Kevin Chong was always at the races. He'd be sitting in the grand stands, often in a corduroy jacket (looking rather literary, in fact) at Vancouver's Hastings Racecourse. He'd be watching the horses, racing form in hand, like some Chinese vision of Charles Bukowski, updated for our modern, culturally sensitive tastes.
It was Bukowski, in fact, that sparked interest in the horse track in the first place. Chong read all the stories in high school, which left an indelible mark on the Vancouver-based writer. In 2009, he started visiting the track more frequently — partially, for entertainment, but more importantly, to write a book.
That book, My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings, published earlier this year, documents Chong's trials and tribulations of owning a racehorse, while exploring, with characteristic humour and precision, the bizarre subculture that surrounds it.
(Full disclosure: I write "bizarre" because I know: worked at the track for a year before moving to Whistler. I'd seen Chong many times during that 2009 racing season).
"It was my desire to enter that world, for whatever reason," Chong says in a phone interview from his home in Vancouver. "It has a lot of history and culture. It has its own esoteric language. It's really a place full of characters. You meet people you wouldn't meet anywhere else, like the people who work at the track in the back stretcher. They're part farmer, part carnies and they have this sort of boom-or-bust lifestyle. It sort of gives them this warped sense of humour, which is really kind of fun to be around."
He admits that he's always been drawn to these kinds of "eccentrics." Both his non-fiction books, Racehorse and 2005's Neil Young Nation are about very different worlds but involve equally weird, and often just as obsessive, subcultures where people from all walks of life are drawn to this singular passion, whether it be gambling or, uh, Neil Young.
Chong's affinity for such characters is understandable: professional writers are often plagued by the same obsessiveness about their crafts and the subjects within their crosshairs. He's currently working on a new novel, the follow-up to Beauty Plus Pity, which was published last year. He's 20,000 words deep, though he says he'd planned to have 50,000 words done by now.
Such is life.
"Sometimes I just feel like no one in the world could care less if I didn't write anymore fiction. I'm not always motivated in some ways to do it, but I'm chugging along," Chong says with a laugh.
"(But) fiction was my first love. It's what I read the most. It's the most satisfying (to write) and it's also the most agonizing. Non-fiction is just this great ticket to the world, where I get to meet people I would never meet and do things that I would never do."
Chong was born in Hong Kong in 1975 and raised in Vancouver, where he graduated from the University of British Columbia with an MFA in creative writing. He published his first novel, Baroque-a-Nova — his master's thesis, in fact — in 2001, when he was only 25 years old.
A coming-of-age tale set in B.C., the novel was warmly received by critics at the time, but Chong is critical of it now, saying it's the product of an underdeveloped writer.
"There's no sell-by date for a writer," he says. "You only get a chance to be a writer once and it's better to appear in the world as a polished writer rather than someone like me who published his first book when he was 25, and it showed."
A lot has changed in his career since then. Aside from his four books, he works as a freelance journalist, writing for Vancouver magazine, the Globe and Mail, Walrus — you name it, he's been there. He admits he's the kind of guy who can't say "no" to a job. He's written about toasters for lifestyle magazines. He was recently "pained" to complete a ghostwriting project that, he says, really wasn't worth the trouble. The truth is, there's nothing romantic about being a writer.
At the same time, every assignment, every gig, has allowed him to hone his craft.
"I think I have more of a sense for reader's impatience than I did earlier on in my writing career, where I was trying to dazzle you with my sentences, and you're going to be held in sway hypnotically by what I write. As much as I like good writing, and a stylish approach to prose, I think most readers couldn't care less."
Chong will be in Whistler for the next Whistler Reads event on Saturday at Armchair Books, to discuss My Year of the Racehorse. To help pay for his appearance, Whistler Reads is staging a man-powered, piggy-back heat race between Armchair Books and Ill Caminetto eatery.
Race entry is $10 and there will be a 50-50 betting board. Half of the pot will go to the winning bets and the other half to Whistler Reads.