“The Peak: a university newspaper with a hard-hitting mix of inflammatory editorials, hastily thrown-together comics and reviews, and a news section run the only way self-taught student journalists know how — sloppily.”
So begins the tagline for Michael Hingston’s debut novel The Dilettantes, the latest take on the campus novel which takes place inside the offices of SFU’s very own student newspaper.
Hingston, a freelance journalist and weekly columnist for The Edmonton Journal, is a former Peak editor himself, and remembers his days at the paper with equal parts fondness and embarrassment. “I’m not able to distinguish my time at The Peak from my time at university,” he recalls. “It was really linked for me.”
The novel, which has received glowing reviews from such publications as Quill and Quire and The Winnipeg Review, centers around Alex and Tracy, two of The Peak’s editors who are forced to contend with a pesky daily, Metro, stealing their already dwindling readership. Hingston wrote the novel partly as a tribute to his experiences at the paper.
“I wanted to come up with some way to crystallise that experience, so I wouldn’t just forget it, because I knew it was a unique time in my life,” he says. “Pretty late into my degree, a couple of months from graduating, I had this realization that I’d subliminally been gathering this material, living out this really strong story.” He also cites the university as being central to the book’s appeal. “I think the campus and the culture at SFU is really interesting, and I find it more interesting the further I get away from it.”
Having graduated in 2008 with a degree in English Literature, Hingston began his career in journalism as a freelance writer for a variety of publications in Edmonton. His work has since appeared in The Globe and Mail, National Post, and even Vancouver’s own Georgia Straight. The Dilettantes is Hingston’s first foray into the world of fiction, and boasts a confident writing style that contrasts with his lack of formal experience. “I don’t think I’d ever finished a short story before this novel,” he laughs. “It was really the first thing I tried.” When I ask him if he has plans to continue writing novels, he responds, “Deciding to take that plunge again feels a little masochistic. But it’s pretty tempting.”
“I’m not able to distinguish my time at The Peak from my time at university. It was really linked for me.” – Michael Hingston, author of The Dilettantes
It’s hard to blame him for being hesitant to start again: the publishing process can be unforgiving, especially for a debut novelist. “When the fiftieth agent says ‘no’ to you, there’s a part of your brain that says, ‘maybe this is nothing,’” he says. Luckily, the stars aligned, and The Dilettantes was picked up by Freehand Books, a publishing company based in Calgary. The novel was released on September 10 of this year, just in time for the fall semester. “Every step of the process has been a miracle . . . I learned stuff as I went and I made it better as I went along, but I really didn’t learn on a basic level what the book was about until the publisher had accepted it.”
Above all, Hingston says perseverance and a good work ethic are the keys to a successful career in writing. “The people I really respect and glob onto as a writer are not even necessarily novelists; it’s more the work ethic that I find that I respond to. It’s people like Louis CK: every year he renews his act, he forces himself to write something new. There’s something you learn from just finishing, standing back and looking at it, and then just jumping into the next thing.”
However, constant reinvention is central to the writing process: whether you’re working at The Peak or The Edmonton Journal, you need to be able to maintain a steady flow of ideas and creations in order to make a living. Thankfully, Hingston seems to enjoy it. “I really find myself just wanting to be constantly producing, and constantly throwing new ideas out there and just seeing what sticks,” he tells me.
Since its release, The Dilettantes has attracted attention from former Peak staff and contributors alike. Anyone who has ever written for our paper will surely recognize more than a few of the book’s references: the Spider-Man notebook, the inanity of covering Clubs Days, the difficulty of spotting our offices on the map.
On his blog, Books in the Kitchen, Hingston has photos from his time at The Peak, where he held positions as Opinions Editor, Copy Editor and Arts Editor. “It’s an amazing experience to be given that much freedom,” he says, “to have all of your weird 3:00 a.m. ideas put into a printing press that is gonna make ten thousand copies of this thing that you just thought up.”
Once the interview is done, he asks me how much the office has changed since he worked there. But after speaking to him and reading The Dilettantes, I struggle to think that it’s changed much at all.
Michael Hingston will be hosting a launch party for The Dilettantes on October 4 at 6:30 p.m. at Pulpfiction Books on Main Street.