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Q&A with Charles Demers, author of The Prescription Errors

jasmine rezaee

The Prescription Errors, Charles Demers’ debut novel from Insomniac Press, is a profoundly entertaining, thoughtful and well-written story about a Vancouver-based character named Daniel who struggles to come to terms with his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the rich, dark and contradictory nature of human relationships and politics. Demers has a promising literary career ahead of him. He has another book coming out at the end of November, Vancouver Special, published by Arsenal Pulp Press.

Q&A

This isn’t your average, plot-driven fiction novel. What motivated you to write it?

Actually, the two storylines – the longer, Daniel narrative and the shorter one about Ty – originated separately and gradually grew closer together. I spent the summer of 2005 working as a researcher on a study of patient safety as it relates to medical equipment and technology in a Vancouver General Hospital building right next to where I spent a large part of my childhood visiting my mother, who was sick for many years before we lost her. At first, being so close to the site was overwhelming, and I worried that I couldn’t handle the job. But the further I got into the research, the less immediate the trauma seemed. Daniel’s story came out of wondering what it would be like for someone to set out to do that on purpose.

Tyler’s story came out of a conversation I had while I was working on a comedy project with Phil Hartman’s brother, Paul. Paul was explaining how, after Phil died, all of his characters on the Simpsons were performed by another voice actor. In Hartman’s case, he was replaced by one of the most accomplished voice actors in the world, but I immediately started imagining what it would be like if his replacement were an emptier vessel; someone who didn’t have their own real source of identity.

In the early stages of writing both stories, I realized that they shared a lot; they were both about fundamentally solipsistic guys dealing with the fragility of other people, and the stories interpenetrated in a way that made it impossible for me to think of them separately.

How much of the novel is fiction? Is the protagonist a reflection of your personal experiences?

The whole of the novel is fiction – even the parts based on my own experiences or inspired by people from my life take on their own, created dynamics in the writing. Daniel and I share a lot of biographical touchstones – like him, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, I lost my mother, I worked at Scott Paper and at pressure-washing a parkade (I had to quit after one shift, though, because it was too depressing) – and I think we share a certain sense of humour, but he’s not me. I feel very close to him, but distinct from him, too.

Why opt for a very Vancouver-based novel?

Vancouver’s the only place I know well enough to anchor a story of this length in, for one thing. I was born and raised here, and I feel a great deal of affection for this city. Philosophically, too, I think it’s important for people to tell stories about the places that they are, especially in the case of a relatively peripheral place like Vancouver. It’s not out of any sense of close-mindedness or provincialism – I just think that it’s important for a wide variety of stories to get told, and there’s such a pressure on Canadian authors (non-Toronto-or-Montreal ones especially) to erase the geographical distinction of their stories that I think it’s a little victory to be able to describe Commercial Drive or Kitsilano in detail.

Tell me about Daniel. What kind of character did you intend him to be?

This is tricky, because I’m not sure it matters how I intended him, but rather what readers take away from him. I know one thing I wanted was to write about an intelligent person who doesn’t have money; usually, the kinds of characters who get to have existential worries are middle-class types, while working-class people deal with external challenges, say, oppression by social and natural phenomena. In my life, I know countless people who scraped up the money or indebted themselves enough to get through college or university, and nevertheless spend their twenties and thirties in working class jobs or earning next to nothing in cultural or political work. They have robust intellectual lives but don’t get the opulent backdrop for it, like the characters in Woody Allen movies or something. Aside from that, I mean – I think Daniel is a sympathetic character who, like a lot of people, finds it exceedingly difficult to imagine the world from any vantage other than the one behind his own eyes, and struggles with that.

Pretty much, in your own words, what is the story about? What message, if any, do you hope that people will take from your book?

Again, I don’t want to limit the possible interpretations by laying down my own (well, I don’t want to limit them too much; Daniel-as-Aryan-hero, I don’t mind saying, is an incorrect reading). But I think there’s great beauty in human interdependence, and I also think that there’s a great urgency to rip political thinking out of the ethers and back into people’s lives in a meaningful way; I hope that those ideas are reflected in this novel, but most importantly I hope that people engage with the story and enjoy the way that it’s written.

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