Wangersky's first novel a gritty streetscape

Heidi Wicks
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Don't ever invite Russell Wangersky over to your house. The experience might end up in his next novel.

"The Glass Harmonica" details the lives of residents of a fictional McKay Street in St. John's over a staggered period of about 26 years.

Award-winning writer Russell Wangersky is getting set to launch his latest book his first novel Tuesday 7 p.m. at The Ship Pub. "The Glass Harmonica" is looking at the fictional neighbours on a fictional McKay Street in St. John's. - Photo by Joe Gibbon

Don't ever invite Russell Wangersky over to your house. The experience might end up in his next novel.

"The Glass Harmonica" details the lives of residents of a fictional McKay Street in St. John's over a staggered period of about 26 years.

"I steal houses' interiors as a place where I put characters," the author admits without remorse.

"When I write about a person, I have to be able to picture them in their surroundings. While these houses are all on McKay Street, it's not actually McKay Street. There's one on Quidi Vidi Road, one on Bond Street, there's a house on Prescott Street where, basically, I've been to parties or events (with) people I know, and I make up characters to put in their houses and move them all to one street."

The first few chapters have all the allure of bakeapple cheesecake - some residents are sweet, while others leave you with a biting aftertaste. Regardless, you can't help devour every saucy bite.

Thanks to the literary boom in our province and capital city in recent years, stories set in St. John's have almost become a genre unto themselves, just as stories set in New York, London or Dublin have a specific flair.

Yet while Wangersky admits place is important, he didn't plan to write about St. John's.

"The original intention was to view how different neighbours on a street have different views of a singular experience and how their views modify each other's views and those of the reader in the end. It was never my intention to write about St. John's, strangely. I live here, so what happens here in older neighbourhoods is pretty darn central to my experience, but I think it translates well to neighbourhoods in other areas where the issue of gentrification exists," he says.

There are plenty of streets in the Georgetown area of St. John's, for example, that have become an interesting fusion - neighbourhoods peopled with young professionals as well as older folks who have lived on their street for more than 30 years, and sometimes this creates resentment among longtime residents.

Wangersky believes this resentment exists for a number of reasons.

"(It's) where what used to be a really formally structured neighbourhood sort of comes apart. First it's shops that disappear because people are moving by car to go to other places to shop. Then, once the walking traffic goes, a whole different style of neighbour appears.

"There's also the sheer cost implications, and that's something I touch on later in the book. What happens to your tax bill when suddenly the houses around you cost $50,000 more than they used to? If you're a pensioner living on one side of the street and there are (other houses) across the street worth more than yours, they tend to get carried along in the tax flow. So that does sometimes create some bitterness in the process."

A good story has to go beyond the geography of a certain place, he adds, because while that resonates with locals, it can alienate others.

The idea of false memory is also central to this story.

"I had just finished the fire book," he says of "Burning Down the House," his acclaimed non-fiction account of his eight-year career as a volunteer firefighter, "and I was thinking about how much of that book is based on my own memory, and how the other firefighters' experiences and memories were different on them than they were on me.

"So, you end up wondering about what in memory is real. There's been a lot of work done on witnesses of traumatic events, and the fact that if there's three witnesses to an accident, you keep them separated because they find a Stockholm syndrome-like kinship in the joint experience of having witnessed something. As they talk, they modify their own memory."

While he started out with a technical idea involving false memory, he eventually got caught up in the characters.

"Some of them are real stinkers," he says with a laugh. "These are some of the meanest, rottenest characters that I have ever written, in this book. But I know why they work the way they do, and I know what makes them tick."

Take Liz and Glen - two characters who are quite evil, yet they are that way for a reason.

"They're living the lives they're meant to live. They really live for me; they're people," Wangersky said.

You'll have to read the book to find out why.

Russell Wangersky's "The Glass Harmonica" is being launched Tuesday, May 4 at the Ship Pub at 7 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

If you want to read what he has to say about whether he prefers writing fiction or non-fiction, visit Heidi Wicks' blog, Wicks on Flix, on The Telegram's website:

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: St. John's, McKay Street, Quidi Vidi Road Bond Street Prescott Street New York London Dublin Georgetown Stockholm

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