Michael Hingston

Michael8057Interviewed by Alex Migdal

Michael Hingston’s byline is well known in Edmonton. He served as the Edmonton Journal’s books columnist from 2012 to 2016 and regularly writes about the city’s oddities, from West Edmonton Mall to the failing Oilers to why so many of its local landmarks are named after Winston Churchill. His stories have also appeared in The Washington Post, Wired and The Guardian. Hingston published his first novel, The Dilettantes, in 2013. His newest project — a book about Calvin and Hobbes called Let’s Go Exploring — is slated for release in May 2018. I caught up with Hingston by phone as he drove to Calgary to promote another one of his projects, a short story collection titled The Ghost Box.

 

When did you commit to being a full-time writer?

 

I’ve always told people that you should keep a day job for as long as possible if you’re trying to be a writer. Not having to count on that work for money gives you a little bit more freedom. You’re not hustling quite as constantly and taking on every single thing that comes by for fear of missing out.

 

For eight years, I had a full-time job and freelance on the side. I had kids and a family life at home. My partner had been home with the kids all that time and I felt it was my turn to be at home with them. My son was in kindergarten for two hours a day. I felt confident enough at that point that I could easily fill those two hours with freelance writing. Which is to say that after eight years of freelancing, I was confident I could spend a quarter of a day with freelancing work. That maybe speaks to the constant insecurity of freelance work.

 

Were you able to fill two hours a day?

 

It was way too conservative of a guess. I instantly had too much work to do. I got a contract a month after I quit. I also got a pretty big contract doing a freelance project for the City of Edmonton. It was not a luxurious home life. I ended up doing weekends and evenings more than I wanted to. It was for the best, I think. I like being more conservative than more optimistic because there’s nothing worse than having the time and not having anything to do with it.

 

What’s your writing process like? It sounds like you work in chunks.

 

Chunks, for sure. That was the other fear of quitting to become a full-time writer. I can’t write for eight hours a day. I have to be switching gears between things. Even in university, I was only able to write a page of an essay per day. I would have to then work backwards. If I need to get this done in a week, and it’s a seven-page essay, I would give myself enough time that way. That formula still holds out.

 

The nice thing about the journalism that I do is you always have a chance to do other things when you’re not writing. There’s always researching, pitching, bookkeeping, invoicing, updating your spreadsheets. Even in a full workday, that still gives you a couple hours to write. And for me, that’s all I need. I find I do have to write often. But it has to be small, steady doses.

 

Do you ever have days where you don’t get any writing done at all?

 

No, I don’t. By the time I sit down, it’s been kind of marinating. I have a clue of where to start. I don’t have a problem writing. I don’t have a problem churning out two bad pages in a day. That’s all progress, too. Getting it out of your head and onto the page is sometimes the hardest part. I try not to chastise myself too badly for that.

 

I believe in very strongly in filing early and starting early. I don’t handle pressure well at all. If I had to do 500 words by 4 p.m., that’s a nightmare for me. Whereas if I started two days earlier at 9 a.m., I might get those 500 words done by 11 a.m. That might come from the fact that I’ve never really worked in a newsroom and never had to build that skill.

 

I know you employed the chunk method when writing your first book. Tell me about that.

 

I wrote the book on my lunch breaks in one of my day jobs with the government of Alberta. I did basic math. I know my book should be 300 pages long and I wanted a first draft done in 18 months. I just divided the days. I realized to get there, I would have to write 120 words a day, every day. That’s two paragraphs, which is nothing at all. I wrote up these homemade calendars and I would note how many words I had written each day. Seeing a couple zeroes on there would give me a kick in the pants. I don’t think there were ever three zeroes in a row. It was always satisfying to look back and see that very glacial progress. It did add up. Each week I would have 1,000 words by the end of it, which goes a long way.

 

The block I did have with writing fiction was opening the documents. That was daunting. Getting back into the world is the scary part. If I told myself, you have to write 120 words today, that would convince me that it wasn’t going to kill me if I opened the document. I could get through it. Once it was open, then it’s super easy. You see a sentence you don’t like and you change it. But I look back the novel and think, man, that was hard. I might have to trick myself in more sophisticated ways.

 

The Dilettantes was published in 2013. When you read it now, what do you think?

 

I don’t read it now. That’s the trick. I went to a Sloan concert a couple nights ago. I was just thinking, man, the bands have to just play the same hits every night. That 45-year-old man has to play a song he wrote when he was 21. I don’t know how you stay OK with that. It was crystallized at a certain time. Fans love it. That is just so scary to me. Writers can just disown books and not read from them.

 

I haven’t read from The Dilettantes in awhile. There are a couple of sections I enjoy still. But even then, I still edit stuff. And I think that’s actually instructive with how I would go ahead writing fiction in the future. Not because the books are dated, but just the language itself, the way that the sentences work. You figure out what works pretty quickly in front of a crowd.

 

You’ve just finished a book about Calvin and Hobbes. What’s the premise of the book?

 

It’s part of a series that ECW Press in Toronto does called “Pop Classics.” It’s a series of books about pieces of pop culture that are culturally significant. One that’s coming out after mine is about The Bachelor. It’s a funny topic about something that people like on a simple level and you’re going to tell them why it’s more significant than that.

 

When I quit my day job, I had been figuring out what my next book was going to be. I knew it was going to be non-fiction of some kind. I tried selling a couple of full-length non-fiction books and they didn’t sell. I thought an entry into a series would be an easier way. And these books are shorter. They’re just 120 pages. Anyone can submit a proposal.

 

The thing with Calvin and Hobbes is that fans already know it’s a significant piece of art. The fun was lying out why that is. The strip hasn’t appeared for 20 years. The creator is this semi recluse. The book is about why the strip matters, but specifically this idea of imagination. The main character, Calvin, has his best friend named Hobbes who turns to life when he looks at him, but everyone else just sees this stuffed animal. So I talk about how imagination functions in the strip — and what it means for Calvin in his childhood.

 

How has the workflow for this book differed from your first book? Is there more pressure this time?

 

I had three months to write this one. I had my plan to become a general freelance writer and immediately I got this book contract. I was writing the book and not doing much else. It was a lot more condensed, a lot more pressure. But I really enjoyed it. Just because it was a longer non-fiction project, which I hadn’t really done at that point. It’s 30,000 words. I really like the structure of non-fiction. A 1,500-word piece has its own rhythm and structures that are different from a 30,000-word piece. Just discovering what a detour in a book chapter looks like was super fun.

 

You’ve written on a really eclectic range of topics. Your two most recent book proposals, for instance, were about the history of teeth and why the Oilers suck. What draws you to a subject and makes you want to write about it?

 

I really love the notion of taking interests a bit to the extreme. I’m always interested in how people have the confidence to do that in an age where it’s easy to be ridiculed online for having an obscure interest.

The Oilers has this fan base that follows a god awful hockey team. How does it go wrong – how do you mess up that badly? The teeth book is also full of those characters. A lot of people are scared of the dentist and their teeth. But the people that like teeth are so interesting. There’s a dentist in Red Deer, Alberta who owns one of John Lennon’s molars. And he paid $30,000 for it. I talked to him and he said, ‘I was thinking of making a clone of John Lennon.’ That’s a crazy thing to say. But he’s just in this world where that makes sense to him.

 

In recent months, you’ve posted online your two failed book proposals. How do you grapple with failure? Does it help you to share it with other people?  

 

I dealt with failure a lot worse when I was starting out. At this point, I think I’ve had enough successes that one failure doesn’t make me want to quit writing. Writing agony makes me want to quit, but failures are never the problem.

 

Selling a novel is just an exercise in hilarious failure. I think I had 50 agents and 20 publishers turn it down. You become numb to it at a certain point. I also realized pretty early that there’s never a personal element to it. In fact, that’s the challenge of it — trying to find the right editor at the right place at the right time with the right story.

 

I like having multiple ideas on the go at once, so that’s there’s various fallbacks instead of poring over the rejection. I’ve tried a lot of different things and haven’t gotten anywhere with them. I’ve been trying to write a picture book for kids for three years and I’ve got four manuscripts I’ve been sending out. That’s just relentless failure.

 

I think people don’t talk about those failures. Or we do, but in romantic terms. I like the idea of being honest about the life of a writer. I’m not an expert on it by any means. The teeth book proposal is so long and I’ve spent so long working on it. I believe in that proposal certainly more than magazine pieces I’ve written over the years. So I hope it’s useful to other writers.

 

You’re a journalist and a writer. Do you attach yourself to one role more than the other?

 

I usually say I’m a journalist and an author. But more and more, the publishing side is catching up to me too, so I’ve got to figure out how to describe myself. My Gmail signature has three pieces to it and I don’t think that’s helpful. I was trying to order business cards a few months ago and I just gave up. (laughs)

 

I think that’s reflective of how the industry has evolved. You have to wear so many hats.

 

That’s true, hey? I’m teaching this class with Jana Pruden from The Globe and Mail right now. We’re working with a group of students on non-fiction pieces. It’s funny how we just expect writers we follow on the Internet to be able to do everything now. I assume that they have personal essays out in the world and can turn around a 2,000-word reported piece on their hometown. But those are totally different skill sets.

 

You’ve worked for years now in Edmonton. How has it figured into your writing and your network?

 

It’s been huge. If I hadn’t moved to Edmonton when I did, I don’t think my career would have been where it is right now. When I moved from Vancouver, I had a couple clips. I had written a story for The Tyee and a couple of book reviews for the Georgia Straight. But I didn’t have steady work at either of those places. Then I came to Edmonton and, at the time, it had two alt-weeklies. More than that, they were looking for writers. The writing community was really welcoming and I found it way faster than I did in Vancouver.

 

We don’t take for granted the writing community in Edmonton because there’s this fear that anything of cultural value is going to disappear unless you fight for it. There’s a sense of urgency that we want to keep the people and opportunities here.

 

As I’ve tried to become more of a national writer, I just love pitching myself as being the Alberta correspondent. The stories in Alberta are amazing. If you’re writing for a national publication, it’s a huge advantage not to be from Toronto. They want to be seen as representing all of Canada, so you’re doing them a favour. I use that geographic diversity quote to my advantage whenever possible.

 

Any final words?

 

Persistence is the only thing I would remind people of. The difference between someone who’s a successful writer versus someone who quit and went into communications ten years earlier is not that they were worst writers. It’s just sticking with it. Staying in the game and keeping your muscles flexed is your best competitive advantage. It’s not talent – it’s more just sweat.

 

Alex Migdal grew up in Edmonton and is now a Vancouver-based journalist. He’s in his final year at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where he’s pursuing a SSHRC-funded research project on the decline of local news coverage. He is also a fellow in the school’s International Reporting Program. His stories have appeared in CBC, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Postmedia and VICE.

 

 

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