Michael Hingston is not your typical debut novelist. His first book, The Dilettantes, was just released in Canada last month but Hingston’s name as a freelance writer, book reviewer, and columnist has been known across the country for years now. A voracious reader and lover of the written word, Michael Hingston now shares his passion for books as the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. His blog of book reviews Too Many Books in the Kitchen is well known and was even mentioned in New York Magazine. All of these credits to his name did not make the publishing of his first novel a sure thing. Far from it. I talked to him about this, finding the time to write as a young father, and how he feels about reading his own reviews. In true Hingstonian fashion he manages to slip a rap lyric in there somewhere.
1. Your novel is called The Dilettantes. Ok, I give up. What is a Dilettante?
Technically, it’s a person who knows a little bit about a subject, but walks around as if they know a whole lot more. But the great thing about the word “dilettante” is that it’s exactly the kind of needlessly fancy-sounding word that dilettantes love to use: it’s French, uncommon, and difficult to pronounce. The trifecta, in other words.
2. The Dilettantes revolves around a student newspaper, ‘The Peak’ and the student journalists who run it. It’s described as a Campus Novel. What has been your experience with the campus novel previously and what was your approach to writing your own campus novel.
The campus novel is probably my all-time favourite mini-genre. It’s one of the rare corners of literary fiction where you’re allowed to be downright silly. I read Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim while I was in university and loved it — and from there quickly found others like Straight Man, Moo, and Nice Work. Lots of them are British. Some aren’t as funny (White Noise, for instance). I wanted to write a 21st-century version of the campus novel, using modern technology and also the very specific setting of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University as the backdrop.
3. Describe the process this book went through before getting published. From writing it, to stuffing it in a drawer, to right now.
It took three years to write, most of which was done on my lunch hour at my office job. Then 18 months of trying and failing to land an agent or publisher. Then, just as the book was on the verge of being thrown in that drawer forever, an agent offered to sign me. A few months later, I got the best email ever from Freehand, a great publisher in Calgary.
4. How do you think your time spent as a student journalist in University has influenced your work today as a columnist, book reviewer, and now novelist?
The weekly schedule was a really important thing to learn: at a certain point, you have to let go of whatever you’re working on. And if you hate it when you see it in print (which happens a lot), try to do better next week. The most important part of my writing process today, still, is finishing. That’s the only way to get enough distance and see the true value of whatever you’ve come up with.
5. As I just said, you are also a books columnist for a local newspaper and on your blog Too Many Books in the Kitchen you have countless book reviews. How many of your book reviews do you think are out there, either online or in print?
Oh, gosh. I don’t really know. More than a hundred. But probably less than 200. Say, 150?
6. You may not consider yourself a book critic as such but with your first novel coming out now you are in the unique position of having the tables turned on you. Are you planning on reading reviews of your book?
I have, I am, and I will continue to, yeah. I like reading reviews. It’s fascinating to see what lines and characters people glom onto, and as a fellow reviewer, I get a kick out of the behind-the-scenes machinery, too — seeing what phrases get lifted from the book’s jacket copy, etc. And it turns out I have slightly thicker skin than I’d have thought, too. Someone gave me one star on Amazon recently and I didn’t feel angry at all.
7. What do you look for in a book reviewer? Honesty? Optimal beard length? Perspicacity?
Hold on while I look up “perspicacity.” OK, I’m back. Definitely that one. That’s a good one.
8. On top of being a novelist and a book reviewer and columnist you are also a father to two young and (almost criminally) adorable children. How do you find the time to write? What is your schedule like?
As I mentioned above, it takes discipline. I still try to write in small chunks every day, whether that’s late at night or on my lunch breaks at work. The other day I read an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, where she quoted Goethe’s line, “Never hurry, never rest.” That sums up my approach 100%.
(And thank you for complimenting my children. Their adorable-ness has, unfortunately, rendered them illegal in Belgium. There go our vacation plans.)
9. Our old conceptions of a novelist involves a writer locked away in his study for hours with a bottle of brandy and carton of cigarettes or some Macbook-wielding hipster downing shot after shot of espresso in a coffee shop with a poorly protected WiFi password. I don’t see you fitting either of those molds. How has fatherhood changed your reading and writing habits?
It hasn’t fundamentally changed them, I don’t think, but it has condensed and sharpened them. You just have less time in the day with kids. They demand attention, and you’re happy to give it to them, because they’re great (that Belgium thing notwithstanding). But your options for recreation are limited. In fact, having kids is great for assessing your true priorities: I read and write for a few hours every day without thinking twice about it, but there was a period where I didn’t watch a movie for probably six months. Who’d have thought?
10. You’re about to embark on your first book tour. As someone who mainly writes about other writers, are you looking forward to talking about yourself for a change?
On one level, yes, absolutely. I love my book, and I want to tell people about it. At the same time, though, I spent so many years actively not talking about my book, because I was a little embarrassed by it. So I’m slowly trying to come to terms with the fact that it’s been published, and at least some people are interested in hearing about it. That’s a slow process. But I’m working on it. As the prophet Missy Elliott said, we’re all under construction.
The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston is published by Freehand books of Calgary via Broadview Press. You can learn more about it and purchase a copy right here.