Monday, November 23, 2015

Vancouver is Unwritten

Why set stories in Vancouver?

The shortest and most truthful answer I can give is, 'because I have very poor commercial instincts.'

Vancouver is the Great Unwritten. Chances are, this week you watched a tv show or film shot here. Shot, but not set. From Highlander to X-Files to Jason Takes Manhattan, Vancouver has been a gracious host to stories about other places.

Culturally, it's an odd place. A port city built on unceded territory associated with three First Nations, with one of the oldest and largest Asian populations in North America, a place of great wealth, of extraordinary poverty--it can be hard to pin down. Who are we? Who would choose to live here?

It never occurred to me to set my first novel Last of the Independents anywhere else. The story I wanted to tell, about a twenty-something P.I. trying to balance morals and finance, sprung from challenges people I knew were facing. When I moved back to the city after grad school, I was heavily in debt and unsure of where I belonged. Those struggles continue, and I see them mirrored by many of the people around me.

At times, living here feels like the most lopsided love affair. People are cold, real estate is outrageous, politicians seem beholden to developers, the arts community is fragmented and Balkanized, and we have an End Times-level earthquake to look forward to in the next few hundred years.

The struggles that define the city, especially involving its murdered and missing indigenous women, gentrification, and substance use, are not unique to Vancouver. They're North American problems. Here, though, they create a sharp contrast with the city's tourist-ready image of itself.

Those same features which render Vancouver invisible make it a rich site for storytelling. The rules of this place are constantly being rewritten; we're a people in flux. As a citizen that can be frustrating and demoralizing, though also liberating; as a storyteller, it's a boon.

I think one function of writing is to take inventory of the places where you find yourself, to try to hash out what's going on and how you feel about it. As you can tell, my feelings on the city are muddled. I don't think I'll ever quite figure out Vancouver. But it's undoubtedly the place I feel strongest about--and that, ultimately, is where you have to write from.

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[My second novel, Invisible Dead, also set in Vancouver, comes out June 2016 from Random House Canada. My short story "Head Down" appears in the first issue of Ed Brisson and Adam Gorham's Image Comics series The Violent.]


Meredith Cole said...

Such a great answer, Sam-- so true that you should find "the place I feel strongest about--and that, ultimately, is where you have to write from."

Sam said...

Thanks Meredith!

RJ Harlick said...

One if my favourite Canadian cities. But Sam, you didn't mention Vancouver's incredible beauty, unparalleled anywhere else in Canada, but I imagine as a resident you get used to it. I'm so glad you are bringing it and its jarring contradictions alive in your writing.

Susan C Shea said...

Your readers will be happy to know more about someplace that gets overlooked too often. Readers love the knowledge they pick up in crime fiction stories. Good post.