The Chat With Kevin Chong

TREVOR CORKUM cropped
Kevin Chong 2017-credit Andrew Querner

Award-winning Vancouver author Kevin Chong has a new book out this month. A modern-day story of infectious disease and rising social inequality, The Plague is Chong’s take on Camus’ classic novel, set in present-day Vancouver.

David Chariandy says, “The Plague is Kevin Chong's artfully wry parable of contemporary social relations. Gripping, funny, and engagingly metafictional, it offers a timely reboot of the modern classic.” Eden Robinson, meanwhile, calls the book “Kevin Chong’s nuanced study of human nature under biological siege, and a terrific riff on the Camus classic. It combines all the horror of The Walking Dead’s best episodes with a timely investigation of moral and philosophical courage, failures, and the grey spaces between.” 

Kevin Chong is the author of six books, including the memoir My Year of the Racehorse and the novels Beauty Plus Pity and Baroque-a-Nova. His work has been published in Canada, the US, France, Australia, and Macedonia, and has been shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Fiction Prize and a National Magazine Award. He lives in Vancouver, where he teaches at the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing Program and The Writers' Studio at Simon Fraser University.

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THE CHAT WITH KEVIN CHONG

Trevor Corkum: In The Plague, you’ve set up an ambitious task, re-imagining Camus’ classic tale of suffering. Can you talk about the genesis of the project?

Kevin Chong: I spent two years writing another novel but I didn’t like it. I started writing something else based on a short story. I decided to talk to my publisher to give me a contract and deadline for that book. A week later, my wife—who likes moving around furniture on a semi-annual basis—decided to reorganize our books. As a result, a copy of the Camus novel was lying around and I picked it up.

More context: it was after the US election and everyone I knew was in despair. In Vancouver, people like to blow up firecrackers around Halloween and into November so there’s a feeling besieged and on edge. I guess the notion of being quarantined jibed with how I was feeling.

It was after the US election and everyone I knew was in despair. In Vancouver, people like to blow up firecrackers around Halloween and into November so there’s a feeling besieged and on edge. I guess the notion of being quarantined jibed with how I was feeling.

TC: What kept you up at night while you worked through the book?

KC: My co-sleeping daughter kicking me in the kidneys. Sometimes I would dream about my father who died a few years back after a long hospitalization.

TC: The Plague is very much a Vancouver novel, focusing on the city and its inhabitants at this particular historical moment in time. What about the city lends itself to writing about illness and disease?

KC: Vancouver is the city version of the guy who doesn’t check out that funny mole on his neck until it’s advanced too far and he’s got two weeks to live. It’s a city in denial about its problems: inequality, racial divisions, its treatment of Indigenous people, homelessness.

TC: Imagine, like the characters, that you’re quarantined in Vancouver for months at a time, away from your family. Who do you hang out with and how do you pass the time?

KC: That’d be an odd scenario, since my family and friends are here. Say they all went on vacation without me and I had to stick around for work when the quarantine was imposed. I’d be by myself. If there weren’t an accompanying epidemic, I would probably drink whiskey and eat a lot of reheated frozen sausage rolls. I would try to write but watch downloaded movies. I would see the friends I don’t see much because of my family life. A week or two would pass and I would be upbeat before I became desperately lonely.

TC: In my mind, the hotel where many of the characters find themselves living during the outbreak is The Sylvia, that faded Edwardian beauty. Did you stick to a regular writing routine while you worked on the book? Any favourite writing spots in the city?

KC: I had the Sylvia in mind, too, but haven’t spent enough time there to name it. It’s our Chelsea Hotel. Wouldn’t that be a passable place in Vancouver to spend an indefinite period of time?

Unless I am in a rut, I like to write at home, in my attic office. I had the best routine finishing this book. I wrote in the mornings and late afternoons, aiming to write 1,000 words in a day.

During the middle of the day, I played pickup soccer. Camus was a goalie because he was poor and would wear down his boots more slowly between the posts. I stick to defence because I can’t dribble.

During the middle of the day, I played pickup soccer. Camus was a goalie because he was poor and would wear down his boots more slowly between the posts. I stick to defence because I can’t dribble.

Camus is famous for saying: “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football (soccer).” I thought a lot about that on the pitch that summer. For me, it means offering what you can, no matter how much or little ability you have.

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An excerpt from The Plague by Kevin Chong

The people of Vancouver were, as you should expect, difficult to encapsulate. The easy generalization, at the time of the outbreak, was to posit that the city had become the backdrop for the dramas of ultra-wealthy layabouts and the casualties of the recently concluded opioid crisis. Either they emerged from jewel-box McLarens and Teslas like Mandarin-speaking insects between butterfly wings, or they decomposed, forgotten and overlooked in the alleyways. In fact, the city was made up, as it had always been, of people who worked too much for too little.

These people had forsaken living in smoggy metropolises where they could have made real money. They sought what they described as “balance”—in truth, just an abundance of pleasure. But still they felt harried. They worked two jobs or worked long nights at one job so they could spend their days in their studios. They had children with learning disabilities. They were alone but attended a church group. They were the oldest, by a good decade, at the board-game nights hosted at the community centres. They made sure to wish their exes happy birthday by text message. They visited their parents on weekends. They overate on Saturdays and hiked on Sundays. They lived here because they were from here (although no one believed anyone was originally from here). They ended up in Vancouver because no one else was like them where they grew up. They never knew their parents. They never knew their home towns.

This bustle precluded self-examination. Yes, there were activists in the city, but those people seemed unhappy and disagreeable. Others felt trapped in their lives, but didn’t understand their confinement. They thought themselves free—as long as they remained within their own highly rated neighbourhoods and didn’t reach out to where they’d been forbidden. Those without jobs, too rich or too old for employment, filled their days with fitness regimens and classes. They made their own bodies their worksites.

This was a city that had never seen a war. It had never been overrun, sacked, or bombed. An earthquake loomed in the distant future. The citizens rioted at sporting events and outside concerts. They came together for summer fireworks that celebrated ... fireworks. As a result, it was an anatomized city, a place in which joys and fears were contained within the spheres of self and family. Among the city’s Indigenous peoples, its immigrant groups, its sex workers and LGBTQ population, collective traumas were experienced but barely heard by the rest of the city—including the figures in this narrative.

The epidemic described in this narrative, which lasted four months and took over fourteen hundred lives, was like an infant’s first nightmare. It was formless and oppressive, stunning in its novelty, and never-ending until you woke from it, patting yourself to see if you remained intact.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

April 4, 2018
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