Hot-Rodding: The Idiosyncratic World of Jamie Popowich’s Chrome Kisses
by Mark Sampson
Few Canadian authors living abroad are writing stranger fiction than Jamie Popowich. In his new short story collection, Chrome Kisses (Insomniac Press 2018), Popowich unwinds a wild and unpredictable dreamscape that feels at once entirely off-kilter and yet surprisingly recognizable. It’s a world where robot parts are used as combatants in a futuristic wrestling league; where an astronaut, returned to Earth, finds himself embroiled in an unconventional seduction; where a shady lawyer plays a Beckettian game of cat and mouse with a man threatening to jump off a building ledge to his death.
While these stories build upon the otherworldly atmosphere created in his first book, the novel Metraville (Insomniac Press 2011), Chrome Kisses also stands as its own unique, unified creation.
A former resident of Toronto, Popowich now lives in England with his long-time partner, the poet Angela Szczepaniak. We [Sampson and Popowich] conducted this interview over email in February of 2019.
Mark Sampson: Tell me a little about the impetus for Chrome Kisses. Where did these stories start for you? Were you setting out to extend the work you’d done in Metraville, or did you see these pieces as something distinct from the start?
Jamie Popowich: For me, Chrome Kisses is something of itself rather than tied to another book. There were definitely characters who got their starts in Metraville but by now, Metraville is such a dusty thing. A hodge-podge mess, and in retrospect, my attempt at writing a joke book and a sketch comedy book and the two didn’t quite mesh. I wish I’d called it Banana Peels and not got caught up in that word Metraville, which became a creative dead-end.
Chrome Kisses is this pulp-fiction hybrid. I think of it as comedy noir. Like the ideas of film noir colliding with comedy. The film noir boxing story like Robert Ryan in The Set-Up or Gun Crazy‘s broken hearts. A David Goodis hero on the skids, but with Will Ferrell, Elaine May and Pam Grier all making guest appearances.
And what Chrome Kisses is about is all these people holding onto a single moment, a specific time in their lives, when they felt completely alive, but long after that moment’s energy has faded. What do you do when you don’t want to face that it’s ended? And that kept coming up as I wrote it. Unplanned, but clearly pointing toward that as the centre.
Samspon: You’ve been living in England for a number of years now. How has your life away from Canada affected your writing, your creativity? Were you thinking of yourself as an “expat author” during the composition of Chrome Kisses?
Popowich: I absolutely wasn’t thinking about being an “expat.” To me it’s been like 24 hours since I was in Toronto (though, sadly, more like four years). I still subtract five hours when I see the time here. Still obsessively follow the Raptors. What the distance did was reinforce to me that I’m really writing about Toronto, a kind of night-time Toronto, a Toronto on another frequency. But it’s also the Toronto that I lived when I was there (even though on paper that might not be obvious). And I was able to see the city, my own life there, more clearly from a distance.
Sampson: The stories in this collection are each associated with a day of the week. Why did you decide to structure the collection this way? What draws these stories toward those days?
Popowich: Really to capture the mood of each day. Like Saturday is always so alive with ecstatic movement of all those bodies trapped at work the whole week. Or Wednesday. There’s something a bit defeating about being up at 4 am on Wednesday – the rest of the work week still to go, no action on the streets. Meanwhile, Sundays are so cold. Sundays idle. For a decade I combatted Sundays with baths, gin & tonics, or, when I could afford it, champagne, but even then Sunday’s dour face came knocking. Not to say the Sunday story, “Chrome Kisses,” is dour. No way. It’s a kick-ass revenge story. But think Camus’ The Fall – I expect those two kept meeting up on Sundays. Sundays are really the time of major revelations in empty bars called Mexico City.
Sampson: Can you talk a little bit about the character Tavis Stiker, who appears in your story “The Dancing Fingers” – a tale told in a comic register and yet also feels a little sad. We’ve got this guy with a cool job (astronaut) with an uncool problem (impotence) trying to talk up a girl. Where did he begin for you?
Popowich: So the real Tavis Stiker was this incredible asshole. I was doing these yoga classes at 6:30 am near my home and this guy showed up who looked like one of those ’70s action figures – but the astronaut version. The dolls I mean are the ones that are still drifting around rummage sales sometimes. Or behind glass cases at comic stores. Most of them have their clothes missing but these detailed rubber heads (Spiderman/Batman) and, for some reason, wearing huge plastic underwear.
Anyway, the real Tavis kept telling the yoga instructor to work us harder. “Push us. This is easy.” And the instructor, this super-sweet, gentle, person, finally did some extended “push us” stretches. And his knee blew out immediately. He lay on his mat the rest of the class groaning and saying he was alright. And showed up for one more class but couldn’t even move. But still complained he wasn’t being worked hard enough.
The fictional Tavis’ difficulties came from hearing the effects that returning from Space to Earth has on astronauts.
Tavis is like Roth’s Zuckerman or Christie’s Marple. He finds himself in these situations, in life, not understanding who he is or what the heck is going on. I’m actually working on a Tavis novel, a screwball comedy, about battling real estate agents, unemployment, and the myths of the moon. It’s sort of Bringing Up Baby meets Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I finally figured the novel out last year when I realized the moon should not talk. A myth can’t speak. I wish I’d realized this ten drafts ago.
Sampson: How challenging has it been for you to be a Canadian writer publishing with a small Canadian press and yet living abroad? How has that affected both your approach to writing and how you promote/market your work?
Popowich: This is where the distance just kills me. I’ve got my parents roaming around all the Indigos at Christmas moving Chrome Kisses to the Hot Titles section and then I’m hearing back from other people that no one can find the book in the store. I mean, my god, if I was there I could have stopped them. Now there all these Indigo staff resenting having to put my book back.
But also with the distance I lose the ability to do readings of the book. To sit at a table all day at the small press fairs meeting people. These are just absent right now. And they are part of the process I really like. I’m certain that I’ll be in later this year for some of that but this absence hurts at the moment. I’m doing readings here in the U.K. but it’s not the same thing.
I’m looking at the long game with Chrome Kisses. I’ve made some ads that I’ve posted on my Twitter and Facebook account. These other people are making professional ads about the book in April. I have just received footage from this South Korean interview I did to promote the book that went awry but I can put it out there. I feel like Chrome Kisses needs legwork but will find its readers. And I was lucky to work with Insomniac again who really embraced the type of short stories I wanted to publish. For them to still support short story collections is so vital.
Sampson: The prevailing tone of Chrome Kisses is one perhaps best described as absurdist, as postmodern playfulness. Who are your influences as a writer in this regard? With the vehicular violence of the title story, I see shades of J.G. Ballard’s Crash; with some of the more dialogue-heavy tales, I see the mark of Beckett or even Bertolt Brecht. Who are your literary forbears?
Popowich: I don’t see Chrome Kisses as a postmodern text. I’m not even sure postmodern texts exist anymore. Have we moved into hyper literature? Not just literature and language that collides with technology but with the overstimulated extremes. That’s what Chrome Kisses intersects with. As well as aspiring to the pulp novels, the movies of Samuel Fuller, of Film Noir, and the immediacy of events. The pulp texts of the ’50s and ’60s that projected the world as it really was underneath the suburban myths. About a generation, then and now, of lost people. Facing unemployment. Who can’t afford houses. Drifting. And as I was writing these stories, I kept thinking how I wanted their look to reflect what we’re reading now. Like “Tulip” being cut into moments — Each page a little blip or tweet. Or “The Thrash” being all these clips of Farrow’s life as if we were doing a deep dive on YouTube.
As for literary influences, from the pulp writers, Jim Thompson’s The Getaway. Any Charles Willeford. To break it down a bit, for “The Zero Kings” Elaine May’s Ishtar. Her films and her plays, especially Hotline. “The Poodle Springs” was my obsession with Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Lapdog” and Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd.” Both stories are dealing with alienation – and rereading the Chekhov, I got caught up in how the world bypasses Dmitri and Anna. The story is full of people who pass them without ever noticing them. Well, Dmitri’s wife speaks to him, and one of his friends does, but they’re either not listening or bored with him. And “Absentricity” was my attempt, no joke, at rewriting Turgenev’s “The Torrents of Spring” but if the comedian, Noel Fielding, was the star.
As to the Ballard influence, in the past yes, with the title story, “Chrome Kisses,” not as much as expected. Camus’ novel, The Fall, really stuck with me when I was writing this story. Sadly, my French is terrible, but the Justin O’Brien translation, the voice captured in that version is mesmerizing. And Tarantino’s Death Proof. Well, that and Vanishing Point, Spielberg’s Duel. This TV movie called Death on the Freeway from 1979. I got hooked on car-centred films. Also, I wanted to capture this phrase that the writer Gary Indiana created, trigger rampage, about mass shootings. Like how do you write a story about mass shootings? Well, not the shootings but to explore the impulse. And a revenge story. But condense the action. That was the plan.
Sampson: Does repatriating back to Canada play any role in your future plans, or is England home now? Do you see yourself making larger inroads with British small-press scene?
Popowich: If I can figure a way back to Canada with a job, I’m interested. I love living in the UK – I’ve moved from Plymouth to London now to Nottingham and enjoyed that but it’d be interesting to move back, to live in Toronto for a while, and see what’s changed.
As to the British small-press scene, this publisher from Manchester, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, is releasing amazing books. The writers they are working with are all very really exciting. And the covers they design are all so beautiful.
Right now let’s see if Insomniac wants my novel, When Gravity Disappears, later this year.
Mark Sampson’s next novel, All the Animals on Earth, a post-apocalyptic sex romp set in an alternate version of Toronto, is forthcoming from Wolsak & Wynn in 2020.