Dave Hurlow in Profile …
It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m reading about an infamous literati from Halifax who also happens to be a lizard—a time travelling lizard who once, in a gamble of love and loss, got mixed into the Dreyfus Affair. So, to rephrase: it’s Sunday afternoon and I am intrigued.
The Lizard Man hails from Toronto-based Dave Hurlow’s first collection of short stories, Hate Letters from Buddhists. Hurlow also plays bass in The Darcys. Their second album, Warring, was released by Arts & Crafts in 2013 and was nominated for a Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year. Hate Letters from Buddhists is published by Steel Bananas Art Collective and will be available for purchase this September. I, however, was able to snag my copy during the Steel Bananas Publications Launch earlier this month. At the event, following a rally of deep-throated cat-calls, I witnessed Hurlow’s first-ever public reading. What occurred was a hilarious but self-conscious debut from an exciting new Canadian talent. Last week I was able to catch up with Hurlow and pose a few questions about his various projects.
Caryn Cathcart: As a long-standing musician but first-time author, what was your experience stepping outside the collaborative effort of a band?
Dave Hurlow: Playing in The Darcys, I’m responsible for the bass: keeping the low-end sounding good and working with our drummer to keep the jams running. I’m less involved with the creative process in terms of putting together the raw ingredients. When we hit the studio, I get a chance to shine, but I think of my contribution more in terms of craftsmanship than art. The live shows are really the most gratifying part of playing in the band because I get to send bass signal through massive sound systems and rattle the room plus everyone in it.
Over the years that I was working on Hate Letters from Buddhists it was great to have an individual artistic outlet outside of the band. At the same time it was incredibly stressful because the pressure to create rested on me alone. In the band, artistic conflicts can be vocalized, and hopefully resolved. Also, with The Darcys, the pressure’s not usually on me personally to produce the raw magic. With fiction writing, I had a lot of anxious, internal dialogues, which took their toll at times. By the end, I’d learned a lot about how to manage writing on a day-to-day basis without freaking out. I doubt there’s any one universal method, but for the moment I’ve figured out what works for me.
CC: At the launch you mentioned that writing Hate Letters from Buddhists took many years and some grinding effort from both you and your good friend, editor Curran Folkers. Although most editor-writer relationships are intimate by nature, what was your experience working with someone who was a friend first?
DH: Curran and I met because The Darcys played a Steel Bananas party at Sneaky Dee’s. I had a fractured bone in my hand at the time (don’t ask me how I played bass) and couldn’t load gear so I was sent ahead to make contacts. After I introduced myself, I sat at the bar drinking beer and reading Proust. Curran was interested in the Proust so we chatted a bit. The next year I wrote a bunch of pieces for Steel Bananas, mostly cultural essays and narrative non-fiction.
A year later I was house sitting for my parents, stoned, eating Hawaiian pizza, watching the original Planet of the Apes. Curran dropped by, we took a walk around the neighbourhood and I pitched him some of the stories. That was probably four years ago. Since then, as we slowly pieced together the collection, my favourite thing about Curran became his ability to talk me down when I’m freaking out because I think something’s not good enough or it’s never going to get finished. He’s got a great eye for what’s working and what’s broken.
Curran also researched the McEnroe Vs. Borg Wimbledon match to make the Lizard Man’s tennis obsession seem more legitimate. They’re both very much into tennis, Curran and The Lizard Man.
CC: Your protagonists are chiefly introspective young men navigating the various stages of a liberal arts degree. These characters are then placed against broad historical narratives. What, to you, is especially pertinent about the void between these monumental events and our mundane modern realities? Why did you choose magic and whimsy to navigate this territory?
DH: My initial instinct was to tell stories about young men based loosely on my own experiences, but I quickly realized that the characters’ issues were embarrassingly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. This was problematic. I picked out a couple of key historical episodes around which I could weave stories (Stalingrad, the Dreyfus Affair) and everything progressed naturally from there. The historical episodes are meant to counterbalance the mundane nature of the First World problem stories. Recently, my dad told me about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which, in terms of the disparity between Soviet Russia and North America, for example, is a quick and easy point of reference. Dan Carlin also does a great job of shedding perspective on the “our lives (North Americans) versus the lives of yore” debate on his Hardcore History podcast.
The magic realism stuff I threw in partially to mask how close to the truth some of the stories are and partially because I love comic books and Gabriel García Márquez.
CC: The interwoven nature of your stories help blend contemporary Canadiana with the more accessible historical narratives. Are you consciously trying to enlarge the literary mythology of Canada and her cities?
DH: I grew up in Toronto, took my undergrad in Halifax, and then The Darcys made a record in Montreal. I have a weird combination of nostalgic and current love for all three cities and wanted to give them equal play. At the same time, I was compelled to open the book up to the world at large, to moments from the past. This made it easier for me to include discussions about Canadian culture, having something to weigh it against. I didn’t want to weigh Canada against current affairs because making political statements in a narrative is tricky and you have to take it seriously and strike the right tone. With this collection, I wanted to include a bit of relevant commentary, but mostly I just wanted to have some fun.
I remember reading Russell Smith’s collection Young Men (which is mostly set in Toronto) when I was in high school, and I got such a rush from being able to visualize the scenes so vividly and pick up on specific cultural references. I’d be thrilled if my stories could do the same for readers.
CC: And now, the ever-looming question: What’s next?
DH: Hate Letters from Buddhists was a big project for me, especially considering it was my first time out, so my plans for the immediate future involve honing short, punchy stories. I have trouble keeping my word count down, so I think it’ll be a good exercise in discipline. There are a few ideas kicking around between some friends and I for collaborative projects (being cooped up in your room gets lonely). One involves a deeper mythologizing of Toronto and the other involves having some fun with the literary canon. I think I’ve got some novels in me down the line, but that’s exhausting to think about right now.