Toronto Star, May 1999

Rising Star hopes to score with first novel

by Daphne Gordon, The Toronto Star

Andrew Pyper is a big hockey fan, the kind who can’t keep his eye from wandering over to the TV when there’s a game on. A goal against the Maple Leafs causes him throw a few mild curses into the conversation, then pick up where he left off, still shaking his head.

Pyper, 31, who knows the bartender at the Brass Taps by name and whose regular pint of Beck’s appears with just a nod of his head, seems more like a regular guy than a burgeoning literary star.

He is both.

With the approaching publication of his first novel, Lost Girls, the Toronto-based Pyper has hit the big-time in the publishing world. Even before its release by Harper-Collins in Canada next week, the dark and gothic literary mystery has earned him two six-figure international deals – one with Bantam Doubleday Dell in the and another with Macmillan in Britain. Both are two-book contracts.

But hopes were being pinned on Pyper long before those deals came through last November. His first book, a collection of short stories called Kiss Me, received critical appraise when it was published in 1996, and prompted Mclean’s magazine to label him one-to-watch in an issue on 100 young Canadians with bright futures.

Still, there’s nothing hiding the small-town Ontario kid inside Pyper. It lurks in his gentle hockey-loving manner as well as in his writing.

Lost Girls, the story of an arrogant, coke-sniffing young Toronto lawyer who confronts his own past when he heads north to defend a teacher accused of killing two of his students, thoroughly explores the small-town mentality. It’s set in the fictional town of Murdoch with its scummy hotel/welfare slum, gossipy, eccentric populace and far-out local myths.

Pyper knows this world and its people well.

He grew up in Stratford, which “like many small towns in Ontario…wasn’t terribly encouraging of experiment or imagination,” he says.

He says he imagined life as a writer, but was never actually so presumptuous as to expect to be paid for it. “I thought I’d have to be a lawyer.”

When he left the town behind for the larger world, it was to study English at McGill in Montreal. He went on to do a Masters of Arts, specializing in French literary theory, with an eye to a PhD and eventually teaching. But he hit a brick wall, he says, when he realized that an academic career would require a narrowing of interests. “I had an anxiety attack about becoming a 50 year old who specializes in some sad niche of human endeavour,” he says. “I wanted to be more free-floating than that. So foolishly, I went to law school”.

It was while he was at the University of Toronto’s law school that Pyper first published his fiction in Quarry magazine, which eventually led to the publication of Kiss Me by the he small press, The Porcupine’s Quill.

He was articling with Blake Cassels & Graydon in Toronto when he met his girlfriend Leah Ross, who was working as a waitress at a cheeseburger joint in the Annex.

When Ross moved to Peterborough in 1997 to complete her undergraduate degree at Trent University, Pyper went with her and spent a year as writer-in -residence at Champlain College.

The first draft of Lost Girls was completed there, parts of it dictated into a tape recorder while driving back and forth to Toronto, where he was writing his bar exams.

It came easily he says, in spite of the sophomore expectations that came with the success of Kiss Me, which sold about 1,400 copies.

“I was pleased with Kiss Me, in its own little modest way,” says Pyper. “It was a happy enough experience that it gave me the crazy idea that I could write a novel.”

Lost Girls wasn’t intended to be a mystery, Pyper says, when he started out writing it. ” I was just compelled by this story I had in my head. In fact I found it really frustrating that it ended up being a plot-driven novel, because it take so much more work”.

Competition is stiff for the role of the hot young male writer on the scene these days – his contemporaries include Russell Smith, who has recently published his third book, Young Men, (Doubleday) and Winnipeg teacher David Bergen whose second novel See The Child (Harper Collins) has been met with positive reviews.

In a country where literature has been dominated by women for at least the last decade, young male writers are attracting attention — Pyper and his contemporaries have been labelled the Brat Pack in literary circles.

But Pyper says he feels no competition with his colleagues.

And he swears he’s not concerned with how his writing fits into the Canadian canon — one that has not traditionally accepted mystery into its midst.

“It’s absurdly too huge a task to think about rejuvenating the canon” he says. And I’m not good enough to do that”.