Interview with Jon Chan Simpson

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As The Plot Thins (ATPT): To begin, I just want to thank you for taking the time to chat with us. I’ve seen quite a few mentions of Chinkstar on Twitter, how have reviews been so far?

Jon Chan Simpson (JS): Thanks for having me.

And yeah, reviews! There’s been a mix of reactions to Chinkstar so far: excitement, bewilderment and most often both. One reviewer was left “feeling all kinds of weird things inside,” which isn’t a bad thing, I don’t think (though it definitely wasn’t meant as a compliment).

ATPT: The story takes place in Red Deer, the same town that you grew up in. Is this a story of influence or something you created?

JS: So far as I know, there’s no Chinese gangster-rap scene in Red Deer (but it’d be pretty awesome if there were!). That said, I don’t think that something like that existing is as impossible as it might seem. The book goes a little wild with that question: what if?

But if Chinkstar is about more than its musical backdrop—if it’s about a smalltown Canadian kid trying to figure himself out, culturally and otherwise—then it’s a story of influence so autobiographical it’s embarrassing. Shout out to my hometown!

ATPT: To most people who are fans of hip hop, any Asian variations are generally likely unknown. Can you tell us about some of your favorite Asian rappers? How about your favorite hip hop artists in a more general sense?

JS: Does Wu-Tang count as an Asian variation? Everybody knows Wu-Tang!

When it comes to ethnically Asian rappers, MC Jin is ridiculously talented, and his story (so far) has been a fascinating one. Like a few people, he’s blessed when it comes to his skills and personality. Like a lot more people, Jin wasn’t so lucky when it came to navigating the industry. Check him out.

Also, take a listen to Onra. His “Chinoiseries” albums—think J-Dilla does Chinatown—were playing non-stop while I wrote the book.

ATPT: Chinkstar is written in a very matter-of-fact sort of tone. You use a large amount of slang and the verbiage is nothing compared to classic prose. Did you know when this story came to you that you wanted it to be told in such a manner?

JS: Not exactly, though now that I think about it I’m not sure how it could’ve been told otherwise. Chinksta, the musical revolution at the core of the story, exists just outside of reality, and needs a language to match—it’s quick and it’s dense, like hip-hop often is, but it grapples with its own “authenticity.”

ATPT: I read somewhere that Chinkstar started as a short story. The finished product isn’t incredibly long at 200 something pages, but when did you realize that – hey this could be fleshed out into a much larger story?

JS: The comedy that comes out of mashing black and yellow cultural stereotypes together was enough to carry a short story, but I realized that really exploring that dynamic—one racialized group speaking in the voice of another racialized group, while trying to carve out an authentic identity—would take a bit more time on the page. Plus, in the short story version, the main character never gets laid. I couldn’t abandon him a loveless virgin.

ATPT: How long did it take you to write Chinkstar?

JS: Too long. Embarrassingly long.

ATPT: What part of writing your first novel did you struggle with the most? Was it editing? Maybe a particular part of the story?

JS: Despite myself, I’m a bricklayer-type of writer—it’s hard for me to lay brick two until brick one is just right, brick three until brick two is right, and so on. This is a pretty stupid and inflexible way to go about things, and led to a lot of editing grief, especially when it came to nailing down the voice/tone. Bruce Lee would say I need to become like water, and I’d agree. Write and learn, I guess.

ATPT: Describe your typical day for me. Are you a strict, need to write type of author or do you just let the creative inspiration take hold when it comes?

JS: Aw man, I wish I were the latter. How much more fun would that be? Sadly, I work full time to pay the bills, so my writing gets stuffed in on mornings and weekends.

On that note, I just want to take a sec to acknowledge how lucky I was to be able to write this novel. My parents helped me through undergrad, so by the time I got to grad school (where I began writing the book) I wasn’t carrying much debt—that’s an opportunity not a lot of writers get. And thanks to a couple writing grants on top of that, I was able to work part time rather than full time during much of the process, which left me enough time to write. I know there are a lot of writers out there more talented than me who don’t get these kinds of breaks. I’m not saying it was easy—it was a grind. But it’s even more of a grind for a lot of other artists out there.

ATPT: Chinkstar isn’t a novel you would typically see in one of the big publishers catalogs. Did you have to send a lot of queries before getting a response or was it always one of your ambitions to be published with a Canadian publisher?

JS: Chinkstar’s a Canadian book, so going with Coach House was a no-brainer. They’re not afraid to say what needs saying, and had the guts to run with Chinkstar, title and all. Our country’s literature, and literature in general, could benefit from that kind of backbone among publishers, don’t you think?

ATPT: Any 2015 selections that you are really looking forward to reading?

JS: Undermajordomo Minor—Patrick DeWitt

Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion—Jeff Parker, Pasha Malla, Nathan McKee

Decline of the Animal Kingdom—Laura Clarke

And anything by Doretta Lau, and Jillian and Mariko Tamaki.

ATPT: Once again, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

JS: Thanks, Joe. It was fun.

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