Nelson residents are excited to host you for the Kootenay Book Weekend. Have you been here before? What are your plans while in town?
I’ve been to Nelson a handful of times, and always loved it. I plan on drinking some really good coffee, eating some incredible food, and sucking back some of that restorative mountain air.
If I Fall, If I Die drew comparisons to voice-heavy books like Room by Emma Donaghue or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. What did you hope to accomplish when you first set out to conjure your main character Will’s voice?
Will is a unique individual, given that he’s stayed inside for much of his life, so I wanted to capture his unique blend of naivety and curiosity and make it affecting and fun for the reader to experience. And because everything is so new to him, he views the world as a poet does, with these fresh eyes.
Truth be told, I feel like Will all the time. The world never ceases to astonish me.
In this book Will’s mother suffers from crippling agoraphobia, sleeping in the same bed as her son and giving names to different parts of the house such as Venice, Paris and New York. I understand this is a topic that’s personally relevant to you, is that right?
Yes, my own mother, who passed away in 2008, was agoraphobic while I was growing up. Her illness was different than my character Diane’s, but I certainly drew on my own experience to write this novel. I attribute the fact that I’m a writer today to my mom’s influence. It’s interesting to note that I now spend a great deal of my time inside, writing.
(Though much less fearfully, I’m happy to say.)
You started your career as a professional skateboarder, so it makes sense that would eventually bleed into your fiction. The New York Times noted that Will’s skateboard serves as “a transformative object…redemptive and cathartic” in the book. I’m curious how closely his journey parallels yours.
This is a work of fiction, but like Will, the skateboard was my way of grasping at independence, and gave me a reason to venture out into the world to explore it. It doesn’t matter what the interest is, though, it could be a sport or a particular art form, but I believe all kids really thrive when they discover something they’re interested in and passionate about.
Thunder Bay’s troubled relationship with its First Nations population becomes a key part of this narrative, and we see the effects of institutionalized as well as regular-old-racism. In the midst of movements like Idle No More, and with First Nations issues becoming more prominent in Canadian society, what do you hope to add to this conversation?
Many talented artists are addressing the colonial legacy far better than I ever could (people like Joseph Boyden, Eden Robinson, and Richard Wagamese to name a few), but in my own small way, growing up in Thunder Bay, things were very segregated, and it was only through skateboarding that I ended up befriending Indigenous kids.
So my goal here was to portray some First Nations people who don’t fit any of the old stereotypes (positive or negative), while also calling out the more structural brand of racism that still festers today. The Truth and Reconciliation Report talks about how we’ve all been harmed by the legacy of colonialism, and I thought that was so profound.
I suppose I intended this novel to face up to this harm in some small way.
“Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” tells the story of a crack addict on the Downtown Eastside who interacts with a hallucinatory version of J. Robert Oppenheimer. You seem to be attracted to the fringes of society, and to characters who exist outside social norms. Why is it important to you to tell their stories?
It’s most important for me to tell stories that are affecting and emotional and captivating. But it is true that I’ve often turned to characters existing outside social norms. Who wants to read about happy people going on happy vacations anyway? Not me!
That being said, I think that interesting stories can be found in all walks of life, from the imploding hedge fund manager right down to, yes, the hallucinating crack addict.
You once compared this book to a Hardy Boys mystery. I was a huge fan growing of Frank n’ Joe growing up. What was it like to take that sort of inspiration and wrench it into a more elevated literary form?
This novel is partly a coming-of-age story, which often concern themselves with venturing into the unknown of adulthood, so it felt natural (and fun!) for me to invoke a kind of Hardy Boys-style mystery plot to propel the novel along.
Lately, all the restrictive, old genre categories are getting loosened up, and I think our literature is all the better for it.
#8. What are you working on next?
Right now I’m in the middle of a large novel project (so large, I fear it may tip over and crush me…) which is the saga of a fictional Canadian family named the Greenwoods, which spans 120 years. Despite its heft, I’m happy with it so far. I count myself shamefully lucky to be able to dream all day and get paid for it.
The Kootenay Book Weekend runs from Sept. 16 to 18 and will feature discussions of books by Elizabeth Gilbert, Anthony Doerr and Miriam Toews. Christie will give an author talk at 11 a.m. on Sunday at the Best Western on Baker St.