In Conversation: Thom Vernon and David Kingston Yeh

In Conversation: Thom Vernon and David Kingston Yeh

Guernica authors Thom Vernon and David Kingston Yeh dive into characters in disruption, LGBTQ lit, writing Toronto, and making art. 


thom vernon (TRV): So, what brings you to writing? Like why writing?

David Kingston Yeh (DKY): When I was little kid, I was immersed in stories. It was my escape. Although I grew up in Kingston, Ontario marginalized and lonely — I also have very beautiful, powerful memories of childhood. I found a place in the world through stories. As a kid, I was scribbling away at all sorts of stories, all sorts of fan fiction inspired by Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons. I'm thrilled to see the resurgence of fantasy role-playing games. It's a recapturing of the imagination. I think we’ve lost our sense for play and imagination. It's so inspiring to see younger people reconnecting with reading. There's been a renaissance in the last ten years or so in actual hardcopy books, right?

TRV: You're right. Well, I was going to ask you in turn—when you were reading as a kid (I'm sure one answer is not exclusive to the others that are possible), you said it helped you structure. A story helps us find structure, so does story reading. And consuming and perhaps even writing stories as a child helped you to make sense of things, put things together, process things.

DKY: Yeah, I'm very drawn to characters, less to plot. From a very young age, it was these characters that fascinated me, and especially in speculative fiction. Literature was able to offer a moral compass for me. It was able to organize the world ethically, morally ­– what contributed to a good life, and a meaningful life. What does it mean to be human being? All art addresses this, but especially storytelling. In the traditional form it addresses it most explicitly—its ability to dive deep into character. Obviously, theater and cinema by extension addresses this too, but it begins with literature. It begins with a character and that's the purview of traditional storytelling. This goes back to myths, folklore and legends. So I was consuming all of that, everything from Japanese to Scandinavian mythology. And now I look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, renditions of Thor and Loki, and I'm thinking that’s not quite right! But who am I to judge how society and culture transforms characters and archetypes for its own purposes?

TRV: Do you know about the motif index?

DKY: No. The motif index?

TRV: Oh, David, you might really dig this. The first one was at University of Indiana. Now I think there are multiple motif indexes. These are indexes of myth and tropes, and the mythical story elements in fairy tales, I think. And characters. In myths around the world. The motifs are organized according to creation myths, animal to human transformations. It's a pretty extraordinary resource.

DKY: I'm reminded of Joseph Campbell a hundred years ago naming how, regardless of where and when we are from as human beings, there are these archetypes. Yeah, and I'm thinking it’s in your work, in my work.

TRV: I presume that every character is working as an archetype. Now I'm not thinking that when I'm writing the character. But I am keenly aware that that character is resonating on a mythic scale too; beyond the plot of the book. As a writer, that is extremely important to me. That I am not narrowing, because I think if and when others are “storying,” so to speak, my life or other people's lives that are around me they're going to be looking for the themes. They're going to be looking for the power moves. They're going to be looking for the weaknesses. The fault lines, the learning…those story elements. Right? Those resonate.

DKY: Absolutely.

TRV: So yeah, the plot of course is important but it's way less important to me than how that individual is navigating. I think we're conscious of it but on some degree, I mean, individually, we're going through our lives. We may not have a clear view of it (the mythical) or the capacity to articulate it, right?

DKY: Story, I love that. Perfect.

TRV: The reason why story is so essential is because, as you say, it helps us to structure what we know. We're born into a narrative and we become narrative immediately. Immediately, we're storied, right? You know, when I think of when I was dealing with a succession of deaths in my family, I really had this impression ‑it was a new impression, a new knowledge ‑ that I was being storied by the dead.

DKY: So when you say that death informs your life, I feel I understand. Thom, you actually make this explicit in your novel. There's a point where you actually talk about the dead. Certainly there are moments – I don't know if they're flashbacks or fantastical.

TRV: Sessy.

DKY: Delusions or psychotic breaks. But yeah, with Sessy in particular, where the dead of Toronto come marching back. There's a moment she's crawling up a hill ­– and elsewhere, in the novel: we have flashbacks to different times and places; ghosts of Toronto come back and inform or give a context for who and what we are and what we're struggling with right now in this life in this snowstorm in these 24 hours.

TRV: You're exactly right.

DKY: Your character. I think it's Ton’, the police officer. He had a little brother who died who drowned and you only learned that much later.

TRV: Little Fuck.

DKY: And then it gives a context for who somebody is and what his actions are – at least the potential for the reader to understand his motivations a little bit better, maybe why he chose to become a police officer. You also flash back to his grandmother from El Salvador as a refugee, for example – her struggles.

TRV: Yeah.

DKY: So when you speak again about the dead informing our lives, these are all examples that are explicit in your novel.

TRV: Exactly, and that tension, I think, is in there, it is for me— it's a literary device or it's a way to propel narrative, right? All of that came together for me in writing the book. It started to make sense in the context of the book. Definitely not all at the same time, but my research for the book was around Toronto waterways and Toronto public policy. This is the Don River in that area and the Spit. There's all this wreckage there and it was always so evocative to me, and then I discovered that Toronto has so many buried rivers. It has so many rivers and streams that are archaic, like they've been there forever. When settlers weren't there and now they're still there. They're still percolating under the surface under our lives. Even though development has worked very hard to try to constrain them, contain them. Control them. They are not controlled. They are still under there. Literally.

DKY: These potholes open up literally and figuratively in their lives. We have these undercurrents in our lives, that may not be visible, that we may not even be aware of—but they are there vibrating, moving, flowing, motivating us…. I want to comment that my novel The B-side of Daniel Garneau was the last in a series. The novels are really quite lighthearted. And it's quite intentional because I wrote them as a counterpoint, inspired by and for my clients.

TRV: Oh, interesting.

DKY: I work with a queer and trans youth specifically, so every single day for my twenty-year career, I'd be listening to these stories of trauma embedded in their lives. So I was very intentional and deliberate in writing my books. I use the term counterpoint. A reviewer has called it a romanticized idealized version of Toronto. The homophobia and HIV are there in the universe, but they’re really much to the side. It's set in the early 2000s. It’s a story that I wanted to inspire. I want to connect this to our conversation about the dead—As LGBTQ folks, we might remember the HIV/AIDS crisis, that catastrophic event. Younger people don't necessarily. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, right?

TRV: I haven't read the other 2, but in your books everybody is so nice. Everybody is so not nice in my books. Like, I mean, they're trying. They're really trying, but they're not nice people. And your people are complicated. They have complex lives like this tapestry you weave of all these younger folks who are finding their way. Built around Daniel and his community. I have a question about the (medical) residency, but the story is built around his path. Towards getting through.

DKY: Daniel is a kind of common man, and is finding a place where he matters to himself. So he floats. He's the least interesting of my characters, actually! But it's these stories that surround him, right? He's the observer. I do write in the first person. But it's the stories around them that are much more interesting.

TRV: Yeah, and he's so attentive to what is going on with other folks—he's aware of who's around, who's doing what, who's arranging, who's hooking up with who, you know, whatever it is, all that. That attention—and to your point, I guess he is storying the others too.

DKY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

TRV: Right? If you think about it. Did you make a conscious choice? Not to go into their Darker places.

DKY: Yeah, for the reasons I've cited. It was pointed out to me some time ago: “Oh your fictional character Daniel is really walking through the world the way you walk through the world, David, as a therapist.” I'm very relational in the way I work. But in the therapy setting I am more passive. So in hindsight, I realized that my character Daniel Garneau does adopt that point of view. It doesn't make for a Luke Skywalker, but it certainly allows his world— I hope—to become more accessible. Provides a more neutral, clear lens on Church Street, on bath houses, etc. There's no such thing as a neutral camera, but it's a kind of a documentary lens – where I'm panning across queer culture in Toronto, and just inviting the reader to infuse it with a real sense of subjectivity and meaning.

TRV: It does do that. Yeah.

DKY: Completely. Yeah, and that was an intentional choice. And moving forward, it actually became a bit of a challenge for me to finish the third book because, by that time, six years later in my life, I was evolving as a writer and yet I felt an obligation and responsibility, given that this is a three-book series, to stick to the style.

TRV: The very first line of your book. And I definitely think this resonates with I Met Death & Sex Through My Friend, Tom Meuley: “Gay love is so punk”.

DKY: So punk rock, yeah.

TRV: It's so punk rock. You want to say something about that? I think we both resonate with that.

DKY: Sure, of course. You know, the short answer is that even now, I believe, even in Toronto, Canada, 2024 [gay love] it's disruptive, right? There's a heteronormativity that we're still living with. From Church and Wellesley you can travel two kilometers north, and you're in a completely different world where people are not so familiar with queer lives and identities and values. This novel is for younger, new adult readers in their twenties – all of my characters are in their twenties and it's about their lives and it's for that readership. I really wanted to introduce this awareness that this is still a marginalized and stigmatized identity. I write a about non-traditional families in this third book – that's one of the themes. And so I just wanted to name it. It's Punk Rock: my main character's boyfriend donating sperm so a trans brother’s partner can get pregnant and they can have a family. As a writer, you must be very self-aware. You're a writing teacher. You teach creative writing, screenwriting. I imagine that you're very self-aware of how you're using language and how you're cutting it up. There are passages (in Tom Meuley) which I would call kaleidoscopic, stream of consciousness. They remind me of Arthur Rimbaud or Jack Kerouac. (waves hands) I'm doing this right with my hands there.

TRV: Yeah, you are.

DKY: Just throwing it down. And there's pieces that don't make sense, but you keep on reading and then bits and pieces come together. I might not understand 100% of every single word or phrase that you're using. But they're enough. Not only to follow the plot, not only to get a sense of the character, but also to get a sense for atmosphere, and this is a deeply powerfully atmosphere. The book is set within twenty-four hours in the middle of a snowstorm. I'll give an example of one phrase you wrote: “The sky pulled shadows in from Kingston.” I know Kingston is to the east of Toronto, so that makes sense to me that the to the east, got darker, right? Bu not every reader is going to understand that.  But they'll move on to the next phrase and the next phrase, next words, metonyms that I know that you're using. And it does come together. Can you say a little bit about your style and how you built your relationship with it?

TRV: I can and I will—going from the punk. I think you're absolutely right. There's such a loaded – take the word gay now. We are in transition. We're talking about different, different generations, right? So, gay, lesbian, like these are all terms that are in negotiation, have always been in negotiation, but now they're really ‑ to speak of the style ‑ a place for literature to enter. That disruption of the term of what it is to be ‘gay,’—like am I gay, am I queer? Am I not going to use a label at all? And so it's real. And as a writer guy, as an artist: yes, there's the Sociological problem of that (identity labels) and the personal you-know who-am-I identity-oriented problem but as a writer, I find that to be such rich terrain. So, the folks in my book are all in disruption. They're all in transition. Milk doesn't even get his own first person until after the book is done. He's written in the second person. Because he's not in any of these categories. He doesn't know what he is. Who he is really, except in relation to defending himself against Jeff. Or protecting his mom or, ultimately, putting himself on the line for Tom Meuley.

DKY: You and I spoke about our lives being informed by the dead. And we're also informed by the future.

TRV: Absolutely.

DKY: Insofar that we have dreams of the future. I think GI Joes represent clarity in the world, good / bad. So we’re coming back to what we discussed thirty minutes ago—these archetypes that pull us into the future. And for him (Milk) to burn, to destroy these GI Joes in this act of resentment or vengeance or whatever it was, in such a, literally, inferno—it is really tragic for me as a reader. It was him saying I'm not going to bury this dream just to prove my point and that was a really dark moment psychologically for me for that character.

TRV: Hmm. Hmm. I felt like he thought it's a move to grow up. Like, I don't know what I'm going to do but at least I can do something that maybe will force me to grow up, whatever that means.

DKY: And the irony of that is: forgo his childhood dreams. Right? And so many of us in real life, we do that.

TRV: And Ton’ too. Ton’ is also quite into GI Joes. There's the whole, you know, masculinity. He’s got GI Joe's—they're really old school, like that one I showed you. But then there's “real hair” GI Joe, and that becomes like the realness of the hair, even though it's fake. The GI Joe is also a container. Right? It's an empty plastic like Tupperware. And so it becomes kind of like milk. Milk is an empty container too.

DKY: Yeah.

TRV: Right? Or at least that's his experience. And so, there's a correspondence between the GI Joe's and what he keeps putting into them and then he uses them to have some agency over his father. Blowing up his Saturn car. It's this person who is lost and is attempting to assert some agency, and give himself some meaning. He doesn't know what's going to happen as the night goes on. I feel our books are two sides of the same coin. They're completely opposite. They're like night and day actually on so many levels, but they're part of the same coin.

DKY: That makes sense.

TRV: They're kind of chiaroscuros of each other in a way.

DKY: You know, like it's so interesting. Yeah, yeah. Sure. I’m the light side, you're the dark, gritty underbelly. And we both love referencing Toronto!

TRV: Why is Toronto your muse?

DKY: I dedicate this third book to Toronto.…We are a city of small communities and neighbourhoods. I’ve had the privilege of being able to spend a couple of decades in this city and find that we attach moments of catharsis in our lives to places, to music, to people. And I've had countless moments in Toronto. The places of life changing, whether it's Sneaky Dee’s or the Spit or anywhere, everywhere, right? You spent 17 years in Toronto, so I wonder if you might imagine this, anyone who spends time in the city and who might say the same thing. … I didn't want to forgo that opportunity. Get this story in Toronto. In your book, there are so many references – like police cars rushing down these streets of Toronto. It's very vivid for me. What does it mean for you? And again, I want to come back to style, right? Depiction or portrayal of the city.

TRV: Yeah. Okay. You know what? I mean, people will take this how they’re going to take it. This book is my love poem to Toronto. It's my thank you. It’s so raw. Cause that's, that is my style. I’ve had acting teachers and writing teachers and these are like you know artistic parents, shall we say? I wable able to work with my main writing teacher— Hubert Selby Jr. “Cubbie” Selby, who wrote Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream—for a while. I don't know if you have ever read those books, but there are no punches pulled in those books. Nothing is made better or nicer. Or smoother. That absolutely informs my style. And the poetics in the book? For sure, but I can't separate. Each book teaches me how to write it.

DKY: That the risk that we take as artists, storytellers, that's where that crack is that you described ­– there's risk in that and there's vulnerability in that. To show a character like Sessy—what a raw character: Sessy is fragmented and she's broken, and she's a mama bear.

TRV: She really is, yeah.

DKY: She's so fierce. She's literally crawling, clawing her way across Toronto to rescue her son. What, an image and what a journey for her.

TRV: I’m in the character when I'm writing. They do things, David, that are so—and in my first book too—shameful. Like, things that I would never do. I would never ever ever ‑ . If you read the books you'll see what I'm talking about. But people do them and it is not my job as an actor or as a writer to judge them. It's my job to get them on the page as truthfully as I can. But that is where thom comes in. I want to lift it up into literature. Not just a diatribe of a bunch of terrible things happening. That's not interesting to me. Just a litany of people behaving badly is not interesting to me at all. What is interesting is to dig into that behavior, those feelings, those trajectories. And find the poetics of it that allow me to feel the rhythms, the sounds, the word choices. If I had to encapsulate, I Met Death & Sex Through My Friend, Tom Meuley comes out of the lengths that people will go to erase themselves in order to matter. In order to count for something. The lengths that we will go to to absent ourselves in order to be present.

DKY: And I feel that's tragic. Wee have this misguided sense that to matter I have to A-B-C to be able to feel that I matter. And be bold, right? Can I have meaning in my life and accept that all these awful things happened in my life as well?

TRV: That's right. That's exactly it.

DKY: You know people ask, “David, are you going to write a fourth book?” No, no. [My MC Daniel Garneau reached the end of his emotional arc and I'm more than happy to leave it. In my epilogue I wrote how “these characters’ lives go on, they’ll have more misadventures and adversities, but this is where I'm ending. It's good enough, and rest assured – life is good because they're open to the adventure of it.

TRV: Hmm, those are good words. I think there's something very paradoxical and powerful about at the moment that his life is sewed up, so to speak—there's a bow on it. He's gotten the past the exam. Things are settled. He disrupts that. He chooses, and that gives him more unity and more wholeness. The disruption to go to China to volunteer, not to take. A path that actually gives him the wholeness that he's seeking—as a reader it also sort of retroactively resonates, and it threads all those other characters together. His move to China coheres all the other stories of all the other people at the end and throughout. They all pay attention to his journey. In medical school and throughout — even though it's somewhat backgrounded as a plot point —his community’s stake in his story is there as a plot point. It's there and everybody has aspirations for him and some stake in his making his way. It gives a unity and a cohesiveness and a coherence to all the other stories that are percolating around his story. So, yeah, it's very, it's a wonderful literary twist there. His disruption of his own narrative actually gives a unity and a wholeness to his story.

DKY: Thank you for saying that. That means a lot to me. I hadn't thought about it that way. The absurdity of life.

TRV: Yeah! Yes! Because it's so absurd! Like there, it really matters to them (the characters). And I find that so hilarious.

DKY: Getting access to them—they're absurd and horrifying and hopefully comical in their absurdity. 

TRV: Ridiculous! Richard Walter, a great screenwriting guru teacher at UCLA, says that we want stories to remind us of our humanity. At the end. Right? And so that that really sticks with me. I hope that folks find a reminder of the complexity, of the horror and the comedy of their own lives. It's absurd.

DKY: That absurdity, the chaos. And yet holding that all. And we can be alive and be human and still strive, right?

TRV: Yeah, yeah. I mean, these people fight hard. They fight with everything they've got to make it wherever they think they're going to make it to. And I'm thinking of everyone, of course, except Milk, right? Not Milk. But boy, when he finds purpose ‑. I mean ‑ of course I find it tragic, but it's so beautiful. He finds his purpose. He saves Tom. He mattered! He became himself. That is extraordinary to me.

DKY: I think art making is essentially a hopeful act.

TRV: Yes, yes. And you know, we play our part. We tell our story. That's the game, David.

DKY: I'm glad we can end on this life-affirming statement.

TRV: Thank you so much. You're so thoughtful and insightful.

DKY: I really appreciate talking with you.

TRV: Thank you, David. Yeah, me too. To be continued.

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