What is The Meaning of Hockey and why do Canadians care so much about the sport? What is the connection between union organizing and writing fiction? Will a novel about a former star hockey player going through male menopause be of interest to feminists? Can a hockey novel really replace the NHL playoffs? These and other questions are answered as Yves Engler interviews his father Gary Engler about the online serialized (free) version of his novel that began Wednesday March 2 on the www.thetyee.ca web site. A new chapter will appear each Monday, Wednesday and Friday for sixteen weeks.
Yves Engler: Your novel is about Bobby Benoit, a former National Hockey League star with the Canucks, Bruins and Blackhawks, who returns to Vancouver to run a junior hockey team. He falls for a woman who is a feminist while he is trying to reconnect with a long lost son who is an anarchist.
Gary Engler: He’s a guy about to turn fifty, having a mid-life crisis.
Yves: He struggles to find meaning in his life by discovering his “philosophy” of hockey.
Gary: Bobby is like many, mostly male, Canadians for whom hockey is life -- in the sense that it is a complete world with its own economy, its own morality, competing philosophies etc. Bobby explores the world of leftwing politics but the only way he can make sense of his existence is through hockey, because that’s all he has. So, he develops this elaborate theory about what he calls “anarchist hockey.”
Gary: Well, I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s just say that Bobby comes to the realization teamwork is essential. All the great players make their teammates better. Wayne Gretzky was The Great One not because he was the best stickhandler of all time or the best skater or the toughest guy, but because he was the most creative player of all time. He understood the game in a way that meant he knew where the puck was going, where the play could be if he did this or that. Bobby realizes that the key to great hockey is unleashing the creativity of the players.
Yves: What does this have to do with politics?
Gary: A goal of all the great socialist thinkers and union organizers was to unleash the creativity of ordinary people. In the capitalist system working people are simply a means to an end, which is making a profit. I believe the essence of socialism is creating a world where the well being of all the earth’s people, and the earth itself, is the end we strive for.
Gary: My goals are to tell a good story, to entertain, and to present a view of the world that is not mainstream in order to get people thinking about whether the way things are is the way things must be. I’m interested in writing for ordinary people, for working class people. I want them to have a good time while reading my work. That’s the least I can offer.
Yves: Are you saying that to be subversive you must also be entertaining?
Gary: I believe to create real democracy we must have economic democracy. I believe that the notion a capitalist can “own” my labour is only one step removed from slavery. I believe that we can be individuals who are also part of a collective. I believe that the history of the organized working class has been one of fighting for an expanded democracy. These could be pretty “heavy” ideas or they can arise out of a story that is fun to read. I choose fun.
Yves: Not a lot of Canadian fiction seems aimed at ordinary people. Would you agree?
Gary: Unfortunately yes. “Popular” seems to be a dirty word in some literary circles. Elitism is rampant. A good story, heavy on narrative, is put down rather than praised. Yet that is precisely the sort of story that can attract a mass audience. I believe that literature can only be described as great if it connects with a mass audience. Otherwise it’s a niche product.
Yves: What if the mass audience doesn’t want to read anymore? If it prefers TV or video games?
Gary: If that’s true how do you explain the incredible popularity of Harry Potter? J.K. Rowling has made more money than any novelist in history. That demonstrates a huge appetite for good stories in precisely the age group that is supposedly not reading anymore.
Yves: Are you saying “political” novels could be massively popular if they are good stories?
Gary: Yes. Many of the most popular novels throughout history were political. Many of Dickens’ books, Zola’s, Gunter Grass, B. Traven, Orwell and on and on. One of the bestsellers of all time in the USA was a novel called Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Essentially it’s a utopian socialist/technocracy propaganda tract.
Yves: You worked as a journalist at the Vancouver Sun for 15 years. How was that different from writing fiction?
Gary: Who says there’s no fiction in the Canadian media? I went into journalism after doing creative writing at UBC and being a professionally produced playwright. I wrote sport features for quite a few years. You learn discipline and how to appeal to a mass audience. Those are good things.
Yves: You’re working as an organizer for your union (the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers — CEP) right now. Is your fiction writing connected to that?
Gary: It’s the lighter side of organizing. One of the saddest experiences I ever had as an organizer was a campaign that failed because a majority of the lowest paid workers thought they didn’t deserve a union -- their self-esteem was that low. How do you get to them? Not through facts and figures, but through their imagination. They need to believe in themselves.
A good story can help with that.
Yves: Your main character in this novel, Bobby Benoit, is a guy who has lived the male fantasy life of complete irresponsibility but finally has to confront reality as he approaches fifty. Do you think it is common for men not “to grow up” until they get that old?
Gary: You should direct that question to your mother. What you have to understand about many sports stars is that they have been famous from a very early age. Guys like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Lebron James have been at the centre of their particular universe since they were thirteen, fourteen or even earlier. Imagine what that does to your head. And yes, I think there is a “maleness” to this. It was fun to have Bobby fall in love with a Vancouver feminist. One of the ways I think of the story is as a feminist take on Pygmalion/My Fair Lady.
Yves: How to turn a sexist hockey pig into a perfect feminist gentleman?
Gary: Something like that. When I sat down to write the first version of the novel it was because of a conversation I had with a feminist friend from Seattle about the possibility of writing a novel about sports that a woman would buy for her husband but want to read herself first.
Yves: Why an online serialized hockey novel?
Gary: This has been a work in progress -- I sent a previous version around to a few publishers and got back strange notes like: ‘Great writing, but too mainstream for us’ and “We don’t do genre novels” -- still can’t figure out what genre this fits into. I finished the latest version a short while ago and while I was trying to figure out who to send it to, the NHL cancelled its season. It hit me that this novel is a perfect cure for hockey withdrawal so I sent it to The Tyee with the idea of running it during what would have been the last quarter of the NHL regular season and the playoffs. It’s a humanitarian gesture really, to help with the pain suffered by recovering hockey fans.
Yves: What are your thoughts on the NHL lockout?
Gary: Interesting how the rich capitalist owners don’t want a free market. Because it suits their immediate self-interest they want to impose “central planning” on the players.
Yves: Is there anything special about the online serialization itself?
Gary: I’ve put my email address at the bottom of each chapter and I am hoping to get a lot of reader feedback — sort of the literary equivalent to hockey fans cheering a nice hip check or booing a soft goal.
Yves: Final question, did you achieve what you set out to write?
Gary: The readers will be the judges of that. As I said, they get to boo or cheer just as if they were watching their favorite NHL team. If I score three good scenes in a row they can email me a picture of their favorite hat.
Yves Engler, a former Chilliwack Chiefs B.C. Junior League player, is the author of Playing Left Wing: From Rink Rat to Student Radical to be released by RED Press in September 2005. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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