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Dirtbags Can Write Books: Elizabeth Ellen Interviews Steve Anwyll photo

The first (and only, thus* far) time I met Steve Anwyll, I was dressed as a teenage mutant ninja turtle. This feels appropriate. I think there was a Camus quote on a wall behind us where we stood, talking, after a reading in Montreal that night. This, also, feels appropriate. I wish someone had taken our picture. Though, this, too – that no one did – feels, likewise, appropriate. (I wish I could remember the quote.)

I’ve known Steve for years, via Tumblr. (The only social media on which I do not feel totally insane because I know almost no one on there; even Steve has long since flown the site.) I liked his writing on there and eventually asked if he wanted to publish something on Hobart. Thus began a series of dispatches written by Steve for the site. Thus our friendship deepened as I became his editor as well as friend.

Steve Anwyll is the rare breed of writer (these days) who feels, while you read him, totally liberated. He didn’t get an MFA. He doesn’t know many people in the literary “community.” He doesn’t, to my knowledge, have an agent. In other words, he is writing solely for himself. And you can feel that on every page of his novel: WELFARE, which reads like a little bit Hunter S. Thompson, a little bit Bukowski, a little bit S. E. Hinton, a little Irvine Welsh, and even a little Frank McCourt. Mostly, though, it’s a whole lot of Steve Anwyll. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in the last couple years, and an important – and, alternately, tragic and hilarious – depiction of the often overlooked and underwritten about, lower economic culture of Canada (turns out they, too, have guys driving big trucks, drinking canned beers, raising hell!). If you want to better understand what it’s like to have little to no education, little to no job prospects, little to no romantic life, little to no ties to family, but a wit and survival instinct: read this book. If you want to learn how to rip carpet out, apply for welfare, and scarf free hot dogs handed out to the homeless in a park, read this book.

Also, Welfare is a Tyrant book and all Tyrant books should be bought (or stolen - sorry, Gian) and read in the same way Black Cat and Black Sparrow books were read decades earlier, the way Sub Pop records were important in the 90s. The way SF/LD books are important now. (LOL) (True story) Read Steve’s book. Read an excerpt on the site today!


*drink every time I say thus.

My first question, and I think we somewhat addressed this in text messages, but let’s address it here, publicly: I was surprised to find no author bio on or in the book, as well as no mention in the book’s back jacket description of you being Canadian or of the book being set in Canada. Was this a conscious act, on the part of you or Gian, your publisher at Tyrant? Did you see it as narrowing your audience, to announce somewhere on the outside of the book that the novel is essentially Canadian, as are you? Personally, I found this to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. Reading Welfare I felt I had been bamboozled by every Canadian friend who moved to the United States and led me to believe Canada was devoid of unsavory characters and elements, such as racism and violence and economic inequality. And I thought, if you were Mexican or French or Chinese, the book would definitely highlight that somewhere, in an author bio or a book description or both!

Yes, let's address this publicly. I don't know what Gian's intentions were in not having an author bio. And I never thought about it. But I don't think Americans are chomping at the bit to read the great Canadian novel. I know that in the past, with some of my writing, I've been told that Americans wouldn't get specific things because of my 'Canadian' wording/spelling. You’ve busted my balls for it.

I'm glad it makes you think of Canada in a different way. It's definitely not the nirvana lie your expat friends have been feeding you. To think anywhere is free of racism and violence and inequality makes me laugh. They'd be a line up around the globe to get in.

But that's not human. And this place is empty.

You're probably right. If I was Mexican or French or Chinese, it'd be a selling point. But that's a reflection of what the people want. If America thinks you're 'exotic' it'll be sold. I'm fucking bland looking. I could be from Michigan or Nebraska just as easily as Ontario. Would I be that much different? No. And that's appealing about the book. That I can erase the border in a way.


The fact Stan is Canadian, also helps the reader understand how he is sixteen and on welfare. I don’t think in the U.S. you can receive welfare if you’re under eighteen. Maybe I’m wrong on that. But I’m assuming in Canada that sixteen, the age of your main character Stan when the book opens, is the minimum age? and it is referred to as ‘student welfare’? how common was it for teen boys – and girls? – to leave home and go on welfare when you were growing up?

Once when I was in New York, after a reading, I was asked how I was able to be on welfare, or live on my own when I was that young. And I'm not really sure. I'm quite charming and manipulative. So I figure that went a long way.

But when I first signed on, I was still in school, so yeah, it was considered student welfare because I didn't have to look for work. I had to maintain a passing record and have decent attendance. That was it. So it was something set out in the welfare system, but definitely not common for a teen. In a high school of about 1800 people, the guy I lived with and I were an anomaly for sure. But now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure the Mitch character was on it as well.


In Welfare, the main character, Stan, who I am assuming is a stand in for you, talks frequently of reading books, but he never mentions one by title or author. Did you read as a child/teen/young adult? and if so, who were some of the authors you liked? books you especially remember? did your father read?

It's funny that people ask if my father read. And outside of the newspaper or a magazine, not really. One time I checked Needful Things out of the library and I wasn't reading it, so he did. I remember being shocked. But in a very nice way.

I started reading because my older sister avidly did it. Some of the first books I read when I was young were her cast off Stephen King novels (in particular Silver Bullet, The Gunslinger). And an extensive Archie comics collection she bestowed upon me.

On my own, I was in the village library reading Mad Magazine. And other horror/dark fantasy/sci fi novels that looked good to me. I liked books because there was a lack of censorship, a horror book back in the 80's was far more violent and filled with sex than any movie.

The Welfare years would be when I found The Beats. I remember reading Junkie and thinking: holy shit, here's a guy who's left of center, you know. Dirtbags can write books. I was also reading sci fi and dark fantasy at that time as well. The guy I lived with had like 400 paperbacks he'd swiped over the years. Endless supply.

Plus, when you have very little money, a used paperback is the best entertainment value you can get. 


I’m assuming, also, this book is somewhat autobiographical, was there ever then, in the time the book is set, the thought that you might one day be a novelist or writer? was that a dream unmentioned in Welfare?

Oh, for sure. I have a vivid memory of being, like, eleven and thinking to myself that I wanted to write. But then, immediately, a voice in my head said that people with factory worker dads don't get to write books. I knew it was a hobby of the rich even then.

And yeah. I also knew that what was happening to me was unique in it's way and some day would make a good book. I saw it's potential as something to write about. But you know, being on welfare doesn't exactly bolster your confidence. I needed the years to let it stew, and spend some time typing. Fucking up.


There are so many memorable scenes from Welfare that have remained fresh in my mind: the stalking the ex-gf outside a wedding and subsequently getting beaten up by her new boyfriend, the eating of six free hotdogs from a Salvation Army truck, the manual labor job Stan is forced to work once a month, the time in question out in the country, on a nature preserve, with a Mennonite who seems joyful about moving logs from the ground to the back bed of a truck, infuriating Stan, and also the day Stan spends doing lawn maintenance with a man who buys him donuts and fast food and pays him in cash. Were all of these scenes actual experiences of yours?

The only thing on that list that didn't happen to me is getting beat up by the boyfriend. But I should have. I feel like writing that in the book is a way to pay back the universe for a little borrowed time. Right a wrong. Get my comeuppance.

And 6 hotdogs is probably a liberal guess as well.


I can’t help looking at the back of the book thinking, “Stan would hate blurbs. Also, does anywhere inside the book Stan talk about ‘spliffs and 40s?’ this feels like the language of the publisher, not of Stan or Steve.” How did you feel about the back cover of Welfare? I also see Stan shrugging his shoulders about things like book design. J

I can see Stan hating the culture of the blurb. Needing that vote of approval/acceptance before anyone will give ya the time of day. And yeah, I don't think I'd say spliff necessarily, but I/Stan would say 40. 

The back cover is basically a sales pitch though, right? So I feel like it's trying to appeal to a wider audience than a bunch of book nerds. Or assholes like us. Because it can. And maybe to lure them in using a more accepted vernacular is the way to do it. Even if it's not the language of Stan/myself. I don't know, I've never sold a book before.

If I had a complaint, I'd say there isn't a blurb from you. That would've meant a lot to me. But that's on me. I was never like, "listen here, Gian…"

Also, Stan is a character possessed with great style. He'd care about what it looks like.

I do get the feeling that you have a problem with the back cover though. What's eating you?


Welfare continually made me a) want a cigarette and b) to never smoke again. just kidding. Mostly a).  is the age for cigarettes still 18 in Canada? They’ve been raising it, city by city, to 21 here in the states with not a hint of backlash from anyone and I, personally, find it appalling. But then, in Canada, in most areas you can still buy beer at 18 or 19, can’t you? I guess that’s one thing you never mention outright and I’m just now realizing. Because Stan is always waiting outside liquor stores for some sympathetic sap to buy him whiskey for a dollar payment. But it’s not mentioned how old he has to be to buy beer. I guess he’s only 16 and 17, so it’s not relevant. But personally, I’m curious. And if Canada, like the U.S., is raising those ages now, also.

I don't know each provinces legal drinking age, but yeah in Ontario, where I grew up, it's 19, and here in Quebec, it's 18. I’ve never heard of a city raising the limit, and couldn't really seeing that as an issue (I find it laughable), unless it was a very small, rural community that is basically a religious/moral group.

Now there's a story as American as apple pie.

I'm not surprised though that no one does anything to stop it. I don't think that's a border issue. Freedom isn't something North Americans care about much any more. Canadians are just as likely to sit by and have our rights taken away. I've noticed since moving here, Montreal, people will definitely take to the streets with their signs and messages of hope more frequently than say, Toronto, although I don't see it as enacting any change. Oftentimes, the general public becomes outraged because a demonstration inconveniences them somehow, late for hot yoga or something.

North Americans have fucked up priorities.


I’m not sure how old you are currently, but I’m guessing it’s been at least a decade, maybe two, since you were sixteen. And one of the thoughts I kept having while reading Welfare was that “kids today” (because I’m definitely old and curmudgeony and talk like this in my head constantly) would never ‘run away’ from home and go on welfare. They don’t seem to care a whit about independence. or the indignities of parental rules and regulations. Maybe because they don’t know any. Or maybe because they see the rules and regulations of life as much more daunting and frightening. At any rate, it was sort of refreshing to see this young man, this boy, fighting his way alone through life, even if he is mostly losing. I admired his unwillingness to return ‘home’ to his parents’ house. at all costs. Do you see this as a marked generational difference? Or as an individual one? Do you think there was some…value to our parents making it clear we were not only not wanted, past the age of eighteen, but would be kicked out, were we to try to stay? My mother and her boyfriend straight up left the city, moved into a small apartment in another town, after I graduated high school. Not that I ever would have continued to live with them. I, like Stan, would have done anything else. to get out. of that situation. And thank god.

Oh yeah, it's been a few summers since I saw 16.

Being a childless loser, I don't really know much about 'the kid's these days'. But I'd say it's a bit of both. I don't meet many people my age that left home at 16, or 18. And if they did it's generally under, what they consider, to be dire circumstances. Or for school.

I'm pretty sure it was implied that I wasn't going to be around long after my 18th came. Never out right said. But I left home early because I wanted to. I hadn’t wanted to be there for a few years. I felt alienated in that house. The problem was I couldn't piece together a means of supporting myself or find someone else to take care of me.

I'd also bet it has a lot with demographics more than generational. Like poor kids are probably more likely to hit the road because their parents don’t want to keep paying for them/they can do just as good on their own or with a friend. Or gay kids. Anyone who doesn't feel accepted under a roof is going to cut out first chance they get. It's survival.


Some of the things I was surprised to read about in a novel set in Canada:

            -tobacco fields (I guess I only pictured them being in the South, the American South): but both Stan and the ‘dirty Mennonite’ speak of having picked tobacco.

            -overt racism: there’s a chapter about Stan’s neighbors, who are self-defined Satanists, and one of them, Mitch, talks about playing a game called, “broom a coon.” Stan immediately pictures a broom and a raccoon. But Mitch goes on to describe “going to the black part of town” and hitting black guys in the back of the head with the broom handle: “never even have to get out of the car.”

            -big trucks: Stan talks a lot about guys who work in factories and drive big trucks. Some of whom yell ‘faggot’ at him when he’s walking down the street.

            These are all experiences, attributes, most Americans reading them would attribute negatively to the U.S. I’ve never read a book set in Canada with descriptions such as these. How much more in common do you think Canada has with the United States? I remember a Canadian friend’s nine-year-old daughter remarking to my friend/her mother, “But the U.S. is so much more violent than Canada, right?” and wondering why, then, my friend and her husband had chosen to raise all three of their children in the U.S. rather than in Canada.

If you were to sit down and watch an American beer commercial and then a Canadian one, they wouldn't be that different. Replace the eagle with a beaver. Our grocery stores have all the same things. We're sold the same life. How much different could we be? It's an imaginary line, devised by the rich.

Although, by comparison, we're much more isolated than Americans. We have about a 10th of your population. Our largest city, Toronto is less populated than Los Angeles. There's a lot of wide open space out there. And the lack of people is the first thing I notice/appreciate when I get off the greyhound from NYC. Plus most of the country is fucking cold. Making it hard to get out and do things. Something I think contributes to artistic endeavors. You got to keep cabin fever from setting in somehow.

Tobacco production was huge where I grew up. So much so, Canadian country music legend (and unofficial spirit of Canada) Stompin' Tom Conners, god rest his soul, wrote a song about it called “Tilsonburg,” named for a city, very close to where Welfare is set, famed for its production.

Hey Tom, You ever been to Tillsonburg?
Tillsonburg? My back still aches when I hear that word
While, a way down Southern Ontario
I never had a nickle or a dime to show
A fella beeped up in an automobile
He said "You want to work in the Tobacco field's of

Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg) x2
My back still aches when I hear that word

One thing I've noticed, because of writing putting me in touch with so many Americans, is that if something is a part of your cultural make-up, you find it impossible to believe that it could mean just as much to someone else, without being in an American context. Case in point, country western shit. It's huge here. Horses, cowboys, rodeos, cattle, the music. It's as much a part of our development as it is yours. You don't own it. And that goes for a lot of things, like dumb hicks in life-sized Tonka trucks yelling faggot at anyone who looks a little bit different.

And to answer the questions surrounding why would your Canadian friend ever choose to come to America, running the risk of becoming the victim of random violence, and raise her children is simple. Opportunity. There's more of it there. Hell, look at me, I never would've gotten a book published in Canada. Waste of my time to even try.


On a more humorous note, there were many times in which Stan, the ‘anti-hero’ as the back cover calls him (?), of Welfare, reminded me of the Ethan Hawke character in the mid-90s movie, Reality Bites. Did you ever see that? I blame that movie for my first marriage. I 100% fell for the Ethan Hawke character. The cool loner dude who doesn’t work but is really smart and literary and dirty and sexy. After that movie I immediately broke up with the Republican golfer I’d been living with and married a guy without a car who was working at an Indian fast food restaurant in the strip mall where I also worked. Did you ever see Realty Bites? Any thoughts on it or Ethan Hawke? If you were Winona Ryder, would you go with Ethan Hawke or the more stable but boring Ben Stiller character who buys you the really big 7-Eleven pop? Let me add that Ethan Hawke also tries to woo you at the end by very intensely/almost angrily singing/shouting a Violent Femmes’ song into a microphone in a dirty, grunge bar you just happen to also be at. The song that is about getting ‘just one fuck.’

There you go about that back cover again.

I haven't seen it. But I feel like I should send the producers a thank you letter for breaking up your Alex P Keaton future. Yikes. You’re better off with a deadbeat. They build character. At least that's what I keep telling my wife.

So yeah, I'd pick Ethan Hawke, even if he tried to serenade me, young Winona Ryder, in a grunge bar, presumably in front of people that I know.

Actually, sitting here thinking about it, my wife and I probably look like some pathetic alternate timeline where Ethan Hawke's loner and Winona Ryder's dark haired pixie ended up together. So I have to pick him. Or it's like giving up on myself. On us.


Finally, if you were a father of a sixteen year old today, what would your advice be to the boy? About life, about work, about education, about women, about being a man?

Good idea. End on something light and breezy.

Life is supposed to be hard. Don’t take the easy way all the time. It's better to put your head down and not worry about what's going on around you. Find peace with regret. Love is worth more than money. Avoid trends, the media and contact with the government. Only respect those who give it to you. Make your own food. Education isn't something you have to buy. Never look down on a woman. Treat them with kindness and respect (this goes for everyone). Chances are you'll get it back. And if not, there's another one who will. A man is only as good as his word. Control your anger. And if you listen closely, the universe will tell you which direction to take.

image: kristen collett