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As Real As It Gets: An interview with Dustin Cole
Dustin Cole’s debut novel Notice puts the Vancouver housing crisis front and centre within the framework of the story. Set during the summer of 2017 in Vancouver, BC, economic imperatives are making space less and less accessible to low-income residents. The rental crisis is intensifying, ravenous real-estate development is thriving and there is a province-wide forest fire emergency blanketing the city in smoke.
Notice is the Kafkaesque story of a man under threat of renoviction, caught in the gears of bureaucracy in a city where economic inequality runs rampant; displacement and petty frustration abound. Dustin Cole writes with a documentarian sensibility from the unique perspective of Dylan Levett—a cynical dishwasher from Alberta whose greatest fantasy is a post-car world. With the spotlight turned to the down-and-out and the working-class, Notice seemingly holds a funhouse mirror up to the city of Vancouver—but the image reflected there might be as real as it gets.
This book is classified as fiction but many aspects of it obviously ring true. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for this book?
Literature is truer than true, there’s nothing fake or false about it. Any work of literature is a distinctive artifact of the subjective consciousness.
As for the inspiration of this book, I started writing it because I found myself in a situation similar to the situation of the protagonist in my novel and needed to vent. A new landlord had taken over the building I lived in. The landlord illegally pressured me out of my apartment. This caused me much stress. It angered me. I had a legitimate and long-standing rental agreement. Having said that, though, it doesn’t even begin to explain how the book functions in its entirety. There’s a lot more going on in there. Same goes for calling it Kafka-esque. I love the uncanny, peerless Kafka, but this is just an entry point, due to some aspects of Notice that echo The Trial.
Over the past couple of months B.C has recorded a record number of opioid overdoses. Do you think this is a sign that not only the opioid crisis but also the rental crisis is getting worse?
I think it’s a sign that certain people received CERB money and thus had greater and more regular access to Fentanyl.
Do you believe the pandemic has shown even more gaps in Vancouver’s rental crisis?
Has the pandemic exacerbated the rental crisis? Probably. Say, for example, someone got laid off from work because of the lock down, or became severely ill and was hospitalized, it may have led to an unfair eviction and displacement.
In your opinion what’s the most shocking aspect of the rental crisis? Is there a story you’ve heard that sticks out in your mind
The most shocking thing is when a single mother, or a senior with a disability, or a person suffering from mental health issues, is evicted from their rental unit because the landlord wants to make a few hundred more dollars profit per month on the rental unit. I think it’s vulgar and vicious. How do these people sleep at night? Probably really well, on their pillows and mattresses stuffed with cash.
My story is the story that sticks out most in my mind. I guess I’m biased. In Notice I included around half a dozen interludes, set in italics, which are based on real news stories about housing issues that I collected and adapted during the writing of the book.
The book is broken up into three parts. Was this always the case or did the novel have a different structure earlier on?
Indeed, it is, and with the Roman numerals placed in descending order, like a ticking time bomb, or, graphically, a downward spiral or nail in the coffin. It wasn’t always structured this way. For the first couple years I was working on it the thing was just a big mess. It had different titles, one being Gills of Certainty. At first the subject of eviction didn’t have a major place in the story. It was about a guy who had dreams and in these dreams he lived in the same city but in a parallel universe. The city was governed by socialist Christians and automobiles were only used for a fringe motorsport that combines demolition derby and closed-circuit racing. The city in the parallel universe is being terrorized by a telekinetic and charismatic self-published author from Port Alberni named Patrick Ovington (who is actually a real guy!). That said, I’ve always been more taken by urban realist fiction, so I scrapped the idea, however, some of the passages were pretty fun to write.
Can you talk about the creation of the main character, Levett?
I wanted to feature a character that allowed me to work through the idea of hamartia, which is a Greek archery term that translates as “missing the mark”. Aristotle discussed it and it became an important concept in Christianity as “sin”. My intention was to provide Levett with all the support he needed to prevail, to overcome his struggle, but because of certain personality traits he fails in the end to succeed. I recently re-read some George Orwell essays, and he said it a lot better than me in ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’: “A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces that destroy him.” Levett is a better person than Vaughn MacDunn, Tom Ford, and the Lam Twins, but they are better at being ignoble than Levett is at being noble.
The details of the streets of Vancouver in this book are harsh and vivid. What’s the importance of painting that picture so clearly? Was it difficult?
Thank you! The importance of providing these images with maximum fidelity is to show readers some external truth about parts of Vancouver. If you live here you will recognize these images, if you don’t live here, you’re a tourist who took a wrong turn. It’s also important to debunk the myth that Vancouver is some supernatural idyll full of promise and enchantment. There is much suffering, disparity and death on these streets. Take a walk down to the DTES and see for yourself if you’re in town. Try not to avert your eyes. These images weren’t difficult to make, but prose is difficult, if not impossible, to perfect. I always remember Cormac telling Oprah about trying to make a perfect image: “You can’t do it, but you have to try.”
What prompted you to move away from poetry and write this book?
It wouldn’t be totally accurate to say I “moved away from poetry” because I’ve been doing fiction since 2008 and have drafts of five or six other novels. I had some luck getting a chapbook of some poems published in this window of time. That was good. When I finally finished my history degree, I was faced with the reality of getting older and wondered what I would focus on: music? history studies (more school)? fiction writing? With much difficulty I chose the latter, not because I was better at it or had any special opportunities, but because I am a devotee of prose art and knew deep down that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to making prose art. The housing crisis issue was contemporary and relatable for many, and I decided to use it as a vehicle to tell a story using some concepts and stylistic devices I enjoyed in other works of fiction. It’s important to remember that, regardless of the themes or social issues explored in my work, the English language is always my prime motivator.
To be honest, I haven’t been writing any poetry for a few years now, but recently listened and read along to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which I found highly edifying. I enjoy reading poetry and learn a lot when I do read poets like Paul Celan, Wallace Stevens or John Donne. One never knows if the Muses should descend and sing through your pen. I’d appreciate it if some day they did again.
What kind of change are you hoping for in Vancouver that will being to fix the rental crisis?
There seems to be a typo in this question. As for change, I don’t know, I’m not a policy-maker. Let’s be absolutely clear, I do not propose a solution to Vancouver’s Housing Question in the book. It’s not a social justice warrior novel. It’s not intended to moralize or repair something in bad condition.
Housing crisis is a global topic – with people working from home, working remotely, how do you see the future concept of home changing?
The concept of home will never fundamentally change, even if we do extra stuff at home. If the concept of home changed, we would lose that word and would have to call whatever it was something else. This question bothers me a bit, actually. I have a problem with people’s attitude towards lock downs, working from home, socially isolating, as if these were permanent conditions. “New normal” is one of the worst phrases ever coined. As if this is the way we are going to have to live from now on. People should be brutally critical of this proposition, yet many people seem to accept it unquestioningly.
Who are some of your favourite BC writers? Who are some of your biggest influences as a writer.
I’m glad you asked me this question because I was fortunate enough to review some BC books through The Ormsby Review and BC Book World. Grant Buday is a really talented author. His book Atomic Road is a riotous road novel I can’t recommend enough. The late Patrick Lane is a writer to be read and admired. I reviewed his final novel Deep River Night, which is a serious and accomplished work of Canadian literature. Brett Grubisic is an unconventional, gifted novelist who I also reviewed and enjoyed. My good friend Matthew Tomkinson recently co-published the singular and audacious Archaic Torso of Gumby. His next book Oems is forthcoming on Guernica Editions. My close friend Bradley Iles wrote an innovative volume called Derby which deserves to be studied.
I’ve sometimes thought about what I would say if the day came when someone asked me who my biggest influences were as a writer. I’ll never tell the media that. However, to give you an idea of the spirit in which I work, but not to suggest any affinity or comparable skill, I’ll list four names attributed to works that mean a lot to me, and have inspired me much: William Shakespeare, François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Michel de Montaigne.
For more information on the Notice, visit Nightwood Editions’ website.
Let Them In: A Review from Alishya Weiland
I’ve always wondered why we don’t see many females in politics. Even before I started looking into it myself, I found it puzzling that often when it was time to vote I was stuck deciding between this man or that man. I was hopeful it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but when I picked up Elect Her written by Fred Groves, I was surely disappointed.
Out of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories only one of them has a female premier.
One out of 13. In total, there have only been twelve female premiers and one female prime minister. Out of 338 seats in the House of Commons only 98 are held by women. That’s not even 30 per cent. The numbers look just as grim for many municipalities around the country.
This means that whether women like it or not, often decisions about female reproductive rights, equality rights and more are decided by men. Only men.
In Too Dumb For Democracy?: Why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones (Goose Lane Editions, 2019) author David Moscrop talks about how political decision making can be exhausting, how the news moves too fast and sometimes it’s just easier to make ill-informed decisions or no decision at all. But he does say how crucial it is that we keep paying attention. Moscrop is a political theorist with an interest in democratic deliberation.
In the introduction he writes, “As far as we’ve come, and as well as we’re doing, we cannot sit back and congratulate ourselves. The future is not guaranteed, and we risk losing it all. There are injustices to overcome and institutions to protect. There are people on the outside who need in.”
It’s easier to pretend there are no gendered issues in politics, it’s easier to just roll your eyes when a woman politician gets slammed for voicing her opinion, also known as, doing her job. But we all have a role to play in the future of women in politics.
In his book Elect Her, (Crossfield Publishing, 2020) Fred Groves speaks to current and former politicians across Canada about what it was like going through the motions of being a female in office. Spoiler alert: A lot of them found it extremely challenging. Groves is a lifelong political junkie and has worked as a journalist in southwestern Ontario for several periodicals.
Groves decided to write Elect Her when he realized how many female politicians were open to speaking with him on the subject. Before commencing the journey he was led to the conclusion by an Essex, Ontario town councillor Sherry Bondy, and other women, that “women make better politicians.”
“As negotiators, they’re just as good, if not better, than their male colleagues,” says Groves. “They have more patience and leave their egos at the door, even in in the midst of heated debates. As the ones who have to get home and take care of the children, they’re better at time management. They’re also not as prone to accept the status quo and they tend to ask more questions.”
Irene Mathyssen was in and out of politics from 1990 and became Member of Parliament for London-Fanshawe from 2006 to 2015. Her daughter Lindsay Mathyssen followed in her footsteps and became an MP in 2019. Irene told Groves that she won’t miss being held to a different standard than men. She mentioned one instance where she wore a similar dress as another woman at an event, and it was the media event of the evening. As if every man in that room wasn’t wearing a variation of the same tux. Reading this came as no surprise to me, it reminded me of similar instances where I’ve been asked “where my son is?” when I’m completing evening or weekend obligations, a question my husband is never handed.
Women in the book cited conflicting responsibilities, being expected to be perfect and never quite being equals.
Dr. Kate Graham, political science professor, said “We want women to be perfect, it’s a standard that can’t be met.” Alberta NDP Leader and former premier, Rachel Notley, said one challenge women face in politics is not belonging to the “late night scotch drinking clubs
Former city councillor in Windsor, Caroline Postma, said “People used to ask me more about my hair and makeup than the issues.”
Is it any wonder we don’t have more women in politics? I’ve toyed with the idea myself after being outraged while watching four white men argue with each other during New Brunswick’s provincial election and watching Premier Blaine Higgs ignore my reproductive rights in the fight to save Clinic 554, the only abortion clinic and transgender health centre in the province. But, being a female politician sounds horrible.
Former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findley was only in the House of Commons for one term but her advice in Elect Her, stuck out more than most.
“If you want more women in public office, you have to have more women run and you have to stop saying how horrible it is.”
While I agree with that, I’m also thankful for the honesty within this book and within conversations I’ve had with female politicians myself.
Groves was able to identify some key reasons women are hesitant to put their name on the ticket, and none of those reasons include having a low shot at being elected.
“It’s important to remember once a woman is on the ballot, she has just as good a chance of being elected as a male,” he said.
But putting your name on the ballot can be tricky when there are a mountain of personal issues waiting for you. Groves said since women are often the primary caretakers of children and elderly family members, they need a strong support system to enter into something like politics. But that’s not all. Catherine McKenna was attacked online in 2019 after posting a heartfelt video of her tearing up while holding onto an election countdown calendar her children made her.
She’s too emotional. Elizabeth May had to sit quietly during a debate in 2019 as her male opponents debated female reproductive rights.
She was outnumbered.
Kathy Dunderdale, former Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador likened entering politics to childbirth. Saying it would probably be the scariest decision you ever make.
Perhaps, she was right. So how do we fix it? How can we get to a place in the world where New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs putting six women in his sixteen-person cabinet doesn’t make for the top news of the day? It needs to be easier for women to run. We have to deal with wage gaps. We have to make it acceptable for women to bring their newborn babies to political meetings, something Newfoundland and Labrador has just implemented in their legislature.
Elect Her and Too Dumb for Democracy are important reads during a time where our political decisions are arguably more important than ever. We need women at the table. We need to start looking more closely at these issues.
I don’t think it’s hopeless and I do think progress is being made. The Cape Breton Regional Municipality has just elected its first female mayor, Amanda McDougall, and a record eight women to council. McDougall beat out the incumbent mayor by almost 4,000 votes. But progress, doesn’t mean completion.
We need female voices in all levels of government. Let’s get to a point where books don’t have to be written about the lack of gender parity and when record numbers of women in positions of political power no longer make the news. Let’s just have it be normal.
Alishya Weiland is a fourth-year journalism and communications student at St. Thomas University. She has previously written for The Aquinian and CBC New Brunswick. She enjoys, reading, writing and all things politics.
End of an Era: an interview with author Brit Griffin
Since author Brit Griffin began her Wintermen trilogy five years ago, it seemed the author had her finger on the pulse of what was to come to the world we live in. Setting her story on an earth devastated by climate change, mixed with the page-turning captivation of those old-time spaghetti westerns. From a 2014 review on Goodreads, a reader commented, “John Slaught and the Wintermen ride their snow machines across the snowy landscape in a confrontation with an enemy whose weaponry and purpose are far deadlier. Although the language is overflowing with swear words, the plot is action-packed and gripping from the first page to the last. Even when the drama heats up, tension and suspense mounting as events unfold, it’s often broken by wry humour.” Karen McBride, author of Crow Winter, calls the conclusion to the series “a crucial reminder of our role in keeping the lands we love safe.”
Brit Griffin is a writer and environmentalist, founder of Highgrader Magazine and author of the Wintermen trilogy (published by Latitude 46 Publishing, shortlisted for the Northern Lit Award for Fiction). She is the co-author of We Lived A Life and Then Some: The Life and Death of a Mining Town. Brit also works as a researcher for Timiskaming First Nation, an Algonquin community in north-western Quebec. She lives in Cobalt, Ontario with her husband, and is the mother of three daughters.
In this interview, the author discusses the writing process, and saying goodbye to her beloved Wintermen trilogy.
How do you go about creating a character?
If you make space in your imagination, the characters usually present themselves. Once I am thinking of a new plot line or scene, I start to toy with different outcomes and almost put in placeholder characters, something very generic, like a man or a creature or a tree and then, as the plot line evolves, the characters will more often than not shape themselves and continue to do so as the story-line emerges and becomes more specific.
What is the best advice to create an unlikeable character?
Make them exceptionally unlikeable. I have always preferred a villain that has the strength and ability to bring an element of menace to the storyline. Since I am interested in exploring the idea of how a person should behave in the face of evils—exploitation, cruelty, greed, etc.—then I like to have a villain that has enough ability to deliver those evils convincingly. You need a worthy adversary to make the book compelling.
Although some of the darker characters in the Wintermen series have redemption available to them as a potential path (such as Mitch Black), and I think that this makes them more interesting and complex, other characters are simply beyond the pale. These characters are able to heighten the vulnerability of the characters you want your readers to root for, and so make the story more gripping. But you don’t want to have your bad guy just be a one-dimensional jerk either; bad guys need something like a fatal flaw, weakness or a blind spot to give your main characters something to work with.
Since beginning your trilogy, how has your passion / sadness for the climate crisis evolved?
Well, to be honest, I am neither passionate nor sad about the climate crisis. Perhaps angry and informed would be better markers of my development with the issue over the past ten years. When I started the books, climate change seemed like a good apocalyptic scenario, a future problem to be grappled with; the first Wintermen book was as much a cautionary tale as anything. By the second book, I was paying a lot more attention to the science emerging on climate change and was consequently paying more attention to the landscape around me and how climate change was altering it. At that point the interest in nature as a character began to take hold in my writing. By the final book, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly speculative about the series except perhaps the perpetual winter scenario– but a world fundamentally changed for the worst by human beings was the here and now. So for the final book I was focused more on how we stop being extractive predators and live properly in a world altered by climate change.
What are the most surprising comments / feedback you get from readers?
That they find them ‘too dark’. I think overall the series presents maybe a tough scenario for our future, but the books are also very funny and exciting as well. And I think they offer hope in that the series offers a vision of human community that can forge a positive path forward through extreme adversity without only having dystopic levels of violence and despair.
Canada seems to be in a state of sub-zero weather for almost half the year. How does your writing change with the seasons? Or does it?
We have gorgeous, extreme and visually complex winters here in the north. Having so much time to write during winter brings an authenticity to my work. I think I may always have my writing set during winter!
Agree or disagree, and why: Margaret Atwood’s comment ” I am not a prophet. Science fiction is really about now.” (The Guardian)
Well I can’t speak to many other sci-fi scenarios that might feature technologies or aliens or whatever, but in terms of climate change it is sort of obvious. We are living during the 6th great extinction and in terms of weather, are already getting the climate chaos the first Wintermen book talked about. So clearly Ms. Atwood is correct.
How does it feel to have finished the trilogy?
The move from speculative fiction to grappling with ideas that were rooted in the here and now made the last book a strange one to write – I couldn’t possibly resolve the climate crisis, but nor could I resign myself to abandoning my characters to a completely grim end. I really had to think hard about the things I was hopeful about, and the things that I was not, and try to be honest about this difference. I tried to do my best by the characters, especially over the span of three books you develop attachments to them, feel that somehow, overtime, they escape the boundaries of your mind, will keep existing even when you turn your attention elsewhere, still hauling their wood under that hard but beautiful northern sky. So I will miss the characters a fair bit, but feel they have accompanied me long enough on this journey of the imagination.
For more information on the Wintermen trilogy, visit Latitude 46 Publishing’s website.