As most writers will tell you, there is often a fine line between fact and fiction – a small, grey space where worlds collide, and where imagination, inspiration and perspiration conspire. Halifax author and journalist Chris Benjamin recently crossed that line with his debut novel Drive-By Saviours.
“The stories I write as a journalist are simple because I’m just assembling the facts and the opinions in a readable way,” said Benjamin, who is best known to local and area readers as a key columnist with Halifax’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Coast.
“With fiction I have to bring readers into an imaginary world and convince them that it’s real,” he continues. “It’s more of an art and comes more from the heart. In fiction I can ramble. I may cut later if it’s too much, but it’s always worth it to follow the words where they take you. This is how you learn about your characters – you take them places, make them do things, see how they react and what thoughts and emotions they experience.” Benjamin notes that the new book – the story of an Indonesian-born restaurant worker, a Toronto social worker and the chance encounter that changes their lives – was born out of a lifelong love of storytelling.
“It’s something I’ve been doing since I was six, when I started making up stories and writing them down, and later inventing characters and challenges for them to work their way through,” he said. “When you write stories you create worlds. You are godlike. Then you can invite people to visit that world, to take a tour of it. When they come home they see this world, the real world, differently.”
Readers will appreciate his perspective; Drive-By Saviours is one of the finest first narratives to emerge from Atlantic Canada in recent memory. Well-balanced and masterfully crafted with a prose that is both poignant and poised, the work is certain to be considered for literary awards. Inspiration came, he said, while he was working as a diversity co-ordinator at a Toronto-based environmental organization in 2003.
“The stories I heard from new Canadians blew me away. These were people, who, by choice or not, picked up their entire lives, everything they’d ever known and relocated. Seeing these folks out of their cultural context, trying to rebuild their lives from scratch. … I wanted to write about that.
“I had also met my wife Miia around that time,” he said, “and we shared lots of travel stories and life stories. Somewhere out of all of these mini-narratives Drive-by Saviours emerged.” The novel also contains a number of autobiographical elements. “I share (character) Mark’s frustrations with the systems in place that keep people out, that fail to hear the powerful stories of people’s lives,” he said. “And my politics probably leaked into the story, thematically, in terms of what I chose to write about and how the characters looked at things.
“Whatever part of me that is in the book isn’t necessarily the same part of me that started writing it, however. My own characters influenced me and changed me as I researched and wrote them.” That metamorphosis, he points out, is still in process.
“I’ve transformed from Chris the writer into Chris from marketing. Or Chris from logistics: planning book launches, readings, a book tour, writing blurbs and hiring musicians. I guess it’s what writers do when our books come out to make sure it sells and gets award nominations and allows us the chance to publish another one.”
Stephen Patrick Clare is a freelance writer who lives in Halifax.