Don’t shake in sheets; laugh yourself to sleep

Bookmarks spotlights the personalities and published books of faculty, staff and alumni.

Today, Western Law professor Randal Graham, author of Beforelife, answers questions on his ‘bookishness’ and writing.

Beforelife is the satirical tale of Ian Brown, who finds himself in an afterlife where no one else believes in a ‘beforelife.’ The other residents of the afterlife have mysteriously forgotten their pre-mortem lives and think anyone who remembers a mortal life is suffering from a mental disorder called the “beforelife delusion.”

Since its release last fall, the book has found amazing success. Beforelife won the Independent Publishers Book Awards Gold Medal for fantasy fiction, and was long-listed for the 2018 Leacock Medal for Humour. Graham has been signed for at least two more books in the series, starting with Princk in 2019. The film rights have been optioned to a Canadian screenwriting company.

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What book do we find you reading tonight?

Thud! by Terry Pratchett. I feel a bit guilty re-reading it for the fourth or fifth time, given the large pile of ‘to be read’ books looming over me, but it’s one of the most emotionally satisfying books I’ve ever read. I’m doing a lot of writing this summer, and I find that I’m at my best when reading something wonderful. Thud! is one of my all-time favourites.

How you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, maybe occasionally judge a book by its cover?

I tend to find an author I like and then binge-read everything he or she has written. One summer I read everything ever written by P.G. Wodehouse. Another summer I read most (but not all) of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The collected works of Douglas Adams account for another summer. Another factor is availability in audio format: about half of my ‘reading’ is done via audiobook.

Name one book you wish you had written. And why.

Right ho, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse. It contains the single most perfectly written scene in English comedy (so far as I can tell). The scene is called The Prize Giving at Market Snodsbury. I still can’t get through it without laughing out loud to the point of tears. Pro-tip: Listen to the audiobook version recorded by Jonathan Cecil. His performances of the various characters in all Jeeves & Wooster books are masterful.

Name one book you could never finish. And why.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett. This is the last Discworld book Pratchett wrote before he died, while he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His last couple of Discworld books are a lot less joyful and gripping than his earlier work, and I prefer to remember him at the height of his powers. Don’t get me wrong – anything written by Pratchett is well worth reading – a Pratchett beset by disease is still Pratchett. But reading his final work just makes me sad. Someday I’ll force myself – but not today.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. I’m about the least New Agey person you could hope to find, but I needed this book as research material for Beforelife.

Any genres you avoid? And why.

Horror. I’ve read one terrific comedy/horror book (Husk by Corey Redekop), but I generally don’t enjoy horror novels. As you can tell from my typical choices (Adams, Wodehouse and Pratchett), I’d prefer to laugh myself to sleep, rather than hide under the bedsheets.

If you could require every university president to read one book, what would it be? And why.

University presidents have unenviable jobs. Refer back to my answer on the book I wish I had written: Right ho, Jeeves!. Some of the presidents I’ve met could use a good laugh.

What sort of objects are must-haves in your writing environment?

Does a cat count? No writer should be without a cat. Mine is named Penelope, and she has been a great help with the last three books I’ve written. For me personally – most of my best writing is done outdoors, in our backyard, surrounded by gardens.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I’m becoming a bit tiresome: Wodehouse, Pratchett and Adams. But since there are more seats than that at our dinner table, I’d throw in Stephen Leacock, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and Ursula K. Le Guin. Now that would be a party.

How do you explain what your latest book is about to them?

I suppose I’d start with the two lines that have become the tagline for the book:

“It’s OK if you don’t believe in the afterlife. The people who live there don’t believe in you, either.”

In essence, the plot focuses on a newly deceased protagonist who winds up in an afterlife where no one else can remember having lived a ‘pre-mortem’ life – they believe that everyone simply ‘pops’ into existence in the afterlife. Anyone who purports to remember having lived a mortal life is confined in a mental institution and treated for Beforelife Delusion.

My main character can’t be convinced that his memories are delusions, so he scours the afterlife for any sign of his wife in the hope that she remembers him. Throughout the book, he’s pursued by some of history’s greatest heroes and villains, all of whom seem unhealthily obsessed with stopping the protagonist and keeping the Beforelife under wraps.

What is the best line you have ever written?

That’d be when I wrote my name on my marriage license application, since that has turned out pretty well. But in terms of actual composition? Probably “The truth will be revealed periodically.” It’s in Beforelife, and you’ll need some context to appreciate it – but this is a spoiler-free zone.

Who would you want to write your life story?

Anyone I want?  Well … me. I hate the whole idea of mortality – hence a book set in the afterlife. So I’d prefer to be around forever. Anyone who wants to know my story could just ask.

Beforelife by Randal Graham (ECW Press, $19.95) is available through The Book Store at Western, Amazon, Chapters/Indigo, Barnes and Noble, and pretty much anywhere you buy books.