author advise a new class of young writers to do, if they want to become better writers? “Don’t hang out with other writers. Because you’ll just get drunk and get in trouble. If you want to become a better writer, hang out with readers — and listen to them.”
Trofimuk listened to six beta readers for this novel, all women, “because if you look at the demographics of who’s actually reading novels today, it’s mostly women. My market is young and middle-aged women.” I say that reminds me of advice from another author, who said that as writers, we aren’t competing with each other, we’re competing with people who don’t read.
“That’s a good point,” Trofimuk says as the young woman serving us takes our empty plate and passes the machine. While we awkwardly wait for the receipt to print, I make small talk by asking if she’s a big book reader.