Jeremy Hanson-Finger‘s first novel, Death and the Intern, a mystery/black comedy set in the Ottawa Hospital, will be published by Invisible Publishing in April 2017. Born in Victoria, Jeremy co-founded the literary magazine Dragnet while living in Toronto. He now lives in Ottawa. His website is http://hanson-finger.com.
Jeremy told us a little about his upcoming book and his influences in the interview below, ahead of his Sept. 14 visit to Brockton Writers Series.
BWS: Have you ever worked in a hospital, or do you have any medical training/education? What’s it like to write about the technical side of an anesthesiologist’s life?
Jeremy: I’ve never worked in a hospital, but the novel is very much inspired by what I’ve learned about anaesthesiology from my friend Navraj. He was a medical student intern at the time I started writing Death and the Intern and is now a medical resident in Vancouver. The novel started from the premise “Navraj stars in a neurotic Fistful of Dollars set in a hospital”, but the character (Janwar) quickly grew to have a life of his own and the plot moved away from western and toward hard-boiled detective fiction. Navraj and I both loved biology in high school but he continued with it in university on the path towards his MD, and I pursued English and communications instead. As a result, whenever we connected, our lives were so different that things that seemed mundane to him were fascinating to me. When I told him I was writing this novel, he was more than happy to help advise me on what anaesthesiology and surgery were really like and even on drug interactions and dosages.
BWS: One echo a premise about an anesthesiologist might create: T.S. Eliot’s “patient etherized upon a table” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Is it just this intereviewer? Or is there a connection you could draw between that famous image and Death and the Intern? Is there something about such a metaphor that strikes you as especially relevant to our time/our literary moment?
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you mention it there are a ton of parallels between Janwar’s anxiety in Death and the Intern and Prufrock’s feelings of isolation and the burden of his undefined “overwhelming question”.
I read the “evening […] spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” as Prufrock’s conception of his environment—everything outside of his subjective self—pinned in place, star-distant, and immovable. That’s been part of my experience with anxiety, which I gave (cruelly) to Janwar. When I feel really anxious I feel like there are no actors other than myself. Everything else, including people I love, makes up a monolithic terrifying other, and I’m falling into an endless tunnel of stars.
The more I reread “Prufrock”, the more parallels I see. Maybe I should add it to the epigraph. Geez, Janwar’s even got a “bald spot in the middle of his hair” and his “arms and legs are thin.”
BWS: It may be that more attention than ever is being paid to the need for diverse voices in Canadian Literature: the hashtags #ThisIsCanLit and #DiverseCanLit, for example, or the recent, wildly successful Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton. The opening chapters of Death and the Intern were striking in that the cast of characters was incredibly diverse, which some might say isn’t so common in works by white, cisgendered, male authors. What does it mean to you to write diverse characters?
Jeremy: One reason for the diversity is that in urban Canada there are a lot of professionals of varying backgrounds in hospitals, including first-generation immigrants who worked in medicine in the country they left as well as second-generation immigrants whose parents worked really hard so that their kids could have good careers in Canada. So that part of it is verisimilitude. Another reason is just that I’d rather live in a diverse world, and writing about a diverse world for four years is kind of living in it.
I guess there are at least a couple of ways to write progressively about diversity as a cisgendered white man. One is to take the James Ellroy approach and show a bunch of cisgendered white men saying awful things about and doing awful things to minorities of all kinds, because that’s still a large part of how the world works. The other is to write a world where people of many races and orientations interact and it isn’t a big deal. Like, I love how the premier of Ontario is a homosexual woman and nobody cares about her gender or her sexual orientation; they care about the gas plant fiasco. They take issue with her character and behaviour, not the labels “queer” and “woman” which is a lot more egalitarian and how people should be judged.
I did worry that when I was writing minority characters, I was taking stories that didn’t belong to me, but in the end I feel comfortable with the way I have handled it because I don’t think my characters’ races or orientations define them.
BWS: I had a hunch you couldn’t get through an interview without saying “Ellroy”. But you also wrote your master’s thesis about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. What draws a writer with a literary formation like yours to crime fiction? What have you learned about the genre from Ellroy or other crime fiction masters, and what might writers working in any other genre learn from reading him/them?
Jeremy: I’ve always loved detective fiction. I even turned my walk-in closet in my childhood room into a detective’s office at one point, possibly inspired by this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:
Whether that’s true or not, I do remember loving that cartoon. I also got the Collected Cases of Dick Tracy out from the library over and over again. I recently bought a copy. I was into other genres too besides mystery—my favourite authors for a long time were Douglas Adams (sci-fi) and Terry Pratchett (fantasy). I didn’t really start reading contemporary lit until Grade 11, when I took a writing class with Terence Young and he introduced me to literary writers like Ann Patchett. So I think I’ve just always brought a genre sensibility to my writing—and specifically crime. It’s fun to play with an existing set of rules that people recognize, because you can break them in interesting ways.
As for James Ellroy, he is amazing at plot and world-building. I believe I read somewhere that the plot notes Ellroy took before writing The Cold Six Thousand were significantly longer than the book itself. Anyone can learn from him in terms of plotting.
What he writes can be labelled “crime fiction,” and you can look at each individual book as having some sort of revelation and resolution, but his major achievement is the way that all of his work fits into the same world.
Ellroy’s books take place in a semi-fictionalized version of history that follows cruel men with cruel dreams throughout L.A. in the 1950s, across America, Cuba, Vietnam, and Haiti in the 1960s, and, in his newest book, L.A. during World War II. Ellroy’s lifelong project fits into the same encyclopedic tradition as Moby Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow—they attempt to document the essence of an era. And it seems like what Ellroy is saying about our era is that every aspect of contemporary America is built on some form of dehumanization (credit for that idea goes to Andrew Battershill).
BWS: Thanks so much for this, Jeremy!
Jeremy Hanson-Finger visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Madhur Anand, Shane Joseph, Phoebe Wang and a special guest talk, “Best Practices for Grant Writing”, by Toronto Arts Council Interim Dance & Literary Officer Natasha Powell.