Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Kevin Chong's books really begin when he knows how they will end

The author of The Plague answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
Kevin Chong is the author of the novel The Plague. (Andrew Querner)

In the psychological thriller The Plague, Kevin Chong puts his spin on an Albert Camus classicexcept Chong's version is set in a disease-ridden Vancouver. When rats start dying and people's lymph nodes begin to swell, Dr. Bernard Rieux struggles to fight the treatment-resistant epidemic. As the city is under quarantine, The Plague explores the psychological effects of isolation and the meaning in suffering.

Below, Chong takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.

1. Cassie Stocks asks, "Are you able to read books purely for pleasure or is some part of you always noting the craft (or lack of it) in the work?"

Isn't admiring (and noting) craft one part of the pleasure of reading for a writer? I have two jobs teaching writing, and turning to finished books and reading for fun is what I look forward to at the end of the day. On the other hand, it might feel more like work if I were to take those pleasure reads and re-read them again for tips.

2. Marissa Stapley asks, "Which author would you want with you during an emergency situation?"

Andreas Schroeder: author of 25 books, motorcyclist, German-speaker and home builder.

3. Gary Barwin asks, "How or where does a piece of writing begin for you?"

Sometimes it has started with a situation. Other times it's financial exigency. My new novel came about because my wife was moving books around the house and there was a copy of Albert Camus's The Plague lying around. The idea for my re-take came to me within days.

Here's something else: I know that I will finish a work of nonfiction when I start it. With fiction, there has been more anxiety. There are many false starts and uncompleted manuscripts on my hard drive. Lots of times an idea fizzles within a page. So in one sense, a work of fiction begins when I know I can finish it.

4. Ahmad Danny Ramadan asks, "How do you build your characters? Do they come to you before you write your first draft or are they formed as you write them?"

You have a first impression of your characters, just as you do someone you'd meet. But as you put your character through their paces, you learn new things about them. Sometimes you learn things that contradict what you already know. In that case, you rewrite — or you rethink your character as a sociopath.

5. Hiro Kanagawa asks, "Do you have any hesitations about creating characters who are very different from you in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, life experience, etc.?"

So many hesitations. I try to make them very specific people, whose traits obscure any of those demographic markers. But then I need to think whether those traits don't feed into any unconscious biases.

6. Russell Smith asks, "What is the musical soundtrack to your latest book?"

I used to have musical tastes. Now I listen to the Annie soundtrack because it's my toddler-aged daughter's jam.

7. Tanya Talaga asks, "Who is your most feared critic?"

I dread the anonymous student reviews that I must read after a university course I teach is completed. Most of the comments are kind, and many of the criticisms can be constructive, but there are some blunt comments that get seared in my memory for weeks.

8. Vivek Shraya asks, "Who is a Canadian writer you aspire to write like and why?"

I don't mean to be a jerk, but I don't want to write like anyone else. When I was younger, yes, definitely. I often wish I wrote better, told better stories, but not in the manner of any other writer. 


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