In Our Worst Moments, We Are All Dennis:
Krista Foss In Conversation with Jamie Tennant
Jamie Tennant —writer, inveterate audiophile and CFMU radio program director — sat down with HRB senior editor Krista Foss earlier this year to talk about his foray into fiction and GetLit, Hamilton’s new literary radio show. Jamie’s tender and comic debut novel, The Captain of Kinnoull Hill, follows middle-aged music executive Dennis Duckworth as a wrong turn lands him on a storied Scottish hilltop where he befriends a goblin on a similar quest for redemption.
KRISTA FOSS: In his blurb for your book, Arkells’ frontman Max Kerman says that if you’ve worked in the music industry, you know someone like Dennis Duckworth. But even if you haven’t, it’s easy to believe someone as irascible, self-involved and morally malleable as Duckworth exists because of your portrayal. Have you been carrying Dennis around with you or did he take shape as you hit the keys?
JAMIE TENNANT: Dennis is me on my worst days times 100: I can have those thoughts. At his heart he’s a good person; he’s socially conscious but also selfish and impatient. He wants to blame everyone else but himself for his lot in life. In our worst moments, we are all Dennis – doing a little bit of that.
And that was always in my head as I started to write this story. When I wrote the opening of him having a cranky time trying to get some sleep in New York City. That was me at a much younger age actually going through that.
KF: You woke up in a porno booth?
JT: I was staying in a YMCA and the Y was 120 degrees. And it was a long time ago in a pre-Giuliani Times Square and I should not have been out. I was 18. It was a memory that stuck with me. I remember going back to the Y and sweating it out until the sun came up.
I wrote that scene and what comes out is this really cranky jerk. At first I thought his reaction was due to the strange circumstances, but then I realized it was more him than the situation, that in any kind of stressful situation he was going to be like this. I started to see this character form, and as I did, all these personality traits in my head went into Dennis and as a character. He really launched from that first scene.
KF: The back and forth between Duckworth and his friend Paul is great – you don’t have to have musical depth to recognize it as the ultimate nerd banter. The fact that Duckworth forms a holier-than-thou opinion of Margaret (a woman he encounters after his unexpected arrival in small town Scotland) because she has a tape of The Commitments in her apartment, feels as if you are having a lot of fun as a music insider.
JT: One of the things you always wrestle with as a music critic and writer is the tendency to be cooler than thou, to look down on mainstream music and champion the obscure. It used to be very prevalent in the business. I was always fascinated by the way people would judge other people based on musical taste. And I know I did that myself when I was young but not for very long and not with any great venom. I wanted Dennis to be the extreme of that. He really thinks that taste makes the person. And of course, it does not.
KF: Dennis hails from Chicago, and runs his band management business from there. And it’s here that he discovers The Random, a young pop punk outfit he expects to propel him into the big leagues. There are shades of High Fidelity in your choice of that city. Was this a homage to that movie?
JT: It’s way more artsy than that! (laughter.) When I started to write Dennis, I thought I should come up with a back-story. I just realized he’s from Chicago. I just knew. I felt it. Which is silly. But not. Because then I decided I had to go to Chicago and look around. I knew nothing about Chicago. So I explored, took photographs, walked the city and went to clubs so I knew where Dennis would be hanging out.
There’s a bit of Hamilton in the choice too. If you’re not from Toronto or Vancouver in the Canadian music scene you’re not the mecca. I think it must be the same for Chicago – it’s great for the blues scene but it’s not New York or LA.
KF: When Dennis encounters a bloodthirsty 1,000 year old goblin, you introduce a magical element into a story that’s otherwise told as realism. It’s intriguing and nervy. What came first – the choice of sending Dennis to Scotland or the idea of the magic? Or for you, were they inextricable?
JT: Scotland first. Definitely. I have been carrying the title The Captain of Kinnoull Hill around since I was in my early teens. My father and his family are from Perth, Scotland. But there was a picture of Kinoull Hill on the wall in our house. So I was always fascinated by this place. I felt it was magical although I had never been. So I wrote a treatment of a terrible screenplay when I was a kid about Kinoull. And then years later, when I came up with the original idea for this book, there were two story lines and one of them was about Dennis and the Scottish setting was part of that.
So the Scottish location came first. I had just read Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, and loved the way he incorporated magical elements, integrating a normal day with something really bizarre, in such a way that the reader has to accept that reality. I love that. I wanted to do something like that with a different tone.
KF: Did you ever feel like you were taking a risk, a leap of faith, by including the goblin Eddie as a central character?
JT: No, not until I started thinking about trying to publish. As I was writing, I thought this is fun, a fantastic character, and I was really pleased that he sort of presented himself to me and I could write a character who in a lot of ways is just as worldly and sarcastic as Dennis. Except that he was wrestling with this big 1,000-year-old life issue. And I love the idea of Dennis having a harder time. How is Dennis having a bigger issue than Eddie? He has to turn his back on his entire race of creatures and stop killing people and Dennis just wants to be less of a jerk. I love that interplay. I didn’t censor myself at all. I was thinking what the heck, this is fun.
KF: There’s a real tenderness for the young pop superstar Kit Carson who disappears mysteriously at the moment his popularity is exploding. It feels like there’s a comment here on the rabid attention that accompanies on-line celebrity. Was that your intent?
JT: I didn’t have a specific hard point to make. But I did just want to say here are my thoughts on what social media can do to kids like him. Justin Bieber comes to mind right away. You think about this young sweet kid on YouTube and what has to happen for him to become this insolent bratty jerk who apparently doesn’t seem to enjoy performing anymore? I don’t know if that’s true but certainly he seems pretty unhappy. So Kit is someone who knows where he might be heading and pulls back.
He was a very late edition to the book. Originally, I made an error no writer should ever make and I used a real person- an actual Scottish folk singer. And I said to my publisher, you should see if this is okay. They sent the manuscript to his management and they hated it. So I had to make up a character instead. It turned out to be a great experience. Because what I got to do with Kit was so much better, so much more timely, so much more interesting in terms of contrast with Dennis – so it worked out.
KF: The idea of a nexus – where the past and future become the present – repeats throughout the book and is the key to both Dennis and Eddie becoming fully human. Does it come from a personal place?
JT: I was fascinated with the idea that the present is only ever where the past and future meet. It’s ephemeral. So Eddie thinks that since all you’re doing is moving forward, then everything you decide, even in a split second is what determines where you go and what comes next. He embodies the idea that you can’t do anything about what has gone before so just be better from this moment forward.
KF: You dedicate the book to your father, who you lost at a young age and who comes from Perth, Scotland where most of the book takes place. How would this accomplishment have resonated with him?
JT: I think my father was a frustrated artist. He worked at Stelco, a job I’m not sure he liked that much. He had three kids, and a wife, and a mortgage – it was a different generation. As a kid, I would go through his drawers and find paintings he’d done. He liked music; he read history. I think I did something that if my father had done he would have been happier. So that was on my mind.
KF: What was the hardest part of realizing the dream of your novel?
JT: Time. I was writing in half-hour spurts. There’s no flow that way. But I managed to pull it off. It took a decade in total because I had started writing a bigger story with two settings and plotlines – one in Japan and the other in Scotland – before I just hit a place where it wasn’t working and I took a few years off.
But when I came back to it, suddenly I saw where the writing was going. When I pulled the two stories apart, The Captain of Kinnoul Hill was untethered to this other plot, it worked. It was fresh again. And it moved quickly.
KF: How is being a published writer different than you imagined?
JT: I’ve wanted to publish a book since I was eight. I knew it wasn’t going to be life-changing and this wasn’t the be all and end all. But I have to say I am so grateful. It has cemented the fact that this is something I can do.
If I have other stories I want to tell, and if work really hard at it, they might be shared again.
KF: So what is that next story or project?
JT: The next project is loosely based on the Japanese half of the story that I cut during the process of writing the first book.
I lived in Japan for two years when I was in my 20s and I worked in a bar. It was a short period of time, but it was very intense. I knew a small group of people who were doing the same thing as me and we bonded really hard. So I’ve based my main character on these experiences. She writes Z-grade, no-budget screenplays and her favourite genre is obscure Japanese monster movies. She is a character that comes out of the scene I worked in and she pursues a mystery from her earlier days.
KF: Your life has taken on a new shape in the last year not only with the publication of a debut novel but also with the creation and launch of GET LIT, a half-hour literary radio show that airs on CFMU 93.3 every Thursday at 12:30 pm. It’s only been on for a few months and already you’ve had a stellar guest list – Gary Barwin, Madeline Thien among them – which has given the show instant credibility. Tell me a little bit about why this show and the pace you’re keeping.
JT: I’ve been interviewing bands all my life and it began to feel like I was repeating myself. I thought nobody is doing a radio book show. So I put all my other shows on the back burner in order to start this one. I definitely can tell I am filling a niche. But a weekly show does get a bit overwhelming. I have become a much faster reader!
I am really encouraging other people to do stuff – I don’t want it to be all me me me. What I want is for people to pitch me! The support in general has been overwhelming. Hamilton is great for that.