by Rob Peters
Born and raised in Vancouver, Charles Demers has published two books: The Prescription Errors, a novel, and Vancouver Special, a collection of essays, which was shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize. He regularly performs comedy at live venues across Canada and on CBC Radio One, where he has been described as “Truly one of the smartest comics out there.” He often appears on The Debaters and This is That. He’s written extensively for television, radio, stage, and the web, and he works as an adjunct professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia.
You’re often introduced as a writer, comedian, and political activist, usually in that order. Which of those labels do you most strongly identify with?
The cop-out-but-sort-of-true answer is: it depends on the situation. They’re overlapping categories to a certain extent, and I think I’m happiest, or most satisfied, when I get to engage all of them at once. One of the greatest moments of my professional life in the past several years was at a CBC Debaters taping in Saskatoon, where I was arguing for Tommy Douglas. It scratched a lot of itches at once: I got to write something that I felt was smart and funny, I got to perform it for a super hot crowd, and I got to slather the whole thing in socialism. A while back we did a taping in Kelowna, and I argued that it was time to give Karl Marx another look, and I won the debate; normally we don’t care who wins or loses, it’s like wrestling, but to win for Karl Marx in the middle of one of the most conservative places in Canada, and to have made the audience laugh, felt very nice.
You wrote a great piece in Event Magazine arguing that jokes are a form of art, much like a poem or short story. What are the raw materials that go into a good joke?
At its simplest, a joke is a premise and a payoff, set-up and punchline. Famously, the world’s shortest joke goes: “Pretentious? Moi?” But as Paul Auster noted in an interview with Paris Review, “The joke is the purest, most essential form of storytelling. Every word has to count.” So there are considerations of rhythm, economy of language, style… jokes are also probably one of our most persuasive forms of rhetoric, because they force the audience to share their point of view, at least temporarily, if they want to be in on the laugh.
What were you like as a kid? How would your teachers have described you?
I was a poorly behaved kid without being a bad kid. I think that’s how my teachers would have described me. I acted out, but I was smart, and I did care about other people and about what we were learning in school. I was going through a lot as a kid; when I was just shy of 6 years old, my mother got very sick, and she would be in the hospital for weeks at a time. We lost her when I was 10. I had undiagnosed anxiety disorders, including pretty severe OCD. So I had a chip on my shoulder but I was also scared a lot of the time. I was funny, too, though. It was a big thing in my family to be funny — my mother referred to me as her “little comedian” in her baby journal when I was about two weeks old because I’d peed on the doctor.
What jobs have you done? Did any of them help with your writing?
I have worked a wide, wide range of jobs. In my teens I was part of a Trotskyist sect that believed in infiltrating the industrial proletariat to make revolution, so I worked in a couple of factories. Even after I left the party, I once had a job where the whole thing was just to take apart old forklift pallets to salvage wood. I’ve worked as a groundskeeper, a teaching assistant, a crossing guard, a parking valet and an arcade attendant; most of those for fairly short periods. I’ve worked in a tea shop and as a writer for reality TV. The jobs that help you be a writer are, I guess, the ones where you get a lot of time to think, to let your mind wander. Also, the ones that bring you into contact with a lot of different sorts of people. And any job that makes you afraid to work for a living will spur you in your creative endeavours.
When did you know you wanted to write?
I know that this is the sort of sucky, cliché answer, but I just always did — not that I necessarily always wanted to write professionally. But I would say I’ve pretty much always written, be it stories or sketches or essays or whatever. When I was a little kid it was mostly just funny stuff, but by my late teens and early twenties there was a bit more serious and even some embarrassingly po-faced stuff in the mix as well. Even at times in my life when I wasn’t doing very much reading, I was still inclined to write.
You didn’t go the MFA route yourself, but you’re starting to do more teaching now. Do you ever wish you’d done an MFA?
Like most people, I’m often consumed by overwhelming feelings of being a fraud — sometimes I think that if I’d gotten an MFA I’d be less susceptible to them, but probably not. From an evolutionary standpoint — like, just for the sake of diversity — I think it’s a good thing for there to be more than one way to become a writer, so I don’t think that everybody should necessarily do an MFA. But seeing the program at UBC from a teacher’s perspective? Or looking at friends who’ve come through MFA programs? I can most definitely see the value in it from a million different angles. So sometimes, definitely, I wish I’d gone that route.
What advice do you have for a writer struggling to get started? Do any aspects of the job become easier with experience?
I always think the most valuable things are to do a lot of very catholic reading on the one hand and, on the other, to meet and socialize with other writers. I don’t know that the job becomes any easier on any level, truth be told. If anything, you get a bit less hungry, and that makes you less willing to suffer the inevitable indignities that come with things like rejection or trying to sell yourself.
Do you like writing? I ask because a lot of writers will say they like having written, but sitting down and wrestling with the words isn’t a lot of fun. Does this describe you?
I don’t know. On the one hand, I am lazy and I don’t write nearly as much or as regularly as I should, and I often let a long time go between bouts of actually sitting down and typing. So that would indicate that I don’t. On the other hand, sometimes you sit down and start writing, or you go for a walk to sort out your project and try to think it through — my ruminative, OCD-inflected thought patterns have lent themselves to a particular style of in-my-head writing before I do any typing — and you do really good stuff that makes you feel really, really good. So sometimes it can be really wonderful to write.
Which do you find hardest to write: fiction, non-fiction, or standup? Why?
Well, I should say I haven’t really written any fiction in years, for what it’s worth. The only exception to that, I guess, is that I did some improvised, site-specific fiction for a show at the PuSh Festival this year — that was a really incredible experience, but it was tough. The thing about writing stand-up is that you have an idea for a joke, you run it a few dozen times in your head or in front of a mirror, you write it down or record it so that you don’t forget it, maybe you run it by your partner (my wife has a great instinct for what will work) or a comedian friend, and then you try it onstage and find out immediately how good it is or isn’t. Over time the audience reaction shapes the joke or the bit like an almost geological force. There’s no equivalent of that in prose. You sit down and write, maybe a friend reads it, then you go through it with the guidance of an editor. But the process is much less kinetic and immediate. I don’t know — to answer your question, they’re all super fucking hard.
In navigating the professional side of writing—agents, contracts, publishers, etc.—what do you wish you had known when you were starting out?
To be honest, I just let my friend Steven Galloway make my literary career choices for me. (That is a joke, but only slightly.) I don’t know… I suppose you wish you knew it all starting out, and yet I actually think it would have gotten in the way. That stuff is about the job, not the work. If I had any knowledge of the way things work, I probably never would have signed on to write Vancouver Special in the, whatever, 6 months or so that I had to write it. The decision that actual experience would have dictated would’ve been: this is not long enough to write a book that you can stand behind. And yet that would’ve been absolutely the wrong choice. I’m glad as shit that I wrote Vancouver Special. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made. And yet I’d never do it again.
Except for maybe a few lucky prodigy-types, success as a writer inevitably takes perseverance. What else does it take?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’d be fair for me to weigh in on what makes a writer successful. I’ve written two books, they both came out in 2009. I have no track record upon which to base any theories on how to achieve longevity, brilliance or riches. I am still trying, like everybody else. The theory that I’m going on myself is that I think you have to care about writing, in all its forms; read and watch other people’s work; be willing and able to come up with lots of different ideas and not to tailspin into despair when they don’t work. But right now, that’s just a theory.
What are you working on now?
Every time I read an old interview that I’ve done, there’s invariably a question like this, to which I have given a totally honest, forthright answer that is nevertheless mercilessly mocked by posterity. It’s an unending archive of false starts, aborted projects, things that have gone off the rails. Anything can happen in publishing — however close you are to the bushes, the bird isn’t in hand until the book is on shelves. The world of comedy is a wasteland scattered with the dirty shards of broken dreams — the embarrassments of those who made the mistake of telling everybody about an audition they had, or an idea they were pitching, and were sure was going to work. Well, let it never be said that I don’t learn my lessons, that I don’t grow as a human being! Until you can hold it in your hands, see it on a stage, watch it on a screen, listen to it through speakers, or at least borrow money off me from the compensation I received for it, my official, public statement is that I’m not working on anything.
Rob Peters’ short stories and essays have appeared in Event, SubTerrain, Joyland, and The Tyee. He was nominated for the 2012 Journey Prize and placed second in the Vancouver International Writers Festival 2008 Short Story Contest. He’s working on a collection of stories as part of his MFA at the University of British Columbia, where he was awarded the Earle Birney and Brissenden Scholarships in Creative Writing. His journalism has appeared in publications around Vancouver.