Canadian author Eddy Boudel Tan on creating a modern queer tragedy

Eddy Boudel Tan drew from a fear that has lingered throughout his lifetime to create his debut novel After Elias. That fear is what happens when you lose everything. Losing your job, your home, your loved ones. Losing whatever. His novel explores that fear when a man loses his soon-to-be husband right before their wedding. The book is somber and reflective. It’s also a labor of love. The author lives in British Columbia, far from the hustle of New York City or the coziness of Iowa.

We talked about his novel, Canadian publishing, and what’s next for him as 2020 comes to a close.

What’s your background in writing?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always been a voracious reader. I would handwrite and illustrate my own stories in notebooks when I was eight or nine. I was reading a lot of Hardy Boys mysteries back then, and I would write stories in that vein and get my parents to read and edit them. I still consider those to be my first books!

I started writing my first novel in 2017. Before then, I focused more on short fiction and essays.  I’ve always known that I’d attempt writing a novel only if I had a story in me crying to get out that could only be told as a novel. It took me years to arrive at an idea that justified the depth and length. That story is After Elias.

Your book is coming out via a Canadian publisher and I wanted to talk about publishing in Canada. I’m pretty well-versed in what American writers go through, but what is the literary and publishing scene like in Canada?

Canadian publishing is rather literary in focus. Similar to Canadian film, television, and music, I think there’s a sense of responsibility to protect and amplify our culture in ways that are distinct from our neighbors to the south.

Of course, it’s smaller than the American publishing landscape. In America, there are so many different avenues an author can take to find success. The scene in Canada is vibrant, with an array of publishing houses, festivals, prizes, journals, booksellers, distributors, arts councils, and agencies committed to celebrating Canadian literature, but I do think there’s an opportunity to widen the scope of books and authors who get most of the attention. I’d like to see the industry become more inclusive, providing a more diverse range of ways for authors to break out. Specialized presses and journals are emerging onto the scene, which is a step in the right direction.

Your book is Canadian. It also features Mexico heavily. I’m curious about the genesis of the location choices. I know you traveled a lot. Was that part of the reason you chose these locations?

The genesis of the story really came down to me wanting to write a story about the fear of losing everything. It’s something I’ve always wrestled with. No matter how far I’ve come in life or what I’ve achieved, I’ve always felt like I was one step away from losing it all. I wanted to take someone who had it all and take it all away from him. Not out of cruelty, but to illustrate what happens when all of that decoration is stripped away.

Most of the story takes place on an island in Mexico, and that was an easy choice for me. This story centers on death, and I’ve always admired the reverence the Mexican people have for death. I’ve seen it all over the country in the ways they remember those they’ve lost. Many of these beliefs and customs, from both their Indigenous and colonial cultures, appear in the novel as the protagonist struggles to make sense of his own tragedy. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico, and there’s a special quality I find there that I hope I captured in the novel. 

Coen and Elias, the couple at the center of the story, are very different people. Coen is from Vancouver, while Elias is from Mexico. The differences between these two locations—weather, mood, culture, prosperity—emphasize the contrasts between the characters.

Has that fear of losing everything always been on your mind or was it a recent fear that you put into the book?

I think that’s always been something that has lingered in the back of my mind. It’s something that represents my reality as a queer man. I often describe this story as a modern queer tragedy. The themes are universal: fear, shame, guilt. Those are things everyone feels, but they also represent where we are as an LGBTQ+ community. We’re in this era in which we have corporate-sponsored Pride parades and marriage equality, and all of these things that previous generations had to fight for. It’s easy to take it for granted, but it can be taken away just like that. We can lose it all very easily.

There are places in the world where attitudes and policies have actually regressed when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion, leading to more discrimination and alienation.

I’m also the son of immigrant parents. They moved here from Brunei in their twenties. Growing up in Canada, I had a fairly privileged life, with access to good education and support systems, but knowing the struggles my parents faced has made me aware of how fragile everything is.

Did writing this modern queer tragedy help you grasp that fear a little better?

Yeah, for sure. I find writing to be very cathartic. The story isn’t a direct representation of my life, or even my views. The protagonist is not a replica of me. I think writers pour a lot of ourselves into our work, and part of the reason we do so is for that healing. It can be a form of therapy.

I am always glad to hear that but sometimes I think reliving such tragic or horrifying parts of your past must just be the worst.

It can be, but that’s part of the process. You can’t find the light switch without fumbling through the darkness. 

I do want to say, though, that After Elias is not as grim as it might sound. It’s certainly a tragic story that deals with some heavy subject matter, but there’s an undercurrent of lightness and mystery. That’s perhaps what I’m most proud of, striking the right tone between light and dark. It was important to me to treat the serious themes with respect, but also for readers to feel things beyond sadness. Much like life itself, there are moments of pain, moments of joy, and everything in between. My favorite reviews are from readers who say they found themselves laughing and crying at various points throughout the story. 

This book happened fairly quickly from conception to publishing. I also saw you have another book slated for next summer. It’s called The Rebellious Tide. Were these written in tandem?

I often joke that I stress-wrote The Rebellious Tide. I wrote it while After Elias was on submission. My wise agent, Jessica Faust, advised me to write the next thing. She told me not to focus on what she was doing because it was out of my control. It was fabulous advice because being on submission is stressful. I would be hopeful and confident one day, then feel utterly defeated the next. 

Writing The Rebellious Tide was the perfect remedy. I became so engrossed in the story that I had no time or attention to spare for much else. I’m incredibly fortunate (thanks to Jessica) to have found the perfect home for both novels at my publishing house, Dundurn.

What has 2020 and everything that has been going on been like for you creatively this year?

Being creative at the beginning of the pandemic was impossible. There were bigger problems at the time. I was worried about my health, and the health of my loved ones. I couldn’t help being fixated on the news. Now that we’re all better informed about how to protect ourselves, it’s easier to create again. These certainly aren’t ideal conditions in which to launch a debut novel, but I’m continually inspired by how resilient people can be. I’m done lamenting the in-person events and travel plans that had to be cancelled, and now I find comfort in how everyone has adapted. I’ve now found the perfect setup in my home for video events to optimize natural lighting! But the reality is times are still tough, so I encourage everyone reading to support your favorite independent bookstore—and thank you for discovering debut authors. 

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