Acclaimed author and columnist shows off his French influences.
By Omar Mouallem | August 1, 2011
Photography by Aaron Pedersen/3TEN; Styling by Michael Meneghetti; shot on location at The Fairmont Hotel Macdonald
Todd Babiak’s fourth novel, Toby: A Man, follows a Montreal TV etiquette expert on a freefall from his place as a media darling. While some readers of Babiak’s well-loved Edmonton Journalcolumn think the similarities end at “media darling,” there is a lot of Todd, the man, in Toby, the character.
The hero’s obsession with clothing and decorum is an exaggeration of his own ideals. “I love the idea that we should follow the rules and dress a certain way,” said the 38-year-old Leduc native during an interview in early April. “Etiquette and politeness and civility are important to me, and it’s the number one thing I teach my children.”
Babiak also injected the story with one of his most painful experiences, the time his father survived being inside a burning car. The Leduc fire department suspected it was self-inflicted behaviour, which was later attributed to brain cancer. Babiak didn’t witness the ordeal, but he sacrificed a TV job in Toronto to help look after his dad. In the book, Toby worries about staining his Hugo Boss suit when pulling his father from a burning vehicle.
It’s that combination of “funny/sad” – the descriptor an editor applied to Babiak’s first published work – that enriches his stories. “The essential condition of humanity is comedy,” he said. “And, if you fail at that, I think you fail in a fundamental way. You can turn out a pretty insufferable person.”
When we met at his Mill Creek home, he is having a great week, being nominated for two literary awards four days apart, the Leacock Medal for Can-lit humour (he didn’t win) and the Alberta Literary Award (George Bugnet award for fiction, which he won). “It’s marvellous,” he said, understating it only with his naturally soft-spoken voice.
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Why do you write?
My parents didn’t push me in this direction. I didn’t come from a home with a lot of books, certainly not a literary culture at all, but in Grade 6 I remember we had half an hour every Monday to write in our diaries or to just write a story. I found it much more fun to just write a story. I made characters out of my family members and wrote little satires about them.
For example, my family was being stalked by the goalie of the New York Islanders, Billy Smith, who’d gone insane, and he was a mass murderer now. And my family had a lake cabin, where he was going to kill them all. And he did slowly kill them all. And I had to save the day. These sorts of things.
And then my teacher called my parents in one day and wept before them. She told them I had to be sent to a psychiatrist immediately or wasn’t going to be in her class anymore.
Because of the Billy Smith story?
Because of many stories. They were all filled with terrible violence that I predicted in a comedic manner. It was hacking and slashing, with a smile on everyone’s faces. So she came to see me as a monster. But my parents reacted well. I remember going home being kind of nervous and then hearing laughter from their bedroom because they were reading the stuff in my diary. And they decided to copy them and give them to all the members of my family for holiday presents.
I remember the moment [I realized] they were all laughing at it – seeing themselves in it and really loving that – though I didn’t think I could make a career out of it until late in my bachelor’s degree.
Do you ever lose sleep to an idea?
Of course. It’s actually a terrible thing to do with your life. You don’t sleep well. It haunts you to know there’s a story that’s not done. If you’re working in print, you do get some satisfaction quite quickly but, if you’re writing novels, it takes a long time to see results.
At a Robert Kroetsch reading, he took my wife aside, very seriously, and said, “It is a painful thing to be with a writer.” I was waiting for him to smile and he didn’t! And my wife looked at me knowing this is true, because you’re always sort of there, but not there. There’s a difficulty in being in the present tense and you have to sort of force yourself to do it.
If you wrote the Great Edmonton novel, who would be the hero and what would he or she want?
Making Edmonton a character and building on the mythology here is something I keep coming back to. Edmonton is still in the process of being formed – that’s a positive thing, it’s very democratic. Anyone can be the hero of an Edmonton novel. It would be really difficult to rule anyone out because I don’t think of anyone as the prototypical Edmontonian. I could walk down any street and find anyone who would be the hero.
What or who would be the antagonist?
Economically, Edmonton’s success can be a problem. The late John Poole, who I greatly admire, during an interview with me shortly before his death, said the thing that disappoints him most about Edmonton is it’s a great place to make your way, but people turn 55 and leave. They feel like this is just a place to make money, that it’s not a place for a serious person to put down roots and fall in love with and stay.
That resonated with me for a long time. One thing I find interesting is, when you do play around with social media, there are so many young people who are investing in Edmonton. People are starting to engage in Edmonton, in its formlessness and its problematic nature. I think his [Poole’s] worry five or six years ago is starting to go away.
You spent a year in France in 2009 and wrote about it in a series of columns. What do you miss the most about life in France?
Walking. For everything. And going for my food, and every commercial need being within a four-block radius, and meeting the shop owners. I don’t like chain stores. I know that’s totally snotty and unfair. I like the availability of France and that unselfconsciousness about it – “It’s just the way we do things!” I love that.
What bothers me about France is people my age and younger, are shopping now at the French version of Superstore on the outskirts because they think there’s some advantage to it.
Did you bring any of the better aspects of French life or French style back? Are you throwing up your peacoat collar?
I am! I brought a lot of things. There’s sort of a rumpled formality that French men have that I admire. I stole from them for sure. That idea that men can dress up is quite normal there. That men can make a signature style is quite normal. Bernard-Henri Lvy – he’s an intellectual, on television every night, and kind of my hero – he has this style where he wears French cuffs but doesn’t do up the buttons, so I’ve tried that a couple of times.
What do people wear out in the towns you were living in?
People don’t go outside in France in sweatpants and yoga pants. You don’t do it. That’s not life. You’re only alive for so long, why would you choose to look like hobos or like people going to the gym? Going shopping there is an event. The flirtation of life is normal there.
Now that you’re back, where do you shop?
I shop mostly on Whyte Avenue. The last place I went for clothes was gravitypope [Tailored Goods] . They have clothes there that fit my body because I’m little, and often I can’t even shop at a big chain store because the clothes are so big. Sometimes I’ll get a shirt that seems to be my size but it’s just enormous.
There are a couple places, like Club Monaco, that understand that some men are small. It took me a while to get used to the idea that I was small. I think for a while I was buying clothes that were too big for me because I thought of myself as a medium.
Do you dress up for work when you write at home?
It helps, actually. I noticed that in France, where I only worked from home.
Does a little discomfort help with dressing for work?
I think so. I don’t want to wear pyjamas or anything pyjama-like. I think being a little restricted makes me feel like I’m engaging in a special activity.
When it comes to your wardrobe, are there rules?
Sure, if there’s a place for a pocket square to go, why not put it in? Footwear is super important. I think people pay a lot of attention to that, so I like to wear proper footwear for an occasion.
You spend a lot of time walking. Does that drive your shoe buying up?
I have about five pairs that I rotate through. I go through them a lot, especially when people are salting [the sidewalk] because it just destroys shoes. Edmonton, and Canada in general is a terrible place for shoes.
How do you describe your style?
I always think I should have lived in a different era. What I like about right now is close-fitting clothes are acceptable. I don’t like baggy, and I know it’s not going to last long, but it’s a fun time for me.
What is your era?
The ’20s. I love the romance of that time and the idealism.
What are some of your favourite pieces?
I have a nice ring, my wedding band, from The Artworks. It says around the ring: “Sing to me, Muse, and through me tell the story.” It’s just tiny, tiny, tiny. I think every time Homer wrote a new stanza, he’d write that at the beginning. I get it cleaned all the time.
I’m also tie-obsessive, and I love pocket squares and scarves.
How much of you is in Toby?
I don’t have an ounce of French blood in me, but what I loved most about France is la politesse, the etiquette that a gentleman is still a gentleman, and there’s still an old-fashioned relationship between men and women. I loved walking into a store, “Bonjour monsieur! Bonjour madame!” It’s very formal. What I hate about here is you walk into a store and it’s like, “Hey man. Hey chief. ‘Sup?” We don’t know each other and I don’t know why we’re engaging at that level.
And the dissimilarities?
Well, there are a lot of dissimilarities. Toby cares so much about fashion and etiquette, but he doesn’t get what’s behind it – that gift that we’re giving to each other in order to make the whole idea of culture work.
We do have to follow certain rules. And exceeding those rules is certainly the best. So holding the door open and saying more than you have to when you’re thanking someone. When people have you over for a drink, to call them the next day and thank them. All of these rules really should be applied to business, to family, to school, to everyone we come in contact with. But we’ve kind of lost that.