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INTERVIEW: Sixty Excellent Questions With Vancouver Author & Journalist Kevin Chong

(images courtesy of Lee Henderson)

Vancouverite Kevin Chong is a prolific freelance journalist (read his recent piece on revisionist Chinese fare in Walrus), a Neil Young fan, and the author of four books, the most recent among them being the novel Beauty Plus Pity. We’ve pilfered from the jacket here:

In this tragicomic modern immigrant’s tale, Malcolm Kwan is a slacker twentysomething Asian-Canadian living in Vancouver who is about to embark on a modelling career when his life is suddenly derailed by two near-simultaneous events: the death of his filmmaker father, and the betrayal of his fiancée who has left him. Soon he meets Hadley, the half-sister he never knew existed?the result of his father’s extramarital affair?and as their tentative relationship grows, Malcolm is forced to confront his past relationships with women, including his own mother, an art teacher working through her grief as well as her resentment at her son befriending her husband’s daughter.

That’s all well and good, but what about Kevin? Where does his inspiration come from? Where does he live? What does he dig? What is his least favourite smell? For answers to those and many other outstanding questions, you’ll have to read on…

Three things about your neighbourhood that make you want to live there: I’m in Fairview Slopes, which is convenient but not a place where I hang out.  I like the fact that I can get my dry-cleaning done right across my back lane, that there’s a 24-hour Shopper’s Drug Mart a block away, and because I live across the street from the VGH emergency room (I only notice the emergency helicopters passing overhead when I am on the phone), I feel as though I can juggle knives a little more carelessly.

Name the thing that you eat that is bad for you that you will never stop eating? Chinese donuts, a deep-fried dough treats that are more akin to savoury churros. Fun fact: the Chinese name for this food item comes from a traitorous Song Dynasty government official: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Youtiao#Folk_etymology

Default drink/cocktail of choice? Bourbon on the rocks.  When I am somewhere swish, I’ll ask them to make a bourbon Negroni (not to be confused with a Boulevardier, which is a little heavier).  If I am at Legion Hall and don’t want beer, I’ll drink Wiser’s or Jameson’s on ice.

What was the inspiration behind Beauty Plus Pity? I started this book in my 20s, when I was trying to be a proper grown-up and understand the influence of my family, and having a bicultural upbringing, on my life.  Through the book, which is about a male model named Malcolm who meets his half-sister as an adult, I was also trying to explore the nature of beauty and family: does beauty have any intrinsic quality that someone from outer space could recognize, or does one need to develop a level connoisseurship to recognize it?  Does one’s DNA, or a similarly shaped nose, stir feelings of closeness, or does that come exclusively through a shared upbringing?

As I get older, I have a deeper appreciation of my family links.  I was in Singapore last month, where I saw some extended family, and learned that three of my great-uncles were writers–which might explain why I didn’t get a hysterical reaction from my parents when I started to pursue writing as my wage work.  I met a second cousin who had published three volumes of poetry that mixed classical Chinese verse with vernacular language; he also told me that some of Lady Gaga’s lyrics were as good as poetry.  I felt as though I was meeting the person I might have become if my parents hadn’t emigrated from Hong Kong.

Name three drinks/cocktails you’ll never have again? Tequila-flavoured beer, anything with Southern Comfort, anything that ends with “bomb.”

The Vancouverite that you admire most and why? It’s hard to top George Bowering, the maestro of Vancouver prose and verse. I love how he still engages with younger writers. He’s not a bad bowler, too. I also love the savvy and braininess of Timothy Taylor’s work.

Your role models? My parents. Some of artists I admire: Neil Young, Iggy Pop, Kazuo Ishiguro, JM Coetzee.

Your favourite sound? Fuzz.

Your least favourite sound? People who play music at unnecessarily loud volumes from their cars in back alleys.

Your favourite smells? Bedsheets, midweek.

Your least favourite smells? Burnt plastic.

To be able to make a living at writing is a very rare thing. Are there any pieces of advice that you could share with our readers who are keen to do the same? I’ve only recently found myself in a position where I can turn down freelance work. This is something I tell myself (again and again): don’t make the money you earn (or don’t earn) the objective. You should try to do good work, above all. It’s helpful to remind yourself of the things one likes about freelancing and writing: the solitude (at times), the flexibility, the ability to work in your pyjamas.

Where is your favourite local patio? Can you still sit outside Joe’s on Commercial with a milky coffee and a Portugese bun? If not that, then the grandstand at Hastings Racecourse.

The historical personalities, both good and bad, that fascinate you the most? EP Taylor, the Canadian magnate who owned Northern Dancer.

What trend have you followed that you now regret? People were getting undercuts while I was in high school.

The dumbest thing that you’ve ever done to your hair? See above.

What was your first job? I delivered flyers around the neighbourhood; it was the lazy kid’s version of delivering newspapers.

What was the first story that you ever wrote that resulted in a paycheck? A short story I wrote for a short-lived magazine at UBC. I think I made $60.

What are the three things you’d like to change about Vancouver? 1) I would like to see more quiet neighbourhood taverns where you can stop in for a drink on your way home from work. 2) I would like people in cycling or athletic gear to change out of those clothes when they leave the gym/yoga studio or spend more than 15 minutes in a public place. 3) I would like to see a streetcar system that goes east-west within the city.

Is there a local bartender who could sell you anything? Leo Chow at The Brickhouse. He really is a star.

Your go to, no-frills place for dinner? Right now it’s Pronto. When I’m really unambitious, it’s the Wendy’s across the street.

If you could board a plane this afternoon, where would it be taking you? Somewhere new: Russia and Brazil are places on my list of places I want to see. Antarctica is the only continent I have yet to visit.

The strangest place you’ve ever been to? The Cathedral of Junk, the homemade castle of debris found in the backyard of a guy in Austin, Texas (see).

Best case scenario for your life at age 60? I am still alive and happy; and the same for my loved ones.

The three books that you read that made an impact on you in your formative years? “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Tobias Wolff’s “Back in the World”; Donald Bartheleme’s “City Life”

Whose style do you covet? I like to dress well, but I lack the flair and attention to detail (and silhouette) that friends like writers David Chariandy and Aaron Peck and bon vivants Graham Dalik and Kalin Harvey possess. I wish I could rock a pocket square or wear khakis in the fall the way they do.

Where was the last place you traveled to for work or pleasure? Hong Kong and Singapore. It was both work and pleasure, plus a family visit (which can be work and pleasure).

What is your biggest phobia? I have a metaphysical claustrophobia. I don’t like my life to be overly determined, and I get antsy when too many consecutive days are filled with various engagements and obligations. I like my idle time.

Where did you go to school? High school: Vancouver College and Prince of Wales Mini. University: UBC and Columbia University.

Shoe of choice? Square-toed black dress shoes from Aldo; I’ve owned five or six pairs now.

How do you discipline yourself to write when the inspiration isn’t there? Deadlines and imminent destitution help.

The different career path that you could have gone on? My mother wanted me to be a lawyer. I’ve found the application of reason and interactions with people in the courtroom fascinating.

Your ancestry? Chinese from the Chiuchow region via Hong Kong.

Your three favourite films? Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket; Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player; Krystof Kieslowski’s White.

Television show that you could tolerate re-runs of? Right now: Parks & Recreation, Louie, Mad Men, and Bored To Death.

Your most regrettable purchase ever? Not quite regrettable, but, earlier this year, I bought a seersucker suit on Jpress.com.  Not only was my credit card hacked in the online transaction, but no one invited me anywhere fancy enough this summer to wear it.

Your major character flaw? Self-centredness. To make up for that I often lapse too far into self-deprecation; it’s nevertheless an offshoot of self-absorption.

The character flaw in others that you can’t abide? The overestimation of one’s own intelligence.  Arrogance, too, is easier to abide from those who earned it.

How do you know when you can trust someone? When I laugh at their jokes.

What are you the most proud of? The four books (one forthcoming) I’ve written.

What are you the least proud of? I once made three factual errors in the first sentence of a book review. I sent an apology to the author. I am glad I praised the book in the review.

The biggest mistake you’ve ever made? That’s not something I want to share with the public.

What is the best thing about your work? Freedom, meeting interesting people, delving into topics that interest you.

What is the worst thing about your work? Lack of security, stagnant rates, chasing bills, pitching.

The talent that you wish you possessed? I wish I was better able to learn new languages.

What are you listening to as you answer these questions? Distant street traffic.

What musical instrument do you secretly long to play? I publicly–well, not so secretly–long to play the piano.

What sport did you give up and why? Pick-up soccer, because summer turned to fall.

What is the game that you’re best at? Scrabble. I play a lot online. I don’t win friends with my words.

What is the one animal that scares you the most? I was in an animal orphanage in Kenya where they kept a captured leopard who had eaten too much livestock in a cage that had been curtained off.  We could see its eyes in the shadows. Its roar was palpable.

If you had a motto, what would it be? Warren Zevon: Enjoy every sandwich.

Have you ever fired a gun? In Vegas, twice. It made me understand why Americans love guns.

Your favourite word? “Disjunction.” Also, I once won a Scrabble game playing “angoras” on my final turn.

Your least favourite word? I don’t like it when people use “reference” as a verb (instead of “refer” or “allude”), but I’ve gotten used to it. Oh! And people who use “dialogue” instead of “talk” and “converse” or “efforting” instead of “trying.”

Your favourite curse word? “Cockbag.”

The cliché that you overuse? “No worries.”

The thing that makes you the happiest? Answering questionnaires.

The thing that makes you the angriest? When people crap on me on the internet.

Three things of no monetary value that you own and will keep dearly until you die? I lose, misplace, and drop things too easily to have those kinds of items. My friend Steve Galloway once gave me a silver space pen, which I cherish because it fits in my wallet so well. I like having a pen on me at all times.

The most beautiful road that you’ve ever travelled? The Trans-Canada highway in the Prairies.

The song that you want played at your funeral? I’m not stage managing my own funeral.

The one place that you have the least interest in ever visiting? Any place is interesting if you have the right reason.

The first three things that you do every morning? Washroom, e-mail, toast.

Your first memory? Being in my father’s arms looking out a window.

The first album that made you love music? Neil Young’s Freedom (listen).

The song that you could listen to on repeat for an hour? Coney Island Baby by Lou Reed (listen).

The best way to die? Gambling, holding my girlfriend’s hand.

Lastly, here’s a trailer for Kevin’s new book, Beauty Plus Pity, with the role of the author being played by a male model…