Books·How I Wrote It

How Michael Kaan gets to the heart of the horror of WWII in his new novel

The Water Beetles was inspired by Kaan's father's memoirs about growing up during the Second World War.
Michael Kaan is the author of The Water Beetles. (Goose Lane Editions/Leif Norman)

Chung-Man is sent away by his parents after Japan invades Hong Kong during the Second World War, tearing his family apart. Chung-Man is the main character of Michael Kaan's first novel, The Water Beetles, which was a finalist for the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. The Winnipeg-born writer was inspired to write the book after reading his father's diary about growing up during the Second World War. The Water Beetles is currently a finalist for the 2018 First Novel Award.

In his own words, Kaan describes what it's like to write a novel about one of the most significant events in world history.

Stripping out the gore to get to the horror

"There's some bad stuff that happens in the book to the main character and his family. I know from research, but also from my dad's memoirs, that a lot more went on. I've never liked gore novels or war films that are an endless parade of horrors. They don't get to the heart of what a story like that should be about. I kept a lot of it out of initial drafts, and in subsequent rewriting took more out. What's left now is just a fraction of what was originally there and even just a smaller fraction of what actually transpired."

How the past impacts the present

"I think it's important to look at how this stays with a person in the course of their life and how it haunts them in different ways. It's going to stay with you in a direct way, having memories about them and even nightmares. But I think it also affects how you experience certain things later on in life, like loss, whether or not you treasure small things in life, small pleasures. It affects your lifelong relationships with family members who went through that. I wanted to reflect the long-term impact an experience like this has on a person."

Memories becoming history

"It's pretty sobering to think that there are still people around who have personal memories of the Second World War. It was one of the most lethal events in human history. To know someone who had even the most apparently trivial memories of that event, that's like knowing someone who was alive during the Roman Empire or someone who was there during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It's quite sobering to think about how we're at the end of that phase of personal life and personal memory, and we need to capture that."

Michael Kaan's comments have been edited and condensed.