This week, Lee Henderson’s first novel, The Man Game, was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize, and deservedly so. It is a sprawling, brilliant, playful, heartbreaking, and eminently wise book that considers its world with unusual bravery and purpose. It’s easily one of the very best books I’ve read this year. I caught up with Lee Henderson last month, while he was in Toronto for the launch.
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This is your first novel, but unlike many first books it’s not obviously autobiographical. How did your ideas come together?
I think it still is autobiographical, but more symbolic autobiography. I’ve always been doing drawings, and I always thought it was somehow irreverent to draw naked men, and I’d be in writing classes and you’re supposed to write critiques on people’s stories or poems, and I’d just be drawing little naked men for them. It seemed counterintuitive at the time, so I’m always looking for how to draw stories out of very small obsessions like that. I knew that if it was going to take nine years, at least I’d be entertained while I worked on it. And I just tried to take this idea of the man game and basically use it to craft a book that could talk about the historical novel as a genre within literature, as well as something much more contemporary, integrating and absorbing the information and narrative structures of video games, for instance. I was thinking of this idea of combat or competition as a structural cog to keep the book going. And I was also frustrated by some of the CanLit books—the historical novels—which I felt were too committed to a fidelity of the time, trying to match the era word for word. It’s kind of a parlour trick. Not that I don’t love a lot of the straight historical fiction that’s done, but that’s why I wanted to write a historical novel: it’s a Canadian form in a lot of ways.