[Series] Meet the 2015 Vancouver Book Award Finalists – Aaron Chapman

2015 City of Vancouver Book Award Finalist Aaron Chapman for Aaron Chapman is the author of Liquor, Lust, and the Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub, a BC Bestseller and Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize finalist (BC Book Prizes), in addition to Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom, a BC Bestseller and winner of the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award (BC Book Prizes). He is a writer, historian, and musician with a special interest in Vancouver’s entertainment history. Born and raised in Vancouver, he has been a contributor to the Vancouver Courier, the Georgia Straight, and CBC Radio. A graduate of the University of British Columbia, he is also a member of Heritage Vancouver and the Point Roberts Historical Society.

You can connect with Aaron on Twitter at @TheAaronChapman

We asked Aaron 10 questions about his writing process, his inspiration, his nominated book and his advice for aspiring writers. Check out Aaron’s history walking tour of the Penthouse Nightclub on October 28th http://forbiddenvancouver.ca/home/secrets-of-the-penthouse-3/

 Aaron Chapman answers our 10 questions!

1. When did you first know that you would become a writer?

My mother was the writer of a novel, an abstract art book and a legal textbook. As a kid, I watched her as she worked. I also grew up next door to poet and novelist George Bowering. In fact, my bedroom window looked straight over to his writing office. At night, I could see him seated at his desk, typing away. I wish I could tell you I watched him say “Eureka!”, or had music blaring while he wrote that somehow helped feed the muse, but there was no such moment. Mostly I remember looking out the window and seeing him sitting typing. Stopping for a bit, and typing again. So watching other people work I think helped me understand the mechanics of what it took and because there were people around me writing, I thought it was perfectly natural there was a writer in every house. I’d always been interested in telling stories in one form or another be it in song as a musician, or in a book as an author. It’s all fruit from the same tree.

2. How did it feel the first time you had a book contract with a publisher—when you were still working on the manuscript and before your book was released?

I’ve yet to write a book beforehand and then shop a manuscript around to a publisher, as perhaps like how so many novelists do. I come from more from the angle of a filmmaker who is pitching their movie idea to the studio, or in this case the publisher who then green lights the idea of doing it. I might write a novel one day, or do some other kind of style of writing that perhaps takes place in another city – but I’m too fascinating with Vancouver stories and the history of Vancouver right now to consider something else. I’m born and raised here, so it also feels at times I can draw upon my whole life living here and memories of how the city has changed that helps fuel the work.

3. Who (or what book) inspires you? Why?

I’ve always been a fan of polymaths. People like Jonathan Miller who do so many things so well, and I like to work in different fields of writing, music, broadcasting, and lately some voice-over acting that’s been very enjoyable. A current writing mentor is British author and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth. He is better known in the UK than in Canada but I’m an admirer of his for his creative output. We correspond over email and some of his BBC comedy programmes help when I need a break and a laugh. You must keep your sense of humour at all times but especially when writing, even if it is about something deathly serious.

As for a book, Lasseters Last Ride by Ion Llewellyn Idriess. It’s about Harold Bell Lasseter who was an Australian explorer who claimed to have found a huge gold mine in the Western Australian outback. In 1930 he had raised enough money to fund an expedition, and set off in search of the mine. After being abandoned as a madman by his crew, he never returned. His remains along with a diary were discovered in 1931. My father read the book and it filled him with a tremendous wanderlust. Its probably the kind of thing that might have captured a lot of young people’s minds, but he went the step further and ran away from home in Nanaimo where the family had only a few years earlier immigrated from Newcastle, UK. He gave the book to a friend, and stowed away on a ship bound for Australia where he figured he would find the Lasseter gold. He ended up joining the Australian army when the Second World War broke out and fought in New Guinea, and returned to Canada after the war. I grew up in the long shadow of his exploits. It was like having Indiana Jones for a father, even though by the time I was born he was living the quiet life of a Kerrisdale lawyer. But the fact that he read that book and did what he did inculcated in me the power of a book, and equally gave me a passion for travel, and an interest in history and adventure at the same time.

Sixty-five years after my father handed the book to him, that friend, who he’d long lost touch with and who was living in Chicago, tracked him down. They’d last seen each other when they were boys, and they were now old men, and he returned the copy of the book to my father. It’s a collectable first edition and it sits on my bookshelf now like a family heirloom and amulet, and probably one of the more cherished books in my library. I wish everybody had a book in their life that carried such significance to them and their family. While it was my fathers book, it showed me the power a book can have and that power alone can be inspiring.

4. What book(s) are you reading right now?

I wish I had more time to read. I’ve already begun research on my next book, and that kind of research alone takes up a lot of waking hours with the sort of writing I’m doing. I do have a stack of books by my nightstand that need more attention. And the three at the top that I’m at least a few pages into are currently Vancouver is Ashes by Lisa Anne Smith about the great fire of 1886, British historian Max Hastings book Going to the Wars about his time as a war correspondent, and The Nick Tosches Reader that is a collection of writings from over the course of his career. There’s some poetry, an Orson Welles biography, and old New Yorker magazines that I still have to get to sitting around there too.

5. Where and when do you write? How do you balance or integrate this with your work as a musician and historian?

Most authors or books giving advice on writing all seem to suggest working first thing in the morning, and keeping diligent hours devoted to writing and part of the day editing. This never worked for me. Maybe it’s my night-owl musicians hours that I’ve had for years that I just found it easier to work at night. With the Commodore book, I wrote a lot of it from midnight until 6am or when I got too tired to write anymore. Miles Davis records playing in the next room are are good to write to, but I’d recommend any instrumental music at times, or any music with no words. Leave the making up of words to yourself for your book. There will be enough to do. I tried to write part of the book actually in the Commodore, but I’d spill my drink on what I was writing at the bar. So mostly I write at home in my apartment, where I have two cats who stare up at me or jump up on the desk while I’m trying to work, wondering what the hell is so important to sit pushing my fingers on this box and stare at a screen for hours rather than give them attention. It gets to a certain time of the night or early morning when the Miles Davis record ends, and I’m out of ideas, and I hear the cats on the floor quietly snoring at my feet, I figure its time to hit the hay myself. But I just find it generally easier to work at night because its quieter. Find whatever works for you. I took a step back from working as a touring musician when I wrote my first book. It was took difficult to try to write on the road in hotels after the show, that I knew I needed to stay home to do it.

6. Where would the Commodore be today without Drew Burns? What conditions need to be in place for other entrepreneurs to flourish as he did?

I think it’s safe to say that had Drew Burns not come along when he did to take over the Commodore Ballroom in the late 1960s, with his openness to booking all sorts of different kinds of music, taking chances on bands and first time promoters, and giving people a shot or a second chance, that it’s safe to say the Commodore would not be here today. He certainly came along at a good time with a real explosion and interest in live music not only internationally, but locally, as some of Vancouver’s most beloved songwriters and musicians came of age and performed there. Let’s not forget he had a wonderful room on his hands to begin with, it was built in 1930 to be a great place. But you can’t overlook Burn’s own business acumen was key. There were lots of other music halls and nightclubs in the late 1960s when Burns took over the Commodore. So many of them are gone now, but the Commodore remains. The people that run it today are disciples of Burns, and his name is honoured by the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame outside of the Commodore on the sidewalk for a reason.

7. In your book you note that you first went to the Commodore in 1990? Who did you see on your first visit? What do you remember about that night?

I didn’t go to the Commodore until I turned legal age that year. One thing that revealed itself in the research for the book – little did I know so many other Vancouverites my age were just going with fake ID, or an older brother or sisters ID! The old doormen back then just seemed to look the other way on those sort of shenanigans. I still shake my head thinking of the legendary shows just before I turned of age I might have been able to pass as an adult for. I was too law abiding!

So I wish I could tell you it was some legendary show, and I don’t really exactly, but I think the first time I went to the Commodore it was one of the local band showcase nights that the Commodore did so much of back then. The 1990s in Vancouver was a great time for local music where there were quite a few local, unsigned bands, who without even having a record out, could sell out the Commodore. So it was likely a bill with some popular local bands at the time like Water, The Achin’ Blues Balls Band, or She Stole My Beer. Sometimes the bands weren’t even necessarily what music I was into, but I was into seeing what was happening, and keen to get into a band myself. Within two years I was playing the Commodore, myself. That in itself is part of the magic of the place, because it was very inspiring that if you got a band together and were good enough, you might be seeing some legendary musician on stage one evening, and be playing there yourself the next night. Never mind standing on that stage and thinking of all the people that have played there before you.

8. Can you share any advice with emerging and aspiring writers?

I like the old Mark Twain quote about most inspiration coming from “the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” You simply have to sit down and do it. That in itself may be difficult. Writing short pieces are naturally easier than the daily commitment required to do a book. Cancel your television connection. Avoid distractions, but know when to leave it and take a walk around the block. After all that sitting around writing, you’re going to need some exercise anyway. Don’t dabble, focus. Try to figure out what the first sentence and the last sentence are going to be for your book before you start. Read as much as you can, even a bad book will help define your style for the kind of writing you *don’t* want to do. But good book will embolden your own writing – not to outright mimic, but give you ideas on breaking out of habits of your own style or give you new ideas. Of course no matter what you’re working on, you can’t beat General Douglas MacArthur’s advice, “Have a good plan, execute it violently, do it today.”

9. What unexpected person has contacted you about your book?

Since the book has been published, it’s certainly been fun chatting with some of the bands spotlighted in the book or who have performed there over the years as their tour stops bring them back to Vancouver. Some local concert promoter friends have given them the book, or invited me down to present them a copy backstage, and chat about their memories playing there.

Since it was published, everyone from the guys in U2, Paul Weller, Dave Grohl, Daniel Lanois, Frank Turner, Kim Mitchell and many others have left Vancouver with a copy in hand. So it’s fun to imagine the tour bus pulling away and them reading the book on the road, and not only finding out more about the history of the Ballroom, but history of Vancouver. I’ve got some nice emails and tweets from them.

But even more, just hearing from regular Vancouverites of all ages who live here, who’ve spent time at the Commodore. From old ladies in White Rock who recall dressing in their finest to go ballroom dancing there in the 1940s, to mohawked punk rockers who slam-danced on that same floor in the 1970s who all speak with equal joy about nights they’ve spent there – and even from people who are 19 and just walking into the place for the first time who have no idea about its past. It’s been very rewarding to get that feedback.

10. Do you have any public events (festivals, readings, podcasts, etc.) taking place in 2015 that we can help to promote? Where and when are they?

I just did a few… I’ve spoken at a lot of events over the course of this year, but I don’t have anything public coming up. I will keep you posted!

I am doing a history walking tour of the Penthouse Nightclub (having to do with my previous book Liquor, Lust, and The Law) on October 28th – but nothing immediately to do with the Commodore book.


The 27th annual City of Vancouver Book Award will be presented at the Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre on November 12, 2015. The books on this year’s shortlist cover a range of genres: non-fiction, short stories, poetry, and a children’s book. The short-listed books create a street-level walk through our city to amplify our pride and understanding of the flawed and beautiful, young but wise city we inhabit.

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