Shawn Curtis Stibbards sticks close to home

Debut novel The Video Watcher set in North Vancouver

The Video Watcher by Shawn Curtis Stibbards. Published by Biblioasis (Windsor, Ont.), 192 pages, $19.95. Launch party Friday, May 22, 7-8 p.m. at Pulp Fiction Books, 2422 Main St., Vancouver. Free.

In his college years, aspiring novelist Shawn Curtis Stibbards devoured the Russian literary greats - Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy. "When I first began writing, I wanted to write the War and Peace for North Vancouver," he recalls with a laugh.

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Fast forward to the present and Stibbards is celebrating the release of his debut novel The Video Watcher. While the story may not centre on the Napoleonic Wars or the ranks of the Russian nobility, it does - as Stibbards had always intended - take place on the North Shore.

"You're often used to picking up books and reading about people in New York or reading about people in London and I guess sometimes you feel kind of left out of it," says the longtime North Vancouver resident and English teacher at Argyle secondary.

Set in the 1990s, protagonist Trace Patterson has finished his first year of university and is living with his drunken aunt in North Vancouver. Described as "listless, bored, alienated and mistrustful," Trace spends his nights watching horror movies and attending high school house parties. But his carefree routine is disrupted when two old friends, each with their own troubles, come back into his life.

Stibbards, now married with three children, would have been slightly older than Trace at the time his book takes place. And while he emphasizes The Video Watcher is 100 per cent fictional, he says writing the novel over the last 10 years gave him the chance to revisit some personal experiences. "The emotional atmosphere is kind of autobiographical," he says, "but in terms of actual characters, the events and that, that's fictional."

Stibbards first developed the character who would eventually become Trace in 2005. Also a rock musician and an artist, he was in the midst of working on a painting in the fall of that year. While waiting for layers of paint to dry, he shifted his creative energy to writing a short story. "For the first time, I actually felt I actually had a character I could run with," he says.

Not long after starting his novel, Stibbards enrolled in a creating writing program at UBC, despite some initial scepticism. "I thought writing was something you retreat into the woods with your bottle of bourbon and a typewriter and duke it out alone," he says. "But then I realized that a lot of the writers I admired, they had gone to university programs for creative writing."

Over the years, Stibbards found himself drawn to the sparse prose of the American minimalist authors of the 1980s - Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel. "They kind of showed me a way to write about my environment," he explains. "When I was writing this, I was certainly influenced by the minimalists." Published by Biblioasis, The Video Watcher was released May 15 in Canada with book jacket praise from authors Zsuzsi Gartner and Annabel Lyon. It will be available in the U.S. in mid-July.

As a high school teacher, Stibbards can't help but compare his students to the young people in his book - two generations divided by a technological chasm. "The Internet had just come out, but sending an email was very novel," he says of the time in which his book is set. "In that way the novel's quite removed, I think, from what's going on nowadays."

That said, many of the struggles his characters face, such as self-consciousness and isolation, are shared by today's youth and likely exacerbated by the widespread use of smartphones and social media.

"I think the older I get, there's more of a gulf opening up between my generation and the students nowadays, particularly, I think, because of the electronics, which really weren't present during the time period when the story's set."

Looking ahead, Stibbards has another work in progress and plans to continue with his short stories. The hardest part about writing a novel, he says, is pushing through his own self-doubt and overcoming the need for instant gratification. It's kind of like gardening, he explains. "You plant something, but you don't know right away if it's going to grow."

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