the early chapters are the most savage - "The Dilettantes" by Michael Hingston

from The Dilettantes - Michael Hingston

It was his last name: Belmont. His (as yet unwritten) book would inevitably be shelved immediately next to those of Saul Bellow. What self-respecting reader would look at the two of them, and then go with the untested, overwrought young punk? It was enough to make him close his laptop on the spot. Plus, anything he wrote would inevitably be compared to the Nobel laureate anyway, since Alex, like his idol, had a habit of trying to capture the entire universe in every sentence. He didn’t need to give critics such a readymade way to phrase the insult.

Besides, what could he do to give his book even the hint of a fighting chance? Think of a hilarious title? Kidnap Chip Kidd and make him design a cover that could outshine the majesty of the all-black Penguin Classics? Should he switch to non-fiction, or sci-fi, just to get a fair shake in a different part of the store?

Alex remembered reading an essay that pointed out how sad it was that an innocent woman’s one-line obituary will read, “She was Timothy McVeigh’s mother.”

Well, he thought, for every titan of literature, there are two lesser writers who will forever be remembered as their bookends.
from The Dilettantes
(Freehand Books, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Full disclosure: books columnist, reviewer, blogger (and now novelist) Michael Hingston is my friend, and despite his well-communicated disinterest in poetry, he was very supportive of my book when it launched a couple years back. In other words: he's fantastic and I owe him one and darnit this is my blog and I can do what I want, poetry-only rule be damned. That said, there are a couple other reasons why Mike's first novel, The Dilettantes, is an excellent subject for an interview on this blog.

The first is that it's local to the Lower Mainland - very local. Specifically it is set on Simon Fraser University's Burnaby Campus in the mid 2000s, the place and time where Mike and I first met (he editing the student newspaper, The Peak; I illegally printing off thousands of copies of High Altitude Poetry and leafleting them around campus like a mad man). It was a strange, strange time, and a time that Mike puts under a microscope in The Dilettantes, a "campus novel" about The Peak, early-20s angst and irony, exotic sodas, and writing the next great (or good enough) novel.

That leads me to the second reason why The Dilettantes is at home on this poetry blog - while on the surface the book is a sendup of campus life, it ultimately proves to be a loving tribute to the art of writing - student journalism, yes, but more so books (yes, even poetry books): why we read, why we write, how we get the art of writing wrong and how, eventually, we find our way to getting it a little less wrong. It's a thoughtful and companionable novel for writers as much as for readers. Oh and it's damn funny, to boot.

The Vancouver launch for The Dilettantes is next Friday. The details:

The Dilettantes Book Launch
Friday, October 4th, 2013, 6:30 PM
Pulpfiction Books
2422 Main Street, Vancouver
Featuring: readings by Michael Hingston and Thea Bowering

In preparation for the launch, Mike and I exchanged a few emails in which I tried desperately (and unsuccessfully) to get him to admit that I am a talking inukshuk. You know, normal interview stuff. I hope you enjoy!

Michael Hingston, very much enjoying dodging my most pertinent questions 

Rob: In the opening sentence of The Dilettantes you accurately note that the buildings of SFU's campus resemble Tetris blocks. In many ways, the book that follows seems assembled similarly. Though there is an obvious narrative line running through it, many of the chapters (especially the early ones) read like independent vignettes about particular aspects of campus life that, when assembled together, combine to show the campus as a whole. I'm thinking of the chapters (or long stretches within chapters) dedicated to Clubs Days, the poster sales, The Peak offices, student elections, Higher Grounds, the Highland Pub, the mini-mart, etc.

Was the book written from beginning to end, or did you start with a number of the key SFU "scenes" or locales that you then pieced together? Before you started writing did you have a checklist (mental or otherwise) of campus highlights that you wanted to cover? If so, did you end up leaving any of them out?

Michael: I did write it beginning to end, but before any of that I started out with a bunch of lists - one of which was, indeed, of places around SFU that I thought would be interesting to see in a novel. There are a lot of them. Everything you named above was on that list, I'm pretty sure. And I did have to leave a few out, actually! It was a tiny bit tragic. The big one was CJSR, the campus radio station: I wanted to have a very short scene where Peak editors are storming down a hallway, totally caught up in their own heads and problems, and they walk past a group of radio staff who look basically identical to them, storming right past them, on their own mission. A nice little Bizarro World moment, where they slow down and eye each other warily for a second. Just to reinforce this idea that these mini-crises aren't unique to the student newspaper. Neither are the editors' carefully constructed identities, for that matter. They're happening all over the place. But the editors, at least, are too far inside their own narcissism to recognize it.

Cue the Russian folk music

Rob: The Dilettantes, though a work of fiction, is tied rather closely to your real-life experience at The Peak (at least the newspaper parts, I won't pretend to be friend enough to know about the sex fantasies). How much was this intentional from the beginning, and how much did you find your own experience into the book as you went along? Looking back, is the book more or less tied into your own life than you intended?

Michael: It's a lot less autobiographical than I first intended [Editor's note: smart answer, Mike, smart answer...]. Although, actually, I wonder what my original intent was. I think I started out by pouring as much of my real-life experience into the book as I could - certainly Alex encapsulates some of the worst parts of myself at that time in my life - if only because I needed the raw material. But over time, everything shifted. Certain lines and anecdotes are still true to life, but all of the larger character arcs and personalities have evolved a lot since I first started out. Most characters are total composites now. Some of it, I'm proud to report, I even dreamed up all on my own. Part of me probably knew that was bound to happen.

Rob: I'll admit it: as someone who attended SFU with you, while reading your book I kept a lookout for any characters who I thought resembled me. After much searching I'm now fairly confident (and flattered) that I am the talking inukshuk. Considering how closely this book is tied to your life, have you pre-prepared a line in reply/defence for when people come up to you and ask "Was I _____?" or "Why did you make me say _____?" If so, what is it, and have you had to deploy it yet? What's the most inaccurate connection someone has made between reality and the characters in the book?

Michael: You know, it hasn't really come up yet. The nice thing about this book taking so long to write is that by now, everyone I went to school with is also five years out, and has benefitted from the same added perspective that I have. So I think they're able to laugh at themselves a little more. Or if they are mad, at least they haven't said it to my face yet.

That's a good point about inaccurate connections, though. Or even truth and fiction more generally. I was flipping through the book the other day and saw I mentioned this peculiar SFU tradition called Gung Haggis Fat Choy, which is a mix of Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day. That's a real event, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone read that and came away thinking I was a real buffoon for "creating" such a lame - and possibly insensitive - "joke."

Rob: I had that experience, actually, in reading the Gung Haggis Fat Choy part - at first I thought you were having your own David Gilmour moment, but then I quickly remembered it was a real thing: the guy in the dragon head and kilt running around Convocation Mall. I remember how simultaneously absurd and utterly reasonable it seemed at the time. It reminded me what an odd, temporary bubble University life is.

Speaking of such "bubbles", in writing The Dilettantes, did you worry about writing something so locked in a particular time (a particular little moment when both newspapers and Livejournal existed, and even thrived), a place (SFU) and a posture ("post-ironic", as you put it)? Do you worry about how it might read in another part of the country, or in another country? Or how it might read ten or twenty years down the road?

Michael: No, not at all. In a book like this, you have no choice but to choose your setting and then stick to it. Plus, I mean, everything dates it one way or another - do cars exist in your novel? Fax machines? Antibiotics? Either way, that tells me something about the timeline. It doesn't make any sense to ignore questions of technology or slang, in the hopes of writing for "eternity," or whatever. I think truth and humour and beauty come from specificity. For instance, most campus novels (and fiction in general, for that matter) shy away from any technology introduced in the past decade or so. But I wanted to make mine feel true to 2008-09, so my characters are on Facebook, they send texts, and they fall into hour-long YouTube K-holes. They kind of have to, or else it wouldn't be believable at all.

Rob: Shifting gears, you are a regular reviewer for a great number of terribly important newspapers, and have been reviewing for many years. Could you speak a bit about how being a reviewer, and being aware of the community of reviewers out there (with their varying reputations for brutality), might have affected how you approached writing The Dilettantes?

Michael: This seems to surprise people, but it honestly didn't affect me at all. The part of my brain that reads and reviews novels has no contact with the part that allowed me to write my own. I wasn't able to apply any of what I'd learned as a reader to the writing of this book. To my frustration, initially, but I think it's for the best. It was peaceful, in a way - especially because I honestly did not think it would end up being published. There was real freedom in that. I don't know how people who write comics, or for television, are able to give away their story in pieces, which are each summarily eaten up, analyzed, and spit back in their faces by their audience. To be able to follow your artistic vision in that context is, frankly, inspiring.

As for the "community of reviewers," I'm not really sure there is one. At least, I'm not sure there are any overarching personality traits or aesthetic preferences that we all share. I can think of some fellow reviewers who I think would like my novel, and some who probably wouldn't. It's a gamble. But I certainly didn't hedge my bets for fear of reviewer brutality. If anything, I think critics should be hardest on novels that don't push far enough.

Rob: "I wasn't able to apply any of what I'd learned as a reader to the writing of this book." Really? You think your book would have turned out the same if you hadn't been a book reviewer critically reading, oh, let's say, a gazillion books over the last few years? There must be some leakage between the various parts of your brain, no?

Michael: OK, OK, that may have been a slight exaggeration. I will admit that reading and reviewing taught me a bunch of things not to do: dream sequences, for instance. Anything that bored me as a reader I made sure to avoid like the plague in my own book. But beyond those obvious narrative potholes, I felt pretty much on my own.

Rob: With the book now out and receiving reviews, has being on the "other side" changed how you think you will approach writing reviews in the future?

Michael: Nah. Reviews are written for the reader's benefit, not the author's. And let's not forget that while critics get free copies of the books they review, readers are shelling out as much as $35 a pop. That's a lot of money. It's not fair for a reviewer to cut an author a break, just because writing a book is hard. Honestly, who cares? All you're going to end up with is a bunch of readers who are mad they wasted their money - and mad at you, the reviewer, for misleading them.

Rob: According to a note at the end of the book, you wrote it between 2008 and 2011. The book relies quite a bit on a sense of near-nostalgia - an often-fond remembering of the recent past. Looking back, have your senses of The Peak, and SFU, and that world you left behind on a mountaintop in Burnaby, changed over the years? Does 2013 Mike Hingston view the subjects in his book differently than 2011 Mike Hingston? 2008 Mike Hingston? If so, how?

Michael: Very differently indeed. I started out trying to write a scathing takedown of my entitled, shitty, ever-ironic generation. But then a funny thing happened: I graduated. I moved to Edmonton. I got an office job. Each of those steps took me farther and farther away from SFU, and the more that happened, the more I found myself trying to understand that time of my life, rather than simply ridicule it. There seemed to be something worth unpacking there -- something I couldn't see clearly while I was living it. I think you can see that in the book itself, too. The early chapters are the most savage. As you progress through to the end, as Alex gets closer to graduation, even he starts to soften a little.

Rob: Yes, that's very true.

About midway through the book (somewhere halfway between scathing and soft), Alex is scanning through bookshelves and the narrator notes:

"To him, there was no better proof of a life fulfilled than seeing your name on a cover. No matter how slim or unappreciated the rest of the book was, this was a concrete marker of one's legacy - even the bare fact of one's existence. Books outlived everybody... Whatever meagre amounts of love or hate Alex gave to this world would fade, and soon. Maybe they were gone already. But a book could be his way of making a permanent mark on the world."

How much did you believe this yourself as you were writing the book? How much do you believe it now?

Michael: This is definitely Alex at his most hifalutin. Books go out of print all the time. They don't sell. They get remaindered. It's fine. I'm not someone who gets too precious about the concept of The Book. I mean, I do think it's the best and most dynamic art form ever created by humanity. But I don't fetishize the smell of books, or anything like that. That scene is about a 22-year-old struggling with ways to leave a mark on this world. Because he's emotionally sealed off, he naturally gravitates towards objects. If he were more into music, he'd be having this epiphany while staring at a bunch of vinyl in a record store. Or he'd be an apprentice carpenter ogling an old couch. I think Alex is drastically underestimating the power of love, for instance. But, at this point in the novel, anyway, person-to-person meaning is not quite within his grasp.

You can buy a copy of Michael Hingston's The Dilettantes from your local bookstore, or from the Freehand Books website or Amazon. It costs notably less than $35.

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