FEATURED AUTHOR: Aaron Chapman, The Last Gang in Town – Galiano #LitFest

(This is third of Galiano Island Books features on authors and artists attending the 2017 Galiano Literary Festival February 17-19th on Galiano Island. Tix for festival and writing workshops still available (250) 539-3340 or leetrentadue@gmail.com.)

Vancouver is a quickly changing city, rife with tensions and turmoil that come with progress. Amidst the shifting sands of a city on the rise, Aaron Chapman documents the nooks and crannies of Vancouver’s modern history. Music, art, street culture & nightlife.

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“Aaron Chapman first came to my attention for his Vancouver history columns in the Courier newspaper. Then came his entertaining, thoroughly researched, and well written books on the Penthouse and Commodore nightclubs (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012 and 2014), and his contribution along with myself and others on Vancouver Confidential (Anvil Press, 2014).

His most recent book on the Clark Park Gang, The Last Gang in Town (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016) grew out of his Courier article on youth gangs and firmly established him as a Vancouver historian of note, able to masterfully tackle any slice of the city’s past.” – Lani Russwurm

It’s our pleasure at Galiano Island Books to welcome Mr. Aaron Chapman back to the Galiano Literary Festival. He was with us 2 years ago sharing his work Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom that won the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award (BC Book Prizes) in 2015.

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In Live at the Commodore, Aaron Chapman (author of Liquor, Lust, and the Law, a bestselling history of Vancouver’s Penthouse Nightclub) delves into the Commodore’s archives to reveal stories about the constellation of characters surrounding the club over the last 80-plus years, as well as startling, funny, and outrageous anecdotes about the legendary acts that have graced its stage. Filled with never-before-published photographs, posters, and paraphernalia, Live at the Commodore is a visceral, energetic portrait of one of the world’s great rock venues.

This year Aaron is back at #LitFest with a new book  The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park and sat down with me to answer some questions about Vancouver, history, and the life of a writer.

Author and musician Aaron ChapmanPhotograph by Rebecca Blissett

KK – Welcome to the land of rum-runners and ganja-growers ya lily-livered sea bass. Have ya spent much time on Galiano or the Gulf Islands?

AC – Lily-livered sea bass? Good Lord–I don’t think there are any lilies in this liver, matey. I’ve perhaps spent too many nights in bars across the world over the years on tour as a musician to have anything fresh in my liver anymore.

I can tell you that I was born and raised in Vancouver, but despite how close I’ve lived to the Island, I can’t recall ever coming to visit until my first Galiano Literary Festival visit in 2014, though I’m certain I must have earlier, and I’ve visited Mayne Island, and sailed to Saturna, and there is a distant family connection to De Courcy Island I gather.

The history of the Gulf Islands and some of the local politics certainly interest me. My cousin and his wife have lived on the Island for a half-dozen years now, so I’ve been fortunate enough to come over to visit and spend some time to hole up in a cabin there to write.

So much stuff I write has to do with Vancouver as a city and it’s history, and I live right outside of Chinatown—it’s good to get out of town and get a little work done in a different setting and hide out there for a bit—like a bank robber who after he pulls a job splits town and lies low for a while!

KK- There seems to be a ‘historical renaissance’ going on in Vancouver. There are lots of people digging up old stories and documenting the way things used to be. Have you noticed this? What do you attribute it to?

AC – I think that’s very correct. Bookstore owners that I speak with regularly tell me that local history non-fiction books are some of the most popular sellers in their stores. There’s seems to be a tremendous appetite for this sort of thing right now. Just look how popular those on-line images are when shared on social media of your old neighborhood, or a street corner that might still be there but has certainly changed –and the flood of memories and comments those evoke.

However, in Vancouver it’s even more unique. I know people say that Vancouver doesn’t have any history because it’s such a young city—but to me, it’s almost more interesting and fascinating because the result of the city being so young is that Vancouver has changed so much before our very eyes. What many have seen take place in Vancouver int the last 30 years would have taken 100 years to happen in another town. We’ve been at a crucial crossroads.

chapman-historyUndeniably, the interest in local history must in part stem from the feeling that with all the rapid changes in Vancouver some have been beneficial, and others very bad. So there’s seems to be a great interest in recording, capturing or and preserving the near history of the city and its neighbourhoods as well. Our own memories tend to become mirages after a time. Did that really happen? Did that place really exist? Was I the only one that remember it that way?

Depending on the time period — in Vancouver you aren’t just merely using what might be a bland historical record to tell a story either. In many cases you are potentially dealing with characters and people who are still alive, or their children or grandchildren who can tell you about them. Not to mention we are very much more aware of the different cultures who have played a part and now take a much less monochromatic view of things.

I get a lot of feedback from those readers who lived through something I’ve written about, and they tell me of their memories triggered or confirmed. Reciprocally, for many younger people who weren’t there, they are fascinated to read about what happened perhaps right around the corner from them not so long ago—so it feels like very much a living thing.

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These are not dusty photos of the dead that don’t have significance to us. Some of these stories and people are like ghosts who just left the room, and we wish we might be able to spend just a little more time with them by reading about it.

KK – I’ve heard you say… “Vancouver owes much of its existence, and most significant places, to liquor and partying.” Tell me what you mean pls!

Most of the history of urban Vancouver it seems that is taught in schools, or what we heard about as kids, is the only the corporate history of how various forestry, mining, and railroad entities came together. But the city was started by a Gastown saloon keeper who offered all the whiskey they could drink for a day to some nearby loggers if they helped him build a bar. The city that grew up around Gassy Jack’s bar would of course come to be Vancouver.

The Lions Gate Bridge was underwritten by the Guinness family. Liquor has played a great role in the DNA of Vancouver. Breweries themselves were in the early days of the city as crucial as any other industry. The Reifel Family who built the Commodore Ballroom made it’s money exporting alcohol to thirsty Americans in prohibition times then took those profits and made more money the way Vancouverites have made money since it’s inception—in real estate.

So it seems we’re just now only looking at the social history of the city. Not just the business people and the history that came out of boardrooms, but the everyday ruffians and street heroes that also played a hand in it’s creation and evolution. People ask me if I’m only going to ever write books about Vancouver history. I certainly have some other ideas for novels and literature.

But right now there are so many fascinating avenues of people, places, the different cultures that have played a role, that have been forgotten or never recognized, with people discovering documents or photos of recent city history found in their grandparents attics, that so much of Vancouver history is like an undiscovered continent to me right now. It’s an exciting time to be one of the explorers.

KK – To make it as a modern independent creative I’ve found it takes ‘weaving together a patchwork quilt of creative awesomeness’ and I’ve noticed you’ve got many fingers in many pies. Pls tell us a little bit about how you’ve turned your passions, interests & lifestyle into a thriving creative career pls.

My last three books have been successful, but it would be difficult to live in apparently one of the most expensive cities in North America off my books alone. I write a little bit for the Vancouver Courier weekly, as well as some other publications here and there. But one has to do a few different things to keep the lights on at Stately Chapman Manor.

I started doing some voice-over acting more seriously a couple of years ago on some cartoons. With my deeper voice, I always tend to get the bad-guy parts! But they have been great fun to do. I spent most of my 20s and 30s as a musician, touring across Canada, the United States and in Europe in punk and folk rock bands—but the nice thing with writing is that you don’t have to do sound checks for it.

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When I was at the University of British Columbia I studied history and attended the film school there. But to be honest I always wanted to be a polymath like Alan Bennett or Jonathan Miller and do a bunch of different things. Gyles Brandreth is a friend and writing mentor. I still haven’t got around to being a Nobel Prize winning Virologist or played on the starting eleven for Newcastle United – but if they call, I will be ready.

KK – Wildcard, what else is on your mind?

Looking forward to the Galiano Literary Festival! What I like about it is that it really isn’t just readers there, but so many who come to attend the festival are writers themselves, and with the curiosities and questions that other writers have. Many of the questions that people have in the book presentations are often directly related to the mechanics of writing, or how the book itself came together.

So it’s a chance to listen and talk to others how they work or how things came together. The workshops are great. I’ve learned from poets and fiction writers about their tools just as much as I have from other historians.

Of course, it’s also a damn fine social occasion and there some other writers who are very talented friends there like Grant Lawrence, Ashely Little, and Yasuko Thanh who is amazing. George Bowering was my neighbour when I grew up, and I always have a laugh with him. But I also look forward to chatting with some people I only know a little but certainly know their work, like Charles Demers and Mark Leiren-Young. And I always sail back to the dark streets of Vancouver better for attending and making new friends there. And who can beat the location?

I do note that I’m to present a talk on my latest book The Last Gang in Town the morning after the legendary Saturday night social that takes place at the festival. So I’ll be sure to shake off my lily-liver from whatever crosses its path the night before that morning. Do say hello.


(Photos & videos are the copyright of their creators and sourced via Google Images & YouTube.)

Many heartfelt thx to Aaron for participating in this interview and taking the questions and running with them. Your a star! *hat tip*

Pls plan to join us and buy your #LitFest tickets today! (250) 539-3340 or leetrentadue@gmail.com.

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