Why Edmonton? Why Garneau? What’s in a ‘hood? We ask novelist Todd Babiak about The Garneau Block

The Garneau Block by Belinda Cornish, based on the Todd Babiak novel, Citadel Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“LET’S FIX IT.” A rallying cry? A call to action? A cosmic signal? It sounds like a communal mantra for our fraught and broken time.

That mysterious three-word sign, duct-taped to trees in a signature Edmonton neighbourhood, is at the very heart of the new play that finally — after many starts and COVID-ian postponements — arrives onstage at the Citadel in front of a real live audience, starting Saturday.

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The Garneau Block could hardly be more of this place. It’s by an Edmonton playwright, Belinda Cornish. It’s adapted from a much-loved 2006 Giller longlisted novel, satirical and humorously affectionate, by an Edmonton writer, Todd Babiak. It’s about idiosyncratic people who come together in a ‘hood we know, in the city we’re living in. And this love letter to Edmonton premieres on the mainstage of this burg’s biggest playhouse.

“If you want to write a novel with a strong sense of place, it had better be a place you have a warm, complicated long-term relationship with. And for me, it’s definitely Edmonton,” says Babiak, a great friend of mine, from the time we worked together in the Edmonton Journal entertainment department. He’s on the phone from a world away. Though he’s mid-adventure in Hobart, Tasmania as CEO of a crown corporation (Brand Tasmania) that’s all about enhancing the identity and fortunes of that small under-rated Australian state, his head and heart are full of Edmonton.

So much so that Babiak’s latest novel, The Spirits Up (to be published by Penguin Random House Oct. 26), a mystery that takes its mysteriously haunted characters, an inventor’s family, from Halloween night to Christmas time, is set in Edmonton, too. And Edmonton doesn’t just happen to be the setting; as in The Garneau Block, it’s a character, too. “I feel more of a sense of confidence that you can make what some might say is an obscure middle city into a character, and if you make it special, or compelling or interesting, people will see themselves in it. We all live somewhere….”

The Garneau Block began life as a serial novel that appeared in daily instalments for three months in the fall of 2005 in the Edmonton Journal where Babiak was a columnist at the time. From the editors he heard “Hey, I read this thing by Alexander McCall Smith in The Scotsman. Hey, we happen to have a novelist on staff. Hey, you could do that. Hey, want to give it a shot?”

Babiak laughs. “In half an hour I went from ‘no, I have other plans’ to ‘I have readers here, 50,000 on a day. What, am I crazy?’” He says, “I so enjoyed writing it…. It was my favourite time at the newspaper, the least traditional thing I ever did there. And I’m really so thankful for brave bosses that let me do it, a very strange thing for them to let me do, because we were already entering the end of the newspaper era.” He calls it “the era of possibility.”

The Garneau Block wasn’t built in the episodic open-ended way that, say, McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street unspooled in The Scotsman or Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in The San Francisco Chronicle. “I wanted it to have a beginning, middle, and end.… There had to be an ending.” That made it trickier, says Babiak. Each chapter had “to move the plot along in little ways, but also be able to work as a thing in itself…. The Journal gave me three months to write it first, an average of a thousand words a day.”

It started with the idea of autumn (and that’s when it started in the newspaper): “seasons changing, the beginning of the school year, that feeling of deflation you get at the end of the Fringe (one of Babiak’s favourite times of the year)…. And a sadly violent thing happens. After that I had no idea what would happen.”

Novelist Todd Babiak on location in Hobart, Tasmania.

The literary turf wasn’t, still isn’t for that matter, exactly littered by novels set in Edmonton instead of, you know, “real cities” with novelistic bona fides. “There are people who feel that novels should be based in London, Paris, or New York… Those people probably  aren’t my audience,” Babiak laughs. “I’m attracted to the under-estimated, the misunderstood…. In both The Garneau Block and now The Spirits Up, some of the characters really take that on. They see that choice to live in Edmonton as something that defines them. And they struggle with it all the time as they enter middle-age or beyond.”

Part of the charm of The Garneau Block is the way dimensional characters really inhabit places we know well. They meet at the Sugar Bowl; they hang at the Gazebo Park; they go to Die-Nasty or the Fringe. “When Garneau Block was first published in the Journal I got all these letters complaining the naming was too blatant,” Babiak remembers. “Clearly,” he thought, “the issue was they thought Edmonton wasn’t real enough to be fake; we didn’t have the confidence yet to be expressing ourselves that way….”   

“’Is this where I’ve chosen to live?’ At some point you either embrace that, ‘this is why I live in Edmonton!’, and see yourself as comfortably Edmonton, or you suffer; you’re trapped with Poor Old Edmonton. And not just Edmonton, there are a lot of places in the world that hold that tension, including where I live now…. For most of the 20th century, Tasmania was ‘why would anyone live there?’ Now it’s coming into a sense of self which I find really enchanting.”

We’ve all been battered by the mythology of Calgary, borrowed largely from south of the border. “The Globe and Mail and The National Post would treat Edmonton as a kind of suburb of Calgary; you could see that in a lazy way they weren’t really interested,” muses Babiak, who’s always been keen to capture something of the culture of this place in his work, both literary and non-. “Ten years ago people in Edmonton were feeling that we can make a workshop of this place. It needs a lot of work. But maybe that’s an opportunity for us to build it the way we’d like.”

For his story about characters in a neighbourhood, with all the attendant sparks and tensions, coming together to save it (and maybe fall in love), why Garneau? “It had a bit of everything,” says Babiak who grew up in Leduc and lived in Garneau as a student, in a terrible basement suite on 87th Ave. before he went to university in Montréal.

He remembers seeing posters, “Save Garneau”, in the High Level Diner. “Garneau has been saved many times over the years by its community,” he laughs. He came to know this even better when he moved to the ‘hood, above ground in a real house en famille, long after The Garneau Block was published. “Rich people and poor students, actors and theatre people, an ethnic mix, places you could walk to and I could set scenes in. And, yes, the university. It was almost like a stage: a little bit of everything in a small geographic location…. In real estate values, Garneau is very expensive but it’s also people crammed in, seeing each other, touching each other … among the most urban places in Edmonton: legit, so not-fake, with history to it.”

Along with Babiak’s The Book of Stanley (also serialized in the Journal, in 2008), The Garneau Block had been optioned earlier for television by the CBC in a pre-Schitt’s Creek time when serial TV, “hilariously,”  was completely against their rules at the time. The idea of The Garneau Block as a play had been put to him as a possibility in a previous Citadel regime by James MacDonald. “Daryl (Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran) wanted to talk about it as soon as he took the job!” says Babiak, delighted by the prospect he alas won’t get to see onstage due to international travel restrictions. “He said ‘this is what we do! we’re going to tell stories about this place!’”

“There’s a sad-sack quality about Edmonton that sometimes gets us all down,” Babiak agrees. “But on the same day, in the afternoon, the sun breaks through and you’re on a walk and it smells great and looks good and people are nice, and there’s a sense of possibility.”

That’s when Poor Old Edmonton (aka P.O.E.) becomes Good Old Edmonton (aka G.O.E.). “For many of the characters, The Garneau Block is really about that.”

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