With years of entertaining audiences as a CBC radio host under his belt, Jian Ghomeshi has published his first book.
Titled 1982, it’s a memoir of the year Ghomeshi turned 15 – growing up as a first-generation immigrant in a Toronto suburb, falling in love with an older woman and, more than anything, wanting to be David Bowie.
“The book is really about desperately trying to fit in and feeling like an outsider,” Ghomeshi said over the phone from his Toronto studio.
“I knew that I didn’t want to write a traditional memoir or life story and that’s not what this is,” he said. “My first job was to write something entertaining.”
Besides being a “pop culture document” of solidarity for anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast, Ghomeshi wanted to explore how the world has changed since the generation-Xers’ teen years.
Woven throughout 1982 are references to the songs, albums and bands of the era, particularly the alternative New Wave music that so profoundly affected Ghomeshi’s own musical maturation.
“Music is one of my great passions,” said Ghomeshi.
The book isn’t without its critics. Some have accused 1982 of being childish, and in a National Post review, Stephen Carlick said 1982 is spread too thin and ends up “uneven and often tedious” by trying to appeal to everyone.
“My response to (Carlick’s) review, honestly, is that he didn’t read the book,” responded Ghomeshi. “I really honestly believe that.”
As for his target audience: “I wasn’t writing for anybody in particular,” he said. But “I feel like the voice of the book is written in the voice of a 14-year-old.”
Perhaps best known for his dulcet-toned radio monologues and interviews, Ghomeshi found the experience of creating a book quite different than writing for radio.
He describes broadcasting as an “ephemeral medium,” that “most of what you’re doing you pump out there and it’s gone the next day.
“There is a feeling that no matter how good the show I just did on Q is it’ll be gone by tomorrow,” said Ghomeshi, “whereas this book is something that’ll always sit on a shelf… There’s almost a perverse excitement that I get about that.”
Ghomeshi said he doesn’t want to be immodest, but he is really proud of the programme he hosts on CBC Radio 1, Q.
“We’ve stretched the definition of culture pretty much as broadly as anybody ever has, in our case to include not just punk rock and literature and dance, but politics now and international affairs and sports.”
He describes Q as a curatorial program, acknowledging the influential role it has on not only reflecting but also shaping culture in Canada.
“I think we take it very seriously,” said Ghomeshi. “What we’re putting on we’re basically saying, ‘We believe in this. We’d like you to check it out. We think it’s quality and/or it’s a great story.’”
As for the fate of the CBC at large, Ghomeshi is optimistic. Despite serious funding cutbacks, Ghomeshi believes CBC Radio is going through a “golden age.”
“CBC Radio has never been more successful, never been more influential,” he said. “There’s never been more people in the Canadian history of listening to CBC than there are now.’”
As for his next book, Ghomeshi said, “Obviously I need to write 1983, the sequel,” he said, laughing. “Then I’ve got another 30 years to write to catch up to today!”
Gazette reporter Geordon Omand spoke with him over the phone about his book, about Q and Canadian culture, and about the future of the CBC.
Gazette: Let’s start off with your book, 1982. It’s your first one. Already a national bestseller. Can you tell me about why you wrote it?
Jian Ghomeshi: I wanted to do something creative and I wanted to challenge myself with the idea of writing a book. I knew that I didn’t want to write a traditional memoir or life story and that’s not what this is. But I did sort of find some appeal in the idea of writing stories that were based on my own pathetic experiences. Particularly, I thought maybe I can focus on being a loser in high school, or at times at least I felt that way.
One of the stories was an incident and kind of a coming of age story where I lose my Adidas bag, which had kind of been my Linus blanket if you will. I realized within a week of starting to write the book that I wanted the focus to be one year. The focus is the year going into grade 9. That year was 1982 for me.
The book is really about desperately trying to fit in and feeling like an outsider and, in my case, being a 14-year-old who wants to be Bowie and is in love with an older woman Wendy who reminds me of Bowie and I think if I can just be Bowie and if I can just be New Wave I will somehow fit in and be accepted and then Wendy will like me and everything will be okay. Of course, the subtext of all that being that I’m this first-generation immigrant kid who moves to a relatively conservative white community just north of Toronto called Thornhill. And hijinks ensue.
G: What do you want people to get out of this book?
JG: I really wanted people to be entertained. As I was writing the book if something made me laugh I would keep it in the book and if it didn’t I would question whether it would be in there. My first job was to write something that was entertaining.
But I think there are a couple things that I would hope I would be able to shed some light on with this book. One is a sense of solidarity with anybody out there who has also felt like an outsider or that they didn’t fit in. In some cases that might be somebody who has that first generation immigrant experience like I did, but in a lot of cases people may feel that without having to be an immigrant; it might be for kinds of other reasons. I’m learning with the way this book is resonating with audiences it seems across the country there’s a lot of people who share that feeling, that fish out of water feeling in grade nine.
The other thing I wanted to explore to a certain extent was the changes that have taken place for my generation, being generation X. This is how the world has changed so profoundly in just the last two or three decades, specifically with technology.
And I guess in third place I would say music is one of my great passions. In this book I did want to explore some of the music of the time particularly the alternative music that was called new wave in the early eighties that I don’t think gets its due or gets talked about enough and that I think was really not just compelling music at the time but also really influential music in terms of where the world has gone musically and how much what’s out there even these days trains on the stuff that was pioneered in the eighties.
G: Amid the praise, some critics—such as Stephen Carlick in The National Post—have said 1982 is too broad in appeal, that the magic formula of inclusiveness and writing for everyone that works so well for Q doesn’t quite work in the book. What’s your response to that?
JG: Quite frankly that’s one critic. That was the one dude who has written a negative view of the book. That is his prerogative. My response to his review, honestly, is that he didn’t read the book. I really honestly believe that. I read the review and kind of went, ‘Oh, um, uh, okay, did this guy actually read the book?’ because he kind of says some stuff that indicates to me that he didn’t. You know, not everybody is going to like what I do. I think I’ve been very fortunate especially with my first book to get all the fond reviews and I’ll happily take anybody who doesn’t totally feel it or get it alongside as well.
I think this thing about being too broad—I don’t know exactly what that means. I’m very honestly and openly writing about my experience.
GO: For whom were you writing?
JG: Maybe that’s what he means by that, because I wasn’t writing for anybody in particular. I think I was writing a book that I felt I did want to be accessible. Most particularly, I wanted to tell a story that wasn’t just for people who are my age or people in that gen-X subgroup or people in their mid-30s to their early 50s who can know every reference from the early ‘80s, but I wanted to talk about something that almost to a certain extent exists as a pop culture document of the time. There are times in the book where I’m saying—in a sarcastic way obviously—but I ‘m saying if you’re a teen today you don’t know what it’s like to buy music the way we used to There are other times where I feel like the voice of the book is written in the voice of a 14-year-old—very consciously, for most of it. That’s almost a nod to older generations who might be reading it and relate to seeing or knowing kids in the ‘80s who were going through what I was going through.
G: Another thing people have said about the book is that it reads somewhat like a series of radio essays. In what ways was writing a book a different beast than writing for radio?
JG: The funny thing about that is the writing style has always been my writing style. If you go back and look at stuff that I wrote for The Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail or whatever in the ‘90s or even look at the column that I did for The National Post for a couple years more recently this is just my style, albeit it’s a slightly younger voice for the sake of this book and the narrative. So I think it’s a bit convenient to go, ‘Oh, that guy’s on the radio; now that I think about it, this is like radio essays.’
I think the difference between what I’m doing when I write say for my monologues, my essays or ending off on Q and this book is broadcasting, not unlike print journalism, tends to be a relatively ephemeral medium. Most of what you’re doing you pump out there and it’s gone the next day. Because of that it’s this revolving door of content that you’re providing and you don’t have the time, at least on a daily show like I’m doing, to spend a lot of time developing something or building something that’s going to be out there forever in the same way that writing a book is.
This is a book that I spent a year writing. It’ll forever be this document that’s out there. I can’t escape that. It’s in hard form and to a certain extent there’s a real, there’s almost a perverse excitement that I get about that, in the sense. There is a feeling that no matter how good the show I just did on Q is it’ll be gone by tomorrow because I’ve got another one. Whereas this book, this book is a little more the way I felt when I was making albums—it’s something that’ll always sit on a shelf. So I think in that sense the dynamics of the creation are different. I had a little more time. I wrote it relatively efficiently given all the other things I was doing, but I didn’t write it with quite the expedience or the necessary speed that I have to turn stuff around on Q.
G: Let’s talk about Q: largest audience of any cultural affairs program in Canada. There’s something that’s reciprocal with that relationship. Not only is Q a reflection of culture in Canada but also very influential in shaping culture. What are your thoughts on this position of responsibility that you have in having that influence on Canadian culture?
JG: I think we take it really seriously. I think we’re proud that we do have an influence. It sounds immodest for me to say but the reality is if you’re an author who comes on Q your book goes up the bestseller list if you’re a band that plays on Q you might be at the top of iTunes later in the day if you blow people away. It is a really influential show in that sense. It wasn’t always; it’s been built that way, and it’s grown, and I’m really proud of it. We take very seriously, because of that, who and what we put on the show. It is a curatorial program, so what we’re putting on we’re basically saying: ‘We believe in this, we’d like you to check it out, we think it’s quality and/or it’s a great story.’ Especially with some of the bigger-name guests it’s not only about validating or underscoring their latest piece of work, but it’s about them having a great story that we want to get to the bottom of. But the show is not a broad show that’ll throw anything on the air. It is a variety program. We’ve stretched the definition of culture pretty much as broadly as anybody ever has, in our case to include not just punk rock and literature and dance, but politics now and international affairs and sports. But it is a curatorial show so we’re very, very specific and serious about how we program.
G: what about the CBC at large? It’s going through some challenging times, big changes in media. Your show bridges generations, a much younger demographic. What’s the future of the CBC?
JG: It is true that with the funding cutbacks the CBC is going through challenging times. I think that if people care about public broadcasting in this country and if they believe in public broadcasting in general then they need to speak out and let themselves be known. Ultimately Canadians need to decide whether they believe in public broadcasting. Compared to public broadcasters in almost any other developed country in the world CBC is one of the worst funded, meaning it has the smallest percentage of public dollars going towards it of almost any country in the world. Look at the UK or Germany or France or Australia.
Having said that, I think it’s really important to distinguish that when we say the CBC is going through hard times, other than the funding cutbacks, which have been challenging, CBC radio in particular is going through a golden age. CBC radio has never been more successful, never been more influential. There’s never been more people in the Canadian history of listening to CBC than there are now. There’s never been a higher share of listeners for CBC radio than now.
I’m really proud of a lot of the programing on CBC radio. I would argue that it’s actually the opposite of a challenging time in terms of the content and the way it’s being received. Even on CBC television there’s been a lot of successes in the last two or three years compared to the period before that and it is an all-Canadian lineup in primetime on CBC TV. People forget that in the ‘80s CBC in primetime was playing Mork & Mindy and Happy Days—American sitcoms. This notion that public broadcasting has somehow degenerated is actually not just false: it’s the opposite of the truth. So I’m pretty optimistic about how well the network can do and is doing but obviously the funding needs to continue and the cutbacks are difficult. But as I say, that’s for Canadians to speak out about if they really believe in this institution.
G: What’s your next going to be about?
JG: I would say right before this book came out and after a year of writing it I would have collapsed in laughter at that question because the thought of writing another book was way too challenging for me. But at this point I actually think I’d like to do it again. It was a really interesting and growing experience. There are lots of things that I want to write about. Obviously I need to write 1983 the sequel. Then I’ve got another thirty years to write to catch up to today.