Hal Niedzviecki's The Lost Expert explores whether people can find happiness by pretending to be someone else

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      For Toronto author Hal Niedzviecki, the smallest elements matter when he’s a creating a world within one of his novels.

      He wants to know what his characters are wearing. The smell of the room. The weather outside.

      "You can't conjure up that world without every detail being in play," Niedzviecki tells the Straight by phone from his home. 

      Often, people will wonder about a character's motivations. Or the plot. But to him, writing is a methodical, moment-by-moment process. When he starts his books, he doesn't know how they're going to end.

      "To me, it's all about the details," he says a second time. "And the details will match the mood. And the mood is the kind of emotional backbone of the novel."

      Niedzviecki's newest book, The Lost Expert, is about a young waiter, Chris, who finds himself thrust into fame after he's mistaken for a major Hollywood action star named Thomson Holmes.

      "The book is about lost people," Niedzviecki explains. "It's about being lost—mentally, psychologically, and there are some physical moments where people get lost, too."

      Chris's parents are divorced. His mom has depression and his dad has found a new life, leaving Chris feeling rootless.

      "He meets Thomson Holmes's father and they have this great moment where they get along for the first time," Niedzviecki says. "There's this incredible irony because the real Thomson Holmes is completely estranged from his father and the real Chris is completely estranged from his father. Yet these two suddenly find kinship with each other."

      This speaks to the core of Chris's character as a young man with an incredible yearning for meaning in his life. 

      "The question is," Niedzviecki adds, "can he find it by pretending to be someone else?"

      In some respects, the author is also asking this question about Hollywood celebrity in general. And as someone who briefly found himself once at the middle of a Twitter swarming, Niedzviecki understands how some people have a tendency to do a lot of public posturing and deliberately restate reality through social media to present what they feel is an optimal image of themselves to the world.

      "So I wanted to explore that in a way," he says. "That's part of the dynamic of our society right now where so many people are pretending to be something else."

      In the book, he delves into this in scenes in which Thomson Holmes is accused of doing bad things to women. The compromises that some people are willing to make—and the concerns over Holmes's bankability as a star—come to the forefront.

      "You see people making choices that are clearly not about what’s right or the truth but about what they think is going to be advantageous for them, or get them out of a tough spot. Or advance their career," Niedzviecki says. "You know, it’s impossible to be any more cynical than I am at this point."

      He centred the book in Hollywood, in part, because it's all about reputation management and image.

      Because Chris ends up acting in a movie called The Lost Expert, Niedzviecki needed to understand the actual film to be able to see the world through the character's eyes. In order to do that, Niedzviecki ended up writing a screenplay by the same name, which appears in the book.

      "I was halfway through this bloody screenplay and it was, like, 'I'm going to write the whole thing, aren't I?' " he says. 

      The origins of the book go back to a moment when he witnessed Portuguese bakeries transformed into Jewish bakeries in his Toronto neighbourhood. It was an odd experience until he realized that it was because the area had become a movie set.

      But it triggered a sense of longing in Niedzviecki—who had lost many family members in the Holocaust—to suddenly see Yiddish bakeries.

      "That was the moment where I said to myself, 'Okay, there's a feeling that I want to bring back somehow into a novel'," he says. "Then, of course, two minutes later I discovered it was a film set. That Jews had not come back to downtown Toronto to set up two bagel bakeries right beside each other... It's all just show."