Skateboarding is a marginal but growing subculture across Canada. Even with city funding moving into skateboarding initiatives, the whole enterprise is indelibly branded as “subversive youth culture.” It’s difficult to avoid seeing skaters negotiate pedestrian-filled sidewalks in the summer months, but most people will do their best to avoid encounters with skater culture — in the name of personal safety, or something more instinctive, more normative.
Perhaps because of how it uncomfortably abuts — but never merges with — the status quo, it’s worth asking whether skateboarding culture contributes something vital to large-c “Canadian Culture.” Skaters almost by definition feel no need to defend a culture that is internally recognized as artistically legitimate to the larger community. And though skating has plenty of defenders, few of them speak from a position of normative cultural legitimacy — or better yet, straddle both worlds with ease. Michael Christie is one of the few.
A graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing MFA, Christie has published a collection of short stories, The Beggar’s Garden (2011), which earned a spot on the Giller prize longlist and the Writer’s Trust Prize shortlist, and won the Vancouver Book Award. His first novel, If I Fall, If I Die, was recently published with Hogarth. Christie grew up on the concrete of Thunder Bay, Ont. before moving to Vancouver, B.C. to work as a professional sponsored skateboarder for various skateboard companies. I spoke with him over the phone about the surprising overlaps between skateboarding and literary culture, urban spaces as sites of control and creative expression, and the risk of falling.
Julienne Isaacs: When did you begin seriously writing fiction — before or during your skateboarding career, or when you went to the University of British Columbia to study creative writing?
Michael Christie: I’m never sure what “serious” means in terms of writing. But I grew up steeped in storytelling and literature — my parents were both dedicated readers, and always encouraged me to write stories and draw comics and things. Throughout my skateboarding career, I made films with my friends, and eventually ended up writing articles for skateboard magazines. That was the first time I saw my work in print.
But I always had these secret literary aspirations that I never revealed to anyone, except perhaps to girlfriends. I was a “closeted” writer in many ways. With my skateboard career winding down, I was working at a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and was struck with the urge — or maybe just the courage? — to finally attempt some literary fiction. The first story I was ever actually happy with, enough to send out at least, was “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” which got me admitted to the University of British Columbia and eventually ended up in The Beggar’s Garden. Attending UBC was completely transformative for me. It was like discovering a new planet. Until then I’d never spoken to another human being about writing or literary fiction — it was just not present in the world I inhabited. I was so hungry to talk about books and writing and what it meant to be a writer; I didn’t miss a single day of class.
I still get requests now and then to write for skateboard magazines, and I do occasionally, but I try to focus my energies judiciously these days.
Do you consider skating an artistic pursuit?
This is a hotly debated topic in the skateboard community. There’s an ongoing push to see skateboarding in the Olympics, partially attributable to the heaps of corporate money thrown at it lately. But I doubt it will stick. I imagine skateboarding as closer to an art form than a sport. A kind of structured dance that’s enacted out there, situationally, in the world, rather than using some standardized obstacle course and scoring system. That’s what I’ve always appreciated most about skateboarding — its improvisational spirit, its adaptation to the urban landscape. There is something truly untamable about it. I mean we’re really talking about kids invading private property to film themselves jumping off some stairs aren’t we? How the hell could that be as marketable as football or something? It’s impossible. Besides, professional skateboarders never lend much credence to contests — other than as a way to earn some quick money. In many respects this is similar to literary prizes: they’re nice if you win them, but they aren’t the ultimate arbiters of a person’s merit.
Skateboard culture is widely considered to be anti-establishmentarian to a greater or lesser degree. Do you consider yourself to be anti-social? Do you see your writing as coming from within the culture or reflecting upon it?
As far as the clinical, DSM-V definition of anti-social personality disorder goes, I’m certainly not that, and neither are the vast majority of skateboarders. But part of what is so vital about skateboarding is this unshakable attitude of “I’m going to do what I want, as long as I’m not hurting anyone.” It’s a perspective that I treasure dearly. It’s not anti-societal or anti-kindness, more like a general challenge to accepted ideas about things like private property or even the idea of physical safety. When you’re 11 years old and you and your friends are jumping around on some utterly barren corporate architecture, having fun and making creative use of it, and a security guard comes and tells you to leave, and you ask, “Why? No-one’s here? We aren’t hurting anybody, what do you care?” — you’ve made a legitimate argument, I think. Skateboarders re-imagine public space in such interesting ways. The whole thing was born of the great resourcefulness of kids without much to do, who used skateboards to create a playground of the architectural landscape that surrounded them. Because what do poor kids in industrialized nations have plenty of? Concrete. It’s both a beautiful adaptation and a beautiful artistic statement. I try to keep that adaptive spirit in my personal life as well as in my writing life. If you don’t agree with a rule, you can just simply ignore it.
How do your skateboarding skill-set and writing skill-set intersect?
I wouldn’t want to overstate the relationship here, because, of course, most creative skill-sets are complimentary. Skills acquired as a painter or a carpenter, for example, are quite applicable to writing. However, skateboarding prepared me for the writer’s life in one major way: it’s entirely self-directed. There’s no coach. No teams. No score. No court or field or rink. Autonomy is a core tenet of skateboarding. And I’ve found writing to be similar. It’s entirely up to you. You’re charged with following your interests, chipping away at a project, trusting your intuition and admitting to yourself when things aren’t working.
Also, like skateboarding, writing can be terrifically frustrating and scary. In skateboarding there’s this thing called the “video part,” a short montage of the best tricks a skateboarder has performed over a long period. Video parts are incredible — they’re the novels of the skateboarding world, the standard measure of how good somebody is at what they do. People film a video part for years, injuring themselves in the process, and filming some more. So much work and effort and dedication goes into them it defies comprehension. So I suppose I know what it means to give everything to a project. I aim to replicate that spirit in my writing. I spent four years writing this novel, and threw out thousands of words, while I had two very young children and was working full-time. In a sense, it was like a private war. I think that dedication, or okay, obsession, I really honed as a skateboarder. A lot of people see skateboarders as masochists, but this is false. To skateboarders, the injury is just a road bump in the process. You simply get used to them. It’s like a heavy edit — throwing something out feels hard, but with some experience, you are convinced that everything will turn out okay in the end.
In what ways do skateboarding and creative communities intersect?
Skateboarding is a magnet for creative young people. Many friends I grew up with or met in the skateboard industry are now working in fields like the arts or advertising or design. And tons of folks got into videography through skateboarding early on, people like Mike Mills or Spike Jonze — who really embodies the skateboarder’s “let’s just have fun and make what we want” aesthetic. I look at Spike’s work and can see the skateboarders’ sensibility in it, especially his music videos. Or someone like Ryan McGinley who grew up skateboarding in New Jersey, and translated its youthful energy and DIY ethic into his photographs, becoming one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo show at the Whitney. Or Brett Anthony Johnston, who is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, a brilliant writer, as well as a dedicated skateboarder. Unlike formal sports, skateboarding nurtures creativity, rather than homogenizing it or disciplining it away.
In If I Fall, If I Die, when the protagonist, 11-year-old Will Cardiel, starts to learn to skateboard, he is literally “tenderized” by his efforts. Eventually he finds that once he has injured himself trying to execute a move, his fear of the move drops away. Is this how you deal with fear as a skater? There are some obvious parallels for writing, but the risks are different. Can you talk about the risks of “falling” as a writer?
Fear is a very useful emotion: I don’t believe we should all simply identify the most frightening thing there is and go out and do it. However, I do think it’s true that when you’re afraid to try something that is difficult but still doable, and you’re balanced on the question of whether or not to attempt it — to write that first page or to attempt a particular trick — this is a critical moment.
I was utterly paralyzed with anxiety when I first began to write literary fiction. You have no idea what the spills are going to feel like — getting a bad review, being rejected by a magazine — but when it happens it’s weirdly empowering. You become someone who can say, “I just got ten rejections, but I’m alive and I’ll keep going and I’m fine.” Anxiety and fear can be toxic to the creative process because they hem you in and prevent you from being brave, from sticking your chin out and taking shots.
After starting and abandoning a number of projects, my mind always circled back to the idea for If I Fall, If I Die. Every time I even considered it I experienced this zap of fear. It was like kryptonite to my imagination. The idea was too close to my life, too ambitious for me to tackle. I assumed nobody wanted to read about skateboarding in a literary novel, or agoraphobia, for that matter. But the more terrified I was, the more I wanted to face that fear. I often advise students that writing your way into something that scares you can produce your best work, your most human work.
I’m proud of the fact that in this novel I feel like I’m writing very sincerely and very dangerously. This book is based on my life. It’s about my mom. It draws heavily on my childhood. In a way, I’m sticking my chin out and could fall badly. To be able to do this, I have to be ok with the consequences.
In a 2011 interview about your first collection of short stories, The Beggar’s Garden, you said that short stories are “like a joke” because you have to immediately establish the characters and get in and out quickly. Which is your preferred medium — short stories or novels? If short fiction is about sudden entrances and judicious exits, long-form fiction requires writers to slow the pace. Was this slowing down a challenge for you with If I Fall, If I Die?
The transition from short to long fiction was difficult, but I think that if you get into a place where you don’t find the work difficult, you’re in trouble — you’ll start to repeat yourself or make only the expected gestures. In my writing, I like to be kind of a perpetual amateur. To have each project teach me what I need to know to create it.
Right now I’m working on another novel, a Depression-era story that is very different from my previous work, but shares some of the same elements of both The Beggar’s Garden and If I Fall, If I Die — marginalization, parenthood, mental illness, redemption. But I’ll no doubt return to short fiction eventually. I adore the form, and it always gives me the biggest blast of inspiration. The way Alice Munro can capture an entire life in 12 pages — it’s awe-inspiring when you consider just how difficult that is to pull off.
If I Fall, If I Die makes a point of challenging race and class barriers in Thunder Bay, Ont. It also highlights the lazy, selective attitudes that continue to taint Canada’s social systems (these children we will arduously search for if they go missing; these children we will half-heartedly search for). Can you talk about these themes and why it was important to you to layer them into the novel?
Capital “p” politics in literature is a no-no for sure. Any kind of didacticism or soap-boxing never fails to make me gag. That being said, the really interesting questions, the most dramatic situations, all that lasting stuff in literature, is political. It just has to be. Because like politics, these larger questions apply to everyone, whether they like to consider them or not.
So while I didn’t consciously set out to depict the problematic relationship between working class people and Aboriginal people in Thunder Bay, these themes just kind of developed naturally from the characters. One of the great aspects of skateboarding is its ability to braid kids together from diverse backgrounds. Growing up, my dad was a lawyer and we were relatively affluent in comparison to some, but skateboarding creates this wonderful leveling of the playing field. My friends and I were all out in the street all day, running from security guards, bleeding on the pavement, and this collective marginalization really knits you together.
The fact is that class and racial divides persist in Canada, just as the do in the US. And despite our better efforts, they’re not going away. In If I Fall, If I Die, Will’s best friend (and skateboard partner) is a Native kid named Jonah, a character that sang out to me to be written, and who is probably the character dearest to me in the book. So yes, I suppose that in this novel I was attempting to personalize and describe that lazy tendency of selective concern that you mentioned — how that in the eyes of law enforcement there are often some kids who are “worth” looking for, and some who aren’t.
Also, I was working in the Downtown Eastside during the Robert Picton trial and I knew some of the women who went missing and were later discovered to be murdered. When I traveled back to Thunder Bay, I would hear vile racist and derogatory remarks about them. And there were many young aboriginal kids going missing in Thunder Bay at that time, and the police didn’t seem to be quite as interested in finding them as they would be for White kids from the suburbs. This kind of thing just stabs me. I wanted to capture some of these systemic double standards in the book.
How necessary are urban spaces to you as a skater and as a writer? The notion of reclaiming forgotten or ugly urban spaces is important in If I Fall, If I Die — the skaters see these spaces as “sites of wonder.” What do you see when you look at urban spaces?
The Beggar’s Garden is very much about Vancouver, its diversity, its areas of decline, the broken promise of “the West Coast” as a place of personal re-invention, and the human toll that poverty takes. Some reviewers and readers read the collection as an indictment of Vancouver, but I didn’t write it with that intention. I think cities are fascinating in the way they simultaneously draw people together and drive them apart. The Downtown Eastside, Canada’s most impoverished neighborhood, is remarkable because it’s situated right beside some of the most expensive real estate in the world — the juxtaposition is surreal.
If I Fall, If I Die certainly didn’t begin as a treatise on the decline of Thunder Bay — the city’s decline and decay simply attracted my imagination when I moved back after a long absence. The Thunder Bay I remembered was vibrant, its schools were full, and I had these amazing memories, but when I returned I found my old school closed and everywhere was glaring evidence of the city’s decline. At one time Thunder Bay was going to be “Canada’s Chicago,” the shipping and industrial hub of the nation, and I find it both beautiful and sad how these great expectations can fail to pan out, and how people can still find life in the aftermath.
It’s like how Winnipeg was meant to be Canada’s Saint Louis, the “Gateway to the West.”
Exactly — it was almost like a great collective dream that went unrealized, and you have to wonder what’s the psychic fallout of that kind of failed aspiration.
I have been told by skater friends that architects and city planners often incorporate anti-skater infrastructure into buildings’ exterior spaces — “disciplinary architecture” or “architecture of control.” I’m interested in this silent conversation going on between the City and skateboarders. In what ways has this battle of wills influenced your writing?
Skateboarders call this “skate-stopping,” where nobs or other deterring architectural features are installed outside a skateboarder-frequented building in order to foil them. It’s a big business, actually, and there are specialized consulting firms dedicated just to this. It’s very similar to those anti-sleeping benches that have been appearing everywhere, which have a bar down the middle so the homeless can’t comfortably lie on them. But skateboarders fight back, of course. I’ve watched people pull battery-powered angle grinders from their backpacks and grind off those skate-stopper knobs in a few seconds.
But because of this disciplinary attitude, pro skateboarders regularly travel to places like Spain or France, where there’s a very different sense of public space, and very little skate-stopping. In North America, it’s assumed that if you’re young and outside and not under the direction of a coach, you’re a criminal or a gang member. But in Barcelona in particular, its marble plazas are thrumming with skaters who flock there for the public’s generous view of skateboarding and inclusive ideas about space and architecture. The museum for Contemporary Art in Barcelona, actually encourages skateboarders to practice there, because they recognize its artistic value. I remember once I was skateboarding in Lyon, and as my friends and I rolled past an old guy sitting in a café, he looked up to us, and said, warmly, “Salut jeunesse!” which translates to “Hello, youth!” I was stunned. I thought to myself: “Who in North America would ever say something like that?” That day I vowed to grow into a person as open-minded and kind as that man, no matter what hijinks the youth get up to.
Maybe it’s the skateboarder DNA in me, but even in my writing life, I’m very resistant to being told what I can’t do in terms of literature. I had a writing instructor get pretty prescriptive with my work early on, and I just basically ignored him. That kind of thing always makes me reach for the angle grinder…
Do you see your writing as creation or as a kind of reclaiming?
I don’t have any grand guiding philosophy for my work; but yes, I suppose my writing is an act of reclamation, or better — an attempt at redemption. I’ve always been interested in writing about marginalized people and the neglected or maligned nooks of our culture. It’s not because I think these topics are good for us, but rather because I think that the most human and vital stories are found in these places.
In terms of the actual creation of my work, I’m very much a collagist and a student of literature — I’m constantly referencing other books and I heavily draw upon other writers to solve particular problems. I see my work as an amalgamation of varying influences, stirred up in a pot with my own experiences and observations.
Are you comfortable with your dual writer-skateboarder identity?
I have a weird relationship with being the “writer-skateboarder guy.” I understand how it’s very interesting and unusual. Yet part of me resists the label. Labels in publishing are powerfully adhesive, and can limit you in terms of people’s expectations of your work. In a way, If I Fall, If I Die is my love letter to skateboarding, and also my break-up letter, my sendoff. But the other side of me recognizes that skateboarding has transcendentally affected my life. I am proud to be a skateboarder, proud to have grown up within that culture. It’s the foundation of why I’m able to be artist.
Julienne Isaacs is a writer, reviewer and editor based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her work has been published in The Winnipeg Free Press, The Winnipeg Review, The Globe & Mail, Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2) magazine, Whether magazine, The Rusty Toque, FreeFall magazine, Geez magazine and other bastions of culture. She is a staff writer for the Town Crier, an arms-length appendage of The Puritan magazine, and books editor for Rhubarb magazine.