This week on The Chat, we’re in conversation with Brett Josef Grubisic. His novel From Up River and For One Night Only follows the lives of four dreamy, music-loving teenagers living in the fictional community of River Bend City in BC’s Fraser Valley in the early 1980s.
Writing in Quill & Quire, Becky Robertson says “rich in language and metaphor, From Up River and for One Night Only tells a very specific coming-of-age story, highlighting how the characters’ small-town adolescence is representative of human life and dreams.”
Brett Josef Grubisic is a lecturer of English literature residing in Vancouver. He is the author of the novels The Age of Cities and This Location of Unknown Possibilities. Previous publications include Understanding Beryl Bainbridge, Contra/diction, Carnal Nation (co-edited with Carellin Brooks), American Hunks (co-authored with David L. Chapman), National Plots (co-edited with Andrea Cabajsky), and Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase (co-edited with Giséle M. Baxter and Tara Lee).
THE CHAT WITH BRETT JOSEF GRUBISIC
Trevor Corkum: How was From Up River and For One Night Only born?
Brett Josef Grubisic: In several stages, I have to admit. Detailed planning isn’t a trait I can rely on.
With The Age of Cities, my first novel, I’d taken a preliminary look at BC’s (real) Fraser Valley and its (imaginary) River Bend City in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Returning to it some two decades later struck me as necessary, as though I hadn’t quite finished with the town the first time. Plus, I wanted to explore how a place can change (or not) with influential external forces bearing down on it—the straight and gay sexual revolutions, Women’s Lib, disco!
There were autobiographical impulses as well, since in the new novel I was drawing on parts of my own adolescent experiences in the Fraser Valley. A close friend who has more than a passing resemblance to Gordyn sent me a photo from a Punk and New Wave-themed basement party at his house circa 1980 (part of which became the book’s front cover). It all looked so familiar and yet so remote—the naivete, the fashion (and eyeliner), the utter confidence—that I felt compelled to revisit it.
Sadly and unexpectedly, while working on a late revision of the novel in 2014, my younger sister (who Em is founded on) was struck by a car outside of her house on Vancouver Island. She died as a result. When I returned to writing, my grief (the whole gamut, but especially disbelief, anger, and regret) re-formed the whole novel’s tone. It grew darker in ways and certainly less affectionate about both place and adult caregivers (like parents and teachers). Grief, in my case, made me seek something to blame, to pinpoint a cause even if that meant going backwards three decades. I think some of that turbulent emotion slipped into the story.
Grief, in my case, made me seek something to blame, to pinpoint a cause even if that meant going backwards three decades."
TC: Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” As you worked on your book, what emerged as the statue—the energy, the mood, or the main theme/question you wanted to explore?
BJG: The basic story was pretty simple and represented a kind of "What if?” fantasy: what if the irreverent people (that we appeared to be) in that party photograph had actually been more driven to realize a dream at any cost? And how, given actual constraints and limitations, could they have achieved it?
What if the irreverent people (that we appeared to be) in that party photograph had actually been more driven to realize a dream at any cost?"
In reality, my family life was depressingly argumentative, chronically dysfunctional, and borderline disastrous; both my sister and I barely finished high school and became very inward, sunken, surly, and underachieving for a time as a result. Looking back at that time, I wasn’t much interested in telling that particular story. Too real. And I wanted fiction, besides, not memoir. If, though ... if we’d had the wherewithal to say, like the novel’s characters do, “Fuck you” to rules and limitations and conventions, and expectations ... that’s the story I aimed to explore.
TC: One of the book’s most impressive feats is your success in mining the reality of small-town Canadian life from the point of view of outcast, dreamy, ambitious teenagers. You’ve said in other interviews that your own hometown of Mission, BC, inspired the setting for River Bend City. How did you go about building your fictional world? Was it important to you to replicate the specific details and energy of Mission in the early 1980s? Or did you begin with Mission as a template and then fictionalize it as you wrote?
BJG: My family lived on Hatzic Island and in Mission several times starting from the time I was in elementary school. We moved outside the Fraser Valley several times, too, when divorce or death or financial problems dictated we do so. So even though Mission was just one of my hometowns, it’s the one that’s most vivid in my memories.
And mentally exploring its geography, I always seem to find more. It’s like an endless junk shop.
At the very last pages of Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro’s narrator talks about wanting, as a writer, to make a list to capture “every last thing” of her hometown, and when I’ve written about Mission, the more time I spend remembering its aspect—in From Up River, for example, the waterbed shop, the drag strip, the decrepit barn containing boxed pornographic magazines—the more there is to depict.
That said, there’s all sorts of stuff—roadside prostitution, for example, and drug mule work for the local motorcycle gangster—that came from nowhere but my imagination. Fiction, in my thinking, has no ethical obligation to record facts.
TC: The novel explores the burgeoning identities of four young characters—Gordyn, Jay, Dee, and Em. Their gender and sexual identities in particular prove to be quite fluid, and there’s a very realistic tension between their inward emotional lives and how they choose to present themselves to others. Can you talk more about this tension between internal “truth” and the presentation or performance of identity, and why it’s so important to your work?
BJG: We all fabricate and lie, and my guess is that adolescents do so exceptionally often. I designed and sewed outfits for my younger sister when I was in grade 7 or so (which meant she was in grade 4, and already we were planning glamorous nights out at discos in New York City!). Anyhow, we both understood that if my father had found out—a "fruity" son sewing evening wear, a daughter "acting like a whore"—there would have been a storm of trouble. So we lied.
Anyhow, we both understood that if my father had found out—a "fruity" son sewing evening wear, a daughter "acting like a whore"—there would have been a storm of trouble. So we lied."
We learned early that lying was a means of realizing or attaining what we wanted and needed.
The kids in From Up River craft huge and minor lies all the time because what the world—school, home, River Bend City society—allows or validates is X and they all crave Y. Their choice is to capitulate to dominate culture, bide their time till they leave, or, simply, lie their way into victory.
It’s like lying is a way of cheating a game that is already tilted in favour of the house. It’s a way, for them, of rebalancing the situation for their favour. It also gives them the opportunity to get what they know they need.
TC: Finally, music plays such a critical role in the novel. We’re treated to a wide range of musical genres, from punk to New Wave—even opera and a little Patsy Cline. Imagine you’re hitting the road with Gordyn, Jay, Dee, and Em. Where do you go? What music serves as your soundtrack? What do you argue and talk about, and what do you learn from the gang?
BJG: It’s funny to imagine. In 1980, they’re one thing. By 2015, the year the novel ends, they’re altogether something else. It’s as though they’ve kept the same names but swapped everything else—careers, plans, dreams, and even characteristics.
For the gang circa 1981, though, they’d have wanted to take a Concorde somewhere cosmopolitan and then planted themselves at a nightclub like the Blitz in London. Realizing how tight money was, though, they’d have taken a road trip, listening to Visage, Moev, Devo, and the B-52s and anticipating a cool big city where they’d be free to be what they wanted.
Of course the little sisters would complain about the boys being queer dictators and the older brothers would regret how immature the girls were. What’s family without squabbling, right?
Excerpt from From Up River and For One Night Only
Venture: Shoot II / November
On her first walking tour of the family’s brand new, government subsidized, and capital D-shaped neighbourhood, which also turned out to be the last, Delphine had whispered about, or pointed accusingly at, a landscape of eyesores—littered squares of unkempt lawn belonging to Neanderthals too lazy to haul junk (recliners, car motors, and warped particleboard scraps) to the municipal dump or to pick up after the scruffy mutt; long-parched junipers that sat russet and dismal in plastic buckets on concrete stairways; a painted Santa and sleigh of plywood sprawled and gathering moss on an asphalt shingle roof; an unhinged railing; a peeling curbside baseball. “A ‘planned community,’” she’d quipped. “As opposed to what?”
The gist of her overall findings, a report card, came in a muttered line at a fence post capped with a doll’s head: “D for dump.” Knowing his wife, Edmund didn’t bother rustling together a jokey retort.
At the close of the circuit she’d grimaced at a bent aluminum TV antenna heaved into the streamlet that ran behind the back fence. “What is with these people?” Back and forth she rubbed a fretful thumb along the opposite palm.
Trashy neighbours lacking the bare minimum of pride made her blood boil, she’d announced in three provinces, and they alone gave her ample reason to keep busy indoors. The dumbfounding fact of an entire subdivision built on a slope and the position of their house at its base irked her too, as though slob outlooks, wall-to-wall indifference, and plastic doll parts would creep downward and pool around their meantime home, offensive as sewage.
Reprinted with permission of the author.