Greg Rhyno’s first artistic career was as a musician. He toured and recorded with such rock n’ roll outfits as the Parkas, Phasers on Stun, and Wild Hearses, and his music was licensed to television and film, including shows like Scrubs, Greek, and Dawson’s Creek.
His debut novel, To Me You Seem Giant (NeWest Press, forthcoming 2017), draws on that musical experience, telling the story of a man at two very different stages of his life – a teen aspiring to be a rock n’ roll star, and high school teacher trying to figure life out after his chance at stardom seems to have left him behind.
He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph and a high school teacher. I interviewed him over coffee at Planet Bean in downtown Guelph, Ontario.
Jeremy Luke Hill: The book sets up a structure between two sides of an album – the A Side, which follows the protagonist Pete as a teen, and the B Side, which picks up his life as an adult – but the narrative alternates between the two sides. What are you conveying by metaphorically “shuffling” the album in this way?
Greg Rhyno: Well, that album structure, like any structure, is kind of a gimmick, but it was a way to do two coming of age stories at different ages. In terms of shuffling back and forth, I really liked the idea of the two sides bleeding into each other, so there are all these questions that get asked on one side – on Side A or Side B – that get answered on the other side, like I imagine stuff bleeds through on a tape.
JLH: Which is in the direction I was leading, because you do have transitions between the sides, almost like what a DJ would do to blend one song into the next.
GR: Yeah, and that makes sense with the structure, because Pete is kind of stuck in the past. People have tended to read Side A, which takes place in the nineties, as being in the past and Side B, which takes place in the two thousands, as being in the present, but really they’re both in the past. So he’s this guy who’s trying to live in the now, but he’s telling two stories that take place in the past. He’s trying to get on top of that throughout the course of the story, with varying degrees of success.
JLH: Which is why it’s a coming of age story twice, because he didn’t quite get it right the first time.
GR: Exactly. And in life there are all different coming of ages. I mean, the whole high school experience is one that gets described a lot in books and movies. But then there’s this thing of getting used to having a job and being an adult, and that’s another kind of coming of age that I wanted to show too.
JLH: Is this why the central parts of Pete’s life – going to university, going on tour, almost getting signed to a record label – all fall in the gap between the two sides of the album? Why did you chose to leave this part of his life unwritten?
GR: You’re right, I think a lot of the things that might be most interesting about Pete are in that part of his life. He goes off to university. He gets a serious girlfriend. He lives in Toronto. He plays music, goes on tour, almost gets signed. He does all this interesting stuff, but I kind of wanted to write around the perimeter of that. I wanted that to be the blank space that I was working around, because I thought that might be a more interesting way to tell the story than just barreling through from one side to the other. I wanted to see if I could tell the story of a guy saying, all these interesting things have happened to me, but I’m right back where I started from.
JLH: So where a standard narrative would probably take the A Side and follow Pete’s trajectory as a musician through to the tragic moment where he doesn’t end up getting his record deal, you cut all that out and force the reader to restart the story where he does. You present two interrelated stories rather than one wholly integrated one.
GR: I did kind of feel like I was writing two novels at the same time that were in some ways related, which is why I wanted to do this alternating timeline, to say, these could be two separate stories, but they wouldn’t be as good if they weren’t self-referencing.
JLH: And this adds depth to them as well, like where the crisis of Side A wouldn’t seem as significant without what we now know will happen in Side B.
GR: And I think – I hope – it’s those echoes that make each story more interesting. That’s what will make the story successful, because none of this stuff will mean as much as it should without knowing the other side, what happened in the past and what will happen in the future.
JLH: Which makes sense within the metaphor of the album, right? I mean, you really want the individual songs to speak to each other in a way that makes for a complete album.
JLH: Now, Side A of the novel relies for much of its tone and humour on a kind of ironic nostalgia for the nineties, especially for nineties music culture. Given your age and your history as a musician, I assume your personal history is fairly well connected to that culture. What opportunities and difficulties did this period offer to you as a writer?
GR: Well, first of all, it was familiar. This was my first novel, and these were time periods that I felt were fairly manageable for me to write about. But also, for me, that time was when all the interesting things happened to me as a person. People love the eighties, because there was a certain flair and drama about them, but for me, the nineties was when I fell in love with music, when I fell in love with a girl.
And there are a lot of things to work with in the nineties. It was such a weird pocket in time. I was just talking to someone last night about how we tend to celebrate the eighties more, maybe because the pop culture was so much fun, but I love the idea of all this underground culture that bubbled to the surface in the nineties. That stuff was fun to talk about.
JLH: I grew up in that time period also, so the scene where you have Pete talk about this weird new album that has a naked baby in the water chasing a dollar bill on a hook, I related to it very closely. I had almost that exact experience picking up Nirvana for the first time, thinking, what exactly is this?
GR: My dad wouldn’t even let me buy the shirt because it had a naked baby on it.
JLH: Exactly. But, again, when I look back on that time period, I don’t respond to its pop culture in the same way as people who grew up in previous decades. When you ask people what the fifties were about – or the sixties, the seventies, the eighties – the can give you a pretty good stereotype. But when you ask them about the nineties, the don’t really have much to say.
GR: I agree. That happened to me in class once. The kids were talking about the seventies and the eighties, and then they asked me, hey, what was cool about the nineties, and I was like, I don’t know – Nirvana? But for me, really, that was what made it an interesting time, because this music came about in a way – I don’t know if you could call it really underground or alternative – but at least less calculated. And I’m sure that it actually was calculated, because everything in pop culture is calculated, but I think it was this moment in time when people started looking to underground places for their pop culture. That was a cool thing for me.
JLH: In contrast to all that, the humour of Side B often plays on the contrast of Pete’s current life with the life he was expecting in Side A. For example, I love the scene where he has an affair with his former high school teacher in the back of her PT Cruiser while Nickleback plays on the stereo, which is definitely not the rock and roll life he had imagined for himself. What are you hoping to draw from this contrast between the disappointments of middle-age, middle-class life and youthful expectation?
GR: I think it’s less about what the first decade meant or what the second decade meant, because it could have happened in any decade. It’s that the promises of the nineties didn’t pay off and that he’s back where he started from. In a weird way he is getting some of the things he wanted, but not in the way he expected them to be. He has a crush on his teacher as a student, and then he ends up fooling around with her now that he’s also a teacher, but it’s just not as good an idea as it seemed.
JLH: And he finds out that she’s a human being in a way that he didn’t see before. She’s needy, and her marriage is falling apart, and she’s screwed up too.
GR: Yeah, they’re both super flawed. The pedestal that he had her on gets smaller and smaller.
JLH: On the subject of relationships, Pete is represented as being quite passive in this part of his life, on both sides of the album. Even in what looks to be a more hopeful and healthy relationship at the end of the novel, he still isn’t able to take much initiative.
GR: I think he’s a character who doesn’t really know what he wants in any area of his life. He had some pretty specific things that he wanted when he was younger, but they didn’t play out the way he expected, and now he’s very passive. It’s one of his major flaws. He’s still this guy, especially on the B Side, who isn’t much of an actor in his own world. He still hasn’t even learned to drive.
I mean, I didn’t learn to drive until I was seventeen, and I don’t know about you, but I lived out in the country, where everyone I know got their licenses as soon as they could. Otherwise they were just stuck at home. I remember thinking, why am I taking so long to do this, and I though it was something that I could bring to Pete as a character, but even more, where he’s an adult with a job who still hasn’t learned to drive. Because he is this guy who doesn’t take control of his world as often as he should.
JLH: Speaking of growing up rural, the novel takes place in Thunder Bay, a place that Pete simultaneously loathes and loves. On both sides of the album he’s always longing to be elsewhere and also afraid to leave its familiarity. Talk a bit about this conflicted relationship that many people who grow up in small towns seem to have with their home communities.
GR: Yeah, well, identity is so tied up in where you grow up. And one of the things I’m learning is that when I’m talking about Pete it’s easy to talk about myself too, because there’s a lot of me in Pete. I certainly made some conscious moves to have him be different than me, but maybe one of the ways to talk about his relationship to his home town is to talk about my own.
So, I grew up in Thunder Bay, and I went to university in Thunder Bay, but I always knew that I was going to move away, and I did. But the reason why I have Pete return to Thunder Bay is because it’s often been a pull for me. I’ve often wondered, what if I’d gone back? And that’s the way writing sometimes works, where you look at your own life and ask, what if? And when I look at my own pulls to my home town, because there aren’t a lot of economic reasons to live in Thunder Bay. A lot of the industry has shut down. But there was a sense of community that Thunder Bay had that was – and I love Guelph, and it feels very comfortable here – but there was something about that place in that time, before the internet and all that stuff, where everybody who played music knew each other and tried to make the best of that situation. This dogged determination to make something happen.
JLH: There was a sort of local scene that’s harder to form in a bigger town or a more connected time.
GR: Yeah, and we weren’t always successful in making that scene happen, but damn it, we tried all the same. And I really like that about Thunder Bay. It’s easier when you live closer to a big city, like Guelph is to Toronto, to coast on culture that already exists, but in Thunder Bay, it’s all this do it by your bootstraps culture that I really liked.
JLH: Tying into that question of cultural influence, are there any writers or books that you saw this novel as responding to or descending from? Does it have an intentional literary lineage in your mind?
GR: People keep asking this question, what kind of book is it? And I want to call it literary fiction, but that’s so broad a term. I mean, I’m very influenced by Paul Auster. Even in this book, which doesn’t at all have the tone of Auster, it’s the is idea of one guy getting obsessed with another guy’s life, this meta-detective story, which is a bit like Auster. I mean, Pete is living in the shadow of his best friend’s departure, which I feel is something I feel I’m indebted to Auster for.
It’s also pretty easy to compare the novel to the books of Nick Hornby, because he’s a guy who writes about pop culture, and music and books, all the things that Pete likes. And the voice in High Fidelity is very familiar. I’m also indebted to him for that, I think.
JLH: Though I find your voice less flippant.
GR: I know, I’m hopelessly sincere. Nick Hornby has an excellent Britishness that I can’t conjure. It’s my Canadianness – all sincerity.
JLH: Any other authors on that list of influences?
GR: Well, it’s funny, because I’m an English teacher, and I think that I’m way more influenced by that experience of being a teacher. I’m more indebted to high school students than to other books, because Pete is first a student and then a high school teacher.
As for literary influences, a lot of the things that I was reading when I first started to write were so different, like Calvino and Borges, surrealist and magic realist stuff. And I really wanted to write like that, but I was just too much of a doofus. I love that style, and reading stuff like that – tight, dense, mind blowing stuff – is really good for me as a writer, I think, but I always wind up writing about a song I just heard or a jacket I just bought. There’s all this detritus in my head, and as cool and smart as I want to be, I always just end up being me. No matter what I do, I always wind up being myself, even against my own best interests.
Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press, a micro-press that publishes the literary culture of Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director at Friends of Vocamus Press, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph. He has written a collection of poetry, short prose and photography called Island Pieces, a chapbook of poetry called These My Streets, and an ongoing series of poetry broadsheets called Conversations with Viral Media. His criticism, reviews, and poetry have appeared in places like The Bull Calf, CV2, Free Fall, The Goose, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.