Michael Christie’s much-anticipated debut novel reflects his tenderness for humanity and the complexities of personal relationships
Michael Christie is covered with a fine layer of sawdust. I’ve caught him at the end of a morning spent doing carpentry work on the small house he’s designed and built by hand. It’s where he now lives with his wife and two boys, in the woods on Galiano Island, an hour’s sail west of Vancouver.
It seems an unlikely place to find a writer whose words spill with such vibrancy out of the alleyways and shelters of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and the darkest hollows of Thunder Bay’s abandoned grain elevators.
But then, there’s nothing likely about Michael Christie.
Christie was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the younger of two sons. His older brother was tall and handsome, and a hard act to follow, Christie says, especially for a kid who hated school and hockey in equal measure.
“He was the best at everything,” says Christie. “I was a skateboarder and kind of weird and into punk rock.”
His dad was a lawyer, his mom an early-childhood educator who worked with people living in poverty and on First Nation reserves. She also suffered with mental health issues.
“Growing up, my mom was diagnosed with a shifting trail of illnesses. That really shaped me,” he says. “From a very young age, I was interested in people’s minds. Why do people fall apart? How do people fall apart? And what does it mean?”
At 17, Christie carried those questions west. For a while, he lived in San Francisco and travelled the world as a professional skateboarder. He later settled in Vancouver, where he earned a degree in psychology and took up work at an emergency shelter in the Downtown Eastside.
At one point, his job was to track down people who were facing legal charges – people struggling with addiction, homelessness, mental illness, or, more often, some combination of the three – and coax them into court to clear things up.
“I saw a lot of terrible things,” he says. “But it was also a really amazing time in my life. I learned so much. I don’t regret a second of it, but … well, a lot of people down there would say if you’re caring, you’re getting hurt.”
By the end of six years performing outreach work in the neighbourhood, Christie was broken-hearted. He had no idea what he was going to do. So he applied to the master of fine arts in creative writing program at the University of British Columbia.
“I had never shown my writing to anybody. I’d written for skateboard mags, and I had this unreasonable thought – I could get into this thing. Then I just sort of magically got accepted. It was a really weird transition, but I was so engaged and hungry just to talk about writing. It was liberating.”
Christie’s thesis eventually became his first book, The Beggar’s Garden, published in 2011 by HarperCollins Canada. It was a rare and stunning debut, a collection of nine short stories set in the Downtown Eastside, told with sure-footed compassion and humour. It landed him on the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, made him a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist, and won him the Vancouver Book Award. And it caught the attention of rival publishers.
Anita Chong, a senior editor with McClelland & Stewart, became aware of Christie’s work in 2008, when one of his stories was selected for a Journey Prize anthology. “Even back then, there was a vibrancy, something very electric in his writing,” she says. “All of his work is filled with wisdom and great humanity. It tackles what it means to be alive today.”
When the manuscript for Christie’s follow-up to The Beggar’s Garden landed on her desk, Chong’s entire team stayed up through the night to read it.
“We put together a deal in 24 hours,” she says. “That speed is rare, but we knew Mike, and we knew how special he is as a writer. This was an opportunity we were not going to miss out on.”