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From Smut to Adult Diapers

The only occasionally glamorous life of the young novelist.

By Vanessa Richmond 13 Jul 2007 |

Vanessa Richmond is the managing editor of The Tyee.

Steven Galloway is the author of Finnie Walsh and Ascension. His novels have been sold in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Brazil, Poland and Turkey. He teaches creative writing at UBC and SFU, and lives with his wife and two young daughters in New Westminster, British Columbia. A new novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, will be published in Canada in 2008.

Michelle Kim is a Vancouver-based journalist, writer and actor of Korean and English ancestry. She has worked for various media outlets around the world, including the BBC in London and The Korea Herald in Seoul. In Canada, she has contributed to CBC Radio and The Globe and Mail and this fall she starts teaching journalism in the Writing and Publishing Program at SFU. Her first novel, La-La Joy, about the intense friendships young girls have with one another, is forthcoming in Canada and the U.S. with Groundwood Books.

Elaine Corden is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on CBC Radio, and in The Georgia Straight, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Magazine, Time Out, Victoria Times-Colonist, Monday Magazine, FFWD, The Hour and The Tyee. She acted as arts editor at WestEnder from 2004 to 2005, and as a contributing editor from 2005 to 2006. In 2005, the year fiction "died," she began work on her first novel, tentatively titled Letters to a Philistine. She is not even close to finished.

Nathan Sellyn was born in Toronto, and has lived in Montreal, New Jersey and Thailand. Currently, he's a resident of False Creek. His first collection of short stories, Indigenous Beasts, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Prize and the ReLit Prize, and won the Danuta Gleed Award for Canada's Best Debut Collection. Currently, he is at work on both another collection of short stories and a novel.

Kevin Chong is the author of Baroque-a-Nova, a novel, and Neil Young Nation, a music memoir. He was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, where he presently lives. He attended the University of British Columbia and Columbia University.

Anne Stone teaches creative writing at Capilano College, has taught at Concordia University, and is a senior editor at Matrix Magazine. Together with Amber Dean, she's guest editing an upcoming special issue of the journal West Coast Line on representations of murdered and missing women. She has published three novels: Delible (Insomniac Press, April 2007), Hush (Insomniac Press 1999), and jacks (DC Books 1998).

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The writing life: 'long hours on outdated laptops.'

With writers such as Zadie Smith and Kiran Desai snapping up book prizes and moving heaps of copy, the young novelist's life can seem as glamorous as Paris Hilton's, just a tad smarter. But the reality for most trying to break into the trade is more long hours on outdated laptops than it is million dollar cheques and cocktail receptions.

So why do they do it?

On a recent Thursday, we gathered six young B.C. novelists and asked them just that. Amidst the dingy but lively Legion on Vancouver's hip Main Street, Kevin Chong, Steven Galloway, Anne Stone, Elaine Corden, Michelle Kim and Nathan Sellyn spoke about writing degrees, writing porn and how despite rain and rents and often rotten pay, B.C. has become a hotbed for Canadian up and comers.

On why B.C. is a hotbed:

Michelle Kim: "I lived in London for a while and worked at the books department at the BBC and brought in a bunch of books by young Canadian novelists like Sheila Heti and Michael Winter, and they just were totally blown away. They'd never seen anything like it. It was completely fresh and completely new. I think in the language there's a simplicity and a clarity and a resonance of universal truths that just gets everyone feeling something."

Steven Galloway: "I think part of it is that Canada doesn't have a mainstream publishing business. There's no giant publisher of smutty detective novels, for example. If you want to be a writer in Canada, the literary example is what you go towards, generally speaking; as opposed to the States and Britain where they have more markets for more populist forms of writing that you can fall into easily. I mean, to be a science fiction writer in Canada, you have to be extraordinarily dedicated to the idea of science fiction because it doesn't exist for you to just join."

Kim: "When I was in England, we did a program on where is the best place for a writer to live in the world -- looking at things from the cost of living, to whether the culture accepted someone being a writer, to the amount of money you get from grants -- and it was Canada. I thought it would be Ireland, but it was here. And everyone joked they were going to move here."

On being the anti-trend:

Galloway: "I think the perception that non-fiction is exponentially hotter than fiction is a false one. And anyway, for most fiction writers, it's not a choice: you take away their ability to lie and there's nothing left."

Kevin Chong: "They always say that the publishing industry is dying, but they put out more and more books every year. It survives. There are more and more people publishing books and wanting to be writers."

On making pennies an hour:

Elaine Corden: "It's a cliché for a reason: if you're doing it for the money, you're always going to be hooped. People are going to smell that. You aren't doing it to make a living at it, you're doing it because you have to, because there's a story in you that has to come out."

Chong: "I know a lot of people talk about how terrible being a writer is, but it's terrible having a nine-to-five office job that you hate; it's terrible doing a lot of things. And it's terrible not to be able to do what you really want to do. And the fact that you're able to keep writing is a small success.

"Talking about being a writer shouldn't be like talking about having a chronic illness or about how to survive a bear attack."

Galloway: "If you ask any writer who just sold a million copies what they gained, it wouldn't be the million nickels they got from the royalties; it would be the million readers."

Anne Stone: "I kind of like that there's no money in it myself, aside from the fact that I have to work for a living. I have absolute freedom. There's nothing at stake to anyone except to me. If what I was working on was considered useful, I wouldn't have those freedoms. It would be more institutionalized and I wouldn't be able to determine the kinds of questions that I pose in the way that I do it."

Nathan Sellyn: "If I thought I was working for some massive payday, I might work a little longer every day. For me, at least, the money is not a huge factor, given that there are much better things one can go into to make a lot of money."

Corden: "I made $55,000 a year when I was 25 and worked for the federal government. And it's a horrible thing to say, but I woke up every morning and I would think, 'Maybe terrorists have bombed the building that I work in and no one got hurt, and I won't have to go in.' And what kind of life is that?

"And I make, well, I don't even want to talk about last year's tax return. But when someone writes me an e-mail and says, 'That spoke to me,' god, that to me is worth more than anything."

Galloway: "It is true in Canada we have a lower per capita readership than in Holland or other European countries. The parking meter outside my office made more money than I did when I was writing my first book.

"But the flipside is that 40 years ago, you wouldn't be able to find six novelists in Vancouver who had been published, period. So as Kevin says, it is easy to sound like a telethon, but the reality is it's never been better for Canadian writers."

On what they've done to pay the rent:

Stone: "I have actually written porn. I worked for a doctor who also ran a modelling agency and occasionally a depanneur. And he would just speak into a tape and send it home with me, and suddenly we were at page 600. And it became weekly that he would take me out for lunch and send me home with tapes. And he used to give me gifts in this box to thank me, and I never looked in, and I gave it to a friend and told him he could have it as long as he didn't tell me what was in the box."

Corden: "Calling yourself a novelist sometimes allows you to do ridiculously light writing, like a review of Faith Hill, and go, 'Oh that's ok, because I'm writing a novel.' But I wonder sometimes if it's not nobler to work in a machine shop, because you make something that lasts. And that seems less ridiculous to me than some of the non-fiction writing that I've done to allow myself to write fiction."

Galloway: "I once worked in a paper mill that made super absorbent paper for feminine hygiene products and adult diapers. It's the highest paying job I've ever had. I can drive a forklift."

On what people say:

Chong: "I don't tell people I'm a writer because they say, 'What do you really do?'"

Corden: "I don't tell people I'm a writer because it's like saying 'You're paying for dinner tonight.'"

Chong: "They say, 'Oh I have always wanted to be a writer, let me tell you about all of the things I did, because I have always thought of being one.'"

Galloway: "'We should work together because you're good at writing it down and I'm good at having the great ideas.'"

Chong: "People are really interested in writers in a way they wouldn't be if you were a systems analyst or human resource manager. They wouldn't have questions about that. But at the same time, you don't always want to answer those questions or start that discussion."

Corden: "Or disappoint them. I think people tend to romanticize it in a huge way because they don't see the tower of Diet Coke cans around your office."

Galloway: "When you tell someone you're a writer, it goes one of two ways. Occasionally, they've heard of you and it's awkward. And the rest of the time they haven't heard of you and apologize for not having heard of you, as if you're offended."

Chong: "I just say I'm a journalist; then no one cares."

Corden: "Yeah, then they just think you're scum."

On writer attire:

Stone: "I have two blankets I wrap myself in -- one that I keep on all day even when I get up to get coffee, and the other I leave on the broken chair that I sit at. But because I order books online and they get delivered, the courier guy thinks I'm a total freak because I come to the door in my blanket."

Chong: "I'm usually showering when the FedEx guy comes, and sometimes I'll be, like, with the towel on, and he says, nervously, 'You don't have to sign, it's OK. I'll just forge your signature.'"

On writing classes:

Corden: "I've taken and taught them and I thought they were useless both times. When I was teaching them, I thought of Annie Hall when Woody Allen says, "You can't teach writers to be good. You can only find the good ones and hope to expose them to things that inspire them and things they don't know already.'

"But I don't know that you can take somebody who doesn't have a sense of rhythm and teach them that, for example. I never got anything out of a creative writing class other than cringing. And teaching it, I felt like the biggest fraud ever."

Galloway: "The reality is if you're going to be a writer, you're going to need to learn some stuff. And you can teach that to yourself, or you can go somewhere where other people are going to teach it to you.

"It isn't brain surgery. But if you want to write a story, you should probably know how a story works. And you can do that by reading lots of stories. But a lot of writing programs just focus in on that in a way that a for certain personality of person, it makes it quicker."

Chong: "If you're really sharp and really diligent and really hard working, you can do it on your own. But I'm none of those things. So I had to get two writing degrees, and that still didn't help me very much.

"You get deadlines, you get to meet a community of writers and you learn how to read a story from a craft perspective. You go to an English class and you learn how to read a story in terms of symbolism, and historical context. Whereas in a writing class you break it down into point of view, scene, narration, the momentum of the narrative, the shape of the narrative."

On how Canada could make even better writers:

Galloway: "You could stop signing my books out of the freaking library, then telling me about it. Writers don't get paid for library books. It's like Napster. It's worse than Napster. We should burn down the libraries because they're stealing from us."

Corden: "I think we need a mentoring program for the business side, and time management classes."

Chong: "Maybe someone to do my laundry and make me dinner. And apparently in France, cab drivers let writers ride for free."