Interview: Charles Demers, The Prescription Errors

When Vancouver’s Charles Demers started writing fiction in 2005, the first thing he committed to paper was a bit of oddball black comedy: a scene in which a guy accidentally shows a Stanley Kubrick movie to a kid he’s babysitting, with predictably ghastly results.

At first, Demers — who has made a name for himself on the West Coast as a comedian, activist, and, more recently, a TV host — parlayed the idea into a stand-up joke. “[The kid] wanted Singin’ in the Rain,” he says, self-paraphrasing, “but I got A Clockwork Orange, because at least it’s the same song.”

But as he kept accumulating ideas, Demers decided he wanted to revisit that initial idea on the page. More than that, he realized that a bunch of his imagined protagonists seemed like the same guy. The babysitter who misguidedly rents Kubrick films started, in Demers’ head, to blend with the obsessive-compulsive who studies reports about medical equipment in the hopes of coming to terms with the childhood trauma of watching his mother slowly die from leukemia.

Once unified, Demers’ narrative quickly ballooned from a short story to a novella to, finally, a novel. That novel has now been published by Toronto’s Insomniac Press as The Prescription Errors, a story of family and mental health, and both the Clockwork Orange and OCD strains appear in the life of the bumbling but heroically earnest Daniel. There’s also a smaller parallel story involving a hack comedian/voice actor who lands an uncomfortable gig on a Simpsons-esque cartoon down in Los Angeles.

On the surface, these two men would appear to have nothing in common, but Demers sees a kinship that runs deeper, almost subterranean. “At core they’re two selfish, self-obsessed guys who have to deal with other people around them crumbling,” he says. “You definitely have a bit more sympathy for Daniel than for Ty. Maybe by the end, you realize that some of your criticisms of Ty could also rightly be leveled at Daniel; in the end, some of your sympathy for Daniel is also appropriate for Ty.”

Of course, with a first novel comes the assumption that the author has in fact written a thinly veiled autobiography. This isn’t helped in Demers’ case by the fact that he drew heavily from his own emotionally fraught life, as well as from the pieces and neighbourhoods of Vancouver he knows best. Still, he maintains a firm distance from his hero.

“[Daniel] is not me,” he says. “He’s had a completely different set of experiences from me. I never had a Trotskyist landlord. [Pause.] That’s pretty much the only thing I haven’t had. [Laughs.] I’m being facetious, but… oh yeah, and I didn’t go to Langara. Those are the two things.”

As for the real, still-tender material he did bring to the page, Demers says the experience has ultimately been rewarding, though perhaps not in the way he’d hoped. “I guess I had thought there’d be some kind of catharsis in writing about a lot of this stuff,” he says, “but like an amoeba, it sort of broke off and became its own story, unrelated to mine.

“A couple of the passages I wrote while I was crying, and I certainly wasn’t crying when I edited them, or when I read them today. They’ve become completely fictionalized.”

Insomniac Press, 224 pp., $19.95, paperback

(interview originally appeared in SEE Magazine, November 19, 2009)