Beauty Plus Pity: Interview with Kevin Chong

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On June 24, author Kevin Chong stopped by to chat with the Babble Book Club about his novel Beauty Plus Pity, his techniques for writing and his future projects. Beauty Plus Pity is a novel set in the culture-obsessed city of Vancouver where vanity and pretension can reign over the mountains and trees in the background. Kevin's characters, writing style and cultural landscape definitely expose this environment in a multi-faceted portrayal of family relationships, self-identities and chaotic change. With a few rabble.ca staffers living in Vancouver, many of us felt an on-point connectedness with the reality Kevin has created in Beauty Plus Pity.

If you haven't had a chance to read the book, definitely grab a copy from your local library, neighbourhood bookstore, or Arsenal Pulp Press. Kevin is a rising talent in Canada, and Beauty Plus Pity is just one of the many great books in his repertoire.

Special thanks to Kevin Chong for joining us on a rainy Vancouver Sunday and taking the time in his busy schedule of returning from work trips and moving (!) to speak to Babble Book Club. And, special thanks to all who participated and viewed the conversation, your enthusiasm and contributions are always appreciated. Lastly, these questions are a compilations from all Babble Book Club participants, so please view the original babble thread for some extra reaction from fellow Babble Book Club readers.

Babble Book Club: Kevin, you mentioned in a previous interview with Scout Magazine that you were trying to explore the nature of beauty and family through writing this book. Do you feel that this book was successful in achieving a greater understanding of those qualities, or that that understanding comes with age and experience?

Kevin Chong: I'm not sure I was successful -- I'll let the readers decide. But I do think the character Malcolm develops a better sense of beauty and family in the book.

I was trying to play around with the concept of beauty. Is it something we know intuitively or something we gain through experience (i.e. Connoisseurship). Hence, we have Malcolm as both this wannabe male model and a record snob.

I was attempting to parallel this nature vs. nurture question to Malcolm and his half-sister, Hadley, who develop their relationships as adults (or near-adult, in Hadley's case). They want to know whether they have any bond beyond shared genes, or whether that bond can only exist from shared experience.

BBC: Like an intuition based on sort of a family interconnectedness? Even though they don't know each other, they have certain similarities because they are related?

KC: Yeah, they wanted that intuitive understanding of each other, but they don't get that at first. It's only after they spend time together that they have those sparks of connection.

The turmoil and change in the protagonist's romantic relationships seem almost insignificant compared to the relationship he's working through with his (no deceased) father. This contrast is driven home with an early exclamation point as he reads a break-up letter from his girlfriend, having mistaken it for the text of his eulogy for his father. The friendship with his half-sister is the high watermark of his emotional life, for example, even though she's really still just a kid. How intentional was this emphasizing of the primacy of family relationships, or was it more along the lines of just portraying some of the randomness of a 20-something's love life?

I think that was my desire to pile on calamity, but also it underscores how wrong that relationship was with his fiance, Claire. She is in many ways this crutch for him. He should have been a partner to her, but he behaved more like a child who needed a parent.

BBC: What roles do identities, or self-identities and self awareness play? Malcolm considers himself an artist, largely based on his father possibly, but he hasn't really done much beyond the attempted modelling career to achieve this identity.

KC: He's trying to shape his identity according to his parents' desire for him to be this artistic soul (and redeem their failures), but also strike out on his own in a way that makes them pay attention to him.

Do you think Malcolm's vanity limits him and his potential development (re: not acting like a child and more like a partner)? He can seem stagnant and at times oblivious to reality and himself.

Yeah, I think so. He can be very observant about others but lacking self-awareness.

BBC: How much of you went into the protagonist? He was not always a likeable character, but definitely a loveable one. His flaws seem also to be his strengths, and you seems to have a talent for building a complex character that is both unlikeable but very...redeemable.

I think quite a bit of my sensibility (and much of the self-absorption) went into him, but not much of my actual biography. The parents are from Hong Kong, as are mine. And I'm glad you find him loveable -- I can understand when some people don't!

BBC: Being a self-absorbed writer is pretty much a qualification for the job. You're among the few who admit it...very cool.

KC: Yeah, I think some writers are able to transcend their self-absorption a bit more about writing about grand casts of characters over cast social landscapes. I've always been drawn to writers who reflect the world through their own self-obsessions and tics.

BBC: How did you manipulate time for the protagonist? He jumps sharply and quickly around his memories, from what happened the day before to what happened years ago. How and why did you develop this technique?

KC: I tried to tie flashbacks (which can tell you about the character's back stories) thematically to stuff happening in the present day timeline. So a scene about Malcolm's shittiness with relationships in the present day will be connected to a flashback that might help explain that. It might be clearer to me, the writer, than to the reader, for better and for worse.

BBC: How was/is the jump between being a fiction writer and a non-fiction writer, especially in such eclectic (and "hipster-y") topics as Neil Young and horse-racing, neither of which appear in your fiction?

"Hipster-y" wouldn't be completely incorrect. It depends on how you treat those subjects. Most people don't self-identify as hipsters, but, growing up, I definitely tried to like things that were cool. I'm like that, though maybe not as preoccupied with that. On one hand, it's poseur-ish, but on the other hand, there are many young people who are choosing to define themselves by their refined tastes instead o their bank balance of the rims on their cars. So, I don't think it's all that bad.

As for my transition, I like the fact-finding element of my memoirs, as well as meeting people. The non-fiction books I've written both deal with strange communities (rock fans, race-trackers) with their own very esoteric language, and my attempt to break into those worlds. The novels deal with relationships (parent-child, boy-girl). I find fiction harder, mainly because the non-fiction books were commissioned, and the novels were on spec.

BBC: Was Vancouver as a setting just happenstance because you don't seem to rely on the common exploits of the city -- trees, mountains, oceans -- but rather the obscure media culture, or er, hipster culture?

KC: My parents are from Hong Kong. I didn't grow up going on hikes. Being a child of immigrants also made me culture-obsessed because growing up I wasn't bred with an understanding of western culture. Listening to obscure Lou Reed was in some ways a kind of compensation for that.

BBC: What projects are you working on next? Non-fiction? Fiction? Set in Vancouver?

KC: I'm trying to write a novel that summer, but that summer is quickly slipping away. I have a non-fiction proposal I'm working on based on a conversation I had with an editor while on a last-second trip to Toronto. Also, I'm writing a magazine article for Vancouver Magazine about anti-Chinese racism.

Kaitlin McNabb is moderator of the Babble Book Club. Find out about the next book selection and our upcoming book club here. Join our Facebook group!

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