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On Crucibles and the Paradox of Dishwashing, with Local Author Dustin Cole

Dustin Cole is a Vancouver-based dishwasher and writer who has contributed to publications such as Apocalypse Confidential, Maximus Magazine, BC BookWorld, Heavy Feather Review and The British Columbia Review. He is the author of the poetry chapbook Dream Peripheries (General Delivery) and, most recently, Notice (Nightwood Editions, 2020), a novel.

The latter is loaded with so many themes that are ‘up my alley’ – precarious housing, renoviction, and a “cynical dishwasher from Alberta whose greatest fantasy is a post-car world” – it might as well be living there in a tent. Given all of this, I just had to pick his brain…

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

I think there are a few different things about writing that are difficult. I’ve always been a bit impatient. I like polished prose, but sometimes it’s just tedious, and the initial creative excitement isn’t there anymore. Another thing: if you’re doing long-form fiction, it’s labour intensive. As author Gerald Murnane says, you’re sitting there with your back to the world.

I just finished a book. I was writing it full time and it took two years! It’s a 500 page manuscript. There’s a lot of heavy lifting involved – a lot of research and the realization that something is completely imagined. I enjoy it, but it’s not easy. Then there’s the length of time between conceiving something and seeing it in print….it can further test your patience.

What’s the hardest thing about dishwashing?

The dishpit is a crucible. What I mean by that is that it’s a small space, it’s hot, people need you, they need what they need when they need it, and you’re the only one to get it done. It’s an interesting question because, while it’s not physically fun, it sets your mind free. And if you have something to think about – if you’ve got an idea you want to develop – you can do that while you’re also doing your job. Even yesterday I was working on a new story, texting myself phrases on my flip phone. That was the idea behind my first novel, Notice. The protagonist is in these nesting crucibles – he’s in the city with all the financial pressure that comes with that, he’s dealing with an eviction notice, and he’s doing this hard dishwashing job. The dishpit is this site that resonates outwards in that way. It just fits conceptually.

What I tried to do in my new book is to explore the idea of mental health as a destabilizing force. If you are in the dish pit during tourist season in Gastown, you’re getting rocked everyday…but if you have something troubling on your mind? That’s going to expand. So that’s what happens to the protagonist in my novel. He’s troubled by his living situation, and for good reason. There’s very few affordable places to live in Vancouver – he’s just out of university and doesn’t have his shit together – so, rather than this paradox we are talking about where this intense and confined workplace sets your mind free, he’s kind of burdened by it. And it makes him worse, and he lashes out and misbehaves.

What advice to you have for either (writing and/or dishwashing)?

Make yourself comfortable, you’ll be there for a while.

What are you excited about?

I had a poem published in Maximus, and I’ve got a poem coming out in Apocalypse Confidential that’s a little bit longer (conceptually it’s sort of about the radio). It’s also a chronotope, so the editor suggested we do it in serial. I placed a review in Heavy Feather Review for Tom Will’s new book, which is called You, the Viewer at Home, Moon and is amazing and beautiful. I’m also working on a story that I wanna get in Misery Tourism. They’re a web mag that focuses on human misery, so I’m working on a piece for them.

What are you not excited about?

Getting older. Like, I’m 41. I recently had to reframe my suffering, speaking of human misery. I always used to think things would get better – I’d make more money, I’d find a life partner, or I’d be more successful or more popular in my creative outlets – but things just don’t get any better. It bums me out. It’s kind of funny but I’m just not that into it.

What makes Vancouver so ripe for dystopian fiction?

Because there’s so much dissonance here. Nothing makes sense here. Look at the socio-economic disparity. Look at the contrasts. There’s a shallowness there. People are proud of being shallow and that’s very strange. When you talk about dystopian fiction, we think about authoritarian type governments, or natural disasters, certain technological nightmares, and big external forces. But what you see in Vancouver is – what did William Gibson say? – “the future is already here but it’s not very interesting”. We’re there. Another type of dissonance is the whole “Green” thing. There’s nothing green about this place. The leaves are green, and there’s a lot of money, but that’s about it. There’s so much fake rhetoric. When you talk about dystopianism, it’s a projection of our own anxieties into the future. But there’s no need to project here. It’s in your face.

I’ll refer again to my novel. The protagonist hates cars. He thinks they are a social and a spatial problem. He has this idea. He believes the roads take up too much space, and that people change when they get in their cars. There’s a capsulation of the mind. So he theorizes that if we built houses where the roads are and created new types of transportation infrastructure, then the world would be a better place.

That’s funny because my next question is, “What would a utopian Vancouver look like?”

I think maybe mag-level tube car-things that take you everywhere. Maybe modular so you could set them up and take them down. Lots of solarium type arcades and everyone can walk wherever they want. No cars. Just an entirely different infrastructure that is more efficient and gives us more delight when we move around the city. Simple green spaces. I was dreaming of all this stuff five years ago and I saw your Twitter feed and thought, ‘Sean should review my book’.

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