An Interview with Tilda B. Knightley (Recipient of the Shaikha Abdullah Millennium Scholarship 2016)
Tilda B. Knightley and I met in the Russian Tea Room of the Waldorf Astoria, Jumeirah Beach, Dubai, in the fall of 2017. She was younger than I'd expected, much younger, as you will see. Yet, somehow, she didn't seem out of place as she ordered a cup of tea. The waiter nodded and Tilda spotted me. I had just entered and my eyes were adjusting.
"Mr Vogan!” she chimed, waving.
She stood up and I walked around a few tables with a loose gait to where she waited in the middle of the room, the sun floating in gently through the silken curtains. We shook hands – her grip was firm - and I lowered myself into a large chair, pretending to massage my digits.
Tilda B. Knightley is the winner of the Shaikha Abdullah Millennium Scholarship 2014. She is eleven years old, an exceptional student at GEMS Academy in Dubai, UAE, and a self-proclaimed 'high achiever’. At one point during the interview she told me she intended to enrol at Harvard and proclaimed with confidence that she would be the youngest MBA graduate of any Ivy League university. In the spring of 2014, P. Chancy Sing of the United Talent Agency contacted my agent, Mr Arthur Grover Lau of The Ivan Von Noshrilgram Foundation in Jordan, and a date was requested to interview me for Weekend Magazine. (Ms Tilda B. Knightley had read my first novel How To Lose Your Voice Without Screaming and wanted to meet me, I was told.) At first I demurred but when I learned of Ms Knightley's achievements – including a producer-director credit for the second season of Dubai One’s highly praised arts and entertainment television program It's Now – my curiosity was strongly piqued. Ultimately, a date was set and I did my own research for the interview. In almost every way, she lived up to my expectations. Although a junior high school student, her manner was preternaturally mature. She was, indeed, uncannily articulate. It was easy to forget that she was just a kid.
Ms Knightley put her finger on the red record button of a large, ancient tape recorder. (Ultimately, I watched her use both hands to activate the record feature of the tape deck. It made me smile.)
I took a sip of my black tea and laughed. "You just called me across the restaurant a minute ago as I entered!” I admit I was, for reasons I wasn't certain, a little nervous. My flippant response was meant to lighten the mood, perhaps even disarm her somewhat.
She stared at me blankly.
I found myself watching her from the corner of my eye. "My name is Alistair A. Vogan.”
"What does the middle 'A' stand for?”
"Where is your hometown?” she asked, almost overlapping, and I realized she was using the time-honored technique of clipping the ends of the interviewee's answers, so that each response would not be too thought out, therefore, fresh. I winked. Smart kid.
I watched a cloud fall over her face.
"Ottawa. Canada,” I said and cleared my throat.
"It's cold there, right?” she said in a fast monotone voice.
"Yes. I used to ride my bicycle across a lake to get to university,” I said, rapid-fire.
"Are there other writers in your family?” she shot out.
"Yes. My grandfather, Kingsley Vogan, was a writer. He had a number of books published throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. 'A Box of Time', 'September in Algonquin,' winner of the…”
"When did you begin writing?” she continued without a beat.
"I began writing when I was in the ninth grade at...”
"I really loved your book How To Lose Your Voice Without Screaming.”
I was starting to feel dizzy. "Thank you… I'm so happy you felt that...”
"Where did the idea come from to write this story?” she said without pauses between words, and definitely overlapping.
"Well, I think,” I began, consciously trying to slow down the pace, “as I developed the story, I mined a lot of my own experience and observations.” I took a deep breath and saw her mouth open. I held up my finger and glanced at her tensely. “None of the events actually happened, or maybe a couple did, but they are very minor elements. On the other hand, it does feel autobiographical in some sense. Let me give you an example,” I said.
She smiled, not blinking.
"When I was seven my brother and I went to Florida to visit our grandparents. While visiting we took a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.”
"After parking the car we took the monorail, I think. On the way, my grandparents told us to always stay close to them, to never leave their side. My brother and I agreed that we would stay close. But we were already distracted. We'd watched The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday evening of our lives.”
I saw her look at her watch, then tap its glass face. She actually raised the watch to listen as I spoke.
"We knew all the characters,” I said, trying to appear lighthearted. "We were unbelievably excited!”
"So, when the train stopped and the door opened up to a large glass enclosure I'd already forgotten everything about my life up to that point. On the other side of this space I saw, I think, the Disney character Goofy. Without thinking I broke from my grandparents, slipped through the people in front of us and began to run the expanse that separated us as fast as I could. I could hear the cries of my grandparents fading as the distance grew.”
I watched Ms Tilda B. Knightley pretending to scratch as she yawned behind her hand.
"When I reached Goofy, Miss Knightley, I felt as though I'd crossed into another dimension, that I was suddenly alive in a fictional universe: a television character and I were breathing in the same air. In front of me, Goofy was gazing out the window. He was huge, and soft and furry. Without a thought I threw my arms around him. And, then, everything changed...”
"Could you be specific? 'Everything' covers a lot. Were the governments of developing countries overturned? Could you not feel your left side? Were you suddenly on a desert island and you were forced to eat your sibling?”
"Well, Tilda... Sure. I felt Goofy stiffen in my arms. Or rather, I could feel the body, the person, inside the costume stiffen. At first, Goofy didn't respond. Then, his body leaned a little in my direction. On the neck of the tall plush character, I saw the mesh, and beyond that a pair of eyes. Human eyes, Tilda. I\m sure I must have swallowed hard. I didn’t know what was happening, but it wasn’t adding up the way I would have imagined. And, I heard his voice... A man's voice. He leaned, hovered over me, really. I heard his voice say, 'Go… away… kid. I'm on my break...' It was the kind of voice you’d expect to hear through gritted teeth.”
I looked at Ms Knightley to see what kind of effect this had on her. She was looking at her tape recorder and tapped it. She shook her head, her cheeks flushing.
"What?” I asked.
"Batteries are dead.”
I watched as she took the small batteries out of the back of her tape recorder and placed them on the tablecloth perpendicular to the edge of the table. I sat back and watched with the tea saucer on my knee. She removed a new set of batteries from her school blazer and began an attempt to dislodge these from the packaging. She was clearly angry.
I watched for a moment and smiled. "Why don't you simply use your smartphone to record the interview?” It seemed obvious.
"Because I prefer to use a tape recorder, thank you.”
"Well, I like it. It makes you look like a real journalist.”
Her eyes narrowed. "It belonged to my dad…”
I found myself shifting my weight in my seat and imaging how he might have died in an untimely fashion, something heroic. I reached for the menu.
"I had a long interview with Bruce Willis on Wednesday,” she said, not looking up, then added, "I should have changed the batteries.”
I leaned in, "Wow. What's Bruce Willis like?!”
"Like Bruce Willis,” she said, not looking up.
I sat back in my seat, slowly inhaling, then exhaled powerfully through my nostrils. (Three nose hairs flew out and drifted over the table before bursting into flames. I watched them descend slowly towards the table.)
"Imagine that,” I said.
She managed to place the last battery in the recorder and snap the lid on the back.
"He's just Bruce Willis. He doesn't really play anyone else. Some people are just really cool.”
"You're interviewing everyone,” I said, honored suddenly to be included in this group.
"I interview all kinds,” she smiled pointedly. “I interviewed a parrot at the animal shelter once, so don't get too inflated.”
I wasn't sure how to respond to this.
She sat there for a moment and stared at me. I turned my cup in the saucer, as if I was fundamentally busy, and watched her. Her left arm extended to the table, her index finger frozen on the red button of the tape recorder.
"Excuse me, Tilda. It wasn't I who forgot to change the batteries after I interviewed Mr Bruce Willis...” I could act like a celebrity as well.
She pressed down.
"Okay. Tell me about your childhood.”
"Well, I was born at a young age.”
"It said in your bio,” she continued over me, “that you had a somewhat 'unconventional education’.”
"Yes. At an early age, formal education and I began to butt heads. I didn't learn, or think, or behave like other kids. This caused some consternation among the teachers and administration of Briargreen Public School, in Ottawa, Canada. As early as grade two people in lab coats began to appear. They took me away and interviewed me in a small room that had no windows. They gave me toys to play with and then took notes, copious ones. Naturally, I made an effort to “play” in as odd and unconventional manner as possible. I was bored. Sometimes they’d show me inkblots and ask me what I saw. At first I engaged, but then I realized there was nothing in it for me, therefore I got creative… It was all written down.”
I took a sip of my tea and looked up. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something. In any case, there was a pause and neither of us said anything. It seemed she had decided to change tactics.
"By the middle of the third grade” I continued, "they'd removed me from the school. I was sent to another school in a distant neighborhood...”
"I was put into a Special Education program.”
"I was in what was called, among those who really mattered, that is, my peers, the 'retarded class'. It was awkward. I took a small bus to school each day. Every day I traveled to and from this program with a six-foot-tall fourteen-year-old. He sat beside me the entire way and yelled at the traffic like a Great Dane, or just drooled down his winter jacket on me. Sometimes, he did both.”
"We don't have a retarded class at GEMS Academy.”
"So you both sat there and just drooled? What year was this?”
"No. Because I was not mentally challenged. It was a tough time, actually, Tilda. It made things difficult. People looked at you differently when you were in that class…”
"Oh,” she said, thinking. “Because of the label?”
I thought about it. "Right, and let's be clear, I didn’t drool Tilda.”
We both sat there and stared at each other.
"How old are you, anyway?” I asked her.
"You certainly are precocious for an eleven-year-old girl.”
I sat back. I glanced around the room. I could see a Muslim family eating behind a screen on the other side of the restaurant.
She watched me coolly.
"Is that yoga?”
"No. I'm breathing deeply, kid. Yoga, or what people conventionally refer to as yoga is a series of postures...”
"Anyway, back to the interview.”
"Got anything for me.”
"One of my earliest memories of my grandfather, Kingsley Vogan, is him typing on his manual typewriter at the kitchen table. In the 1930's he began to build our very own Walden Pond, a two room cottage on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park in central Ontario. There was no electricity. Just kerosene lamps at night, a small gas burner and two wooden stoves. Away from my experiences in public school, it was heavenly. Everyday we swam, fished, chopped wood… When it rained we’d sit inside by the fire and watch it fall. Dripping off the maple leaves just on the other side of the glass. That’s where I learned to read. And every once in a while my grandfather would get a look in his eyes and pull out that typewriter.”
"Wow. That's beautiful…” she said softly. "So, are you still retarded?”
"I'm not retarded. That's not what...?”
"But it must have been tough? …That period? It was hardly perfect.”
I smiled, perhaps a little too warmly, and said, "'Things fall apart, the center cannot hold...’”
"That's William Butler Yeats,” I said, with an eyebrow raised slightly, “the romantic poet.”
"Thank you. I thought you meant the janitor at my school.”
I signaled the waiter and made the international sign for 'the bill’.
"Anyway, yeah, I know,” she added. “We studied him in poetry class.”
I nodded, impressed. It almost felt like we were peers.
"Also,” she said, “I saw Three Weddings and a Funeral.”
"You know, when this gets published,” I said to her, "I will have an element of control over the way I, and, particularly, you are presented?”
"I don't think so…”
"Trust me,” I smiled. “A lot of people don't know it but Weekend Magazine is an Ivan Von Noshrilgram Foundation Excelsior Publication.”
"Is that the publisher's name?”
"Well, no. I just added in the 'excelsior' for effect. The rest is true.”
"Give me an example of how you can influence how we are portrayed in this article.”
"Nope,” I said.
"See. You're lying,” Tilda said, but I sensed she was uncertain. Also, I watched her scratch her hind leg with her moss-covered antler.
"Let’s get back to the interview, Mr Author.”
"Yes! Let's!” I said, then corrected myself, “Oh, I mean the opposite of that, Tilda. I think we are done here.”
"How retarded you are…”
"Out of ten? Zero.”
"And what is the primary principle of biology?”
"I'm bigger. I get more food?”
"Close. 'Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny'...”
"Well. That is interesting, Tilda,” I said, knowing the difference between memorization and understanding, and also watching the waiter approach with the bill.
"What's it like being a retard?” she asked.
"I'm not. You are.”
"Whatever,” she said.
"Also, you're short,” I said, then added, my voice dropping ominously, “Really short, Tilda. I would be concerned, actually. You'll probably never break five foot one, which would make you practically a midget, so as an adult you’ll only be able to drive golf carts. I should know, I'm a medical doctor, as I’m sure you know, since you did all your own research.”
She tried to recall this detail; and I glanced at my watch like it was made of solid platinum and could care less.
The waiter placed the little leather book discreetly on the table. I opened it and saw how much her lunch, which she'd consumed before I arrived, came to.
"Also, I lied,” she said, “your book wasn't that good.”
"And your arms are too long for your torso. When you grow up you'll probably look like an orangutan.”
And then her eyes welled up.
I turned away, disgusted, and noticed, to my surprise, a respectable-looking western couple, presumably her parents, standing next to our table, a look of concern visible on both their well-tanned faces.
"Why hello!” I cheered.
"You just hurt my feelings, Mr Vogan! A lot!”
I looked at the adults and smiled, sheepishly. "Well, she did call me retarded…”
I closed the handsome little book, and sighed. It was awkward. "Wow,” I said, and stood up, handing the bill to Tilda's father, "She's a big eater.”