Life imitates art, as the saying goes, and the newest novel by Prince Edward Island author Steven Mayoff is a raucous and unsettling reminder of this. Through the hyperbolic lens of satire, Mayoff’s highly-anticipated fifth book, The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief (Radiant Press, 2023), disrupts the idyllic picture often painted of Prince Edward Island to tell a darkly funny and thrilling story of political autocracy versus spiritual agency against the backdrop of Canada’s most wholesome province.
The novel tells the story of Toronto expatriate Samson Grief, a reclusive painter living on Prince Edward Island, who is confronted by three red-haired figments of his imagination in the form of Judas Iscariot, Fagin, and Shylock. They claim to be messengers of the “Supreme One”, a genderless deity who has decreed PEI to be the new Promised Land, and who also wants Samson to build the Island’s first synagogue. Scared, confused, and seriously doubting his sanity, Samson eventually, though grudgingly, accepts the challenge amid increasingly bizarre obstacles in a new dystopian world.
In this interview, multi-genre writer Hollay Ghadery talks with Mayoff about how this novel came to be, its seemingly prescient premise, and the role of satire in revealing slippery truths about reality.
Hollay Ghadery: You started writing The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief years ago but it was just published last month. The timing feels uncannily portentous given what’s happening now in the world: this story about an artist approached by messengers of a deity who has failed to bring peace to the Middle East and who not only wants to make Prince Edward Island the new Promised Land, but desires to charge this artist with the task of building the island’s first synagogue.
What inspired this story?
Steven Mayoff: The novel had a very long gestation period. The initial inspiration was when I discovered that there was no synagogue on PEI, which happened shortly after I moved here in the spring of 2001. Although I’m Jewish, I am not religious or observant at all, and identify as a cultural or secular Jew. I didn’t even have a proper bar mitzvah, not having gone to Hebrew school as a kid. When I was 12 my parents sent me to a rabbi with the hope that he could teach me enough Hebrew in a year to get through the torah. When that didn’t happen, I had what I call a Plan B mitzvah. Instead of a Saturday it was on a Thursday and instead of taking place in the big hall, it was in a small chapel. My rabbi read from the torah and nudged me when I had to recite the four lines I’d memorized to get me through the rite. So, it’s little wonder any kind of religious connection to being Jewish didn’t “take” with me.
Still, the idea that there was no synagogue on the Island was something I couldn’t get out of my mind. When I later discovered that there is indeed a small but significant Jewish community on PEI, who communicate by newsletter and gather at each other’s houses for holidays, I became intrigued. There are many churches here of all denominations, as well as a mosque and Buddhist temples. Why wasn’t there a synagogue?
Also, having mostly lived in big cities, suddenly finding myself in a secluded rural part of western PEI, I felt somewhat hidden from the world. But in the fall of 2001, when the twin towers came down, I suddenly had the feeling that I wasn’t as hidden as I thought I was. Slowly, through the years the idea of a novel began to form and when Donald Trump became president and started to tear down all the democratic guard rails, all these influences coalesced in my mind and I had enough of an idea of how the story would go to write the novel in earnest.
HG: Would you say your religious and cultural betweenness was an impetus for your protagonist Samson’s art which combines Jewish and PEI iconography? Anne of Bergen-Belsen, Moses among the channel markers on Malpeque Bay…
SM: I definitely think it influenced those images. I don’t want to be coy about this, so I’ll admit that there is much of myself in Samson. I come to my identity as a cultural Jew by the simple fact of history. Nobody cares how religious I am or how observant I am. For instance, if I had lived in Germany during the 30s, I would have been put in the camps along with the observant Jews. So I may as well embrace my Jewishness on my own terms. I wanted Samson to be the same.
The real impetus for Samson’s art is his need to establish his identity as a Jew in his newly adopted home of PEI. Art is the bridge between who he is and where he has found himself. Painting Anne of Bergen Belsen was a reaction to the shock of the 911 attacks. In the novel, he thinks those earlier paintings, Moses among the channel markers and the Noah’s Ark made of lobster traps were seen as kitsch. By comparison, Anne of Bergen Belsen is a much darker and more visceral statement. He can’t really explain what it means and says in an interview it represents “our collective innocence” even though he’s making that up on the spot.
I think the true nature of art is that it is mostly a knee-jerk reaction to the chaos around us, as well as the chaos within.
HG: Yes, and even the answer Samson makes up on the spot, is true—is it not? As knee jerk as it is? It feels true—that pale, emaciated Anne with her fiery eyes and tattooed arm is such a powerful image because she embodies both our innocence and fear. Our darkness.
SM: Oh yes, for sure. The answer is very true, and I think the truth of it scares him a bit.
HG: I think this current of darkness under the wit and humor is what establishes the story as such a powerful satire, and saves it from veering into the problematic realm of seeming glib and dismissive. Is maintaining this balance something you consciously aimed for?
SM: The short answer is yes, but the longer and more complicated answer is that, as is usually the case, I had no idea what I was doing. I had my satire role models to fall back on, such as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Kurt Vonnegut, or films like Dr. Strangelove and Network. But the best I could do was try to emulate without really knowing how they did what they did. I was constantly flying by the seat of my pants, wondering: is this funny or is this going to upset people? In the end, you have to not care and hope you’re going in the right direction.
HG: Is there a scene in or part of your book that gave you pause, and perhaps made you wonder if you’d gone too far?
SM: The first webcast of Anne Surly, for sure.
But mostly things like my depiction of characters such as Zaina and Tamara Tuplin. When I’m writing characters who are unlike myself, from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds, I worry about not depicting them realistically or veering toward caricature.
HG: Using satire allows writers—who can use it well—a lot of room to go places writers of more realism-rooted fiction can’t go. It frees contemporary issues from the framework of literalism, which often allows us to better recognize and explore their absurdity and dangers. I’m interested in how you use the characters of Samson—the artist with the overblown ego—and Anne Surly—someone who speaks truth to power to someone who becomes a victim of her own power—to illuminate specific issues we face today.
SM: I try to give the reader something recognizable as an entry into the world I’m writing about. In this case, Prince Edward Island. Even for those who have not been here, they have an idea of it: small, rural, quaint, mostly famous for Anne of Green Gables. For the novel, I stuck to PEI’s geography with actual place names to ground the reader in reality. Beyond that I fictionalized most everything else and then took it as far as I could.
Samson Grief is an outsider, what an older generation used to call “from away” which I am as well. Some people bristle at that term, but I’m comfortable with it, as is Samson, because all artists in some way or another are “from away” or outsiders. So this novel is PEI from an outsider’s POV. I also hoped that the novel would take on a mythical element, that the PEI depicted here could be seen as a microcosm of the larger world.
I consider Samson an unreliable narrator. He is constantly doubting his sanity and when the three figments of his imagination – Judas, Fagin and Shylock – make themselves known to him, it becomes a kind of fracturing of his personality. We live in an increasingly divided and divisive world, where opinions are amplified, mostly by social media, and everyone has aligned themselves into factions. Through the task of building the synagogue, which Samson reluctantly takes on, he struggles – and sometimes succeeds – in integrating himself into the social fabric, not easy for a loner like Samson. And yet, it all backfires on him and, in a sense, he takes refuge in his figments, going so far as disguising himself as one when the story reaches its highest level of absurdity, which coincides with a sinister turn of events.
In some ways Samson’s arc is the classical Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell.
Anne Surly’s journey is similar in some ways. She is also an outsider, a rebel who is trying to get her message across on her own terms by using the Anne of Green Gables as dominatrix persona to rail on-line about the patriarchal tourism culture that has co-opted the Anne image all these years. She sees herself as a liberator of that image and an avenger. She starts off as crude, but throughout the novel she refines the image. She starts off as being antagonistic to her businessman father but at some point aligns herself to him, which is when we see her embracing that power become complete. There is a distinct element of tragedy in her story arc.
To me, her father, Reuben Arsenault, the businessman who rises in politics, seemed the obvious antagonist of the story. But at some point, I could see that Anne Surly (and by association Aziza Arsenault) was slowly becoming Samson’s true nemesis. Again, to me this schism in her persona and in their relationship is indicative of the fragmentation that seems to pervade the world.
HG: What would be your advice to someone looking to write political satire today?
SM: Look within to tap into your own personal take on the world’s absurdity, political and otherwise. Of course, use your own role models as a road map, since we can only find our own voices by emulating our influences. But what is sharp satire one day can easily become a tired cliche the next day. Donald Trump is a good example. Very hard to satirize because nobody does him better than him, as many satirists, as well as his political emulators have found out.
And sometimes the shelf life is short. The film Network is a great example. In its day it was a biting satire on TV, but when you watch the film these days it feels almost like a documentary because much of the absurdity back then has come true today. It’s still a great film, but its impact today is very different from when it first came out.
Steven Mayoff: (he/him) was born in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island in 2001. His books include the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009), the novel Our Lady of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015), the poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat (Grey Borders Books, 2018), the poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone (Guernica Editions, 2019) and the novel The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief (Radiant Press, 2023). As a lyricist, he has collaborated with composer Ted Dykstra on Dion a Rock Opera, which will receive its world premiere at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto in February 2024. His website is www.stevenmayoff.ca