Salamander: reading, writing …. and God?

Thomas Wharton, Author, on 5 March 2002

Joint Lecture with Bath Literature Festival


Prior to the planned proceedings, Victor Suchar led a moment of silence in memory of Roy Porter, last year's speaker, who died on March 3, 2002.


This was the fifth joint session with the Bath Literature Festival and was sponsored by the Canadian High Commission. The speaker, Thomas Wharton, who had previously published Icefields to wide acclaim, talked about his second novel, Salamander.

The book is set in the 18th century and revolves around a British printer who has been asked to produce the infinite book.

The author's fascination with reading and the idea of imaginary books lay behind the creation of Salamander. His inspiration partly sprang from such authors as Borges, Calvino, Balzac's Lost Illusions, and Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Wharton led the audience on a tour through his imaginary library filled with unfinished books; books planned to be written; books that became other books when found years later; and numerous other examples. Wharton played a trick on the audience by mentioning one book of inspiration that he smilingly confesses does not exist.

His writing strategy was to start with a vague idea and then to write out various paragraphs on separate pages and see how they might be joined together. He also made a collage of 18th century items that helped him to visualise the period of the book.

`Salamander' as a title appealed to Wharton because it is both a creature of myth and a real amphibian. As a mythical being, it lives in fire and as an actual being lives both on land and in water. "Humans too have two lives one in reality and one in dreams", he said. All the imaginary books are grounded in our real experiences according to Wharton, and books can bring an excitement as well as come in many forms.

There was a lively questioning period.

Why had he set his novel in the 18th century? Because he felt it was a time when the world was passing from a belief in magic into a modern more scientific based world.

Why had he included a printer? Because of the physical work involved and the difficult conditions prevailing at the time. Printers were willing to undergo considerable hardship to produce something for others.

Wharton had not visited all the places mentioned in his novel but felt this was not important, as the message of Salamander was the world of books.

He included automatons because they are mechanical devices requiring humans to bring them to life just as readers bring life to books.

He ended by saying "we have greater ownership over our imaginary books than the real ones."

Betty Suchar