Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Sam Wiebe

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Sam Wiebe

Sam Wiebe's debut was an award-winner before it even hit the shelves: his Last of the Independents scooped the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Novel before being picked up by Toronto publisher Dundurn Press.

Last of the Independents tells the story of 29-year old Michael Drayton, a Vancouver PI specialising in missing persons. When Mike is hired to find the vanished son of a local junk merchant, he is hindered by dubious leads, a biased court system and a shady fellow PI. As the search intensifies, Mike finds himself pulled in a dozen directions, racing to protect the innocent — if he can figure out exactly who that is.

Sam speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today Sam tells us about the tough circumstances that led to writing Last of the Independents, writing by hand and good advice from David Mamet.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Sam Wiebe:

Last of the Independents is a crime novel set in Vancouver. It’s about a twentysomething, self-employed private eye who risks life and livelihood to find the missing son of a junk dealer.

I love the great crime novelists — Rankin, Chandler, Mosely, Josephine Tey. But the novel grew out of some real experiences for me. I’d finished school, moved back to the city, was broke and loaded with student debt, and had recently lost a couple of family members. The crime novel seemed a good way to explore those issues, not only matters of life and death, but the challenge, as Raymond Chandler says, of “making a living and staying reasonably honest.” I thought it would be interesting to situate a PI within the profane funk of modern life, and attempt to make the conventions of the detective story relevant to people for whom paying rent, let alone running a business, is a challenge.

Mike Drayton has all of the wisecracks and Weltschmerz of the classic PI, but with a northwest ‘DIY’ aesthetic. Like a lot of us, he struggles between taking work that is fulfilling and work that is remunerative. The events of Last of the Independents, and the choices he makes, shake him and everything he believes in.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

SW:

The psychologist William James talked about a type of evil which is “ministerial to a higher form of good,” as opposed to evil for its own sake. The question being, who could possibly qualify to make that distinction? How would a person ever know?

A little less philosophically, I wanted to look at the question of work. When our job becomes our identity, how far will we go to maintain it?

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

SW:

I had an ending in mind when I started, but by the time I got to that point I realized it was false. It pulled punches. The story dictated another ending.

It takes the better part of a year for me, from first draft to final revisions.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

SW:

I write by hand, pen to paper. Sick, isn’t it?

After, I transcribe into Pages or Scrivener for editing.

Coffee or tea and music doesn’t hurt.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

SW:

David Mamet said that there’s a reason why writers commonly have second act problems — the second act is where the main character struggles to find a way through her problems. She either innovates, transcends or admits defeat. The author is placed in the same position; by that point inspiration has faded, the outline has proven flawed, and you can’t remember why you started the damn thing in the first place. But that self-doubt is, I think, inevitable, and probably a sign that you’re on the right track. The author and protagonist have to share in that uncertainty.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

SW:

A great book is an unrelentingly honest portrayal of a character’s struggle. Mattie Ross in True Grit, Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, Anna Karenina — all are shown in what Henry James calls their “obstinate finality.”

I don’t judge crime fiction any differently. My current favourites, Peter Temple and Tana French, are experts at creating characters and allowing their decisions to propel the narrative.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SW:

My second novel is finished and with my agent. It’s called Chelsea Loam, and looks at the disappearance of a troubled young woman, and the effect her disappearance has on the city of Vancouver.


Sam Wiebe Last of the Independents won an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Novel. His prize-winning crime fiction has been published internationally. Recent projects include audio adaptations of Hamlet and Frankenstein, an independent film script, and a follow-up novel. He lives in Vancouver.

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