canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Jason Anderson

Jason Anderson is the author of Showbiz (ECW Press, 2005). In Showbiz, Anderson creates an alternate universe where a young journalist named Nathan (a Canuck who lives in New York, even though his visa has run out) finds an old record by someone named Jimmy Wynn in a used record store. He takes it home and listens to it and discovers he was an impersonator of President Cannon, a much-beloved president who was assassinated in New Orleans in 1963. Nathan pitches a story to The Betsey, a magazine devoted to all things Cannon.

TDR conducted this interview in November 2005 through technological means.

When did you start working on Showbiz, what lead you to this topic, etc., how long etc.?

I started developing ideas for Showbiz late in 2003. I was working on short stories and getting keen to try a longer narrative work. I wanted a topic that was broad enough that it could accomodate a range of pop-cultural interests. Writing about an ill-fated comedian was a natural hook for me since I've been studying the comedic arts (though never having the guts to do it live) all my life. I'd heard a little about the JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader but then when I read a magazine article about him, I thought his story could be a great hook -- that is, the story of someone who was massively famous but was then tossed into history's dustbin, as Meader was after JFKs assassination. Comedy is already the most masochistic of the performing arts (imagine if ballet dancers had to contend with drunken hecklers) so the added wrinkle of political conspiracy made writing about a Meader-like comic very tantalizing. Anyway, I worked on the book on and off throughout 2004 and finished in early 2005.

For those of us who don't know, can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer, etc.

I started writing about music for VOX, a campus radio magazine in Calgary, in the mid-'80s when I was still in high school. After moving to Toronto in '91 to finish an English degree, I began working with some ex-VOX brass who'd infilitrated the fledgling Eye Weekly. I've written for that paper ever since and am now its senior film critic. I also write regularly for The Globe and Mail, Toro, Toronto Life and CBC's online arts mag, mostly about film and music. Fiction's been a sideline thing that's slowly creeped into the middle over the last six years -- I learned a helluva lot working with Annabel Lyon in the Banff Centre's Wired Writing Studio in 2002 and 2003. Taddle Creek and THIS have been very supportive in publishing stories and my first appearance between book covers was in The IV Lounge Reader.

You launched your book in an eclectic and compelling manner with Brian Joseph Davis earlier this year (last month) do you think more experimental and less boring launches are required now, for the sake of us all?

What Brian Joseph Davis and I did at the launch was a general application of the small-s showbiz adage "Don't bore us -- get to the chorus." I've always been terrified of squandering the interest of readers or listeners so I like to keep it as snappy as I can. Of course, I use a lot of humour in my work so it's easier for me to be a huckster than it is for more serious writers. I encourage anything that breaks up tired lit-event formats and prevents people from feeling that they're attending out of some moral duty. Even a modest effort to entertain goes a long way with lit crowds.

This is a loaded question for you to reveal as much as you want about your book: How has history and other mediums such as film influenced Showbiz?  

As someone who's been a ravenous consumer of books, movies and records for a long time, all of it makes an impact. History, too, though I was more interested in how someone like James Ellroy (in American Tabloid) or Richard Condon (in Winter Kills) played around with the mythology of a big event -- in their cases, the JFK assassination. A reviewer mentioned Don DeLillo's Libra as a touchstone for Showbiz, too, though I confess I never finished it. I also joked when I started the book that I wanted to write something that fit between two writers I love who have almost nothing in common -- W.G. Sebald and Carl Hiaasen. My result is closer to Hiaasen because it's very much a caper/thriller structure with lots of gags but I was fascinated by the way Sebald blurred the lines between fact and fiction, and history and memoir.

Showbiz refers to that golden era of entertainment. Who are some of your all-time favourite entertainers? 

Jeez, there are so many. Of the great '40s and '50s icons, I'm endlessly fascinated by Martin and Lewis -- Nick Tosches' Dino is my favourite sleazy celebrity bio and I'm eager to read Jerry's new memoir about his old partner. (It's like they had the Vegas nightclub version of a same-sex marriage.) Who else? Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin are my favourite tough-guy actors. Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks are my top stand-ups. Musical heroes include David Bowie (in the '70s) and Prince (in the '80s). And I've been nursing a wholly non-ironic fixation on Kylie Minogue.

Are you working on anything else we should know about ?

I'm getting going on some screenplays, not because I'm so eager to enter the sharkpit that is the movie business but because I'm curious about what the process can teach me about storytelling. Since I work as a freelance writer, it's very hard to make time for writing that doesn't have a pay cheque already attached. Having a wealthy patron would be nice but I'm afraid he or she will require me to hang around some penthouse apartment all day wearing nothing but a towel.







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