Canada Reads

Natalie Zina Walschots wrote a novel about unheroic heroes and relatable villains — now it's on Canada Reads

The Toronto writer shares how she wrote her debut novel Hench. The novel will be championed Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on Canada Reads 2021.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is championing Hench on Canada Reads 2021

Hench is a book by Natalie Zina Walschots. (HarperCollins Canada, Max Lander)

Natalie Zina Walschots is a freelance writer and community manager from Toronto. Her debut novel, Hench, follows Anna Tromedlov, a low-level henchwoman who does administrative work for supervillains. That is until a life-altering injury she suffers at the hands of the world's most beloved superhero sets her down a path to even the score. She formulates a plan to weaponize data and take down the so-called heroes once and for all.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is championing Hench on Canada Reads 2021.

Canada Reads will take place March 8-11. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Walschots talked to CBC Books about writing Hench.

Unheroic heroes

"I've been a fan of superhero stories my whole life. I've collected comics since I was a kid. These are stories that are dear to my heart and important to me.

"You have comics like Watchmen and Miracleman that explore the idea that heroes aren't always heroic and the people who are supposed to do good don't always do the right thing — especially when there's a vast power differential.

The chances for harm to be done to the communities they're ostensibly there to protect is really high.

"The chances for harm to be done to the communities they're ostensibly there to protect is high."

Real numbers

"The math in the book is real. There is a brilliant researcher named Ilan Noy, who developed a method of measuring the human impact of natural disasters — what natural disasters cost communities — and the measure he came up with was 'human life years.'

"I took that math and applied it to the damage superheroes do in the course of carrying out their hero duties. I went through a lot of comics and added up the car crashes and injuries and buildings that were damaged. Then I used those calculations to see what the cost of superheroes were. Then I did the same for the villains, and the discrepancy was massive."

Natalie Zina Walschots used real calculations to determine the damage superheroes cause while 'saving the day.' (Submitted by Natalie ZIna Walschots)

Righteous anger

"I've joked a lot that Hench is kind of an autobiography. Obviously, the world is not like this world, but there's a grain of truth there that does come from a real place. I heard Anna's voice as someone who was deeply and profoundly angry.

"I wanted to write somebody who was driven by that anger and was, in a lot of ways, on a quest for revenge. But they weren't consumed and destroyed by that. They actually found strength and purpose and forward momentum in that.

I wanted to write somebody who was driven by that anger and was, in a lot of ways, on a quest for revenge. But they weren't consumed and destroyed by that.

"I think it takes Anna a while to realize what she's becoming because it's happening for her in tiny increments — that's intentional. I wanted to push the reader along little by little. You're going on that journey and you're either going to understand that transformation — the moral drift that's happening — and you're going to be there all the way or you're going to hit a wall where you find the places she goes are too dark. There's no wrong answer."

A graph showing the discrepancy between the damage heroes cost in comparison to the villains. (Submitted by Natalie Zina Walschots)

Years in the making

"I wrote the very first words of Hench a long time ago. I wrote this scene that had been in my head about a woman going to a job interview for henchpeople and doing this temp agency intake experience because I thought it would be funny.

I spent some time writing a series of vignettes that were  little glimpses into what the ordinary life of henchperson would be like.

"For a while I wasn't sure what it was going to be. But then I spent some time writing a series of vignettes that were about this one woman trying to go about her life and under really extraordinary circumstances." 

 Unremarkable diversity

"I very much wanted the world that I wrote in to be reflective of my community. I'm surrounded by lots of very different, very cool, very brilliant people and I wanted to do my best to represent that. I also wanted to make a story in which those identities are not the focus. As much as I think it's critical that we have queer narratives that centre the queer experience, not every story needs to focus on that.

It was very important for me to have people who were just living their lives and having it be unremarkable, whatever identity they occupied.

"It was very important for me to have people who were just living their lives and having it be unremarkable whatever identity they occupied. That's the kind of representation I would like to see more of."

Canada Reads is just over a month a way and we're getting ready by bringing on a new champion each week to talk about the book they are representing. First up is Kim's Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who is defending Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. 14:35

Complicated themes

"It is a complicated book. It's a book about power and abuses of power and reclaiming that power and turning it on itself. What heroism means and what power means are extremely central to the book, as is how that dovetails with institutionalized forms of violence and abuses of power that are often covered by a veneer of heroism.

There are a lot of people in power who do a lot more harm than good to the communities, they are ostensibly there to protect.

"The heroes in the book are not painted in a particularly positive light because that feels realistic to me. It reflects the way that there are a lot of people in power who do a lot more harm than good to the communities they are ostensibly there to protect. 

"I want readers to enjoy Hench more than anything else. I want them to read it and think that was fun and that it was time well spent with these characters and in this universe."

Natalie Zina Walschot's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

 

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