An Evil God’s Infinite Worlds: An Interview with Chris Scott

George Salis: From the appropriated characters to the self-conscious anti-structure, your first novel Bartleby (1971) seems to share a deep affinity with Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew (1979), yet it was published almost a decade before that novel. From what literary or extra-literary wells did you sip? That of Luigi Pirandello, perchance? Samuel Beckett? Surely John Barth.

Chris Scott: I missed meeting Barth by a year or so when I spent 1968-69 as a Fulbright Scholar at Penn State, the mise-en-scène for Giles Goat-Boy, but we corresponded about an early piece of mine, set in Puritan New England, Extracts from the Journal of Ernest Suitable. Barth, I recall, found some of my devices too Apollonian. But, yes, he was an influence; so, obviously, was Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Authorand more generally Sam Beckett’s bleak humor. Formally, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman far outweighed these others. Using Lockeian philosophy and Hartleian associationalism, Sterne “deconstructed” the novel before it was dreamt of or before the word “deconstruction” was coineda quite astonishing and dyschronic achievement, really. Well, I wanted to do the same to the twentieth-century novel whose protagonists in Bartleby have escaped from their books and are running wild in mine. They have to be rounded up by the hermit De’Ath and the sexually precocious five-year-old Bartleby, whose name I took from Melville’s story because of his “I would prefer not to make any change.” Well, I was ringing the changes. An odd result was Bartleby being hailed as a post-modernist work, though I meant it as a counter-POMO satire. Here’s a true story. My first wife, driving her VW bug across the 401, the main multi-lane highway across Toronto, was rear-ended by some fellow whose name was De’Ath. Linda almost had a heart attack when they exchanged information. Had De’Ath escaped from Bartleby? (A rare English surname, De’Ath is politely pronounced to rhyme with “teeth.”)

GS: Did you ever take a sip of Sorrentino’s Stew or were you already bored of metafictional novels by the time it came out?

CS: Alas, I never savored Sorrentino’s Stew. My Toronto neighbor, Billy Croke, had a low-to-the-ground dog called Mulligannamed after Buck Mulligan, too. (“Ah, ’tis all chop-suey, Jimmy,” as Miss Barnacle observed.) Mulligan the dog used to follow his nose for miles in search of ladies. Once I saw him at rush hour trotting down the yellow line of Yonge Street, Toronto’s main north-south drag, nose and tail raised high like banners.

A stray preposition crept into my remarks about the Ripper and Mary Kelly, “his only victim with whom he spent some of hours alone” should read “with whom he spent some hours alone.”

“Some of hours” is arresting, though. What was he doing the rest of the time? 

GS: Simply put, Bartleby is an ambitious novel, especially for a debut. Was this your first attempt at a novel or are there unpublished manuscripts preceding them?

CS: A few stories and a novel, To Every Several Man. That title is from Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Julius Caesar, which pleases the mob: “To every several man, seventy-five drachmas” (approximately two cents). The novel, set on the East Yorkshire coast, is about a Nazi war criminal in hiding. The manuscript resides in the National Archives of Canada, which paid me and paid me generously for my papers. I finished To Every Several Man in State College, Pennsylvania.

GS: The opening of Bartleby expects and refutes charges of plagiarism. Are you of the mind that good artists borrow, great artists steal?

CS: Yes, of coursesome more flagrantly than others. There truly is no new thing under the sun, except the thoughtcrimes invented by our politically-correct bluestockings. When I wrote Bartleby the year after I came to Toronto in 1969, I was thinking of SterneSterne, Sterne all the time. Tristram Shandy was a kleptomaniacal work. The stuff that Sterne nicked he poked fun at. By contrast, that dark man, Shakespeare, elevated his thefts to tragedies. Why do we know so little about him, by the way?

GS: Some of your later novels explore genre conventions, such as the spy novel To Catch a Spy (1978) or the crime novel Jack (1988). Did these novels spring from, at least in part, an ennui or disinterest in experimental or postmodern types of fiction?

CS: Yes, absolutely. It was the convention and structure of the spy novel that fascinated me, which inevitably led to flattering (at the time) if dreary Le Carré comparisons. I don’t know why I bothered, as Le Carré fast became his own parody. What might be called genre identity was something Richard Seaver and I talked about a lot. The spy novel interested me because the genre raised David Hume’s point: How can we know anything at all? Seaver was a really bright guy. I’ve just read his The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age (2012), edited by his wife Jeannette from Seaver’s journals. (I found a copy in my local Laundromat, which would have amused Dick.) Spies may not be so intelligent. In the spring of 1968 in Tavistock Square, London, at a British Council interview, a tweedy lady asked me if I could prepare “situation reports” on American campus unrest. Christmas of that year I presented myself at Intrepid’s Rockefeller Centre HQ, only to be told that my contact was sidelined with the flu. (My report was “ears only,” verbal and thus deniable.) Publishers, I have often thought, are photographic negatives of intelligence agencies. (Neither is particularly trustworthy.) Another American publisher I knew slightly—and liked—was Seaver’s contemporary, Sol Stein. Stein & Day published my what-if yarn, Hitler’s Bomb. The house authors’ bio-sheet contained the question: “Religion?” When I answered, “Only if necessary,” Sol called from New York to say how much that had amused him. Jack came out of the mystery of identity. No one then or now knew who Jack the Ripper was. If you’ve seen the post-mortem photos of Mary Kelly, his only victim with whom he spent some of hours alone, you’ll know that he was a really bad lad but an anonymous bad lad. I had read about Thomas Neill Cream, the Canadian doctor and Lambeth Poisoner who, as he went through Newgate’s trapdoor on 15 November 1892 said, “I am Jack –” but didn’t finish what he was saying. And Cream had an Ottawa Valley connection, through his father Bill, who had mercantile interests there, and I was living in the Valley at the time. I wasn’t sure if Neill was Jack, but he thought he was, even with the noose around his neck perhaps out of self-aggrandizement. So I played the sociopathic Neill Cream as a multiple personality, much to the annoyance of a psychiatrist friend who insisted that they aren’t like that…I had to remind her I was writing fiction, which is what psychiatrists do anyway.

GS: With something as postmodern as the premodern Tristram Shandy (1759), does the phrase “postmodern” mean anything anyway?

CS: Oh, I’m sure it does to academics who write learned papers about Derrida and his ilk.

GS: You were born in Yorkshire, England in 1945 yet became a Canadian citizen in 1975. What precipitated this shift in allegiances, as it were? What brought you to Canada in the first place?

CS: Vietnam. I did draft counseling at Penn State. I was on a J-1 visa, and not eligible for the draft, but as a non-resident alien my political activities were felonious or worse. I took out Canadian citizenship because I live here and couldn’t see returning to the UK. The judge who administered the oath was an ethnic Japanese. “You must find this rather amusing,” she remarked as I swore my eternal allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs. She was correct. If pressed I’ll say I’m a Yorkshireman. If really pressed and irritated by the silly business of nationhood and nationality, I’ve been known to describe myself as a West-Prussian.

GS: What are some of your fondest memories of Yorkshire?

CS: The bird sanctuary at Spurn Point; York and Beverley minsters, especially Beverley’s Percy Canopy, a masterpiece of medieval English stonework in which the craftsmen created lacework out of stone (although not religious, I love Gothic cathedrals); the moors; and Ye Old White Harte, a pub-built c. 1550 in my hometown. It used to be the residence of John Hotham, the Lord Mayor of Hull who denied Charles I entry to the port at the beginning of the Civil War. (A grateful Parliament later lopped off Hotham’s head. They kept a skull behind the bar, not Hotham’s but one discovered in a priest’s hole after a fire in the 1930s.) Also a great old pub The Crown & Anchor at Kiln sea, near Spurn Point—not far from where Harry Bolingbroke landed. It was run by a vast Dickensian lady with the improbable name of Mrs. Robinson. In 1972, after I’d been away for four years, her son gazed at me and said, “Why’d you grow that daft moustache?” Yorkshire folk are like that, as, I am told, I am.

GS: Canadian literature on the whole seems much more traditional compared to American or Latin American literature, for instance. What’s your take on the history and/or current state of Canadian literature? Some Canuck writers who are flying their freak flags, so to speak, include Leon Rooke and Anne Carson, at the very least.

CS: I admire Mark Frutkin’s work, magical historical realism with a comedic touch. (Frutkin, a native Chicagoan, lives in Ottawa.) Wayne Johnston is amusing, too, if you like fiction about the Rock (Newfoundland). For the most part, Canadians seem to have got stuck in a Soviet kind of social realism with a lower-case liberalism subscript, both funded by the Canada Council as großer Landeskulturförderer. It may surprise some Americans, but Canada is a soft totalitarian democracy run by saurian plutocrats, concealed behind what Ivan Illich called the mask of compassion. Where I live now, on St. Joseph Island in the St. Mary’s River between lakes Superior and Huron, I count myself lucky not to receive either CBC-TV or CTV over the air (I can’t afford cable), so I am free from propaganda. But then I receive NPR and PBS, so propaganda of another kind. I own a Savage Model 99 308, a beautifully-machined rotary action long gun with which I could shoot the heart out of a lettuce at half a mile. You didn’t ask about gun control, which surprised me. I have some sympathy for Senator Ted Cruz, who was born in Calgary.

Chris Scott’s author photo from the Bartleby dust jacket.

GS: What is a novel or anti-novel that you’ve read and think deserves more readers?

CS: Anti-novel? What dialectic lurks here? Is an anti-novel like an anti-aircraft gun? (Flak works, but on a hit-and-miss basis, like writing—although technique, as with shooting, may improve the result.) Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960), The Spoilt City (1962), and Friends and Heroes (1965) “deserve more readers.” It’s collectively known as The Balkan Trilogy, about friends, rogues, and spies in Bucharest in World War II. She created loveable characters, which I’ve never been able to do. So far. Dum vivamus and all that….

GS: You’ve written book reviews for Books in Canada, The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and The Ottawa Citizen, among other publications. Martin Amis made the point that when someone is reviewing music, one doesn’t need to write a symphony in response, when one is reviewing a film, one doesn’t need to make a movie in response, but when reviewing a book, one has to use the same tools that an author does and write a compositional piece. What do you think of this and what’s your idea of an effective book review?

CS: How perceptive of Amis. I didn’t think anyone could have noticed that. A reviewer should give the reader a sense of where the book under notice stands in its context. Alas, this means sitting in the seat of the scornful, which most contemporary reviewers are loathed to do because they don’t know the law. Easier to write blurbs.

GS: In your resume, you list “knowledge of contemporary science, including physics, biology, medicine, and ecology.” How has this knowledge helped you with your fiction in particular? There’s, of course, your novel Antichthon (1982), which is about the scientific martyr Giordano Bruno.

CS: I don’t think Bruno was a scientist, in the way I understand that word. He was an equivocal figure caught between several words—on the one hand, magia and his largely self-imposed task of repairing a broken world, which he must at some point have realized was doomed (I mean the task) and which doomed him; and, on the other hand, the implacable Dominican inquisitor, Robert Bellarmine and the forces of the Counter-Reformation. What I know of science did not give me much understanding of Bruno, the man or his work…. Science affords a provisional way of understanding the world, whereas religion offers the complete package. Bruno and his executioners were not so terribly different. Antichthon (which means anti-Earth) is a multi-point narrative, in which many of the people involved in Giordano’s life, trials, and death have their say. I wrote it conscious of “jesting Pilate’s” question as Watergate was unfolding. We live in a world of lies, as Bruno described and as we all experience it. What, then, to do? I don’t think we can fix it. (For how could we alter human nature?) We can at best isolate examples, of how the cosmos presents itself to us. That’s why I admire science, as I do some visual artists, for their technique. Egon Schiele’s sketch of his pregnant wife done on 28 October 1918, the day she died, is a supreme example. It is a luminous drawing—one of the most beautiful of twentieth-century works. The fate of this pair and their unborn child makes it difficult for me to believe in God. Or rather, their fate makes it easy (if one has any taste for metaphysics) to credit an evil God with the creation of this world, and of Bruno’s infinite worlds.

As Scott explains, “Quartet Books published Antichthon in London in 1985, under the title The Heretic. (The house, financed by Gulf oil money, didn’t like the Greek title.)”

GS: You were a presenter at The Future Histories Conference (organized by sci-fi writer Judith Merill), where you gave a seminar on health and sustainable agriculture (Toronto Public Library, Armistice Day weekend, 1989). From 1983 to 1993, you raised purebred Jerseys in the Ottawa Valley, where you were secretary of the Lanark Highlands Association for Sustainable Development (LHASD). You also edited Feeding the Future (House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2004). In my interview with Stanley Crawford, he says that “there is nothing sustainable about this world as presently configured” and that “it is probably impossible to dismantle the gazillion-dollar fossil fuel infrastructure and create something better.” What do you think about this? As far as feeding the future, wouldn’t going vegan, or at least flexitarian, be one of the most viable possibilities?

CS: Oh well, “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. I never liked the term. LHASD was a group-think org in which Larry McDermott, one of the founders of Plenty Canada, played a controlling part. I agree with Crawford, and doubt that global warming, for example, is entirely anthropogenic. Actually, I’d go further and say that many of our current obsessions (climate forcing among them) are symptoms of hubris. We are, after all, living in an interglacial, and the Quaternary glaciation didn’t end because Palaeolithic Flintstones were pumping hothouse gasses into the atmosphere. Most of our problems are the result of overpopulation, which no politician wants to talk about lest he, she, or it is seen to infringe the human “right” to procreate. (Franz Kafka once remarked, “There’s infinite hope, but for us none,” or words to that effect. Kafka got that right, as he did everything else.) As for vegans, etc., c’mon, Collidescope, surely you realize they gobble living tissue. Have you no sympathy for photo-synthesizers?

GS: Plants are alive, yes, but plants are also used to feed the billions of land animals that are slaughtered each year, so not eating meat also saves the lives of more plants, assuming one is concerned for the well-being of a non-conscious creature without a nervous system. But to avoid digressing too much, my next question is: Although you haven’t published a full-length book since 1988’s Jack, you haven’t exactly been idle. Some of your manuscripts include Afterthoughts: A Skeptic’s View of Philosophy, Religion, Science, History, Politics, Writers, Writing, and Almost Everything Else, The End of Time (diachronic essays), and a fictional work titled The White Wendigo. Could you be so kind as to reflect on each of these projects? You also published a prologue from The Captain of Police in Moosehead Anthology #13, Fall 1993. Is The Captain of Police also a fictional work? What can you tell us about it?

CS: The Captain of Police is set in a fictional Austrian town, Fleckenburg, in 1942. It opens with a shared dream in which the devil approaches the protagonist, Harry Sontag, begging to occupy his mind for a while so that, like Jesus, he can know what it is to be human. Sontag, the cop of the title, then discovers that the devil has that night been quite busy. The manuscript is unfinished. Afterthoughts: A Skeptic’s View of Philosophy, Religion, Science, History, Politics, Writers, Writing, and Almost Everything Else is an abecedarium of ideas I have thought about for decades—all the isms and wasms. I glanced into it today (June 3, 2022) and it was north of 700,000 words. I am not sure if it can be completed. Elias Canetti left Das Buch gegen den Tod unfinished but it completed him. The End of Time is all of a piece together, essays as characterized above: on truth, soul, time, dreams, the gods, nothing, and madness—the eighth essay having as its gorgeous subject the British marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse (1810-88), whose astonishing and beautifully illustrated Omphalos (1857) argued that God put the fossils in the rocks on the fifth day of creation. The White Wendigo is a novel I am still plugging away at, that still engages me, and which is enormously politically incorrect. It’s about the Ojibwa estivating monster that awakes to eat people in the winter. Oh, speaking of monsters: there’s a trilogy with the working title Quabe’s World, chronicling the descendants of Frankenstein’s monster in Canada. So, yes, I haven’t exactly been idle….

GS: Did your more recent nonfiction projects spring from, at least in part, an ennui or disinterest in fiction? I’m thinking of Cormac McCarthy who claims to only read science books, eschewing fiction.

CS: D’accord absolument. When I was reviewing books, I dreaded receiving fiction.

GS: What else have you been up to since your last novel Jack? Could we ever get to read something like a Son of Bartleby, if you will, or is that an idea best left smothered in its crib?

CS: Well, I wrote and finished a World War I novel, Orders. No one seemed interested. My psychiatrist friend thought it quite my best book, and at her urging I sent it to her son-in-law, a London literary agent who criticized my American spelling. Bartleby I couldn’t do twice in a thousand years. Proofreading it for M. J. Nicholl’s Verbivoracious Press 2016 reissue made me wonder…ah, who the hell wrote this book? Which is the object of your questions….

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Chris Scott was born in Hull, England in 1945. He studied at the University of Hull (B.A., 1966) and Manchester University (M.A., 1967), and was a Fulbright Scholar at Pennsylvania State University (1968-1969). After teaching at York University in Toronto and Toronto Three Schools, he settled in Lanark County, near Perth in eastern Ontario. His literary activities include teaching creative writing, freelance broadcasting for the CBC (Ideas and The Arts in Review), and book-reviewing for Books in CanadaThe Toronto StarThe Globe & MailThe Ottawa Citizen, and The Montreal Gazette. Scott is best known as a writer of experimental fiction. He has written thriller, spy, and crime novels. His first novel, Bartleby (1971), was followed by To Catch a Spy (1978), Antichthon (1982), Hitler’s Bomb (1983), and Jack (1988), a novel about Jack the Ripper that won the 1988 Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. Bartleby was reissued by Verbivoracious Press in Glasgow in 2016. Scott was writer-in-residence at Montreal’s Concordia University (1988-89) and at Cumberland Township Public Library, Ottawa (1990-91). He was an associate professor of English at Lake Superior State University, Michigan (1997-99), where he taught undergraduate and continuing education creative writing courses. Since 1996, he has lived on St. Joseph Island, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He is currently working on a novel, The White Wendigo, and a nonfiction book, Afterthoughts: A Skeptic’s View of Philosophy, Religion, Science, History, Politics, Writers, Writing, and Almost Everything Else.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at

2 thoughts on “An Evil God’s Infinite Worlds: An Interview with Chris Scott

  1. Thank you for this lively roundup of Scott’s work, which I am chagrined to say I don’t know yet. I had the privilege of studying with Gil Sorrentino once upon a daydream. This conversation also brings up references to other exciting authors, whose work, along with Scott’s, I’m eager to explore, now that my relative ignorance has been unmasked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very cool to hear you studied with Sorrentino! Definitely a daydream, that. Would have loved to pick his brain on literary subjects and more. Anyway, I think you’ll get a kick out of Scott’s Bartleby in particular.


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