Doretta Lau speaks to writer Kevin Chong about Camus, Vancouver, and fantasy casting the adaptation of his novel The Plague
When I was starting out as a journalist, one of the first writers I ever interviewed was Kevin Chong for UBC campus radio station CiTR’s publication Discorder Magazine. At the time he had just published his debut novel, Baroque-A-Nova, which my roommates at the time all read and then recommended to our friends.
Since then Chong has authored a total of six books of fiction and nonfiction, and he’s been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award and the Hubert Evans Prize. His latest work is the riveting novel The Plague (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018), a reinterpretation of the book by Albert Camus.
What drew you to the source material by Albert Camus?
Kevin Chong: I read it in my first year at university along with Dostoyevsky and Kafka. For me, it defined what literature was at a time when I was trying to define myself as a serious literary person. Of course, that meant writers who were white dudes. So when my wife left a copy of the book lying around the house and I thought it’d be fun to reinterpret, I needed to take apart not only the book but also my own notions of what it meant to be a writer when I was 18.
By that, I had a narrower more exclusive idea of what was “literary”–one brought to me by my reading and my own limited life experience. So I wanted a book that was more expansive in its cast of characters, and I wanted a book that touched upon social issues (at one point, I held a view that books should not be political at all).
Vancouver and the very real preoccupations of its citizens feature prominently in your take on The Plague; you’ve written the descriptions in an intimate way that only someone who has spent decades in a place can achieve. Did you set out to tell the story of the city at that particular moment in time?
Not exactly, but the more I got into it, the more it became particularized–like a big in-joke between two million people. Having said that, I think it can be read by people outside the city, with no knowledge of it, because many issues are experienced elsewhere: disparities in wealth, isolation, pockets of people suffering.
If you were to make a soundtrack for your novel, what songs would be on it?
KC: I’m really bad at this. I used to be someone who could reel off songs. I sort of stopped listening to music when I had kids and we listen to baby music or top 40 in the car, which I don’t really like but am not willing to complain about. The book makes reference to Leonard Cohen, Cantonese opera (not that I love it), Hayden, the McGarrigle Sisters. I think that might be the headspace of the main characters. But I don’t think that’s very much the music of the city. I would think a movie soundtrack might have something severe and the incidental music might feature what the peripheral characters listen to: Top 40, foreign pop music, EDM.
Can we fantasy cast for the film adaptation of your book? I want to see Keanu Reeves, Kal Penn, and Ali Wong in the movie of The Plague. Who do you envision?
KC: That’d be great. I really don’t envision actors in my movies. I don’t think I’m a very visual person. I guess my preference would be for actors who are distinctive looking rather than blandly beautiful ones, and good actors too.
What’s next? Another novel or a nonfiction book?
KC: Probably not a novel because I have a different audience for the nonfiction I’ve written (mostly middle-aged men–not that they buy a lot of my books) and I am nervous about bothering all the same people who’ve so generously spent their time reading this most recent book. I have some short stories that I have written over the last two decades, and am trying to do something with them too.
Read an excerpt of The Plague by Kevin Chong.
Photo by Andrew Querner.