You Could Believe in Nothing by Jamie Fitzpatrick is the quintessential Canadian novel. Using St. John’s, and Canadian Lit’s favorite minor character, hockey, as a backdrop, it tells the story of a middle-aged man who is trying to navigate his past and deal with the disappointments of everyday life as well as the bumps and bruises of personal relationships gone wrong. Fitzpatrick’s writing is unrelenting and agile, and his characters are somewhat bitter and sometimes hilarious. This is a noteworthy first novel from a valuable new voice.
Jamie Fitzpatrick lives in St. John’s.You Could Believe in Nothing (Vagrant Press) is his first novel. He’s also host and producer of The Performance Hour on CBC Radio and an online hockey columnist for the About.com network.
Derek seems to be going through his quarter-life crisis in mid-life. He’s having trouble dealing with his parents’ past, navigating his own future and finding happiness. Do you think this is the norm now where “40 is the new 30” or do you think we generally don’t have our stuff together despite what we may try to make others think regardless of age?
The sorts of questions Derek is facing don’t get resolved just because you reach a certain age. The popular notion is that today’s young men are reluctant to mature, and Derek could be seen as a prime example – hitting 40, still single and still drinking too much. But were young people really more mature a few generations ago? I’m no sociologist, but I have my doubts. I think Derek’s story could be set in 1975 or 1950, at the same age, with the same issues at stake. But the Derek of an earlier era would display more of the trappings of “settled” adulthood. He’d probably be unhappily married with a couple of kids.
It’s evident from the novel that you are a music lover who understands how certain songs weave into the narrative of our lives. At one point in the novel Derek hears a song and it occurs to him that “the levers of betrayal” between his parents “must have been in place even then… waiting to be set in motion.” If You Could Believe in Nothing had a soundtrack, what would it consist of?
In the scene you refer to, Derek is responding to an obscure novelty song from the 1960s, when his parents were young. His dad works as a DJ at a classic rock station, so old rock and pop tunes figure prominently in the book as well. But Derek ultimately gives up on these songs as a way of understanding his father. Pop music is too universal to take on specific personal meaning. If you love a song that millions of other people love, what does that tell us about you? Not much, I’d say.
My personal soundtrack for the story would include Crowded House, Decembrists, Aimee Mann, Amelia Curran, maybe Alison Krauss or Emmylou Harris. I doubt those selections would make sense to another reader. It’s just my intuitive play list. It’s music that suits the way the story feels to me.
Can you talk a little about the “brotherhood of hockey players”?
That’s a phrase I heard Don Cherry use on TV years ago, so I resurrected it and gave Don a cameo. Ice hockey can’t be described as a brotherhood anymore, because so many girls and women have taken up the game. But for the men of Derek’s generation it’s still an all-male thing.
Loaded terms like brotherhood and sisterhood are highly suspect. I enjoy hanging with the boys as much as the next guy. But men and women both put too much stock in same-sex camaraderie, the idea that the guys can only truly be themselves when they’re with the guys, and the girls when they’re with the girls. When Derek sits in front of his TV and hears Don Cherry speak of brotherhood, it’s sounds like a lie.
While trying to understand his personal relationships, Derek, along with his friends, has a job understanding his relationship with Newfoundland. Can you speak to how Newfoundland identity has shaped these characters?
The problem with Newfoundland identity (or any identity) is that some people see it as static and fixed, when in fact it’s fluid and unwieldy and impossible to grasp. There’s no consensus on Newfoundland culture or identity, and that’s a good thing. I‘m not sure what it means to me to be a Newfoundlander, or how the Newfoundland of the imagination can be reconciled with the reality of the place. I think some of us tend to get overworked by such questions, and take it all too seriously. So I had some fun with that in the book, created situations where the characters could puzzle over it and argue and say silly things.
Can you tell us a little about writing this book?
Writing a first novel is challenge enough. So I didn’t want the additional challenge of doing tons of research and writing about stuff I don’t know. I set the story in St. John’s because it’s the only city I know intimately. I wrote about rec hockey and pop music and radio and 40-something men because I’ve been immersed in those worlds. Using settings I was confident in helped free my imagination to focus on character, on inventing people and throwing them together. To me, dynamic and believable characters are the heart of any good novel.
As for the process, I started the book during a stretch when I was unemployed or semi-employed. So that’s my advice for aspiring novelists: try to arrange a time when you have nothing better to do.
I got tremendous advice and funding from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, the Writers Alliance, and the Literary Arts Foundation, and valuable input from assorted writers. Without all that, I’d still be slogging away at yet another unrealized draft.
What’s the last three books you read?
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” by David Mitchell; “Winter” by Adam Gopnik;
“Out Stealing Horses” by Per Petterson. In different ways, I was slightly disappointed by all of them. So I’m due for a string of very satisfying reads in my next set of picks. I hope.
Do you have any recommedations for Book Fridge readers?
Subscribe to The New Yorker fiction podcast. Short stories by people like Cheever, Nabokov, Gallant, and writers I never knew before, like Isaac Babel and Jean Stafford. All of it read out loud and discussed. It’s great.