Toronto writer Tanya Chapman’s debut novel, King, was recently released by Coach House Books. She’s an accomplished writer – her short story “Spring The Chick?” won This Magazine’s prestigious short story competition and she’s had two short films produced. Torontoist recently finished King and had the chance to ask Chapman about her work.
We all know a King. He’s the type of person we tell everyone we despise, but secretly, we really wouldn’t mind walking in his shoes. Always the centre of attention; the type of person who lives his life the way you wish you lived yours.
In her novel of the same name, Tanya Chapman introduces readers to a King. He lives in a small trailer park in an unnamed town somewhere in what appears to be British Columbia. He’s the bass player in a local rock band, repairs motorcycles by day, and drinks by night. He’s a big fish in a small pond.
Enter Hazel. She showed up in the trailer park one day, after having left her family behind. We only see glimpses of her past life; all we know is that one day she hoped into her ’71 Duster and drove and drove, and, eventually stopped in Evening and Morning Star Trailer Park. She met King, they fell in love, and moved in together. She works at the local thrift store.
The book is about them.
King is a quiet book. There are only a handful of characters, and this lets Chapman flesh them out. There’s a great deal of observation and introspection. The book draws you in, allows you to get comfortable, and then kicks you in the gut. There’s a realism here that many novels strive for, but do not achieve.
Torontoist recently had the chance to ask Tanya some questions about writing, King, and trailer parks.
Torontoist: When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
Tanya Chapman: Probably some time around 5. Saved me a lot of ‘what do I want to do when I grow up conversations with myself.
Who were your favourite authors growing up, and who are your favourite writers now?
When I was in high school I got sucked into the romanticism of Hemingway and Fitzgerald – I was crazy about those guys. And then, of course, the beats and fun stuff like that. I really can’t say who would have been my favourites though. I read everything. Every book you choose has a time and a space to be read in your life – you just have to put the two together. I mean, can you imagine reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at any time past 22?
You went to UBC for creative writing. Do you recommend that route to other hopeful writers?
UBC is a fantastic place to learn about writing. I know it has taken a lot of heat, a sort of backlash for having so many students go on to publish. But my experience is that the place makes you a better writer and a stronger person. It’s not just about writing and technique and anything that sounds so pretentious that it needs to be italicized – it’s about taking your hits too. Everything is work-shopped so if you have a failing story or you didn’t put all you could have into it then you hear about it in the most vibrant terms (writers can have a tendency to dole out withering insults). By the time you are out of there you are ready for all the rejection letters from journals and presses – you’re also ready to roll up your sleeves.
“Write what you know” is advice often given out to young writers. And, first novels are usually seen as autobiographical. So, how much of King is an example of you writing what you know. Are we to assume you lived in a trailer park for a few months, conducting research?
More like 2 weeks – and the whole trailer park thing is a stereotype. Every park is different; they all have their own culture. I liked the image of a trailer for Hazel, a notion of home and solidity but with the transience of something that is sitting on wheels. And on the whole autobiographical thing, well… it’s bunk. Everyone writes what they know. How can you write what you don’t know? You can’t, not without a lot of research and life experience and then guess what – you know it – so you’re still writing what you know. Everything is perception. It’s in the putting together of what you perceive that can be defined as autobiographical. So do I know someone who has a cool grin like King or likes to wear dresses every day like Hazel – yep. Are they King and Hazel? Nope. Am I? Please lord no.
When did you start working on King? How long did it take to write and what was your routine while working on the novel?
King started in university. The beginning was a bunch of short stories and I couldn’t leave the characters alone for some reason. I loved them then I hated them but I kept writing. There are none of the original stories left in the book but that was the beginning. The original draft took about six months (E.I. is a gift from god). Then all the rewriting took months, weeks and days here and there. The rewriting is the hard part.
How did the novel end up with Coach House Books?
Funny story that. I asked them for a grant through the OAC to work on my new project, but the only writing sample I felt comfortable sending was from King. They wrote back and asked for more of King and then made an offer. Coach House has been wonderful. I can’t imagine working with a better bunch of people. A real honour.
It’s an old adage that girls love bad guys, and you explore this in the novel. But you didn’t go with the obvious ending (or at least what I thought would be the clichéd ending of Hazel and Egg together). What were you trying to say about the topic?
There was a draft for a long time that had Egg getting together with another character in the book. I took out the character who was to be his girlfriend and then Egg got a little more interesting. Egg wasn’t intended for Hazel but when you read the book and see her taking her hits with King you end up routing for Hazel and Egg to get together. I think it’s a natural reaction but really – good lord – it’s completely wrong. There has to be some time for the self-healing and that task is an independent study.
You’re also a screenwriter. Reading the novel, I kept thinking it could easily be adapted to the screen. Did you ever consider writing this as a screenplay rather than a novel?Any plans to write the script for King?
Screenwriting is a taskmaster. I have all the respect in the world for screenwriters, I tried my hand at it years ago but to be honest I’m sticking with fiction. The one thing I did shamelessly pilfer from screenwriting is the structure. I am a fool for film structure. If you are ever in a theatre and hear someone muttering ‘second turning point’ or ‘inciting incident’ feel free to turn around and say ‘Shut up, Tanya.’ Film structure gave me the tools to prop up the plot and keep things rolling. Another great thing about UBC, you have to do many genres, and thank goodness because screenplay taught me fiction.
Finally: what’s next?
First, a whole lot of sleeping. Then back to work. I started my new project before King was picked up but then stopped working on it so that I could do the rewrites. The new one is called (for now) The Welcoming Place and I’m pretty excited to see what it looks like. It’s been a year since I’ve seen it – I’m hoping my reaction isn’t ‘what the hell was I thinking?’