Written by P.J. Lavergne
After slugging it out for more than a decade in one of Calgary’s most well-known bands, the Hot Little Rocket lyricist is striking literary gold with his first novel, The Milk Chicken Bomb, which was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Calling it “a crossroads” puts Andrew Wedderburn’s situation too lightly, as the author and musician tries to balance writing and rock ‘n’ roll.
Andrew Wedderburn laughs when asked how modest he is.
He neglected to mention the nomination for the $150,000 IMPAC award when we first discussed his 2007 novel, The Milk Chicken Bomb. It’s a literary prize based on nominations from the world’s librarians and largely considered one of the most prestigious for literature in the English language. For some perspective, the two most notable Canadian authors who were also long-listed for the award are heavyweights Michael Ondaatje and Douglas Coupland and as his editor puts it, it’s a “pretty big deal.”
So upon our second meeting at Café Beano, a downtown Calgary coffee shop where Wedderburn, 31, comes twice a week to write, my first question is, “how modest would you say you are?” He can’t help himself. He laughs at me.
“Somebody else might be better suited to answer that question,” he says, knowing full well that he has just answered in the best way possible.
It’s not that he was keeping it a big secret so that he could have surprised friends with his new-found wealth had he won, it’s just that Wedderburn’s artistic life has been rife with some bad timing and he is all too aware that high hopes — rather than loose lips — sink ships.
“I try not to build it up too much,” he says when addressing the award, “but one of the interesting things about being in an unsuccessful independent rock band for 10 years is that you get a good sense of how it ought to be done. I got enough savvy from being kicked around Canada in (Hot Little Rocket), that I’m excited to be at a point in the writing that I never got to be in with the band,” he says.
As the vocalist for the stalwart local rockers, Wedderburn threw everything into making records and touring this great nation of ours, only to have a series of “almosts” surround them. The inverse happened to The Milk Chicken Bomb. After a series of fortunate events and a small book release at one of Wedderburn’s favourite rock clubs in Calgary, it gained speed and received national — and now international — acclaim.
“It really blew my mind when they got in touch with me and told me I was on the long-list. Seeing your name on a list like that — I spent a long time just sitting and staring at the computer.
“I didn’t really have many expectations when I was working on it, beyond just getting it published, so the fact that a company like Coach House took a chance on it and published it, and I got to go travel around eastern Canada for a while, that was beyond my wildest dreams.
“And then when the subsequent things came down, it was all like, ‘whoa’.”
The Milk Chicken Bomb is the tale of a nameless 10-year-old boy who falls into his own mind to escape the drudgery of his small Albertan town, a situation that Wedderburn is all too familiar with, having grown up on a farm near Okotoks for his formative years, only to escape to Calgary and begin his aspirations for rock and roll fame. As for the milk chicken bomb itself? Well, it is as it sounds, and any more description will give away too much. You’ll have to read it if you want to find out. The book’s premise seems autobiographical, and it’s close, mostly influenced by Andrew’s wild imagination as a child.
Wedderburn’s paternal grandfather gave his son a sliver of land somewhere between DeWinton and Okotoks with which to raise his young family, and for the youngest Wedderburn, this meant no bikes, no neighbours and “play time” involved wandering the woods making up stories to occupy his time, a practice that would evolve into a living some years later.
It took a family move to Canmore when his father took a construction job there for Wedderburn to finally have the things that most children have, and based on those experiences, he began writing The Milk Chicken Bomb in 2001, as part of a creative writing class at the University of Calgary.
Writing was something he picked up at an early age though, as his mother is a writer and published short stories for children when Andrew was living on the farm.
“I remember her publishing her first short story when I was kid,” he says.
“She had it published in a children’s magazine and I remember thinking ‘oh, this is something that can be done.’ It made me really happy when I was able to have the book published, and I felt like I was following through. It was something that she had given me the space and allowed me to do.”
Maureen Wedderburn, demonstrating where her son gets his modesty from, laughs at me when I ask her about her writing.
I am getting used to being laughed at by the Wedderburn family.
“He was probably pretty young when that was published. It was just in a little Canadian magazine,” she says.
“My publishing career has been very, very limited. I do spend a fair amount of time doing creative writing, but I’m certainly not at the level that he’s at, having published his very first novel.”
Andrew Wedderburn also credits his experiences at the University of Calgary with helping him sharpen his style into something publishable, even if it didn’t happen overnight.
“I was lucky because I had good teachers,” he states modestly.
“I did the creative writing process at the U of C with Aritha van Herck for three years. What she teaches you is that self-editing process. How to sit down and look at yourself really coldly and to kind of bloodlessly look at it and say ‘yes, no, maybe.’ And that took time to learn. When you’re young, you’re in love with everything that you do and you don’t want to let go of anything and goddamn if anybody’s going to tell me what to do.
“A lot of writing — I found — was learning how to step away from stuff and be cruel to yourself.”
The novel was a labour of love for the young author, patching together pieces written from 2001 to 2006 into a manuscript that could be shopped around to various publishers. It took a chance meeting with Coach House Books editor Alana Wilcox for Wedderburn to get his foot into the literary door. He feels fortunate for, since — as he puts it — “I hadn’t really done much of anything.”
“I hadn’t really paid my dues or anything out there in the ‘short story trenches.’ I got her to take a look at it and she saw what I was after. She called me up and gave me a summary of what she thought I was trying to do. She hit the nail on the head for me — exactly what I’m trying to do. And then we had this instant relationship where it was really easy to be edited by her, because she got it. I trusted her to give me the right advice because what she wanted was what I wanted,” he says.
Coach Houses’ Wilcox, for her part, knew instantly that Wedderburn had a powerful voice, and that while a little rough around the edges, there was a tremendous amount of potential in the young author.
“I thought it was amazing,” she says emphatically.
“It had some problems — like many manuscripts do — but (it was) such a fresh voice, and so smart and interesting and funny. I was really happy to come across it. It had a lot of strength to it. It was a really interesting approach to telling the story of a kid’s life. He’s such an intriguing kid, and I love how Andrew was able to say so much with so little — that’s a really hard thing to do as a writer.”
The book was released in 2007 to favourable reviews (a Google search returned only positive opinions) and to Wedderburn the accolades are simply icing on the cake.
“It’s been the perfect cap-piece from what was already the best thing that happened to me. I guess things sometimes go your way,” he says.
Wilcox doesn’t take the praise given to The Milk Chicken Bomb as lightly, saying that, “There’s a lot of ‘first novels’ out there, so to get any reaction at all is pretty amazing, and he had a pretty great one.”
On a chilly February evening, Wedderburn gives a reading from his next, still-untitled novel to an audience of about 20. Tubby Dog, a kitschy, late-night hot dog restaurant on 17th Avenue, is seemingly not the hub of the local literary scene, though tonight it is populated by a half-dozen young authors (all unpublished, save Wedderburn) reading poems and drinking Pilsner.
Tubby Dog is filled with hot dog-themed ceramics, hot dog paraphernalia and lit both by candles and a background screening of the 1972 animated film Fritz the Cat. Against this backdrop, Wedderburn, dressed in a grey hooded sweatshirt and jeans, steps up to one of two microphones to describe for the audience the litany of problems facing a young Albertan girl focused on escaping her surroundings by purchasing her first, second and third cars.
“Yellow is more conjectural than descriptive,” he reads, describing an old pickup truck.
Yam fries holler in the fryer. Fritz the Cat is up to his old antics in the background.
“I certainly don’t take anything for granted,” he explains later.
All the while trying to get his first novel published, Wedderburn continued to make albums and tour with Hot Little Rocket, a rock band he began after soliciting fellow musicians through an ad in Fast Forward in 1998. This is how he first met Aaron Smelski, who would turn out to be his creative partner in the band for the next 10 years.
The band has never won a Grammy or a Juno, never headlined a world tour, and never went platinum, but they won the hearts and minds of Calgarians and Canadians, and for Wedderburn, that might be enough.
“I love getting up on a stage in Calgary to a flush of people at the front of the stage who know all of the words to the songs that I wrote. It’s the best feeling.”
A Calgary Hot Little Rocket show can be one of the most incendiary (pun intended) things to do on a weekend. Sweaty kids in denim and leather dance around hollering lyrics out over top of Wedderburn’s lyrics and Smelski’s guitar lines, all while chugging the cheapest beer available. Sure, they never made it big, but there’s so much heart on display that no one minds, or ever seems to care.
Wedderburn’s mom, Maureen and his dad, David, have even made it out to a few shows.
“Let’s just say, it’s not country and western,” Maureen laughs. “We’ve gone to his concerts, if it wasn’t too late at night and I enjoyed it; I enjoy listening to him.
“That’s part of his creativity — I think it’s the whole package,” she continues. “Part of what I think he loves about music is being able to write the lyrics. A lot of what comes out of that (music) is the words that he puts into the songs. He also was an art major at the college of art and design; we’ve got a few paintings on our walls that he did — he’s an artist, and it comes out in his writing and his music and in other ways.”
More than a month after Wedderburn reads at Tubby Dog, Hot Little Rocket takes the stage at Broken City, the very same bar that hosted The Milk Chicken Bomb’s release. Wedderburn has just found out that the short-list for the IMPAC DUBLIN award does not include his name. There are lighthearted jokes at the expense of the Irish. In fact the same sorts of jokes are probably being told at the Ondaatje and Coupland households, as none of the 13 nominated Canadian books is on the list. Wedderburn and his band mates rifle through a few new songs on stage, and play one of the best Hot Little Rocket shows I have ever seen. It is a packed house.
There’s a line on Hot Little Rocket’s latest release where Wedderburn laments that “this decade don’t get no shorter,” and from that single phrase, one can discern that not only has it in fact been a long decade for the band, but that it’s been a fun ride all along. Later in the song, the lyric “will you still want me when you’re through listening,” blares through the speakers, igniting the debate of whether the band can survive Wedderburn’s bourgeoning literary career, or whether the focus for Wedderburn has shifted from those sweaty bars and shows to book signings and tours.
“A band needs a lot of time. The further it goes, the more it demands and the harder it gets,” he says.
“I need a routine to work. I need time to sit and write, and I love traveling with the band, but I just couldn’t make it fit in my life anymore. You have to maintain that kind of commitment because you’re working towards something — that next step. Because it’s not my whole life, it’s hard. It’s easy to say you could do both, but it’s hard to do it.
“It would be really hard, because I’d miss writing and creating music with those guys, because I love doing that. I love being in Hot Little Rocket.”
Wedderburn and Smelski have opposing views on the potential demise of the band. For Wedderburn, he would be content to play every once in a while around town, to see those same people shout those same lyrics, while Smelski, who has a new band in Heat Ray, recites Neil Young’s proverbial question of “is it better to burn out or fade away,” when Hot Little Rocket’s disbanding is mentioned.
“I think it will eventually happen,” Smelski, 36, says.
“I think we’ve talked about that. We don’t know when — we didn’t stamp June 5, 2009, we’ll call it a day — but we’ve talked about the end and how far Hot Little Rocket can go.
“I think it’ll be hard. It’s been important for all of us to be involved with the band for so long. For myself, I really don’t want to become has-beens. I don’t want to be doing it 10 years from now at a lower level. That’s not where I would like it to end up. We’ve always had our ups and downs, and it’s about knowing the right time to bow out.”
“Who knows what will happen?” Wedderburn says.
“I think Hot Little Rocket’s a really great band, and I know that a lot of our success or not was due to timing and luck. With what I’ve seen in the 10 years of doing that, I’ve come to really appreciate when things happen. I’ve been a lucky guy.”
Luck might have something to do with it, but “modesty” isn’t conjectural, it is entirely descriptive.