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Author Pan Bouyoucas on camping, screenwriting and his love of irony

‘I’m proud about sticking to my own vision,’ says the Montreal-based, award-winning writer
December 12, 2023
By Will Pelloux

A man with white hair sits in front of bookshelves filled with books and framed photographs. He is wearing brown, round-framed glasses and a light jean shirt. Pan Bouyoucas has lived and worked in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood for 50 years.

In Gandhi’s Admirer, a short story by Pan Bouyoucas, BFA 77, the protagonist dawdles in his kitchen with hot chocolate while thinking up reasons not to give blood at a nearby hospital.

The irony? He’s worried about missing a broadcast of the 1982 film Gandhi — the biopic of the century’s consummate giver. 

Irony is no stranger to Bouyoucas. Born in Lebanon to Greek parents who raised him in French, he immigrated to Quebec in 1963. But he couldn’t finish his studies in French-language schools because he wasn’t Catholic. 

“I had spent my childhood devouring French titans like Molière and Camus,” he says. “But when I got to Montreal, I had to finish school in English.” 

As a teenager, Bouyoucas dreamed of painting, yet his parents steered him towards architecture. 

Uninspired, he dropped out when he became a father at 21, taking gigs as a painter and writer. He landed regular work translating self-help and how-to guides. 

“It was tedious,” he recalls. “There was one book I had to translate on how to camp. I had never camped in my life, but I had a family to feed.”

It was in Concordia’s film and theatre programs where Bouyoucas decided to hone his craft. There, he was encouraged by film studies professor John Locke to write film reviews for The Georgian — the student paper of Sir George Williams University, one of Concordia’s founding institutions. 

Concordia was also where Bouyoucas learned what kind of writer he was — and wasn’t.

“I tried to workshop film scripts, but I realized that I’m not a team player,” he says. “I hated having to consult everyone in the room about every adjective in a sentence. Concordia helped me discover things I would have never explored on my own.”

To English or not to English

Bouyoucas’s literary output includes 13 novels, a dozen plays and a handful of short stories and children’s books. His novels and plays have won multiple awards. He has also translated 15 works from English to French. He has been, by most measures of creative life, successful; his play Divided We Stand ran for nine weeks in Montreal and was the biggest hit of the 1992-93 season at the Canadian Stage in Toronto.

Book cover image of author Pan Bouyoucas's latest book, Ari and the Barley Queen. Ari and the Barley Queen, is Bouyoucas's latest book.

Still, Bouyoucas has always skimmed along the mainstream. One challenge has been finding his niche as a Greek outsider in Quebec, where the French-English divide in publishing can be tricky to navigate. This came to a head in 1997 with the publication of La vengeance d’un père (Libre Expression), a novel set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. 

“The publisher wanted a thriller,” he says. “My idea was a book that didn’t take sides on where Quebec’s Greek community stood on sovereignty. But the reviewers only focused on the thriller aspects, not the political point I was making, which was that although the Greeks who had immigrated in the 1950s and 1960s were rejected like myself by French-Canadian institutions, they were not all as anti-French as the nationalists thought.”

Having only published in French until then, Bouyoucas tried his luck in English with his next novel, The Man Who Wanted to Drink Up the Sea (Cormorant Books, 2006). More irony? It became his best-selling work in France and Quebec — after it was translated into French.

“I’ve often wondered how my career would have developed had I written in English from the start,” he says.

Not one for fads

Now a grandfather, Bouyoucas remains busy. A Montreal company is workshopping three satirical plays that he wrote during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his novel Ari and the Barley Queen (Guernica Editions) is currently enjoying an English translation launch. 

Reflecting on his career, he can’t help but look askance at trends in writing and publishing.

“Novels and plays today seem to follow the same formula,” Bouyoucas says. “You’re told to write what you know best, so everything has become autobiographical. And dark. Because if you’re not miserable, you lack depth. If you’re too clear, you’re dismissed as simplistic. But if you’re obscure, your work is given profound meanings it doesn’t have.” 

Bouyoucas hopes for a wrier look at the world. 

“The plays I see, they take themselves so seriously and lack any irony. I love irony. I’m proud about sticking to my own vision and never getting sidetracked by fads.”

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