Kevin Chong

Interviewed by Nico McEown

Kevin Chong was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. He’s the author of five books of fiction and non-fiction. As a journalist, his work has appeared in a range of publications, including Taddle CreekChatelaineMaclean’sMaisonneuve, Vancouver Magazine, and The Walrus. He teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia and SFU’s The Writer’s Studio, co-edits Joyland Magazine, and lives in Vancouver with his family.

If you’re looking for a biography on Kevin Chong, do not go to his Wikipedia page. During my interview I learned firsthand just how untrue some Wikipedia facts can be.

I met with Kevin at his office at the University of British Columbia. We sat at a round table, each of us with our respective object in front of us, he with his cup of coffee and me with my recording device.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue a career in writing and what were you doing at that time of your life?

I don’t remember the exact moment. I used to joke that I was painting myself in a corner, that there was nothing else I could do. A product of being really sure of yourself I guess—ignorance is bliss—where you study writing and enjoy being a writer so much that you don’t take practical matters into consideration. I studied creative writing here at UBC. After that I did a graduate degree in New York. My parents helped put me through a very expensive grad program. A lot of parents would say no to a fine arts degree, but my parents were really supportive. I knew I wanted to be a writer and I had full-hearted confidence that I could do it. I wasn’t a star student, but my thesis was good enough to get published. Once I had a book out I thought I had made it. That’s really not true, but I thought so at the time. I guess by my early twenties, I knew that this was my path, for better or for worse. I never had a day job. This is my day job, teaching.

Your MFA at Columbia, was that a two-year program?

It was two years of course work and then I took a third year to get my degree, the thesis year. You can take up to five years to do it. I remember we had these little mail slots where you could get correspondence and workshop stories. Mine was right above a women named Kiran Desai who won the Booker prize later on, but she was already a published author. She was keeping her student status active; like a lot of people she didn’t want to graduate right away because it meant giving up health care. So a lot of people took five years. There was really no hurry to get the degree or pay back student loans.

I went straight from UBC to Columbia and I think that was dumb in a lot of ways. A lot of things I did as an aspiring writer I now realize were mistakes; fortunately I’ve done okay despite of them. I was 22 and I lived with my parents through my first degree. Moving to New York, going to a grad program, and living on my own, it was all happening at once. I felt like a first year undergrad, just being a doofus, drinking and eating instant noodles. I think I could have done more with my time if I had taken some time off. I could have had more writing experiences if I had travelled for a couple years or if I had gotten a job somewhere as a park ranger or dishwasher or something.

If you today, could sit down with yourself at 20, what would you say? How do you think this conversation would have affected your life?

I think I was so insecure about who I was and I wanted to prove myself. I was also so obsessed with romance or lack of romance. I would tell myself to focus on writing, and to read these writers and not the ones you’re reading now. I’d be like, ya know chill. Don’t fixate on this person that you have a crush on, don’t obsess that you’re not successful or not as loved as other people. Focus on what you can control. That’s what I’d tell myself, but I am not sure my 20-year-old self would really hear it. Or maybe they’d hear it on a very intellectual level but might not be able to get to that level of vulnerability. It would be a fruitless conversation.

Who has been the greatest contributor to your success? Choose one individual who has helped you make your way.

It’s hard not to say my parents. It’s hard not to say my father. My dad remortgaged his house so I could go to grad school. What a waste of money in some ways. He was an accountant and he managed an old aged care home. But he still read books. We had books in the house because of him, my mom was not a reader. And he valued that. Even though he was never somebody who had the means to go to university and study literature he was still always a reader, so to my mind he put that on a pedestal. I think about him a lot in terms of the person I am now. For better and for worse. Definitely he really encouraged me, or didn’t discourage me, didn’t stop me and didn’t force me to become a lawyer or an accountant.

Your Wikipedia page says you’re an accomplished show dog handler. Is that true? If yes, tell me about that. If no, do you know why it says that?

No, it’s not true. I have a friend and we had this prank war maybe a decade ago. I guess I’ve had a Wikipedia page for over a decade. I thought I had won because I made this Myspace page dedicated to his love of unicorns. The erotic potential of unicorns, I thought that was clever and funny. It was really funny because I created this page and random strangers started messaging him. One random stranger tried to ask him out on a date. She was a yoga instructor and said, “I never met anyone who was as connected to Unicorns and intimacy as I was.” I was like, holy crap even when I try to mess with him he’s still getting dates. Whereas his thing was kind of simpler, but it’s still there over a decade later. I’ve even been at literary readings where people introduce me as jazz musician and show dog handler Kevin Chong. It has a life of its own. Other sites will use that Wikipedia page for their information, and then Wikipedia will use those sites as its references. So it’s baked in now. I could correct it because I gave a public speech once about how it is false and I could use that as a citation, but I feel like it would be dishonest of me to try to take it down. It wouldn’t be fair to the rules of the prank war.

I believe I found your Twitter page, over 1000 followers, very impressive. How do you feel social media and the online world has affected the craft of writing and has it changed your writing style?

Yeah, Kevin Chong 1975, I think it’s just over 1100, it’s alright. I think it affects the promotion of writing. I think there are some people who are really good at Twitter and as a result have gotten book deals or become writer celebrities. Like Roxane Gay, she’s really good at Twitter, a good writer too, but Twitter gave her a platform. It’s a new way of getting your name out there. I think you have to have a certain personality to really pop on social media. I don’t think I have that sort of personality. You have to make statements that are pretty black and white, clear cut, and you have to have a strong opinion about things. You have to tweet a lot and in an immediate and timely way. I don’t like tweeting that much, tweeting ten times a day, not for me. I don’t like having arguments with random people. I find it really draining. Some people can do that and hats off to them. I just post things I think are kind of funny. Nothing that 10,000 people will retweet. I have friends who have had those kind of tweets, but not me. Overall I don’t think it’s affected my writing style.

What is your favourite book you’ve written so far and why? What was your life like at the time of writing that you feel assisted in that book’s perfection?

I don’t have a favourite. It’s really weird, like you’re saying you have a favourite kid, which some people do I guess. I guess if there was a book I wrote that was purely for money, but none of my books have made me much money. They’re all different. My last book I did a lot of library research, I really enjoyed that. Other books, I got to just sit in a room by myself and imagine things and that was really good too. I have very good memories of the process of writing, just being in and out, spending the whole day writing for three months. I love how good you feel when you’re done. Those are really my memories of the books and not the finished products. I remember the time I finished writing my first novel. I was in my parent’s house, it was the middle of the night and I got to the last sentence, it was such a nice feeling. That’s always going to be special for me.

Nico McEown is a writer and actor currently in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of British Columbia. Nico has been in such films and television shows as Night at the Museum, Supernatural, and American Pie 7: The Book of Love. He is the Host and Announcer for the UBC Thunderbirds. Nico performs stand up comedy at a variety of Vancouver’s local comedy clubs and hosts a radio show on CITR 101.9 titled Finding the Funny.

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