Quebec literary and gay icon Michel Tremblay divides his time between Montreal and Key West, where he still hardly ever speaks English. Tremblay is the focus of a new English play about a fictional 1969 meeting of a 27-year-old Tremblay and then-47-year-old famed Beat writer Jack Kerouac. Tremblay graciously agreed to sit down and answer questions in English with Xtra.
XTRA: You hardly ever speak English, even in Florida?
MICHEL TREMBLAY: I live in a big house and last year I had 22 friends come visit me. I live in French. I haven’t made friends in Key West in over 19 years because I’m not the friendly man I am in interviews. I always say, “The worst thing that can happen to me is that I meet somebody new.”
XTRA: How and why did you give your stamp of approval to George Rideout’s new play, Michel & ti-Jean?
TREMBLAY: He sent the manuscript to my agent because he didn’t want anybody else to read the script before me. I liked it right away. It’s funny. It did something that I would never do in real life — that’s take the bus to Florida! But it’s a very good play about writing.
XTRA: One of my friends is poet John Giorno, who knew Jack Kerouac. John says Kerouac was so incredibly physically beautiful that he was stunned when they first met. What are your thoughts of Jack Kerouac?
TREMBLAY: I read On the Road like everybody else. I know little else of him except I remember seeing him on French TV [on Radio Canada] in the 1960s. He was drunk but sincere.
XTRA: Michel & ti-Jean is being produced at the Centaur, the venerable Old Montreal theatre that has produced many English translations of your works over the years. Do you believe your plays have as much impact in English as they have had in French?
TREMBLAY: If you ask anybody in the world who is translated, they will have the same reply: It should be better in its own language…. Chekhov was an even greater genius in Russian. I’m not taking myself for Chekhov, but Molière is less good in English than French.
XTRA: Stratford will produce your play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again in 2010. This is your fourth play to be produced at Stratford.
TREMBLAY: Yes, the last time was Les Belles-soeurs 15 years ago, and I had problems with Stratford. They just pay a [flat] fee and not 10 percent of everything. Well, Les Belles-soeurs was a runaway hit, and I would have made more money. But it’s Stratford. So I shut up.
XTRA: You’ve helped launch lots of young talent over the years: You translated gay Montreal playwright Steve Galluccio’s Mambo Italiano into French, and you helped George Rideout sell Michel & ti-Jean to the Centaur.
TREMBLAY: I’m really not that generous, but when you see an exceptional talent, why not bow to it and help them? I’ve never been threatened by talent.
XTRA: How did you publicly come out?
TREMBLAY: We were doing a revival of Hosanna at [Montreal’s] Place des Arts in 1975, and this English CBC reporter surprised me by asking me, “By the way, are you gay?” So, just to brag, I replied, “Yes, by the way, I am!” It was on TV that night. The next morning I got phone calls saying, “If you said it in English, then you have to say in on French TV tonight!” So I went on live TV.
XTRA: How do you feel about today’s closeted gay movie stars and gay rock stars? What do you think of the showbiz closet?
TREMBLAY: You know, if I was a singer, I’d ask myself, “Should I come out?” Seducing [audiences] is not part of my life, [it’s not] my job. But it is for actors and singers. Less now, but in the 1970s [if I was an actor or a singer] I would never have come out. But I did. Strange thing was [after I came out, for] everybody on the streets, it didn’t matter to them. They kept on waving and saying hello to me.
XTRA: You still have an ongoing love affair with Montreal. What are your thoughts of the city today?
TREMBLAY: What’s interesting about Montreal after all these years, it’s [essentially] a poor city. And in the arts field, when a city is poor, the arts life is very interesting. Culturally, Montreal is a very lively city because it’s a poor city. We do with less money, we do whatever we have to do.
XTRA: Many critics say you are the greatest playwright ever to come not just from Quebec, but from Canada. How do you feel about being called a living legend?
TREMBLAY: There’s no answer to that. I find it funny and I laugh. When I read that I laugh. Tell you the truth, I really try not to think about it.
Michel & ti-Jean runs at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre from Feb 2 to Mar 7. Check out centaurtheatre.com for more info.