Costume and Bone and Thirty Years in Literature: a Chat with Lucinda Johnston about her First Book

Lucinda_JohnstonWriter, bookseller, anti-censorship advocate, and longtime Parkdale resident Lucinda Johnston worked at Queen Street West’s legendary Pages Books and Magazines from 1989 until its doors shut in 2009. TRB had a few questions for her as her newly published first book, Costume and Bone, inaugurates a new stage in a thirty-year career in the literary arts in Toronto.

TRB: For decades, Pages Books and Magazines was a gathering force for some of Toronto’s most adventurous arts communities. (Happily its spirit lives on in the Pages UnBound Festival, happening May 7-10 this year.) What was it like working at Pages in the eighties and nineties?

LJ: Pages was a cultural centre as well as a business. Writers, filmmakers and artists used to meet there, by accident or design, and often, when several boisterous groups were gathered at once, it seemed more like a cocktail party than a bookstore. The staff used to joke that, instead of carrying armloads of books to be shelved, we should be bearing trays of drinks and canapés. There was such a wealth of small-press titles, literary journals, art-in-print, poetry pamphlets and zines. We took many thousands of individual projects on consignment. Censorship problems with Canada Customs or some supposed breach of “community standards” required a great deal of attention. When we were still stocking The Satanic Verses after the fatwa, a man held up a copy and set it on fire. The next week, I answered the phone—“Hello, Pages…”—then listened to a grisly bomb threat.

Marc Glassman, the owner of Pages, was enormously generous in not only allowing but encouraging us to borrow books, so I had the opportunity to read and compare works which interested me. I was always discussing the contents of titles with customers as well as staff and I was reminded daily that many people cared deeply about writing.

costume&boneTRB: How did Costume and Bone come into being? What was the process like in writing its two stories, “Raine” and “The Taxidermist”?

LJ: It occurred to me that we all, especially when disoriented, seem to be following narrative patterns which are both personal and learned. I made maps to track where bits of religion and mythology, opera and drama, fairy-tale and verse would lead the characters. Then I sort of wove them all together with figurative language so that the multiple layers are largely covert. The density of the language also articulates a fragmented but available world that is teeming with dilemmas and resources.

“Raine” and “The Taxidermist” are primarily about the body—its functions and frailties, its products and wastes, and the materials and space around it—and about the body as a threatened environment. Family betrayals leave the female characters unable to claim or nurture their own bodies let alone their surroundings and they are desperately seeking control within limited spaces. There is a break-in at the climax of each story and the results demonstrate how having either too little or too much power over an environment can generate disaster.

The title, Costume and Bone, is a phrase from a Michael Ondaatje poem called “White Dwarfs.” The line is: “who exhaust costume and bones that could perform flight.” I was struck by the way the two images work together and the pairing seemed fitting for a book about the body—what covers the body and what lies hidden within.

TRB: What are you working on now?

LJ: I have been working, for a time, on what I am calling an ‘architectural memoir.’ It is a collection of observations, memories, ephemera, maps and drawings of my residences in Toronto, filtered through the poetics of space. The focus of the project is the Queen West area where I’ve lived since 1977, and features my hit-man and burlesque-dancer neighbours in mafia-owned warehouse buildings, the roommates I’ve shared with and the objects I’ve owned. It’s a reflection on archways and windowsills and the contents of refrigerators, about stepping into a closet and falling through rotting floorboards to the apartment below, and the industrial railroad tracks we walked along instead of the streets. I am still obsessed with environments: where they begin and end, what resides within and without, what it means to inhabit or to be contained.