Start with the premise. A skinhead and a butcher run over a lion in December in Canada. How does this kind of thing happen?
Loose zoo laws. Or at least loose exotic animal laws.
The province of Ontario has surprisingly loose regulations around keeping wild animals. Certain cities like Toronto have passed by-laws to prevent this, but Ontario itself is full of small, family run zoos with little to no real oversight on a regular basis. You can spot a lot of them off the highway when you head north to cottage country. It’s also a lot easier for any private citizen to own an exotic animal than you might expect. And it’s a lot easier for these animals to escape than from your standard, big city zoo. Every so often these escapes make the news, but it usually disappears after a while. The past few years have seen major escapes in Florida, Ohio and Alberta. It happens more than you think. Enforcement has ramped up a bit since 1989, but it’s still common enough to pop-up in your local police blotter or Facebook feed.
Why specify this is 1989? Why not plant this story in the present? What do you gain from that distinction?
I wanted to be somewhere I felt comfortable to tell a story, somewhere that was still a bit mythical and out of my reach, but where the parameters were defined by some memory. I love a lot of fiction that lives in the contemporary world, I even write some of it, but I don’t see anything wrong with examining the recent past. 30 years ago isn’t suddenly irrelevant. At the same time, it’s not historical fiction, not really. The world just behind us may have a bit more definition to it, but it still a little tattered. You may assume it’s already been told, but there are holes to fill. The present is exciting, bright and vibrantly alive. It is all these things, however, I don’t know if my grip is firm enough. I did not trust my self to keep track of it, to edit as it changes. The future keeps happening. The future keeps colliding with what I thought I knew.
1989 gives me a space to claim, gives me a place to retreat, to focus on what I think I know. And it seemed like the best place to start when I’m writing about a city that came undone. Not a big city, but not a small town either. A place with a lot of dead ends and one-way streets and former glory. A place just big enough for you to get lost without Google Maps.
A lot of bad things happen here. A lot of violence that over time, let’s be honest now, gets a bit… relentless. Why?
WASTE is definitely a brutal book in its way, but I still think it’s the characters that drive the story forward, not the violence itself. I wanted to give a voice to some potentially unlikeable people (high school bullies, fledgling racists) on the cusp of making some awful choices. I wanted these people who’ve made some bad mistakes to bump against something truly amoral out there in the dark. The thing about the people we loathe or hate or look down on is that they still exist the next day. They are still out there shopping for groceries. They don’t just disappear because you disapprove. So how do you confront that every day?
Violence is very human. It’s not strange. It’s not unbelievable. It’s abject and brutal and vicious, but it is common. Bland, even. Its stitched right there into the fabric of human interaction and it’s enacted every day on bodies from positions of power. I do think it’s important to portray that violence as casual, as everyday, to do it with specific detail. To look at what remains afterward, not just in the moment. And it is relentless. It’s something that changes hands—it’s a currency.
Despite all the blood and teeth and busted kneecaps in the book, I am not interested in nihilism or destruction. I am not interested in circling the corpse. I am interested in what survives.
And then there are the skinheads…
Well, wannabes. Failed white supremacists, but I don’t think they can really articulate their ideology very clearly. Most of the budding white supremacists I’ve met can’t, it’s still very personal or strung together from a couple books or websites they’ve glanced at. It’s not a cohesive worldview yet. They are the early gestation of something worse to come. Hate solidifies over time, grows to become static and ossifies into a framework of belief. I think a lot of it usually originates from a place of frustration, disappointment, impotence. None of this is shocking, I know. There are often people presented with some thwarted entitlement they believe they’re owed. And even if these fledgling beliefs are dumb or shallow, their impact is still very real. The effects are real. The consequences are real. The brutality is real. And so eventually, the intentions don’t matter. Whether or not the belief is fixed, the consequences are and they can’t be undone.
For me, I guess that gets to the core of the book—the past does not stop pursuing you. Your actions exist in a world beyond your understanding, beyond your scope. The end result has little to do with how you feel about it. Very few people are given the luxury of choice.
You don’t walk away from a life unscathed.
And why WASTE?
In the meat department, all the unwanted bits—the excess fat, the bones, the gristle—end up in the waste buckets. It’s all the pieces we remove to make our meal more edible. It’s what’s left.
ANDREW F. SULLIVAN is from Oshawa, Ontario. His debut short story collection, All We Want Is Everything (ARP Books, 2013), was one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2013. Sullivan no longer spends his days handling raw meat, boxes of liquor, or used video games. Waste is his first novel.