Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Kevin Chong

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Kevin Chong

Kevin Chong is the author of Beauty Plus Pity (Arsenal Pulp Press), as well as the novel Baroque-a-Nova and two memoirs, one of which is set to be released in 2012.

Don't miss Kevin at Type Books today — Thursday, November 3, 2011 — reading with Kathryn Mockler and Hal Niedzvieki. Author Brian Joseph Davis hosts, along with Aresenl Pulp Press, Type Books and the online literary magazine and hub, Joyland.

Click here for Open Book's event listing with all the juicy details!

Kevin talks with Open Book about male modeling, family dynamics and how to rock a poker-faced narrative voice.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Beauty Plus Pity.

Kevin Chong:

The short version: it's about a guy named Malcolm who meets his half-sister, Hadley, at their father's funeral.

The longer version: Malcolm is a wannabe male model — the choice his ambivalent response to his parents' wish that he pursue a life in the arts. I wanted to use this narrative to explore the nature of beauty, to ask is whether beauty is something we recognize innately, or is it something we can only understand through experience. Malcolm's father is an aspiring filmmaker and, in the absence of success, develops a connoisseurship of books and films that his son tries to emulate. I attempt to tie this nature-or-nurture question of beauty to the awkward negotiation of expectations that occurs between Malcolm and Hadley. They're trying to figure out whether there is a biological bond that ties them together or whether a sibling relationship can only arise from a shared upbringing.

Other things I wanted to do: tweak certain expectations of what an Asian immigrant family looks like; make male modelling jokes; get out some thoughts on boy-girl dynamics.


An epigraph from Nabokov provides the book's title. How did you come across the quotation? Did you find it before or after you had the idea for the book?


I wrote the first draft in 2002 so I can't remember exactly. I probably came upon the quote while I was attending grad school in New York in the late nineties. I remember going to a Nabokov exhibit at the library and seeing his copy of a New Yorker fiction anthology. He'd assigned each author a letter grade: the only two that got an "A" was his own story and "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger.

In any event, the title really does play a part in how I shaped the book.


What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?


I've published two novels and two memoirs (including My Year of the Racehorse, a book about my experiences owning a thoroughbred that's out in the spring). In all them, I'd say there are "daddy issues," too many references to music and a preoccupation with death. Both novels have deaths of parents early in the book. Both memoirs deal with strange subcultures (music fans, punters and horsemen) with their own esoteric language.


How do you approach a novel project as opposed to a memoir project? How does writing in multiple genres inform your process?


The biggest difference is that the memoirs have been commissioned and that there's a research element to them (my novels have so far involved minimal research). I like writing against deadlines. As a freelancer, the only time I have ever missed a deadline was once when I confused the date in my head. Novel writing is more sprawling and more frustrating — probably because it's on spec. Fiction is more first love, but in the past few years, I'd say I find non-fiction easier. With this book, it's been nice to return to the kind of issues and problems that fiction writers experience.

As for how genres influence each other, I'd say non-fiction has made my fiction a bit more concise. Fiction has made me search for better turns of phrase in my non-fiction. I also once developed a TV show and my experience working with a story editor helped make me think of a story on a thematic level, and to consider how each scene develops a theme.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


Sharing experiences with friends like Lee Henderson, Madeleine Thien, and Steve Galloway, whom I've known since I was a writing student in 19 or 20, has really been helpful to me. Nowadays, I teach creative writing at UBC, and working with students has really given me a lot of inspiration. Professoring is the closest I've ever come to parenting. It's made me a more patient, well-behaved person. I used to talk and act a lot more recklessly; now I expect to see the plump, fresh face of an undergrad every time I make a joke about cancer.

I haven’t read much of his work lately, but Donald Barthelme really shaped the way I wrote. I tried to emulate his cosmopolitan sophistication, his ability to ping-pong from demotic to arch literary language, and his use of irony as a way of tempering, deflecting and ultimately filtering emotion. As it is, I write with a poker-faced narrative voice that is 45% tongue-in-cheek, 53% earnest … and 2% erotic. People, perhaps justifiably, don’t always read my writing that way. Mostly, they read it as porn.

I recently did an event with David Gilmour, whose CBC show "Gilmour on the Arts" was a favourite of mine. What I love about Gilmour's writing and his broadcasting is his knack for aphoristic observation. I remember a movie review Gilmour did on the Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman in which he talks about happiness being something that could appear right in front of you; the difficult part was being brave enough to snatch it. That quote rang through my ears in my early 20s, even as I snatched wildly at illusions of happiness.

Oh, and the Woody Allen quote about how "eighty percent of life is showing up" are probably the only words I would ever get tattooed on my ass.


Beauty Plus Pity follows a modern yet timeless family story — are there other books you've read recently (or not so recently) that you think do interesting things with family dynamics?


There’s a sibling reunion scene in Timothy Taylor’s Blue Light Project that is so excruciatingly matter-of-fact that it’s heartbreaking. And in her poetry collection Rebuild, Sachiko Murakami ties in the obsession with home ownership and home one-upsmanship in Vancouver with ideas of belonging, dislocation, renovation. She also writes about the sudden death of her own father. This line especially sticks in my memory: “I bellow him back into being and the life I wanted him to have.”


What are you working on now?


I have a deep drawer with many abandoned manuscripts. I have a novel manuscript I've been tinkering with for 18 months that I write in fits and starts. I need to give it one more sustained effort before it gets relegated to the recycle bin.

Kevin Chongwas born in Hong Kong in 1975. He is the author of a novel, Baroque-a-Nova (Penguin Canada, 2001/Plume USA, 2002), a music memoir entitled Neil Young Nation (Greystone, 2005), and a memoir on horse-racing and the novel Beauty Plus Pity.

For more information about Beauty Plus Pity please visit the Arsenal Pulp Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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