The Next Chapter

Natalie Zina Walschots's debut novel imagines life working for a supervillain

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

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

Natalie Zina Walschots is the author of Hench. (Submitted by Natalie Zina Walschots/CBC)

Fictional superheroes get a lot of screen time swooping in at the last minute to save people in distress — but all that swooping and saving can cause collateral damage in terms of property and people. 

That idea is the underpinning for Hench, a debut novel by Toronto author Natalie Zina Walschots. The story follows Anna, a data obsessed underling who crunches numbers to calculate the human cost of super heroism when she joins forces with a supervillain. 

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 spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Hench.

Hench, based on a hunch

"I've been a fan of superhero stories and have collected comics since I was a kid. These are stories that are incredibly important and dear to me. I approached this deconstruction out of that place of love. 

"Hench people in comic books are fascinating. They are characters who are always, by definition, marginal. We only see them very briefly, or at the fringes. They're often treated like human cannon fodder, thrown at the hero as a prelude to the main showdown between the hero and the villain. 

"Why would you do that job? That's a question I have often asked myself, especially when I was younger. I can't imagine why somebody would choose to do this dangerous, terrible job for a very bad person. 

Hench people in comic books are fascinating. They are characters who are always, by definition, marginal. ​​​​​​

"I got older, and had to get jobs in order to live. Suddenly it made a lot more sense why you might end up in this situation! If the job that's available is answering the phones for a supervillain, is that worse than answering the phones for a bank? Arguably not. 

"I developed a lot more sympathy and a lot more identification for how challenging that position can be."

Being human in an inhumane world

"Being in a position where your boss makes you uncomfortable or the decisions that the company is making do not align with your personal values are profoundly relatable experiences. You don't have to work for a supervillain to have them. Those small concessions to our own integrity, value systems, art or dignity are something that most people make all of the time. 

"It might be more dramatic in the situation that I've proposed, where you're working for a supervillain. But those are not unrelatable problems. I think they're alarmingly common human problems. 

Those small concessions to our own integrity, value systems, art or dignity are something that most people make all of the time.

"What I'm trying to do in Hench is bring the camera closer to that problem and to highlight it by putting it in the context of villains and heroes."

The truth about superheroes

"Speaking as someone with a deep love for superhero stories, I have always looked at the damage that is being done, both to people and property, and the internal and emotional trauma that would come out of that sort of mass scale destruction. I've questioned whether it was worth it. 

"Is stopping a robbery worth the 15 cars and three buildings set on fire and complex spinal injuries that end up resulting to all of the people involved?

Is stopping a robbery worth the 15 cars and three buildings set on fire and complex spinal injuries that end up resulting to all of the people involved?

"It's something that's always bothered me a lot. And it was something that I imagined my protagonist would think about a lot."

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

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

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