Suzannah Showler & Andrew F. Sullivan on the Raccoons of Toronto
Toronto has one true mascot, a creature with a deeper understanding of the city than any human. The raccoon makes a significant appearance in two recent novels from Canadian writers grappling with Toronto’s hazy past and it's unknowable future. In Suzannah Showler’s Quality Time, the trashpandas have their own narrative, confidently learning about themselves while her human characters dither in the uncomfortable space of figuring out who they are. In Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold, the creatures haunt a near-future Toronto like a chorus, slowly replacing the people who came before them, edging into spaces once only considered human. In conversation today, both authors explore their invocation of the famed city bandits and the eerie possibilities of their furred future in the city.
Andrew F. Sullivan (AFS):
The trashpanda narrative of Quality Time runs in parallel to the primary story of Nico and Lydie trapped in a cycle of anniversaries with one another. The raccoons grow and learn over the course of the novel, while the humans struggle to see new versions of themselves, retreating into old patterns. Are your creatures serving as a counterpoint to these drifting humans?
Suzannah Showler (SS):
Yeah, I think that’s a really astute way to read it. The trashpandas are a counterpoint to the human couple, in a way, and particularly to Lydie, in that they’re pursuing what they want and evolving and strategizing in order to get it, almost despite themselves. The way that they’re evolving isn’t something you can force–it just happens. I see the trashpandas as embodying something about ambition–what Lydie refers to at one point as “the problem of wanting.” The trashpandas don’t have a problem with wanting. They’re really intuitive, and that’s also something the humans in the book are struggling with: being attuned to their instincts. Figuring out what they already know.
The evolving raccoons in The Marigold are doing something similar, I think. There are a lot of characters and factions in the novel staking some kind of claim on the city. Without spoiling anything, it kind of seems to me like the raccoons might be the ones who really get what they want. Racoons for the win?
Yes, the raccoons to me represent an alternative to the different factions all clamouring to run Toronto. Their interests aren’t defined explicitly but they seek to strike a balance between the individual and the collective. They are omnipresent, observing all the humans on failed quests around them, while still pursuing their own goals. The sentient mould slowly reaching out to folks in The Marigold wants to consume everyone, as do the larger tech moguls, while the old capitalist individualists still want to rule the city from on high. Raccoons to me make life out of human ruins. They escape our filters and our boxes, they frustrate the limits we seek to place upon them. They work together, but often roam alone.
And so speaking of boxes, your own research took you to the fabled green bins of Toronto, dramatic failures in the face of the raccoon population. I really feel like these animals have become something stranger and maybe wiser through their experiences here. Readers outside Toronto are often surprised that I believe my raccoons are barely fictionalised. What did you learn through that process and what makes a Toronto raccoon so singular and unexpected?
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I really like what you’re saying about the raccoons representing a balance between the individual and the collective. I was thinking along similar lines. The trashpandas are full of wanting, and they take on individual pursuits, but for the most part, they get what they want by exerting collective effort–first in small groups, and then later in a much larger one.
I was also doing that “barely fictionalised” thing. I was sort of thinking of the trashpanda’s world as realism with just a bit of mustard on it. And while they’re obviously raccoons, calling them trashpandas was a way for me to flirt with the line between real and unreal. Trashpandas are their own beast, but most of what they do remains close to actual Toronto raccoon behaviour. I didn’t push things all that far. There’s a part in Quality Time where a trashpanda jerks off–that’s something I actually saw once in Toronto.
I did some racoon research about where and how they live in urban settings, how they experience the world, etc. My favourite factoid is that almost all of a raccoon’s sensorium is focused on haptic sensation–ie. physical touch. They feel the world in their hands! But a lot of my research was just watching videos of raccoons on YouTube to try to catch their vibe.
Did you do raccoon research, or did you just use your personal experience with Toronto raccoons? Also, neither one of us lives in Toronto anymore. How do you think that distance from the city affected your writing about Toronto’s archetypal creatures?
Anyone who ever lived in Toronto will have a story about a raccoon, I’m sure of that by now. A lot of my research was just collating all the anecdotes in my brain, and revisiting a lot of old new stories to make sure I wasn’t forgetting pertinent details. The Shoppers Drug Mart Raccoon leaping from self-checkout to self-checkout, the Coffee Time raccoon stealing donuts by dangling from the ceiling panels above, the Tim Hortons raccoon walking around opening cabinets like an employee on break–all real, all documented. These weren’t just fever dreams.
Moving away does give some perspective, even if it’s only an hour and still under the watchful gaze of the CN Tower. Hamilton has raccoons, but skunks, possums, and squirrels seem to balance out the power dynamic in my neighbourhood a bit more. The coyote also has a bit more room to roam. The mixture of Toronto’s neighbourhoods, the ravines coursing through it, the patchwork nature of some of its infrastructure–I think all those things lend it to raccoons flourishing. Waste is plentiful. Humanity is half-asleep. The raccoons are fully awake when they aren’t passed out in a garbage can. The city itself is a safe harbour. Highways are the real barrier I feel. That is the no-raccoon’s land. A dead halo around the core.
I live in Vancouver now, and the thing here is the crows. There are also coyotes in my neighbourhood in East Van, and a couple of weeks ago there was a black bear. But if Toronto’s raccoons represent a parallel society co-inhabiting the city, the Vancouver crows are right there with them. Every day around sunrise and sunset, thousands of crows (murders upon murders) from all across the Metro Vancouver area make this migration to a roost in Burnaby. They come together from all these different directions and converge on one path, cutting a diagonal across East Vancouver. Apparently they’ve been doing it since the 70s. They have their own society, their own Crowland in the suburbs. There’s a walking and cycling greenway that passes under the crow highway, and in the fall, when my baby was a few months old, I used to walk there every day to get her to nap right around when the crows would make their end-of-day commute. All of a sudden there would be thousands of them flying overhead while the sun went down. It’s really something to behold. I’ve had dreams about them more than once.
A sense of place created by that natural world makes sense to me, the crows adapting to the world we’ve foisted upon them and thriving. Living alongside rather than under our thumb, I think that parallel is there with the raccoons too. I think for both books, it’s the idea that there are other forms of living we don’t understand, can’t understand, only observe. To maybe have a bit of humility and knowledge that the raccoons or crows or coyotes will figure out a way around us. That just because we build these worlds doesn’t mean they’re the only ones that are possible. They are just terrain to be navigated. We are an obstacle to be overcome.
Suzannah Showler is the author of two collections of poetry and a book of cultural criticism. She lives on the West Coast with her family.
Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of novels The Marigold; The Handyman Method (co-written with Nick Cutter); Waste, a Globe and Mail Best Book; and the story collection All We Want Is Everything, a Globe and Mail Best Book and finalist for the Relit Award. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.