Author Tags: Fiction, Non-Fiction
An English teacher at UBC, Brett Josef Grubisic has published on a wide assortment of subjects, such as the history of male beefcake art and dystopian literature. He has also edited Contra/Diction: New Queer Male Fiction and co-edited Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions with Carellin Brooks.
As an editor at New Star Books, Brooks encouraged Grubisic to write his debut novel, The Age of Cities (Arsenal, 2006), a coming-of-age story about a male librarian from a small town in the 1950s who goes to the big city in 1959. His accidental discovery of a gay subculture is framed by a contemporary analysis by a modern editor named A.X. Palios. This experimental novel involves the discovery of a manuscript inside a hollowed-out home economics textbook. "I was skeptical about historical fiction and its usual posture of representing historical actuality in good faith," Grubisic has commented. Hence he has "destabilized" that aspect of the narration. The novel nonetheless resonates as a reflection of gay culture in Vancouver. The Age of Cities was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize.
The black comedy This Location of Unknown Possibilities (Now or Never 2014) by Brett Josef Grubisic is not the first novel to arise from the B.C. film industry, and it won’t be the last, but it could be the funniest. When an English professor named Marta agrees to serve as a consultant for a week-long, low-budget, bio-pic film shoot in the Okanagan, she only expects the gig will give her a few stories to tell from the shoestring end of a billion-dollar industry. She is taken aback by her boss, the handsome cynic Jake Nugent, who is an unforgettable, smooth-talking and ingenious Hollywood North rascal accustomed to the shoot dynamics in remote sites. Script changes (massive), on-set mishaps (minor) and after-hours hi-jinks (many) lay the groundwork for Grubisic to evoke “the profound foolishness of the human heart.”
According to promotional materials, "In telling the story of disgruntled English professor Marta Spëk’s star-crossed week of employment on a low-budget made-for-TV movie, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, his sophomore novel, offers a mini-series worth of satiric jabs at two of BC’s economic heavy-hitters, universities and film production. When English Professor Marta Spëk is offered a film consultant’s contract, she’s fighting a bad case of year-end doldrums. She signs on, imagining that exotic hands-on work at the sandy location shoot for a made-in-Canada biopic will open doors of opportunity and spark her creativity—or at the very least supply interesting material for her family’s annual Labour Day gathering. Meanwhile, her soon-to-be boss, the handsome cynic Jake Nugent, who’s well experienced with shoot dynamics in remote sites, hopes only to stamp out inevitable problems before they swallow the budget and cost him a job. Script changes (massive), on-set mishaps (minor), and after-hours misadventures (many) guarantee that Marta and Jake won’t easily forget this week in the Okanagan Valley. A wry look at the shoestring end of a billion-dollar industry and the occasional but profound foolishness of the human heart, This Location of Unknown Possibilities makes a case for black comedy being the best lens for viewing contemporary life."
Grubisic is also the author of the cultural studies book American Hunks: The Muscular Male Body in Popular Culture: 1890-1970 (Arsenal, 2009), with David L. Chapman. His other edited books are Contra/diction: New Queer Male Fiction, Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fiction (co-edited with Carellin Brooks), National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada (co-edited with Andrea Cabajsky) and a scholarly book, Understanding Beryl Bainbridge.
From his website: "Had someone asked me about my future plans at this age (6 or so) and place (my uncle’s farm in Grand Forks, B.C.), I would likely have said, “I dunno.” If pressed, I’d have answered, “A cowboy” even though I was afraid of horses and didn’t really know how a cowboy spent his time besides wearing chaps, firing a gun, and riding around on the range while wearing a cool hat. Within months, my answer would have broadened to include a spy, an archeologist, an explorer, and a hobo (that last occupation was hazy in my mind, but I figured it involved wandering freely through the countryside, eating around campfires, and catching rides in boxcars).
"At age 9, and at the beginning of my father’s second marriage (of three), my mind began to race with career schemes that were exotic, although both improbable (an assassin, a burglar, a jewel thief, etc) and fantastical (a fashion designer). A couple of years later, the shift was towards the practical (a dentist), which in retrospect was equally far-fetched.
"Because I was an exceptionally shy and stubborn child, my parents allowed me to read in solitude when the family socialized with friends and relatives. I’d carry a book with me, find a quiet corner, turn my back to everyone, and immerse myself in whatever story struck my fancy. As a method of overcoming shyness, voracious reading was not at all effective. But as a early indicator that I might end up in a career which entails reading and writing and talking about books, this childhood behaviour seems a wildly accurate prediction."
Along with UBC English instructors Gisele M. Baxter and Tara Lee, Brett Josef Grubisic has edited an anthology examining dystopian literature produced by North American authors between the signing of NAFTA in 1994 and the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in 2011 for Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dsytopian Literature (Wilfrid Laurier University Press $48.99). While including references to the works of Margaret Atwood and Joseph Campbell, the collection opens with an essay by Janine Tobeck called The Man in the Blue Suit: Searching for Agency in William Gibson's Bigend Trilogy. There's also an essay by Robert McGill about fiction from Douglas Coupland called The Sublime Simulacrum: Vancouver in Douglas Coupland's Geography of Apocalypse; an essay about Lisa Robertson by Paul Stephens called The Dystopia of the Obsolete: Lisa Robertson's Vancouver and the Poetics of Nostalgia; as well as Sharlee Reimer's essay on Larissa Lai called Logical Gaps and Capitalism's Seduction in Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl.
Contra/Diction: New Queer Male Fiction. Editor.
Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions. Co-editor with Carellin Brooks.
National Plots: Historical Fiction and Changing Ideas of Canada. Co-editor with Andrea Cabajsky.
Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dsytopian Literature (Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2014) $48.99 978155459890
Understanding Beryl Bainbridge
The Age of Cities (Arsenal, 2006)
American Hunks: The Muscular Male Body in Popular Culture: 1890-1970 (Arsenal, 2009), with David L. Chapman.
This Location of Unknown Possibilities (Now or Never, 2014) 978–1–926942–60–5
[BCBW 2014] "Fiction"
From Up River and For One Night Only
from Carellin Brooks
From Up River and For One Night Only by Brett Josef Grubisic (Now or Never $21.95)
Brett Josef Grubisic’s third novel, From Up River and For One Night Only, was partially inspired by his hometown of Mission in the Fraser Valley. As in his first novel, Mission is fictionalized as River Bend City.
“I have ambivalence about Mission,” he says, “but I realize that I routinely return to it to gripe about it, and I thought that would be an interesting space to explore.”
As a professor of English literature at UBC, Grubisic regularly teaches Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. “That book ends with a kind of manifesto about how one should represent one’s hometown,” he says, “and she uses a lot of words like accuracy and so forth.
“The character who’s the writer [in Lives of Girls and Women] rejects an early version of her novel which is filled with exaggeration and caricature. I realized the idea of how one represents one’s past through fiction was something I wanted to explore.”
Grubisic’s first novel, The Age of Cities (Arsenal Pulp 2006), was partially set in River Bend City in the early 1960s, before he lived there. It tells the story of a closeted gay teacher who lives with his mother and first visits Vancouver in 1959. During his brief forays into the big city, he accidentally discovers a gay subculture. This experimental novel involves the discovery of a manuscript inside a hollowed-out home economics textbook.
Set two decades later, From Up River is about four teens with a dream to make it big as musicians. We follow the main character Gordyn—with his name self-respelled—as he serendipitously wanders into the Granville Street record wonderland of Phantasmorgia and looks for ‘45 records from early punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. The record employees are black-lipped and spike-haired.
That territory is familiar to Grubisic from his own teens. Typical trips to the big city were going to Eaton’s and window shopping, until he discovered the music store, as Gordyn does in the novel.
“It was a whole world we never knew existed,” says Grubisic. “The people in it are far more adventurous then you’d ever dream of being, but you recognize something in them. A desire to be out of the ordinary.”
These days Grubisic still seeks out music from new bands such as The Knife, St. Vincent and Ladytron. “My taste in electronic has remained constant—basically sythn pop, but more edgy,” he says. “Discovering something you didn’t know existed, like new music, it changes you.”
From up river has four main characters—siblings Gordyn and Dee, and their two friends, also siblings, Jay and Em—who all must solve numerous problems to form the band of their imagination. The intrepid but not exactly talented teens must come up with songs, lyrics, musical ability, access to instruments, places to play and a name.
“There’s a lot of autobiography and a lot of fiction,” says Grubisic. “For example, I never played in any band, New Wave or otherwise, but there were two sets of brothers and sisters in my real life.
“The characters are several steps removed from reality. There was no drug running, no prostitution,” he says, alluding to some of the novel’s more lurid and unexpectedly hilarious episodes.
Grubisic’s sister, Meesha Grubisic, died unexpectedly in 2014. In the novel, Jay’s sister Em also dies as an adult, leading to Jay and Dee reconnecting.
“My novel was close to being finished when my sister was hit by a car,” he says. “The writing after that changed the novel into something more serious. At the time of my sister’s death, I was drawn to the idea of finding a source to blame [for the tragedy]. The more I thought about Mission and my father, the more I thought that if they hadn’t existed, she wouldn’t have died. The rewriting started dealing with that. The novel became darker. The portrayal of Em’s father became less generous.”
The book’s cover shows three teens of the 1980s, including a boy sporting eyeliner, shoulder pads and big hair. Originally the novel would have ended in 1981, but rewriting the story after his sister’s fatal accident took the novel beyond nostalgia for an era. Grubisic’s experience of cleaning out his sister’s house with her friends after her death gave rise to a similar scene in the novel.
Whereas From Up River has reflections of the B.C. music scene, Grubisic’s second novel, This Location of Unknown Possibilities (Now or Never, 2014) highlights the general absurdity of the movie-making process. It follows a bemused professor to the Okanagan where she has been hired to serve as a history consultant for a period film. The somewhat prim professor thinks she will be getting an important role on the set as well as an interesting story to tell about how she spent her summer. Alas, the projected film is almost immediately discarded, morphing instead into a steam-punk mash-up of the Victorian era, complete with the discovery of a crashed alien spacecraft in the desert and evil aliens for the movie’s busty lady explorer and her wimpy doctor sidekick to battle.
All three novels share a satirical streak. “I can’t do sustained sadness,” Grubisic says. “I just don’t have that quality in my own experience of life.” To a suggestion that he’s somewhat dour, Grubisic replies, “I’m as pessimistic as any writer, but I also have a large amount of optimism. And I think that optimism comes out in comedy.”
Grubisic is now planning one more novel to be set in River Bend City, which will complete a loosely-based Mission trilogy, marking another return to a place he wanted to get away from.
Carellin Brooks is a Freudian scholar, a Wreck Beach historian and a Vancouver Public Library trustee.