Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with David Lee

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David Lee

What's better than staying up late with a scary or thrilling book, listening to every little creak and rustle in your house and you pull the covers up higher and higher? It's one of our favourite activities and it's the perfect time of year for it. So we're excited to celebrate Halloween at Open Book by talking with David Lee, author of The Midnight Games (Wolsak & Wynn).

The Midnight Games follow Nate as he sneaks into Ivor Wynne Stadium to learn more about the mysterious, titular games. Spinning an engrossing young adult novel set in post-industrial Hamilton, David mines his gritty location as the perfect backdrop to Nate's strange and terrifying adventure. Full of ancient books and curses as well as Lovecraftian horror, The Midnight Games is the perfect Canadian Halloween read.

David tells us about how Nate evolved as a character, balancing humour and horror, and the experience of writing his hometown.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Midnight Games.

David Lee:

It’s an SF horror novel set in contemporary Hamilton. Nate, my teenage protagonist, lives near the football stadium, so he’s used to the racket from TiCats games. But as the novel begins, he has been hearing the noise of some kind of weird, different games; games that start at midnight. He sneaks into the stadium and discovers that they are not games, but mass rallies summoning the Great Old Ones of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” from their world to ours.


How would you describe the character of Nate? How did he originate for you?


First he was just a faceless young guy who was telling the story. Then the publisher, Noelle Allen, said that the book should be oriented towards the “young adult” audience, so I made him eighteen years old, then sixteen. Once I established a few facts about him, Nate began to come to life: he sprouted a background and started making his own decisions. He lives in Hamilton, in the same house I live in, he’s interested in the arts and sciences, he’s a bit of a smartass. Having been a sixteen-year-old boy myself, it’s not that hard for me to conjure one up.


You're blending humour, horror and mystery in a young adult novel here. Was it a lot to balance? How do you find the right mixture of elements to best support your story?


Is it the right mixture? I am waiting to hear back from readers. Maybe I have screwed it all up. I think the big thing is to make sure that the imaginative world of the novel is very much our world. It’s like a musical improvisation: even if you are playing “freely,” you don’t just start spouting all your favourite licks for fun. You need to maintain a keen sense of the context; of what has been previously played, and of who you’re playing with, and of what, given your abilities, you can contribute towards making the occasion significant. Similarly, if you write a novel in which a brutal cult is trying to transport hideous extraterrestrials onto our planet through a sort of space warp thingy, people will just laugh. So you have to show them the blood, and your characters have to feel real pain and fear and despair. The challenge is to construct a story that really takes the reader somewhere, and then brings them back, with maybe now a slightly different way of looking at the world. If you do that, then you can possibly make a claim that your book is actual literature, not just a way to kill time for a few hours.


What drew you to set the book in your city, Hamilton, and what was the experience of writing the city like for you?


I’m on Facebook with Noelle, and she put out a call for books about Hamilton. I told her Hamilton needed a horror novel that people would read on the bus. Hamilton has been a steel-making city for a long time, and the domestic steel industry is in decline, so there is a pervasive culture here which looks longingly back towards an idealized past where kindly, paternal industrial entities would take care of you and your family for life, providing you showed up for work every weekday for 35 years or so. There is a somewhat morbid sentimentality for that allegedly wonderful era. Similarly, in the Cthulhu Mythos, the Great Old Ones are powerful but repulsive creatures who ruled the world in the distant prehistoric past. A cult who want to bring them back, so they can hand over their lives and their volition to them, must also be a pretty morbid bunch. Lovecraftian horror seemed a natural way to dramatize and fictionalize what I feel is a very real aspect of the city and its culture.

When you write a book, serendipity can tell you when you’re onto something. One day I was getting a haircut, and the woman cutting my hair told me that if I was writing a Hamilton-based horror novel, Evelyn Dick had to be in it. I’d never heard of Evelyn Dick. It turns out she was a famous murderer of the 1940s, she lived right in my neighbourhood, and her story fits into the story I was writing in a number of serendipitous ways.


Are you drawn to horror and mystery as a reader? What are some of your favourites?


I read lots of science fiction and horror from the age of six until I was into my twenties. I think horror literature is very much about our relationships with nature, including our own bodies, and our relationships with our past. But actually I hate most science fiction, and most horror, it just seems dreadful to me. When Noelle and I started discussing covers, I sent her a scan of T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods, a great book I’ve had for thirty years or so. J.G. Ballard wrote very beautiful prose. Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut were both masters of being simultaneously heartbreaking and very funny. Right now I am helping teach Frankenstein, so I’m enjoying Mary Shelley a lot. Sorry I can’t be more contemporary, but lately I don’t read many literary books, I read non-fiction about jazz, the visual arts, critical theory, etc.


What are you working on now?


I am working on my PhD dissertation, which is on the history of improvised music in Toronto, from about 1962 onwards. If it’s half-decent, I’ll try to make a book out of it, since I already have a bit of a track record as a music writer. I also have a science fiction novel, set in the Cypress Hills, that I workshopped with Lawrence Hill at the Sage Hill Writer’s Workshop a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, The Midnight Games implies a lot of different story threads and leaves some unanswered questions, so if it’s judged a success, someone might want me to write a sequel or sequels.

But first I have to finish this dissertation!

David Lee was born and raised in Mission, BC. Upon receiving his BA in English from UBC, he moved to Toronto where he worked for the jazz magazine Coda and, with his wife, Maureen Cochrane, ran the publishing house Nightwood Editions. He also studied double bass and worked actively in Toronto avant-garde theatre, dance, and multi-media performances, as well as touring internationally and recording with the Bill Smith Ensemble, Leo Smith, and Joe McPhee. He is the author of The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (Mercury Press, 2006) and Commander Zero (Tightrope Books, 2012). David Lee lives in Hamilton with his family.

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