Interview by Christopher Evans
For the Vancouver launch of his debut novel, The Video Watcher (Biblioasis, 2015), Shawn Curtis Stibbards did something I hadn’t seen a reader do before: flip through the book at random and read whatever passage his finger fell on. It proved an effective way to convey both The Video Watcher’s dark atmospherics and the main character, Trace’s, disconnection from his environment. Stibbards is a secondary-school teacher, musician, and writer, whose poetry and fiction has appeared in Grain, existere, Vancouver Review, Toronto Quarterly, and Dalhousie Review. He lives in North Vancouver, where the novel is set.
The Video Watcher is your first novel. How did you approach writing it? How was the approach different from writing a short story?
The novel actually started as a short story, “Alex’s Party and her Mother,” which I wrote back in the fall of 2005. My family was away in Japan at the time, and I was doing a lot of silk-screening and needed to occupy myself while I waited for the paint to dry. The bedroom conversation between Trace and the mother was one of the first things I wrote, and I was immediately excited by it. Trace intrigued me as a character, because unlike me, he doesn’t moralize, and I was curious about what would happen if I tried to write a novel about my college years with him as the protagonist. At the beginning I didn’t have any idea about the novel as a whole, but just wrote scenes that interested me, coaxing myself along with the promise of another beer if I could get another hundred words written.
The novel has been favourably compared to the work of Raymond Carver and Bret Easton Ellis. Do you think these comparisons are apt? Are there other writers to whom the story or the writing style is indebted?
Carver has certainly been an influence on some of my short fiction, but less so I think on the novel. What Carver did give me is the courage to write stories that seemed to go nowhere (because the characters are going nowhere.) But the milieu in most of his fiction is different from the one in The Video Watcher, and also, with Carver I get the feeling that readers are intended to laugh at his characters (at least in the stories edited by Gordon Lish), not sympathize with them.
As for Bret Easton Ellis, he and Joan Didion were big influences when I started writing this novel. Up to that point I’d had trouble figuring out how to write about shallow, disconnected people and Ellis and Didion offered me models. However, as the novel progressed, they became less of an influence, and the styles and approaches of other writers became more dominant, (e.g. Raymond Chandler, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, and even Henry James, as well as that of some Japanese novels: Shintaro Ishihara’s Season of the Sun, Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue, and Haruki Murakami’s first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973.
The novel’s protagonist, Trace, is often cast as an observer; sometimes he simply watches passively as his life unspools, while other times he seems locked by fear, his inaction almost like paralysis. What is it about the act of watching that interests you?
I don’t think anyone will argue that we have been become more and more passive and voyeuristic. This tendency has only accelerated over the last fifteen years with the proliferation of electronics; human beings are quickly being reduced to their eardrums and eyeballs (and occasionally sex organs.) This is one reason behind modern Canadian culture’s obsession with victims. This tendency also even spills over into our sexuality, and I would be curious to know if more people want to be passive nowadays in the sexual act than a hundred years ago.
Going back to the novel, the characters in it are distrustful of their emotions and impulses, and feel it is safer to be acted upon than to act, mostly because they don’t want to be blamed. But of course they aren’t blameless, and that it is one of the things I want to point out: the complicity of the bystander.
As for the voyeurism, people nowadays are very inhibited, particularly men, and in many cases can only act out their masculinity vicariously.
The Video Watcher’s North Vancouver setting plays a big role in the novel; tonally, it’s a wildly different version of the city than what’s presented in tourist brochures. Is there something about North Vancouver, in particular, that encourages the type of disillusionment that Trace feels, or could the story have taken place anywhere?
One of the great problems of this city is that we have leaders that seem more concerned about how Vancouver looks to outsiders than how it appears to itself. Tourism is supposedly so important for our economy (so we are told) and our leaders spend most of the time keeping up a façade, but every so often—with the Canuck riots, Robert Pickton, the Bacon Brothers—another story emerges.
As for taking place in a different area of Vancouver, no, I don’t think it would be the same story. There is a certain detached/proximity one experiences living on the North Shore (West Van included.) Geographically we’re close to downtown, but made to feel detached by the harbour and transcendent by the fact that, in many areas, we literally look down on the city.
There are some interesting discrepancies between the way Trace experiences the world and the way the world experiences him; while he views his surroundings in a highly-sensorial way and is sometimes over-sensitive to the reactions of others, he consistently feels unseen or unheard himself. Does that tension reflect the way you felt when you were Trace’s age?
In my late teens and early twenties, I was actually a much less sensuous person than Trace. Whereas he retreats into sensations, I retreated into idealism and fantasy. But yes, I was quite sensitive to the reaction of others.
As for feeling unseen and unheard—particularly by the opposite sex—heterosexual relationships were highly politicized during my university years (and probably still are) and there was the constant fear that one would be misinterpreted, or blamed. I thought this fear was exclusive to myself but I’ve talked to others and realize that it was widespread—men felt it was too risky to act while women complained about men’s inactivity.
Rather than from a lack of relationships, much of Trace’s loneliness seems to stem directly from the relationships he does have—two best friends he doesn’t like very much, an aunt who talks over or through him, female acquaintances who are largely indifferent to his existence. Are these types of relationship dynamics something you’ve observed first-hand, through your job as a secondary-school teacher?
Communication is definitely one of the main themes of the novel, one of the reasons I started the book with a comment about nobody really talking to each other. To hear someone you need to be calm, and no one in this novel is calm enough to listen. Also, to be secure enough to speak one’s real mind one needs to be part of community, and that’s what Trace doesn’t have. None of his friends are friends with each other, thus making Trace’s relationship’s insular and claustrophobic, with no third person to serve as a reference point.
Students nowadays face a different problem. Whereas Trace’s relationships are private—e.g. what goes on at one of Alex’s party pretty much stays at Alex’s party—young people nowadays exist in a sort of 1984esque world of constant surveillance, only it’s not Big Brother watching, it’s their own ‘friends.’
The Video Watcher is full of 90s-specific media and entertainment references: Guns N’Roses, paranoid radio call-in programs, late-night reruns of old slasher films on TV. As the title suggests, Trace spends much of his consuming this media, but rather than relaxing him, his choices heighten his feelings of alienation and disaffection. Do you think this kind of media-driven loneliness is as prevalent today as it was in the 90s? Have things changed?
Trace’s use of media is similar to his use of alcohol. The slasher films, in the short term, do actually relax him, providing the excitement and drama missing from his life, a distraction from the banal emptiness of his existence, and a sense of conclusion, (i.e. promiscuity is punished, the virginal protagonist escapes, Jason Voorhees is stopped, etc.) Unlike the random ‘horrors’ around him (e.g. wasted youth, abuse, divorce, suicide, abortion), the horrors on the screen are contained, the violence cathartic. Of course, you’re right, the movies distort his sense of reality, and offer no positive models on how to interact with others around him.
Have things changed? They’ve gotten worse. The slasher films and the hard rock were at least forms of art, by which I mean that artists were trying to make sense of what they were presenting. Nowadays ‘presenters’ only seem to want to shock us with raw, undigested facts. In that way, everything has become sensational and pornographic.
Originally from Victoria, BC, Christopher Evans now lives in Vancouver with his wife, young daughter, and two disgruntled cats. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in Grain, The New Quarterly, Riddle Fence, and other fine publications in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the USA.