What it means to write from the coast

Originally appeared:
National Post
Sat Apr 30 2011

by Brad Frenette

One of the first writers to document Vancouver also gave the city his name. “To describe the beauties of this region will, on some future occasion, be a very grateful task to the pen of a skilled panegyrist,” wrote George Vancouver in 1792. Of course, Captain Vancouver would have little notion of the city that would swell in the centuries beyond him -a place of glass and grit, of social woes and woeful real estate prices, a city encased in natural beauty and consistently named the most liveable place in the world.

George didn’t stay in Vancouver, though, so the task indeed had to fall to the pens of other panegyrists. And there has been no shortage of talented writers to help describe the place in recent years. Home to Canada’s greatest creative writing school (UBC), Vancouver-based writers have shone brightly in the past decade’s CanLit year-end lists and shortlists.

To discuss the place they call home, and the challenges and benefits of life as a writer in Vancouver, I gathered several of the city’s acclaimed writers, including Billie Livingston, Annabel Lyon, Kevin Chong, Timothy Taylor, Steven Galloway, Caroline Adderson, Lee Henderson, Zsuzsi Gartner, Ian Weir and John Vaillant. A full transcript can be found on The Afterword.

Brad Frenette Distanced from the major publishing houses and media concentration of Toronto, Vancouver sits, more or less, as a hub on its own. Has this distance helped to create a community?

Steven Galloway I think that Vancouver has a terrific literary community … precisely because it’s so removed from where most of the publishers are, and where the “national” media is.

Kevin Chong There is a community but it’s decentralized. We don’t have the same circuit of writing events to bring writers together for gossiping, schmoozing, envying and brawling. Personally, I don’t mind that.

Caroline Adderson Far flung writers are generally not invited to take part in the kind of fundraising soirees and breakfast book clubs that get your picture in the Globe and the Post, since it costs too much to bring us out. Thus the reader of the arts pages tends to see Ontario writers over and over. We’re not at the parties Kevin mentioned so can’t demonstrate to publishers and festival directors and future jurists that we are as witty and fun to be around as the writers in Toronto.

John Vaillant Writing’s a pretty hermetic business, and communing takes a lot of time and energy, which competes with writing and other living time and energy. That said, I’m continually impressed by the writers I run into and read here. I wonder if Vancouver, by virtue of its marginal location, doesn’t draw more mercurial, nomadic and independentminded writers and artists to begin with.

Ian Weir I’ve crossed over into the novel-writing dodge after years as a playwright and TV writer, and the contrasts are intriguing. There’s a stronger sense of local identity among the TV writers, in part because the funding system induces producers to hire in-province people. I think the prose writers tend to be more genuinely supportive of each other, even though the “community” may be more loosely knit.

Annabel Lyon In the age of Facebook and Twitter, geographical location seems almost a quaint concept, and I’m not really sure how relevant it is in a discussion of community. I feel part of various writing communities but where in the country they live seems an almost arbitrary parameter for a community.

Timothy Taylor Cities in the West are increasingly similar, culturally smoothed by travel and immigration and technology and a common interest in Charlie Sheen. But I’ll shout out to Vancouver’s literary scene on one score already raised: I don’t sense a lot of rivalry between writers on the ground there. It’s probably a size related matter. Small cities tend to auto-boosterism, which isn’t a bad thing. We are having this discussion after all, aren’t we?

Brad Frenette Vancouver is a fairly young city -125 years old as of last month -and is still developing its literary mythology. Is Vancouver a blank slate for a writer?

Zsuzsi Gartner I’ve been very consciously, starting in my first collection and going whole-hog in the book just released, to use Vancouver, particularly Commercial Drive and a certain mythical cul-desac in North Vancouver, as not just settings but actual characters in the stories. So Commercial Drive (or the Lions Gate Bridge, or Robson Street, or Kingsway, or Blood Alley) may not be part of our collective memory yet, like Montreal’s St. Urbain Street -but coming soon and with increasing momentum to a bookstore near you!

Lee Henderson Vancouver as a blank slate for mythmaking sounds like total crazy-talk to me. There’s the rebirth myth of the West, which is an especially popular point-o’-view out East to describe what we have going on out here. If folks aren’t aware of the good writing out West, it’s unlikely because Yonge Street is so pervasive. It’s that readers are busy gorging on Maritime lit myths written by men and women named Michael.

Steven Galloway Do people really have a firm definition of what Yonge Street or any other street in Canada “means?” We have a fully formed and functioning sense of mythology and literary tradition here. That others don’t know about it doesn’t negate its existence. Why, I often wonder, are books set in B.C. considered “regional,” while writers who write exclusively about Toronto such as Russell Smith aren’t considered regional writers? There are senior editors at major publishing houses who have never been west of Hamilton and seem proud of it. While I can’t say that this has affected me personally, I see it happen to other Vancouver writers all the time. But it’s not really just a Vancouver thing. The Vancouver Island crowd gets nailed with this too, and Albertan writers and Manitoban writers. The East coast seems to do OK, probably because Torontonians vacation there.

Ian Weir Location does make a difference in terms of the business of writing -at least, it does if your publisher is regionally based, since it really is more difficult for regionally based publishers to get a book onto the radar of the Eastern media. When Daniel O’Thunder launched, a pillar of the local scene emailed his congrats -and added wryly that I should expect it to sink without a trace, since that’s what usually happens to fiction that’s published on the West Coast. Mercifully, the book picked up some award nominations, and my wry friend emailed back to say that he was happy to see that I’d been one of the exceptions

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