Michael Christie is the author of If I Fall, If I Die, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, won the Northern Lit Award, and was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His collection of short stories, The Beggar’s Garden, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction, and won the Vancouver Book Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Globe & Mail. He holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia, and prior to his MFA, he was a sponsored skateboarder and travelled throughout the world skateboarding and writing for skateboard magazines. Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he now lives on Galiano Island with his wife and two sons. You can find him online at Michael Christie Dot Net. He’ll be presenting a workshop this Saturday at Mary Black; head to nowwwriters.ca for more details!
Shauna Kosoris: If I Fall, If I Die is about the son of a woman with crippling agoraphobia who starts to venture Outside of their house. Why did you write about this relationship, specifically from the son’s perspective?
Michael Christie: My mom suffered from agoraphobia while I was growing up. And Diane, Will’s mother in my novel, is partially based on her. I told much of Diane’s story from Will’s perspective because a child’s limited perspective of their parent’s behaviour is such a powerful and sad way for the reader to see them. I know from personal experience that any child of a mentally ill parent is very good at watching and observing, and Will is no different.
Your book is written from a third-person limited perspective. Did you try any other points of view before settling on this one?
That’s a very good question! Point of view is something that I talk about a great deal whenever I teach creative writing. And my first book, The Beggar’s Garden, featured a good mix of first and third person, told in both present and past tense. But for this novel, it seemed like the third person limited was the best choice. Perhaps, I suspect, because the first person narration of a ten year-old boy is very difficult to pull off, and could really wear the reader down over 300 pages.
Yes, I guess it would be. Why did you set If I Fall, If I Die in Thunder Bay, specifically in Port Arthur/County Park? Is that the area you grew up in?
Yes, you’re right, I did grow up in the Grandview area of Port Arthur, and much of the landscape of the novel is lifted from my own childhood: the culvert under the Expressway, the townhouses of County Park, Sir John A. Macdonald Public School, the grain elevators by the lake. I really wanted to capture that awe-inspiring beauty of Thunder Bay that I knew when I was growing up.
You definitely succeeded; I loved reading your elaborate descriptions of the area. You later moved to Vancouver partly to pursue professional skateboarding. Is this why skateboarding features so prominently in your novel?
It is. Skateboarding has always been a huge part of my life. It’s truly a beautiful artform, and I really wanted to do it justice and to describe that beauty in this novel, because I felt like no one had done it successfully. It’s also a great metaphor for Will’s journey out from the safety of his home into the dangers of the world.
Thinking of dangers of the world, why did you have the ending of the novel follow Will rather than his mother, Diane?
Another great question. I did have another chapter written from Diane’s perspective in the first draft of the book, but it really lacked narrative tension, and I felt like I could say everything I needed to say about the change that Diane undergoes through Will’s voice. I wanted the reader left wondering about Diane, and wanted to avoid any kind of easy resolution to what is a terrifically difficult problem for her to overcome.
So what are you working on now?
I’m writing another novel. It’s a family saga, told over 120 years. It’s been great fun so far. But I can tell it’s going to take me years to finish. Hopefully not 120.
Hopefully not! You write about people from many different walks of life, but seem to have a particular attraction to telling the stories of marginalized people (including the Aboriginal people in If I Fall, If I Die, and the crackheads and mental patients you write about in Beggar’s Garden). What attracts you to their stories?
I really don’t consciously set out to tell the stories of “marginal” people in my work, it’s more just that I find stories about people from all stations of society interesting. I mean, what is the purpose of literature anyway? To describe the lives of happy, healthy, well-adjusted people? Boring! But now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ve realized that I just love to attempt to demonstrate through my writing just how similar all of our human experiences are, no matter what our socio-economic station is.
Let’s finish up with a few questions about what you like to read. What book or author inspired you to write?
There are just so many. I was a huge reader growing up, which included Tolkien, Nancy Drew, Ray Bradbury, Beverly Cleary, Calvin & Hobbes, and a million others. But the first literary fiction that really blew me away and convinced me to give it a try was early Michael Ondaatje, books like Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
A book that I push upon everyone is Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. It’s a slim little novella, but one that conjures so much pathos and emotion in its few pages that I still can’t believe that a human being wrote it. Denis Johnson is perhaps my favourite writer of all time.
I’ll have to check it out! Finally, what are you currently reading?
I’m reading a book called The North Water by Ian McGuire, which is a brutally well-written novel about an ill-fated whaling voyage to the Arctic. Talk about unlikable characters! It’s a portrait of the very worst humanity has to offer. But it’s spell-binding nevertheless.