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Politics and writing in the time of COVID-19

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Image: Suzy Hazelwood/Flickr

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is a bright cold day in April and clocks are striking 13. You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

Gary and Yves Engler, father and son authors, discuss being funny, being serious, cancelled book tours, exploding sacred myths, pandemics, their latest books and writing in the time of COVID-19.

(This conversation has been edited, because that's what happens to writers.)

G: How are you feeling about your tour for House of Mirrors -- Justin Trudeau's Foreign Policy being cancelled?

Y: It's a pretty big financial hit, especially if we can't make it up in the fall. Tours are a big part of my income.

G: Other than that how is COVID-19 treating you?

Y: Weirdly it's actually been pretty good. I’ve been making great progress with my new book because there's nothing to do except research and write. Grandma care has rescued us from the daycare shutting down and I withdrew a dozen books about Haiti from the Bibliothèque Nationale the day before it closed to the public. How about you? How do you spend your days stuck alone in Saskatoon?

G: Like you, at first I found social distancing to be very conducive to writing. I scrambled to get  Don Cherry is Fired, A Puck Hog has a Nervous Breakdown and Learns to Play Feminist, Anarchist Hockey published in record time. It's now available as an e-book on Amazon and I'm hoping all those hockey fans who miss the Stanley Cup playoffs will switch off the reruns and read it.

Y: That's got to be the strangest title for a novel ever. Although it does pretty much describe the book. Anarchism, feminism and hockey, who would have thought you could combine all three in one story?

G: It took a long time to get it just right.

Y: Wasn't I playing junior hockey when you started writing the book?

G: Thanks for rubbing it in. Actually I was still working in the Vancouver Sun sports department so you were probably in bantam (14-15 year-olds).

Y: You've been working on a book for 25 years? Boggles the mind!

G: I was doing other things -- journalist, union rep, four other novels, two non-fiction books. Not everyone can pump out a book a year. Especially ones that require extensive research. The new one you're working on, what will that be?

Y: Thirteenth. My 12th is a history of the military, Stand on Guard For Whom? -- A People's History of the Canadian Military, that comes out in the fall.

G: And an article every week. Your whole life, since the age of three, when you liked something you did it, never tiring. You loved numbers and counting and you were wired on that before discovering hockey. That was the biggest thing in your life until 19. Then you just stopped. A few years later Canadian foreign policy piques your interest and you've been wired on that ever since. From hockey to writing and researching, no one saw that coming.

Y: The more you learn, the more you understand what you don't know. School, you, Mom, everyone told me Canada was generally a force for good in the world but when I started looking, the details didn't add up. You start questioning. Do you remember a coffee mug you had that said "Question Everything" on its side?

G: I do. Everyone at the Sun got one when the newsroom moved from Granville Street to the waterfront.

Y: Well I started questioning everything about what Canada was up to around the world. What I found was rather than being motivated by "doing good" our foreign policy mostly supported the British then American empires and the interests of corporations and wealthy people. That's the truth discovered when I question everything.

G: Strange. A quest for truth, that's what motivated me to turn from journalism to fiction. What journalism uncovers is too shallow. Like fact checking what Donald Trump says. It's necessary, but what about getting at the truth of why 45 per cent of Americans voters actually like and support their president.

Y: You're saying fiction gets at that better than journalism?

G: Yes. My Fake News mysteries -- American SpinWar on Drugs and Misogyny -- get closer to describing reality in the Donald Trump era than you'll find in newspapers. Fiction allows you to describe how people are feeling, what they're thinking, self-doubts -- pieces of human experience that seldom make their way into the news.

Y: Sorry, I'm calling you on that one. This interior truth is no way near as important as objective reality. Why has Canada been trying to undermine the Venezuelan government for at least a decade? To answer this question requires facts, not fiction.

G: My fiction aspires to much more than just "interior" truth. I'm after "Truth" with a capital T. Like 1984 and Animal Farm about totalitarianism, or Catch 22 about war. Joseph Heller was able to tell more truth in a novel about the experience of military life than all the reporting about the Second World War. Look, I agree good journalism is critically important, but so is fiction that entertains and helps us make sense of the world.

Y: Most people are finding that hard right now.

G: With lots of time at home maybe more people will begin to question everything.

Y: Or meekly accept everything their government is telling them.

G: That's why I wanted to write a novel combining sports and politics. And the Fake News Mysteries. We need to reach people who enjoy escapist fiction and those who watch hockey in order to counter the pro-capitalist narrative that is everywhere. To get the truth out, to build economic democracy, to create an alternative vision of how we can organize society we must talk to as many people as possible, not just to those who already agree with us.

Y: In theory, in the long run, I agree with you, but my experience has been that the first step is to target as many of the existing dissidents as I can with my writing. Once "the left" is onside with understanding the problems of imperialism, capitalism and nationalism, then we can more effectively go after a wider audience.

G: You don't think "the left" understands nationalism, capitalism and imperialism?

Y: No, unless you define "left" very narrowly. Most people who consider themselves socialists or who dislike capitalism are fooled by appeals to support "their" country, "their" military, "their" leaders. They are told over and over and over again that "we" are the good guys and that countries "over there" are the "bad guys." The rich and powerful have been dividing and conquering us for an awfully long time. It won't stop until we build a powerful enough international movement of people who understand how this bullshit oppresses us.

G: Do you think the current pandemic will be good or bad for international understanding and solidarity?

Y: Who knows? Both the broad left and the broad right are divided on the question of nationalism versus internationalism.

G: We can't let the right own the idea that we must look after ourselves, because we should. Communities everywhere should be as locally self-sufficient as possible. The pandemic has illustrated that very clearly.

Y: Sure, but we can't fall into the trap of only looking after ourselves. Of making the "other" our enemy. We need to apply something as simple as a modified golden rule to the entire planet. "What we want for ourselves we must work towards for everybody."

G: Surely COVID-19 makes the necessity of that much clearer. It really does prove we live in one world.

Y: So you are an optimist

G: Pessimism has never made sense to me.

Y: What are you working on now?

G: It's called Love and Capitalism in the 21st Century, something I started over 20 years ago. It spans the time from the dot com boom to today. This pandemic has given me the perfect ending.

Y: So you're happy that COVID-19 has kept you home alone in your basement office typing away on your laptop creating the next great Canadian novel?

G: Happy? No. Being alone writing is great for about four or five hours a day. But then you miss human contact. Even writers need some of that.

Image: Suzy Hazelwood/Flickr

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