Thursday, October 20, 2011
Christie wins Vancouver Book Award
While Michael Christie was writing his award-winning collection of short stories The Beggar’s Garden, he would routinely walk into alleys and smell dumpsters.
“I had to figure out a way to describe that smell, you know?” Christie said, in a recent interview with The Ubyssey. “It’s harder than it sounds.”
The former professional skateboarder, who graduated from UBC in 2009, picked up the Vancouver Book Award on October 18, which comes with a $2000 prize.
“First of all, it’s weird to hear the mayor say your name,” said Christie. “The only time I’d ever been to city hall was for bad reasons like parking tickets, so to be a guest there was strange enough.”
When Christie first heard the announcement that his book had won, he was too shocked to move.
“I didn’t get up at first. He called my name and I was kind of frozen. I think he might have said it again. At that point I was like, okay.”
After the ceremony, Christie got a chance to speak to Mayor Gregor Robertson.
“He’s obviously handsome and charismatic-seeming from a distance. I never knew if it was a slickness. But actually, we talked after and he was a super genuine guy, self-effacing and interesting. And he seemed genuinely interested in the book too.”
As it turned out, Robertson had only read the first three stories.
“That third story, sometimes it can be a deal-breaker,” said Christie.
He was referring to “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”, his first-person story about a man smoking crack and interacting with the ghost of J. Robert Oppenheimer in a vision. That was Christie’s first published story, in subTerrain magazine, and it eventually landed him a Journey Prize nomination.
But some people don’t appreciate it.
“I mean, they see a first-person story about someone smoking crack and that’s it for them,” he said.
But Christie is drawn to unreliable narrators, and stories that feature the damaged and mentally ill.
“I like weird. I like cracked perspectives,” Christie said. “There’s this Chekhov quote I love. He said `Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint from broken glass.’ I love that idea of looking at the world through broken perspectives in a way to make it more beautiful.”
Christie drew from his personal experiences in the Downtown Eastside for many of his stories. He worked in an emergency shelter for six years, and said his experiences there were transformative.
“It was hard. I’m not suited for social work,” said Christie. “I’m a pretty empathetic person and I have trouble wielding power over people. I have trouble watching them fall apart. And being in a position where you’re supposed to be helping them…it’s pretty much impossible.”
“I burned out pretty bad. I was quite broken-hearted, really,” he said.
But Christie took those conflicted emotions, and channeled them into his writing.
“This book, I don’t want to inflate the significance of it, but there’s a real thread of people helping each other, trying to know people who are damaged, and I mean damaged on all class levels,” he said.
Christie said he’s still struggling with his transition to full-time author. He’s living in Thunder Bay with his wife and young son. He recently stepped down as the senior editor of Colour magazine to focus full-time on his new manuscript, an untitled novel about a woman with agoraphobia. Her son is a skateboarder.
“This is going to be the first literary novel about skateboarding,” said Christie, with a smile.
Meanwhile, he’s been busy touring across the country. After a week in Vancouver, he’s heading to Toronto. The Beggar’s Garden is up for the Rogers Writer’s Trust award.
Christie said it’s been exciting to meet other authors, including D.W. Wilson, Jessica Westhead and Alexander McLeod as he makes the rounds of the awards circuit.
“It’s super surreal,” he said. “I didn’t become a writer to stand in front of a bunch of people and talk. Sometimes I feel like an imposter. Like, I’m just this weird kid.”
But plenty of people would beg to differ.