SAM WIEBE INTERVIEW BY ASHER PENN

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Portrait by Asher Penn

Since the release of his award winning 2014 debut novel Last of The Independents, Sam Wiebe has shown himself to be an exciting new voice within Canadian fiction. In the zeitgeist tradition of Vancouver-based authors Douglas Coupland and William Gibson, Wiebe’s follow up novels, Invisible Dead and the recent Cut You Down update the Private Investigator genre for the 21st century. Situating his stories firmly within the dank and troubled neoliberal landscape of British Columbia, Sam Wiebe’s prose are moral tales wrestling with longstanding issues that have plagued the city: class, colonialism, drugs, gentrification and everyday labor, all told through the Xennial lens of a contemporary P.I.

What part of Vancouver did you grow up in?
My family moved around a lot. By the time I was 13 we had lived in eight or nine different houses. A lot of them were along the strip by Douglas Park, between Broadway and King Edward. That was the neighborhood I grew up in, until we moved to Surrey. It was a very weird, disjointed childhood. I moved back to Vancouver after grad school, about eight years ago.
How did Surrey contrast with Vancouver?
At the time, it was more suburban, though there are wealthier and more industrial areas in Surrey as well. It doesn’t have as much of a cultural presence as Vancouver.
What kind of work did your parents do?
My dad was a professional guitar player. When the live music market fell out, he got a job in computers. My mom was a medical transcriptionist at the Children’s Hospital.
Were there a lot of books around growing up?
My parents both love reading. They’re big detective and crime fiction fans. My dad’s favorite author is John D. MacDonald, the Travis McGee series about an unlicensed private eye in Florida.
What were you into reading?
Up until my mid-20s I read everything. I’d just go to the Oakridge library and get whatever. I read a ton of crime fiction, westerns, mainstream novels, weird biographies and stuff.
At what point did you start to feel like you wanted to write?
In my late teens and early 20s I was writing terrible literary short stories and sending them out to earn well-deserved rejection letters. Then I dropped out of college, and gave up on it.
Where did you go to college?
Langara. I took a bunch of economics courses, biology and stuff. A few years later, I went back to school, and discovered I really enjoyed English and history. That’s what I ended up getting my degree in. Then I went to SFU and did a master’s in English.
What kind of work were you doing in the interim?
I had just about every shitty job you can imagine. I worked in a restaurant, worked in a warehouse. I did conference set-ups rolling out carpets and exhibit booths. I taught the drums for a little while. I worked in a music store.
Do you play music too?
I used to play the drums, everything from jazz to heavy metal. The thing about being the drummer is, no one has any interest in your creative input. It’s an accompaniment instrument. When there’s lots of people to play with, that’s great, but everybody that I was playing with was leaving the city, getting married and having kids. When there’s no one to play with, it’s hard to feel creatively fulfilled. That was when I went back to school and started focusing on writing.

Last of the Independents, Dundurn, 2014

What do you learn when you study literature?
That’s a good question. I mean, the first thing I took when I came back to school was a Shakespeare course, and they actually put the learning outcomes on the syllabus: studying lit improves your ability to reason and argue, improves communication skills, and gives you a good basis for textual analysis. But the prof also wrote that these are these great texts you can enjoy for themselves, which was something that I took to heart. I ended up doing my degree on Orson Welles’ film Chimes at Midnight, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. Welles took them and made his own really unique film with a totally different message, which is really cool.
You wrote Last of The Independents after Grad School. How did that happen?
I just felt that if I didn’t actually sit down and write a novel, it was going to slip by me. I was broke, had tons of student debt, and was trying to find my niche. I was also re-establishing a relationship with Vancouver, rediscovering the city. Certain things were familiar and certain things weren’t.
What was it that inspired you to write a private eye novel? Why not, for example, a novel about cops?
I’ve started so many cop novels, but it’s really hard to get the procedure right… There’s a lot of knowledge you need to write that authentically that I didn’t have that when I started out. The P.I. isn’t bound by procedure. It’s also really well suited to talk about work and business, which were real concerns when I was starting, out and still are to this day. Vancouver is a tough city, especially with real estate. Trying to find work that’s fulfilling, challenging, and that pays the bills without getting sucked into ethical pitfalls, was something that I was concerned with. The PI is a genre about small business, about looking for the balance between work and moral responsibility.
What was the process of putting it together?
There were a couple of false starts. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen through the book and what the ending was going to be like. Through writing it, I got stuck on the ending and had to spend a couple of weeks rethinking it. The original ending just struck a wrong, phony note. The ending I went with felt truer to the story.
Did you kind of discover your voice in writing it?
Definitely. Someone said your first book is like your demo tape, and that’s definitely how it felt. It. All those elements started to come together and it really felt like its own thing. Up through Cut You Down I wrote all my books by hand, on notebook paper, and then transcribed them. I felt like that was a way to eliminate distractions. Also, it gives you one more chance to revise it along the way.
What was the feedback like?
I revised Last of the Independents a lot before I sent it out to the Arthur Ellis Awards. But really it wasn’t until it started going into the publication process that I started getting feedback on it, other than the jury for the award really liked it. Obviously, it was terrific to have some positive reinforcement, people saying, “Oh, you actually do know what you’re doing.” That was very nice.
Was there anything about that book that bummed you out?
Well, literally the first copy that rolled off the shelves, my parents got. My dad was reading it, and called me to say, “There’s a page missing.” The first entire print run of my first book had Page 183 where Page 283 was supposed to be. That was a nightmare. It was just one of those careless errors. It definitely made me aware of how many other people are involved in the publishing process.

Invisible Dead, Quercus, 2017

Your second book, Invisible Dead introduces David Wakeland, whose voice is similar to Michael Drayton from Last of the Independents. How much of your voice is in the protagonists?
I wish there was an easy way to answer this. It’s a bit of both. The voice is mine. The sense of humor is mine, the thinking comes from me. The background of the characters is different. I don’t have a police background, so that part is based on research or on people I’ve talked to.
How would you describe your research process?
Last of the Independents was based on a lot of stuff I already knew or stuff I’d done. With Invisible Dead, I had to do a lot more research because the topics that that book covers are very delicate. Writing about things like the sex trade or missing women, there are so many pitfalls to avoid. Writing something exploitative or cliched was the last thing I wanted to do. One of the things that really struck me doing research is how much history exists in certain places. Like, the basement of the Astoria used to be a boxing club. Now it’s got a bar and a club in it, but it was also a place where a serial killer used to hang out. I try to find ways to incorporate that into the story, to show those connections between the different sides of the city.
What about spending time with police?
I’ve talked to a lot of cops. I’ve talked to the police spokesperson at the VPD. I did a tour through prisons. When I worked in the liquor store, I worked with an ex-RCMP officer and I’d always ask him questions. There are also some really interesting books and oral histories written about the police force. I remember going to the police museum when I was like 10 or something, and it was a lot more gruesome than it is now. They had all sorts of body parts and things like that. It was terrific.
I love how you handle violence in your books. Writing a fight or a torture scene seems like it would have the awkwardness of writing a sex scene. Are you comfortable writing those sections?
Comfortable is a good word. I think often in books, violence becomes too comfortable. I always wanted to make it really ugly, to make it feel visceral and not just thrown in. I want there to be real stakes behind that stuff. Mystery fiction tends to be very comfortable killing off people in a flippant way. To actually show the consequences of violence is important.
From it’s first chapter, Invisible Dead takes Robert Pickton, the Pig Farmer as a starting off point. What did you want to explore in that saga that you hadn’t already seen or read?
The most important thing for me was to foreground that stuff in the systemic causes- racism, colonialism and economics, which create these populations of invisible people. Vancouver has been the stalking grounds of many serial killers over the last forty years, all targeting the same population of at-risk women. To write a book about a moustache-twirling super villain would be false, and would let the rest of us off the hook for what’s been happening in our city.
Your latest novel focuses on a distrust of institutions by millenials: in particular both schools and the police.
It’s a strange time to be a young person, when suddenly you can’t have the same things that your parents did. Buying a house isn’t easy, and staying in the city you’re born becomes perilous. In Cut You Down, those conditions drive people to do desperate things. As far as academia, the original idea for the story came from a school scandal that happened when I went back to school. The college in Surrey was undergoing a forensic audit due to the student government misappropriating funds. That was really my introduction to higher ed. These things happen when academia doesn’t always act in the best interest of its students.
What advantages has setting your novels in Vancouver afforded you as opposed to more expected locations like New York or Los Angeles?
Ian Rankin’s first books were set in Edinburgh. When he started, Edinburgh was seen as a somewhat boring place to set books, before Trainspotting and all that. Scandinavia is obviously the big one now. Something about that setting just speaks to people. Vancouver has a very friendly tourist face, but there is an underbelly that we don’t like to acknowledge. Whether it’s real estate or Fentanyl, there are a lot of issues at play. The fact that people have this very idyllic image of Vancouver, means that I’m more free to complicate that and play with that and subvert that.
Last question: none of your books have happy endings, but they do bring closure. What is so satisfying about the truth?
One of my favorite quotes about endings is from Paul Thomas Anderson, who said he always tries to find the saddest happy ending. What I take that to mean, you want things to resolve in a way that doesn’t betray what the characters go through. A lot of those struggles are really traumatizing. To just wipe your hands and be done with it and go off on this happy ending would be a lie. There have to be consequences. :)

Cut You Down, Quercus, 2018