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.

http://www.kevinchong.ca/

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.

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Jeffrey Innes

Interviewed by Kaylan Mackinnon

Jeffrey Innes is the lead singer and writer in Yukon Blonde, a Vancouver indie rock band. Since starting the group in 2008 he has gained an international following and acclaim for hits like “Saturday Night.” The band, originally from Kelowna, BC, are currently working on their fourth album. I was inspired to interview Jeffrey Innes because his songs tell such beautiful stories, and it is incredible knowing that Yukon Blonde belongs to our very own Canada. I talked to Jeff about his writing process, how it all got started for him, and

advice on how you can jumpstart your own writing career. 

Yukon Blonde is an internationally acclaimed band! You must be happy with the success you’ve had. Would you say there was a song the band and you wrote that put Yukon Blonde on the map?

I would say our song “Stairway” did pretty well for us, but both “Saturday Night” and “I Wanna Be Your Man” would be the two songs that helped get us out there much more that any others.

For readers who haven’t heard your music yet, please describe your sound and style in a few words.

This is always the hardest question for any songwriter. Either you compare yourself inaccurately to your influences and inspirations or, in my case, you feel you’re constantly changing and don’t want to pin yourself down. I mean, ok, I recognize that we’re an alternative indie pop/rock band with electronic or psychedelic tendencies and sometimes we’re pastiche. What does that even mean? I think it means we just sound however we want to whenever we want to. In the past, we’ve had guitars, drums, harmonies, cool bass lines and synths.

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Arushi Raina

Interviewed by Dominika Lirette

Arushi Raina is a young adult fiction writer who lives in Vancouver. A consultant by day, she fills her remaining hours with writing. Arushi grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa but, at 25, she’s a citizen of the world. So far she has lived in Egypt, Nigeria, India, the US, UK and now Canada.

Her first novel, When Morning Comes, was published in June of 2016. Publishers Weekly described it as “a riveting and accomplished debut.” The book centres around the fictional lives of four teenagers living in Johannesburg in 1976, right before the Soweto uprising. I caught up with her over the phone.

I read that you’ve been trying to write a novel since high school. What drew you to wanting to be a writer from such a young age?

To some extent, escapism. I think most people who start wanting to write, especially early on, they’re very attracted to living in alternative worlds. That’s one thing.

And then two, I think there’s just an overpowering need to have stories turn out a little bit different or characters say something a little bit different than they did. So you start creating your own versions of stories that you love in the way you’d want to tell them.

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J.B. MacKinnon

Interviewed by Stefan Labbé

J.B. MacKinnon is a non-fiction writer steeped in deep-dive book research and a fair share of shoe-leather reporting.

His most recent book, The Once and Future World, was a national bestseller and won the U.S. Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. MacKinnon is widely known for co-writing The 100-Mile Diet (with partner Alisa Smith) which chronicles the personal dietary experiment that helped spark the local food movement. His first book, Dead Man in Paradise won the Charles Taylor Prize for best literary non-fiction. The story traces the assassination of his uncle, a priest gunned down in the Dominican Republic as the country struggled under the heel of dictatorship.

When I first met MacKinnon, he struck me as a freelancer’s freelancer. Part of that has to do with the fact that he has won 11 National Magazine Awards and has written for publications ranging from National Geographic to The New Yorker. But he has also avoided the milieu of a traditional newsroom. Instead, he seeks that clean break from day to day life, slipping away to his broken-down cabin in Northern British Columbia or punctuating his day with rock climbing or birdwatching.

Naturally, I asked MacKinnon for an interview over an outdoor pint. It was December and the nylon awning overhead bulged with winter rain. He agreed on the spot, as long as it didn’t interfere with a whirlwind of reporting trips to Japan, Iceland and Arizona. Several weeks later, we swapped rain and beer for sun and tea in a lazy café in central Vancouver. 

How did you get started in this kind of work?

When I went to university I was looking around for something extracurricular to do. The student newspaper seemed intuitively appealing to me, so I signed up with The Martlet and I just really enjoyed it. I did more work for the newspaper than I did for my classes.

I never learned how to do journalism, so from the get-go I would over-report everything. I mean quite literally, among my first stories for The Martlet, I would be trying to get comments from the ministers responsible for the areas I was writing about, or the premier. I mean, ridiculous—things that I would never do today. And sometimes, oddly enough, I actually got them. I would just follow the stories as far up the line as I could take them every time and then write them way too long. So I was feature writing pretty much immediately.

And then two years into university I had a mix-up with my student loans and I wasn’t able to go back for my third year. Circumstances forced me to try to turn freelance writing into a paying gig. It didn’t pay well, but it worked and that was the end of my university career.

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Adèle Barclay

Photo credit: Michael Stevens.

Interviewed by Kyla Jamieson

Adèle Barclay published her début collection of poetry, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, to widespread acclaim in the fall of 2016. A poem from this collection, written—like many of Barclay’s poems—for one of her close friends, won the 2016 Walrus Reader’s Choice Award for poetry. Accepting the award, Barclay wrote, “That a poem predicated on friendship and survival managed to charm enough people to win the Readers’ Choice Award is inspiring to me—it feels right considering the nature of our love and politics.”

An early version of the manuscript that became If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry in 2015; this recognition helped Barclay land a contract with her collection’s publisher, Nightwood Editions. In 2016, Barclay won the Lit POP Award for Poetry—her prize included publication and a trip to Montreal for the POP Montreal International Music Festival because, as Barclay put it, “they know if they give writers money they’ll just spend it on rent.” Not long after our interview, it was announced that If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, a BC Book Prize that acknowledges the author of the year’s best poetry collection.

We spoke in Barclay’s kitchen, where she’d generously assembled a spread of cheeses, crackers, and nougat sourced from shops in her Commercial Drive neighbourhood. We discussed her education and influences, the ambient intimacy of texting, and not being an asshole. After our conversation, Barclay offered to read my tarot from a nautically themed deck, with her laptop open to assist. I emerged from the experience and into Vancouver’s uncharacteristic snow feeling much as I do when I surface from reading Barclay’s poems—hopeful and affirmed, a little less alone amidst the complexities and contradictions of contemporary existence.

Let’s start with your education. Having recently received your PhD in English, you’ve reached the height of academic achievement. It seems like the MFA is a more common route for poets to take, at least in Canada. Why did you choose the path you pursued?

It’s sort of just how it worked out. I actually started in Science at Queen’s then migrated to English. I did my Master’s at McGill, where I was definitely more on the periphery of the creative writing scene but went to a lot of events, took in a lot, and made friends with people like my friend Klara Du Plessis—we were both Master’s students and now we’re poets in the world. Then for some reason I decided to do a PhD. I graduated during the recession, so at the time academia was the most lucrative direction to go in. I took a chance on BC—I came out here to study at UVic and during the beginning of my PhD my writing took a huge dip. I was deeply uninspired. Everything I wrote, I was like, “This is awful.”
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Alysia Nicole Harris

Interviewed by Cameron Sharpe

Alysia Nicole Harris is an internationally known performance artist and poet hailing from Alexandria, Virginia. She is a Cave Canem fellow, founding member of the performance poetry collective The Strivers Row, and co-founder of the start-up Artist Inn Detroit. Alysia has toured in Canada, Germany, Slovakia, South Africa, and the UK and has spoken at the United Nations. Two-time Pushcart nominee, and two-time winner of the 2015 and 2014 Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize, Alysia’s poems have appeared in Indiana Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Vinyl, and Best New Poets 2015. Her work has been anthologized in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. In 2015, she was also selected as the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. 

Her first success as a writer and a performer was when she was a member of the winning 2007 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI). In 2008, she was featured on the

HBO documentary Brave New Voices, a slam poetry competition for kids from 13 through 19 years old. In 2014, Alysia received her MFA in poetry from NYU and Ph.D. in linguistics at Yale where she was a Bouchet Honor Society Graduate Fellow.

I was fortunate enough to get in contact with her through email while she was touring the UK and interview her through Google Hangout when she got home to Atlanta.

What brought you to poetry?

We have ways of thinking and how the world makes sense to us and we do not have a name for these things when we are young. We just know that is how we think. Obviously from training you get better and better at your skills, you get that natural impulse. I feel like with poems, I love writing and love words and I was obsessed with them. I would just write lists of names, but they weren’t really names but list of words. I loved the way they sounded and they launched my imagination to different places and to different ideas and so when my teacher in fifth grade showed my English class what a poem was, I was like “Oh I do that, that’s the name for, what happening up here in my brain.” I was like “Oh, that’s who I am! That’s what I am. I do that” And from there it was just getting better and practicing and spending time doing it. 

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Wade Davis

Interviewed by Geoffrey Gideon

I was introduced to Wade Davis through the University of British Columbia. I was a student in the first introduction to anthropology class he would teach at UBC, and his lectures were unlike anything I experienced in academia. I remember one class we were learning about the complexity and intelligence of the Polynesian Wayfinders, a culture that perfected navigation well before European contact. Sitting in front of me were two twenty year-olds. The first couple of classes they were the backwards baseball cap wearing students who would rather talk about their weekend plans than listen. And in fact that’s how the class started, but midway through the lecture they stopped talking and for the rest of the term they listened.    

Those students never stood a chance. Wade Davis has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, the Royal Ontario Museum, given numerous Ted Talks, and delivered the CBC Massey lectures. He’s also the author of twenty books. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest received the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize, the top award for literary nonfiction in the English language.

Not only can Wade Davis speak in a non-academic fashion, but between 1999 and 2013 he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and is the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at UBC. In 2016 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.

I sent Wade an email thanking him for his class and asking him for an interview. A couple days later he responded and happily agreed to speak with me about literary non-fiction, anthropology, and even Donald Trump.    

How do you select a project? Do you go looking for a story or do the stories find you?

I think Hemingway said the most important credential for a writer to have is something to say that the world needs to hear. He also said famously that anyone who thinks that writing is easy is either a bad writer or a liar. In other words, book projects are always all-consuming and I’ve always found that the thing that gets me through a project is passion, and I mean that in the sense that I really have to care and feel to some extent that I’ve got some mission. This is not something that I think about consciously; it just seems to be the way that it works.

If you look at all the books that I’ve written they’re always driven by a sense of mission, so for example when I came upon voodoo having no previous experience with the African world view I became in a sense outraged at how this religion had been reduced to caricature. There’s no question that that was a motivation that kept me pursuing that subject. At one level it was a scientific investigation but it was also driven by an almost evangelical sense of addressing that wrong and revealing to the world that voodoo was by definition the religion of Africa. That’s why it was so appropriate that the subject that I was studying, zombies, was a phenomenon that had been used in explicitly racist ways to denigrate what is in fact a remarkable religious world view.

Similarly when I wrote the book One River, I was really motivated by a desire to position Schultes in the historical light that he deserved, and Tim Plowman. In fact that book was literally conceived as I stood at the podium at the Field Museum in Chicago delivering a eulogy at Tim’s funeral service. Other books, such as The Wayfinders, were driven by my concern as an anthropologist and trying to draw the world’s attention to the central revelation of anthropology, the idea that every culture has something to say and each deserves to be heard. So all of my books have been driven by some kind of sense of personal mission if you will.

You just never know where that idea is going to come. I mean, the most important book I’ve ever written, and by far the best, is Into the Silence, and that was almost conceived on a whim on the eastern flanks of Everest when I stood on ground higher than anything in North America and looked up at two vertical miles of ice rising on the face of the South Col. And my friend who had brought me to the valley, Dan Taylor, suddenly began to speak of these Englishmen dressed in tweeds who read Shakespeare to each other in the snow at twenty-two thousand feet. And I was always intrigued by the great war and knew a lot about it.

That little whimsical decision to write a book about these men would end up consuming twelve years of my life, but that’s what books are all about. They become measures of your life. When you pass on as a writer I suspect what people will think about is the books, and that’s why books are so powerful. They outlive the author. It’s like when Faulkner was asked what he thought of what Hollywood did to his books and he just points to his bookshelf and says, “They didn’t do anything to my books. They’re not books.”

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Andrew Battershill

Interviewed by Michaela Bray

Andrew Battershill is a Canadian writer whose debut novel, Pillow, a story of an aging boxer caught up in a small-time crime syndicate, was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Sunburst Award, and a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. He graduated with an MA from the University of Toronto’s creative writing program, and was the fiction editor and co-founder of the online literary magazine Dragnet Magazine. He currently lives and teaches in Columbus, Ohio.

After reading Pillow, I reached out to Andrew, who agreed to correspond over email.

What sort of research did you do for this book? There are various themes and references from history — did these themes interest you before, or did you discover them along the way?

I wouldn’t call the research I did for this book historical, but more, as you say, thematic. The cast of characters is drawn mostly based on Surrealist artists and poets of the 1920s and 1930s, but I didn’t want to depict them in a historically accurate way so much as a spiritually accurate way. The Surrealists loved the idea of playing with temporality and sense, so just throwing a bunch of them into a modern crime thriller seemed like it would be fun and in keeping with the ontological principles that guided Surrealism as an intellectual movement.

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Annelyse Gelman

Interviewed by Mariah Devcic

Annelyse Gelman is a poet currently based in Berlin. Her collection of poems Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Gelman’s EP (under the name Shoulderblades) is available on Bandcamp and is proof that she is truly a maker of all kinds. Further proof can be found with her poems in the New Yorker, the Indiana Review, and Poetry is Dead, as well as her collaboration with artist Stephen Whisler, and many other places/media.

I emailed Gelman after reading her book countless times and keeping up with her other work through a monthly newsletter. I was interested in her inspiration and process because of the momentum of Gelman’s work at large. She let me in on a few of the ways she stays curious, and why she doesn’t always try to force creativity.

How have your inspirations and influences changed from before the book to now? How has publication changed your process?

The way my work and its influences changes over time feels pretty fluid to me – evolving along a path that’s revealed as I proceed, shaped by many different forces. There’s not really a meaningful demarcation between “before the book” and “after the book”; in many ways, the timing of publishing in the first place was fairly arbitrary. There’s a constantly mutating body of work, and at some point you just stop and make a cast of that body’s current shape. A fossil of something still living? These mutation-cast cycles will proceed regardless of when, or whether, I publish.

There’s definitely some pressure now to create something new and different – nobody wants to write the same book twice – but I’d be wary of repeating myself even if I never published Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone. I’m always trying to do something I’ve never done before; I imagine this is true of most artists. I’m probably also more patient – I just want to do the best work I can, as hard as I can, and I’m not too worried about how long that takes. My process was – and still is – to follow my curiosity and confusion and excitement, and see where that takes me. Sometimes that means poems that naturally want to gel together (like the Naked Lunch centos, or this series of site-specific pieces “set” in New Mexico, or when I find myself drawn to certain forms or tones), and more often it results in standalone pieces that haven’t really found a place in a larger project yet.

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Louise Bernice Halfe

Interviewed by Selina Boan

Born on the Saddle Lake Reserve in Two Hills, Alberta in 1953, Louise Bernice Halfe is the award winning author of four poetry collections. Her books Bear Bones and Feathers, Blue Marrow, The Crooked Good and Burning in this Midnight Dream have received numerous distinctions and awards. Her work has been shortlisted for Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award, among others.

In addition to writing, Louise holds a bachelor of Social Work from the University of Regina and has travelled across Canada and abroad doing readings and presenting her work. She was Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate for 2005-2006 and currently lives outside Saskatoon with her husband, dogs, cats, and chickens. Her Cree name is Sky Dancer and she is a proud mother and grandmother.

I have long admired Halfe’s poetry and return to her work often for its attention to sound, texture, and celebration of the Cree language. Re-reading her latest poetry collection, Burning in this Midnight Dream, I was struck once again by the rhythm of her words, by the presence of the body, and the power of truth, storytelling, and witness. It was an honour to interview Louise through email correspondence and talk with her about the significance of dreams, the challenges of life as a poet, and the musical dance of the Cree language.

I am curious to hear how you came to poetry, what was it that initially drew you in and what inspired you to pursue writing?

I didn’t choose poetry. Poetry came nodding its head in when I was keeping a journal. The journal writing kept calling to me and was reinforced by dreams and ceremony.

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