Vancouver novelist Chris Walter's best-selling title, 2004's East Van, begins with a strung-out junkie, Dill, trying to sell books he found in a garbage bin to an unimpressed used-bookstore clerk. The description of the transaction is remarkably true to life, making one think that the 6-4, amply tattooed writer has some experience trolling back lanes with a shopping cart. Walter, however, reveals that he “just faked that stuff”.
“But I'm an addict, and I've pawned or sold all manner of items but books,” he says, talking with the Straight at the kitchen table of his spacious, two-bedroom apartment off Commercial Drive. “And I was never a full-time binner—I'd just check the odd dumpster as I walked past. Despite what my friends told me, I think that occupation would be hard on the self-esteem.”
The 49-year-old Walter relocated here in 1991 from Winnipeg, where he did time in punk bands like Vacant Lot. “We couldn't play our instruments, but we broke a lot of stuff on-stage, so that must count for something,” he says with a chuckle. “We made a demo tape that wasn't so bad considering we did all the songs in one take. I don't know where it is now.”
His past experiences colour books like I Was A Punk Before You Were A Punk, an autobiographical work which details the youthful Walter's fondness for drugs, alcohol, and punk rock in gritty, direct language. Such novels have won him a widespread cult following among punks, drawing comparisons to Charles Bukowski, whose birthday he shares. Unlike Bukowski, however, Walter's substance abuse eventually spiralled out of control. The mid-90's saw him injecting cocaine and using heroin to come down.
“I also used meth, LSD, ecstasy, prescription drugs, booze, and everything else I could get my hands on.” He overdosed twice in 1998, which served as an impetus to start writing; he believed he would be dead soon, and wanted “something to show” for his life. Shortly thereafter, he fathered a child, Frank, with his girlfriend, photographer Jen Dodds.
“Frank was five months old when Jen kicked me out”, Walter recalls.
That was in January of 2000. Dodds insisted that Walter clean up, and, after a brief period of homelessness, he sought help, undergoing detox and then spending time in a recovery home. He has been clean and sober for eight years, and extremely prolific during this time, putting out 16 books on his own imprint, Gofuckyerself Press, including titles from fellow underground authors Simon Snotface, Drew Gates, and Stewart Black.
Walter's books are all novels and memoirs, with one notable exception: in 2008, he wrote a well-received biography of his fellow Winnipeg punks in Personality Crisis, titled Personality Crisis: Warm Beer and Wild Times.
“I prefer to write fiction” he says, “but I also enjoyed the change in pace. I was planning to do a bio on either the Dayglo Abortions or SNFU next, but I'm just not ready to take on such a massive project. I'd say that biographies are roughly three times as much work as a novel is.”
Instead, Walter has returned to fiction, with the upcoming Wrong, a follow-up to East Van, again featuring the semi-autobiographical Dill as a main character. Like East Van, “the book deals with living conditions on the Downtown Eastside. It's set slightly in the future—six months before the 2010 Winter Olympics, to be exact.” (GFY Press will hold a book launch for Wrong at the Cobalt on April 24.)
Having nearly destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol, Walter is grateful for his newfound life as a writer; but writing itself can become an addictive act. As someone in recovery, does he feel the need to be cautious about his new obsession?
“I have to watch myself with everything, be it pornography or junk food,” he replies. “I keep a word count of a thousand words a day during the week and try not to exceed that. Sometimes I do, but mostly I stick to it. On weekends, I don't have a word count, as we often have book distribution to do. I also do interviews and freelance writing then as well.”
Walter is also a stay-at-home dad for his 8-year-old son, who has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. “Einstein had it,” Walter explains. “Frank's very intelligent, but has difficulty in social settings—he can't read facial expressions or body language, so things won't be easy for him. However, he is a very lovable and well-behaved boy.”
The author makes a point of telling his son how much he loves him every day.
“My father was busy working to support his family, but I see more of Frank than my girlfriend does,” he says. “I walk Frank to school in the mornings, and that ritual has become my favourite part of the day. Then I go home and write until it's time to pick him up at three o'clock.”
Walter's subject matter remains fairly grim—most of the characters in his novels are struggling with their own addictions or compulsions—but his world no longer resembles theirs. The apartment he shares with his family is far nicer than mine, right down to the collectible Ramones action figures.
“Life for me is better than it has ever been,” Walter admits. “Hopefully, my writing doesn't reflect that.”