Arts Report Q&A – Michael Hingston, author of The Dilettantes

Authors

Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal, former SFU the Peak staffer, and brand new novelist. He’s recently released his first novel,  The Dilletantes (Freehand Books, a funny, real life reference packed campus novel focusing on the post-irony students who are trying to save the Peak from Metro and the indifference of their readers.

The Vancouver launch of the Dillettantes is Oct 4, 6:30pm at Pulp Fiction Books. Listen to a review today (Sept 25, 5pm) on the Arts Report. His website is michaelhingston.com

From the many Q&A’s with Hingston, we know he started the novel while still in school, and followed a strict schedule of words per day from 2008-20011. We know he loves the “campus novel” genre, and that he thought the genre was missing one centred on the campus newspaper. And we know while the characters are amalgamations, many names, events, locations and atmospheric details are very, very real. As a SFU and Peak alum, Arts Dir Maegan has a few other questions for Hingston.

 AR: Jessica Kluthe wanted to know how you would teach your novel in a classroom, and you answered “Are these good people? Why or why not?” So are they? Would you be pals with Alex (the post ironic protaganist)?
MH: I think we all know people like Alex, especially during our post-secondary lives: people who leverage their intelligence to make other people feel bad about enjoying the things they enjoy. I’ve called people like that friends in the past, but they seem to have fallen away from me in recent years. This is for the better. As for good people — yes, I think the best among them are trying to be. Or they’re at least aware of how corrosive it is to rely so much on this kind of calculated jadedness, and irony, and other things that protect you from feeling feelings and connecting with people.
AR: You mentioned to Ballast Magazine that you went through “thousands” of edits – can you note any major lessons learned? Any surprises along the way?
MH: Oh, yes, I learned tons about story through the editing process. Not in terms of concepts I’d never heard of before, but realizing what my own shortcomings were in the manuscript, and trying to course correct. I remember the first thing my editor told me that really blew my mind was when she asked about who the narrator of the novel was — as it turned out, I’d half-created this whole other persona who tended to hover over various characters’ shoulders and comment about the proceedings, oftentimes in that character’s own voice. I had no idea. Tightening up that voice made a huge, and immediately noticeable, difference.
AR: What  of your own experience did reflect in the experience of Alex or Tracy (the secondary protagonist)?
MH: In some ways, these characters are the angel and devil on any university student’s shoulder: you can try to use post-secondary life as a springboard into full-fledged adulthood, as Tracy attempts, or you can wallow in this quasi-sanctioned liminal space where you’re encouraged to not mature, to not take responsibility for your actions, and to coast through your daily life with a minimum of effort and a maximum of world-weary ‘tude. Alex tends to be the latter, and only realizes late in the game how childish this way of life really is. His epiphany is a rough parallel to my own.
AR: It seems that in the novel the value and place of dilettantism is ambiguous; if we consider one of the more gentle definitions of a dilettante, do you see a value there? I see in this novel a reflection of not just a group but an era of dilettantes, especially if you expand beyond the “arts” part of the definition.
MH: Yes. I love that interpretation. There’s nothing inherently negative about taking an interest in a subject, of course. The danger comes when you’re a couple of rungs up the ladder, and now you know a little bit about your subject — more than most other casual observers, say. A dilettante is someone who gets power drunk on this tiny amount of expertise, and rather than pushing through to understand more and more (learning always puts you in a humbling position, if you’re doing it right), they use it to lecture and embarrass the people still standing on the ground. So maybe it all comes down to power: are you learning about something for your own enjoyment, or because you want to be seen as someone at a dinner party who knows things?
Dilettantes also, for what it’s worth, tend to be the people who most frequently use the word “dilettantes.” Never describing themselves, mind you. Only others.
AR: Readers may assume that Alex is the character you relate to most, he being the male protagonist and the more fleshed out narrative; is this true? Which aspects of your protagonists do you relate to most directly?
MH: I relate to his basic frustration at wanting to cut loose and enjoy himself on a hedonistic level (whether that’s dancing, or openly flirting, or having a truly unguarded conversation), but feeling held back by his crippling sense of self-consciousness. That classic mind-body dilemma thing. I certainly felt that way in university, and it’s not an uncommon experience — hence the binge drinking. Liquid courage, right? But I also adore lots of things about Tracy. As a somewhat-functioning adult today, I would much rather have coffee with her, given the choice.
AR: Any aspects from the college newspaper days that crop up in grown up newspaper or literary life? Any lessons you apply today?
MH: It’s funny, but The Peak is still the only newsroom I’ve ever worked in. Everything I’ve done since and do now has been as a freelancer, so it’s all a lot of solitary time at my desk. That office culture would be hard to replicate, in any case. What I’m very grateful for, though, is that student journalism flushed out a lot of not-great ideas from my system, and I think that’s a very necessary lesson for any up-and-coming writers. It’s all trial and error, of course, but now I’m much more confident about what will work on the page and what won’t — as well as what an editor will respond to positively. Second chances are harder to come by out here, so you want to keep your spectacular failures to a minimum.
AR: Most surreal moment as a newly published author?
MH: Last year, Quill & Quire published a story about recent book deals with only two names in the headline: Bobby Orr (who was set to write a memoir) and me. That was pretty good.
AR: Tracy and Duncan Holtz (celebrity student, shit disturber) – what happens to them? Alex’s receives is also up in the air, obviously, but he gets a literary conclusion. I’m curious about these other two.
MH: I’ll never tell.