Will Ferguson Bibliography:

Why I Hate Canadians (1997)
Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan (Summer 1998)
I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim! (September 1998)
Hokkaido Highway Blues (December 1998)

 

 

 

"I'm not a madman. I'm not a workaholic at all. I write three or four hours a day, that's it. When I was working on Why I Hate Canadians I thought, 'I know how it works. You go up, you can go down just as quickly.'"

 

He's as Canadian as toques and five per cent beer. The quintessential Canadian, because he doesn't wear his nationality like a badge, or even like a shield. Rather, Will Ferguson's nationalism is evident in the gentle staccato of his voice and the quietly emphatic way he states the things in which he believes. It's apparent in his well-developed sense of irony and the laconic way he invites guffaws. In short, in a room crowded with Americans, you might be able to pinpoint Ferguson as a Canuck. But read his work and there's no question. Ferguson is the Canadian's Canadian, even though he's managed to piss a large portion of his fellow nationals right off.
"I don't set out to sound Canadian. I don't have a bag of tricks, or anything," says Ferguson. "I only have two tricks. One: it has to be fun writing it. If you're bored writing it then someone sure as hell will be bored reading it. The second thing is that I read everything I write out loud. I think that might come from northern Alberta." Ferguson was born in Fort Vermilion. "A tar sands town that went bust," without much in the way of television and movies, he grew up in a family where oral storytelling remains part of the culture. "People from the city always kind of lament the passing of this oral history but where I grew up it was still alive."

The withholding of that which many Canadians of his age and era took for granted perhaps fired the writer in Ferguson. "It was a very strange place to grow up. We had one channel: we had CBC. It was worse than having nothing. I remember watching Hymn Sing : that was the first TV show I ever saw. We got the TV and we all huddled around and I watched for about half an hour and then I said, 'This is the most overrated artform!' There had been such anticipation: I'd heard of this magical thing. Television."

Nor could Ferguson easily turn to the community to provide entertainment. Ferguson's large family were, "permanent outsiders" in Fort Vermilion. "It's a metí community, so my youth was basically getting beat up by Indian kids after school or fighting back. So I grew up as a visible minority. Everyone else there went back seven or eight generations." Ferguson turned to reading and still thinks of himself as, "An obsessive reader."

Though he never dreamed of becoming a writer and certainly never planned for it, he now seems also to have become an obsessive writer. Or at the very least, a prolific one. His first book, Why I Hate Canadians was published in 1997 and rampaged up the Canadian bestseller charts almost immediately: alternately drawing bellows of rage and shouts of laughter. He followed the success of that book with the publication of three more non-fiction books in 1998: Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan was published in the summer; I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim! came in the fall, followed by Hokkaido Highway Blues in December.

"I'm not a madman. I'm not a workaholic at all. I write three or four hours a day, that's it. When I was working on Why I Hate Canadians I thought, 'I know how it works. You go up, you can go down just as quickly.'"

Determined to get his two bits said before that down curve might come, Ferguson set to work. "I thought I'd better take advantage of this and line up as many contracts as I could just in case it all crashed." His current run of successes -- and bright ideas for future projects -- indicate that any possible crash doesn't seem likely. But Ferguson admits he's tired after writing four books in under two years. He says that, just now, he's "getting pretty tired of working. I need a holiday."

The holiday is coming in the form of an extended vacation with his wife Terumi and their toddler son in Terumi's native Japan: the place where the couple met during the five years Ferguson was there teaching English. Japan has also served as fodder for two of Ferguson's books: Hokkaido Highway Blues and The Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan.

Ironically enough, the two Canada-inspired books are wildly funny, while the Japan-based books are geared more towards the serious traveler. This has caused some confusion to buyers of his books. The Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan came out around the same time as Katima but it's a totally different type of book: a serious guide book to traveling on the cheap in Japan. "There's some humorous bits, but it's a practical guide. I got a letter from a guy who said, 'You know, I read your first book and I really liked it so I had to order your Hitchhiker's Guide and it wasn't funny at all, man.'"

Asked about the similarity in title to a series of humorous books by Douglas Adams, Ferguson denies any knowledge or intent, "I've never read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I just know it by reputation. And that really wasn't in my mind. I really was hitchhiking in Japan. And I thought, 'Well, this is safe. This is easy. I should write a guide book.' So, there was no play on that at all."

The two Canadian books, however, are extremely funny: if you're in the mood for the joke. Ferguson's style is aberrant and sharp while the humor swings between in-your-face to wildly subtle. Part of the humor stems from the slightly bent way that Ferguson looks at the world: he writes 'em as he sees 'em and sometimes the humor is even lost on him. "I was in a book store in Ottawa waiting to do a reading and someone was reading it [I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim!]. He hadn't bought it yet: but I was sort of watching his reaction. He started laughing at a part I didn't even think was funny. And he was laughing out loud and talking to his friend about it. It was something that didn't stick out in my mind that much even writing it, but it's odd what makes an impression. It's odd how different readers pick different things out of it."

Many of the readers who make up the Canadian press corps have picked up different things entirely: especially in Why I Hate Canadians. "Right from the start I thought it was an excellent title. It just seemed like the obvious title. I got some angry letters. I got a lot of editorials, you know 'Why I Hate This Book' type of thing. The thing that made me feel good was that none of them took on my ideas. They just took on the attitude or the tone: which is such a cheap way to review a book. And I got angry letters. I got whacko letters. I got a letter from a guy in Britain who went on for about six pages about how wonderful the royal family was. People tended to really, really hate the book or really, really love it. I guess the biggest surprise was that I really thought the book was obviously funny. I really thought the first reaction would be laughter when people saw the title." Ferguson was surprised to find, however, that Why I Hate Canadians was either widely lauded or widely dumped upon. "I thought some of the reviews were just deranged," a lot of people, it seems, just didn't get it.

The ones that did got it with passion. The reviewers that didn't hate the book covered it with kudos. The Hamilton Spectator called Ferguson, "The Brash Young Writer that this country has needed for a long time," as well as "one of the most articulate voices of the generation just coming into the influence and power that is its birthright." Heady stuff for the kid from Fort Vermilion who had thought his future lay in film and who finally quit his job in the travel sector in 1997: just as Why I Hate Canadians was shooting up the charts.

I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim has invited less outrage: but perhaps only because the reference is so obscure. An inside reference that a lot of Canadians don't even get. The book, however, is delightful: a coming of age story with a fierce and nationalistic bite.

To explain the reference, Katimavik was a Canadian government funded and sponsored program that blossomed in the 1970s. Of course. While the program was active, it brought thousands of young Canadians together to do "meaningful work." Everything from soup kitchens to nature trails to heritage sites: over 20,000 "katima-victims" went through the program. "The scope of the program was staggering," writes Ferguson. "1400 different communities across Canada, and more than 200,000 people directly involved or affected. For better of worse, Katimavik helped shape an entire generation."

For the lavish sum of $1 a day and "all the granola you could eat" these 20,000 17 to 21 year-olds were taken far from their home towns for a year to see first-hand the cultural mosaic of which they were -- by birth -- a part.

"The thinking about Katimavik was that there is something redeeming about manual labor," says Ferguson. "And the thing is, it just isn't true at all. Anybody doing manual labor knows that it's a tough gig and if they had the option not to do it, they wouldn't. The second notion is that somehow once we get to know each other, we'll like each other. This is the biggest flaw and it runs right through a lot of thinking. They think that, just because you and I are enemies, if we got to know each other, we'd like each other: that's a big flawed premise because -- quite often -- the more you get to know each other, the more you realize that you have nothing in common."

Despite his misgivings about the program's principals, "Katimavik worked on a personal level, despite its good intentions. Just because any time you throw someone into something that big and that intense you come out of it with a rounder personality."

Now 34, Ferguson's personality is sufficiently rounded to take us along with him on great rollicking rides. Thus far he's taken us from the wilds of Canada to the back roads of Japan. Whatever he has in store for us next is sure to be fun: and will hopefully raise still more eyebrows. | February 1999

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.