Peter Darbyshire is a Canadian journalist, blogger, cartoonist and novelist. His first novel, Please (Raincoast 2002), won the Relit Award and the K.M. Hunter Award for Best Emerging Artist. His new novel, The Warhol Gang (Harper Collins), describes a worrying near-future riddled with never-ending malls, internet memes, gadgets, and out-of-hand personal branding. While it's been described as “Fight Club meets the Youtube generation” it's not quite as pixellated; Darbyshire provides a high-definition x-ray snapshot of society that cuts right to the bone. In our interview, Darbyshire talked about his influences, the state of the world, short stories, and the publishing process.
Aaron Vansintjan: What do you want people to feel when they finish The Warhol Gang?
Peter Darbyshire: Oh, that's up to them! I mean, I know from people that have read it so far that it's a book that leaves people with questions, which is fine with me, I wasn't going for any sort of definitive statement or providing of answers; if people walk away thinking about the book, that's all a writer can ask for.
AV: Is The Warhol Gang part of the way you view society right now?
PB: Oh, absolutely. I've sort of tried to make it modern. I mean it's not quite sci-fi, but it's not exactly the present day either. It's a few years in the future.
AV: So how influenced are you by cyberpunk literature?
PD: I don't know that I'd say that I'm influenced by it, I mean, I've certainly read William Gibson and that sort of thing, but to be honest, I'm more influenced by the science blogs I read and advertising culture. I found that no matter how strange I made something, the real world came up with something stranger the next day. The whole neuro-marketing stuff in the book, for instance, is a field that actually exists. It's wonderfully strange but it's true. So, I'd have to say I'm more influenced by the absurdity of the world than I am by other writers when it comes to this one.
AV: Sometimes I did feel like Chuck Palahniuk’s influence—especially in Fight Club—was very prominent. Was that a conscious choice?
PD: No. I always get lumped in with American writers who tend to be a little more counter-cultural than Canadian writers who tend to—this is a gross generalisation—-write more historical fiction. With my first book, Please, I was lumped into the "dirty realism" category. I think Palahniuk is a little bit more angry and disturbed than I am. Still. I don't think it's a bad analogy. When I was pitching the book, we'd talk about things like, Fight Club meets the Office, or Fight Club meets the Youtube generation.
AV: The Warhol Gang is very unresolved. Is there a way out of the predicament that this society is in?
PD: Well, that's the question. There certainly isn't for the people in the book. They all find their escape routes, voluntary or otherwise, but they're not the sort of escapes that we would find satisfying. Some people have called the book a dystopia, but I don't think it's a label that fits comfortably enough.
AV: I didn’t consider it a dystopia because you set the story in a real-seeming society that could actually exist.
PD: I worked hard to make sure it was recognizable. In some of the early drafts it was a little more absurd and unreal than it is now and I had to tone that down a bit because I was worried about entering George Saunders land. I love George Saunders' writing but it's never real, you know what I mean? So hopefully everything is a little more recognizable so that when you're in the shower you can think of the book.
AV: Has the publishing process been different from your first book, Please?
PD: Oh, radically different, Please was my first novel, from a mid-sized publisher, and I was a nobody. So, going into this one with Harper-Collins, it's a different game, you're operating at a different level. There's so much more of an infrastructure with a big publisher like that to support you, which is wonderful. So I had multiple editors working on the book who really really pushed me in a way that I was never pushed with Please, so the demands coming from the editors at Harper-Collins were much more rigorous than my first book and it really made a stronger book. It was a very, very difficult writing and editing process because they kept pushing me to really go one step further and make it be the best book possible. Now that it's all done, I'm quite happy with the process.
AV: So did you try any new things that you hadn't done before?
PD: The process was much different for me. When I was writing Please, I was trying to engage with writers I was reading at the time. I was reading Raymond Carver and Richard Ford and mixing that up with my own life in Toronto. I was hanging out with people who worked in film, working these crappy temp jobs, and spending a life of shopping. Please was a mix of the literary tradition I had grown up in as a writer and then adding my own life to that. In The Warhol Gang I was interested in exploring ideas that struck me as sort of crazy, like neuro-marketing and our theme-park culture and our endless mall culture. The Warhol Gang was less about me and more about the absurdity I saw in society that's sort of trapping us all.
AV: How so?
PD: Well, I think we're screwed. We have this Disney model of capitalism that is just nuts. It's this system you just can't escape—there's no other options other than to operate within it or drop out and join a hippy commune on an island somewhere. There's no alternative, no viable mainstream alternative, to the kind of ever-increasing insanity we find ourselves in.
AV: Was The Warhol Gang modelled after a city?
PD: It's not modelled after a city because, other than the stuff that comes with your basic geography (like Vancouver's got a different setup than Toronto) I don't see any difference between them. When I step into a mall, it doesn't matter, it's got the same Banana Republics, it's got the same Starbucks. Your social experiences are fundamentally unchanged, no matter what city you're in. I could drive across the border and be in a completely different country in Seattle and my experience is going be largely the same. So I deliberately didn't set it in a city because I wasn't talking about Canada, I wasn't talking about Vancouver or Toronto, I was talking about a particular type of lifestyle that has come to dominate us, no matter where we are.
AV: Would that be what you want to tell the audience: "we're screwed"?
PD: Well, I'm always loathe to talk about messages. To me it's more of a reflection on what's out there. I'm the x-ray technician, I take the shots of what's wrong with the insides of people and let somebody else explain it.
AV: Why do you write novels?
PD: I started out writing short stories, and while I still love the short story form, I just sort of naturally progressed to novels. Your skillset gets a little bigger and a little better, so I've become quite comfortable with the novel form. I'm actually writing novels fairly quickly—I've got a couple of books the agency's looking at right now. I still like the short story, but it takes a lot of time to write a short story. So you have to think: where's the value? Should I be using these two months to write sixty pages in a new book or should I be working on a short story that's just not gonna bring me any income. And it's a tough one, because I just don't have time during the day to do both. That said, I did just actually finish a new story that I'm giving away for free to readers and people who post about the new book or write about it; it's kind of a thank-you card to people who wanna talk about the book.
AV: Short stories seem like a format that is still very practical online, but are novels threatened by the internet or the changing media?
PD: You know, I would think so, except I haven't seen that. I always thought the internet was going to cause a big explosion in short stories because we all want small, bite-sized bits of information. Short stories were going to be like TV episodes instead of a 6-hour movie. But I haven't seen that. When Raincoast, my publisher with Please, decided not to run their fiction line anymore, I got the rights to my book back. I started selling it as a PDF on my site along with short stories I had published in small magazines. I didn’t expect to sell a lot of copies of my book. After all, it's a novel, it's $9.99. I sell short stories for 99¢ each, and I'll probably sell way more short stories. And in fact I don't, I sell way more copies of the book than I do the short stories. Which came as a surprise to me, I totally thought it'd be the other way around. Personally, I love short stories, I can't get enough of them, but the business model still favours the novel, and people still prefer the novel over short stories for whatever reason.
AV: What have some responses been so far?
PD: Oh, they've been great. As a writer, you don't know. You spend five years working on it, and then all of a sudden it becomes this very public event and you think, oh god, this utter insanity—is there something decent here? So it's always rewarding when people actually do respond to it and you realise you're not just some nut sitting in a room.
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