Progress: UBCO prof invigorates arts scene

Michael V. Smith has 1,200 (and some odd) Facebook friends—and yes, he culls them. And yes, he knows them all. And yes, he does turn people down. When the UBC Okanagan professor launches his new book in Vancouver next month, in conjunction with his 40th birthday, he will send the invitations via the social network. This wouldn’t be remarkable if it weren’t for the fact his book, Progress, is about questioning this very type of rapid change in how we view and deal with our world and one another.

  • Apr. 2, 2011 5:00 a.m.
Michael V. Smith is a UBC Okanagan professor who has just written a new book

Michael V. Smith is a UBC Okanagan professor who has just written a new book

Michael V. Smith has 1,200 (and some odd)

Facebook friends—and yes, he culls them. And yes, he knows them all. And yes, he does turn people down.

When the UBC Okanagan professor launches his new book in Vancouver next month, in conjunction with his 40th birthday, he will send the invitations via the social network.

This wouldn’t be remarkable if it weren’t for the fact his book, Progress, is about questioning this very type of rapid change in how we view and deal with our world and one another.

And yet it is also, almost equally, about relationships. As people are something of a specialty for this crazy hipster it seems apropos.

“I’m definitely a people mover. I like matching people up and moving them and figuring out what makes them tick,” he says.

Growing up gay in the small, mill-town of Cornwall, Ont., Smith says he could not have stuck out more if he tried.

Finding a person’s weak point and playing to that hair of vulnerability kept him within everyone’s safety net.

And ultimately, it helped him hone a truly phenomenal talent in the art of making friends.

“I’m constantly, in all the art that I do, trying to bring people together,” he explains.

To Smith, good writers are the ones who are able to listen to people, listen to the stories we all have running around in our heads, and get to know how it all comes together.

Progress is his fourth book, and his first out in nearly a decade, but the author is constantly telling stories in some form or another.

His films have shown from Milan to Dublin, Turin, London, Geneva and beyond as he’s piqued the interest of critics almost from the get-go.

A graduate of the creative writing masters program at UBC’s Vancouver campus, his 13 years in that city produced strings of accolades like the Amazon Books Canada First Novel Award and the inaugural Dayne Ogilvie Award for Emerging Gay Writers.

And yet, as a writer who describes himself as accessible, it’s not really the artsies, critics, or the judges he wants to attract. Smith says he writes books for people like his family, for people like those in the community where he lives.

Most of the writing and editing for Progress was done in the Okanagan.

A short book, as novels go, it sees a brother and sister work at coming to terms with a broken family relationship as the home where they grew up, and where the sister has spent her entire life, is flooded by a new power dam project.

It might seem a little removed from our sun-kissed lifestyle on first blush, nevertheless, the author is sure the move from the big city has had its influence on the book, if for no other reason than the fact that it taught him new things about himself.

Despite his urban look—a neon blue watch and somewhat matching Fluvog shoes on the day of the interview—Smith is known for his small town stories. His first novel was written about Cornwall and titled the same.

Progress marks a departure from that track as he ventures into a new hybrid territory with a young, urban gay man who returns to his hometown to deal with the life he left behind.

Whether it plays out in the character or not, Smith believes his understanding of small towns, and how to live in them as an established professional, has changed significantly with the move to Kelowna.

Unlike the homogenous, suspicious place where he grew up, Kelowna has been extremely friendly and welcoming, he said, noting it has pushed him to step outside his own box.

“I had to learn how to find a community differently and find a different kind of community because I wasn’t going to find the exact same kind of people I was hanging out with in Vancouver,” he said.

“The nice thing is that I think I really broadened my range of friends, which I really love.

“I’ve always had a nice breadth, but I think it’s even broader here. I hang out with very young people and very old people and they have all different kinds of jobs.”

“And you get a better sense of how the world works. You’re not living in your own bubble, which can have its own sense of narrow-mindedness.”

Ferreting out narrow-mindedness is a bit of theme in this book.

Progress aptly plays with perception and prejudice, pulling in the reader with a set of circumstances that can lead one to jump to conclusions too quickly.

“I feel like I’m filling out the social fabric of small town literature. There isn’t a lot of diversity in small town stories.”

Whether it’s gay characters or new immigrants, typical Canadiana storylines rarely focus on those who might not fit the presumed norms of life outside the urban world.

Small towns do offer a whole host of growing up material for an author to draw from, though, and this writer has made a career of it.

As a teenager, Smith filed historic photographs of the St. Lawrence Seaway for a living and the story of the way it changed the landscape proved a bit of a muse in this case.

“It’s about the price we pay for progress and who pays that price; what we consider progress and what we give up,” he said.

If this sounds a little familiar, if it conjures images of nuclear reactors and a country besieged by its own need for mega-wattages, the author also said he won’t be drawing any parallels.

“Oh, I was dreading this question,” he says. “The book isn’t trying to find answers. I think a storyteller’s job is to ask the better questions.”

And with that, any commentary on the crisis in Japan ends.

Whether Kelowna changed the face of Progress is open for debate though and, if it did, it’s clear the author either isn’t entirely sure how or isn’t really ready to share it.

Whether Smith, and the introduction of other artists, academics and students the university will be teaching to articulate thought-provoking questions will change the face of Kelowna, seems inevitable.

As the interview ends he’s asking some new questions himself about how to draw people back into Canadian politics, get people voting again, questioning the government—networking curiosity.

Michael V. Smith launches Progress, published by Cormorant Books, April 9 at the Alternator Gallery in the Rotary Centre for the Arts, at 7:30 p.m. The launch will be shared with poet and UBCO professor Sharon Thesen, who has just written her own book, Oyama Pink Shale.

jsmith@kelownacapnews.com


 

Kelowna Capital News