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"Don't Judge a Book" - Profile on John Degen in The Sault Star

Pauline Clark. The Sault Star. Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.: Aug 10, 2007. pg. B5

If you found out the novel The Uninvited Guest was about the Stanley Cup, you'd probably think author John Degen is a hockey fan — but he's not, really. At least not in the traditional sense.

But then, in a way, the book, nominated for the in Canada First Novel Award, is not about hockey.

"Hockey's like a sub-genre and I Don't belong to it," said Degen, who'll be in Northern Ontario late next week to promote the novel.

The book, he says, is about many things: people on the sidelines, from Stan and his first mistake to Tony and how he loses the cup in Romania. "It’s about desire and the dangers of desire and of wanting something too much and the necessity of coming to terms with that," the author said in a recent interview from his Toronto office.

Degen's idea for the novel arose in the about 2001 after he saw a photo of two Detroit Red Wing players hugging the Stanley Cup. He was captivated by the photo and started to think about who wasn't in the image; such as the photographer and those in the dressing room. "We can all see the picture of who won the cup but 99.9 per cent of us will never be that person," he said.

The Toronto native wrote his first draft back then but, with twin sons on the way, he had to rush the project along, realizing his available writing hours were slipping away. The novel was the biggest project he'd ever attempted and coming out of the poetry world - his two poetry works are available online - the scope of a novel seemed quite daunting.

A month on Toronto's Island Gibraltar Point as a writer in resident provided Degen with a studio and time to creative.

The studio was in the form of an old classroom, complete with a baby grand piano he couldn't really play but pounded on when he wasn't writing. More important, it provided him with three large blackboards and a bunch of chalk.

Degen began to write out his plotlines and chapter outlines on the boards. Occasionally he taped up images. Then whenever he walked into the studio he could immediately see where he was. He said this allowed him to get the story out of his head and into his eyes.

Later he was able to steal time to whip the novel into shape and, after a couple of small rewrites, he showed it to an editor who ripped in to pieces. Degen put it together again and it became a much better book. That was in 2003. But it wasn't until 2006 that one of the publishers (Nightwood Editions) which had originally decided against it, took it on and published it.

Now that it's nominated for a First Novel Award, Degen said he is gratified. According to Books in Canada, most, if not all of the others nominated - as well as honourable mentions - have sold better than his book. Degen classes his novel as literary fiction more than genre fiction and was surprised when he started hearing from people reading because of the hockey theme.

The book was actually sent to several hockey players by the publisher and has an endorsement on the back from NHLer Igor Larionov.

There's nothing autobiographical about the story, Degen said. There are little facts and locations that apply to his life, but nothing more. Keeping the story as loose as possible was a tricky exercise when a lot of the story is factual.

Degen said he never actually refers to "Stanley" and "Cup" together, even though the book is about people who take the cup around.

Aside from the usual influence for high school English teachers and creative writing clubs, how he became a professional writer remains a complete mystery to Degen. The 41-year-old entered the publishing world after graduating from the University of Toronto with a masters degree in English. He helped found and run Ink , a now defunct quarterly literary magazine, and he’s also had a numerous articles, poetry and short stories published.

Today he is executive director of the Periodical Writer’s Association of Canada (PWAC), which has not only helped to create the Canadian Freelance Union, but is also the voice of professional writers in Canada.

“People are often quite unaware of how large — and how underpaid — the cultural industries are in Canada,” Degen said, estimating that $39 billion is put into the Canadian economy annually via these industries.

He said it’s also important that writers have a way to come together, as writing is such a solitary profession and it’s beneficial for members to join heads from time to time.

He concedes he’d turn to the writing community first if he wasn’t producing, seeking help from outside sources rather than turn to self-help books.

But Degen is producing. Right now he’s working on three different projects; a new book of poetry, a non-fiction work about soccer – with a strict timeline – and a new novel that he reveals only is not about hockey.

Much like when he first wrote The Uninvited Guest while on Toronto Island, he’s set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day. Degen has tried every writing trick he’s ever read of: getting up early, staying up late, writing at lunchtime and other times. But for him there’s no set time. His surest trick is to set that word limit daily and then find the time to do it.

“Just reaching 1,000 words at day release you from the need for those to be a great 1,000 words,” Degen said. “There are endless ways to stop yourself from writing. You just need to get into it and do it.”

Degen said the thought of living in the countryside someday is appealing and he expects his visit to Northern Ontario to have a “countrified atmosphere,” much like he found on Toronto Island. His only visit to the area was when he passed through on a train during his honeymoon.

Currently reading a detective work by P.D. James – summer reading he calls it – Degen is also getting through a book of poems by Phillip Larkin. As a book columnist for This Magazine, reading makes up a sound chuck of this time.

Is there a book Degen wishes he’d written? He’s not sure though he said there’s something incredibly attractive about the writings of a former Czech President Vaclav Havel.

For now, Degen just wants to keep writing. He said he cant’ think of any other way of living, toying with the idea of writing full-time when his kids are grown.

The winner of the First Novel Award will be announced in October in Toronto and will take home a $7,500 prize. Other nominees include Peter Behrens, Heather O’Neill, Madeline Thien, Adam Lewis Schroeder and Annette Lapointe.