This Vancouver Real Estate Crime Novel Was Supposed to Be Fiction
The property tycoons and gangs in Charlie Demers’ new book are a little too real, so we asked him about researching the city’s housing and drug markets.
Photo by Asher Penn
If you’ve been following Vancouver news lately you know one of the biggest stories going is how real estate, drugs, and money laundering have intertwined themselves in what is now being dubbed The Vancouver Model. It is in the midst of this massive reveal that author and comedian Charles Demers’ latest novel Property Values is particularly topical: the story of a group of friends who stage a drive-by shooting at their childhood home so they can afford to stay there—only to find themselves in the center of a gang war. As a fourth generation local with a long history of grassroots activism, Demers' foray into the crime-comedy genre is a hilariously personal confrontation with the out-of-control economic realities of Vancouver—the only city he wants to call home.
VICE caught up with Demers to ask him about researching the Vancouver area’s one-of-a-kind mashup of crime and housing issues.
VICE: It’s been a big week for real estate in Vancouver. We had an unusual protest on the west side in Trimble Park, an affluent neighborhood opposing the latest property taxes.
Charlie Demers: Paul Robeson, the left-wing American artist and activist once said something to the effect that the ruling class “are decent people who love their families... but they will kill you over their property.” That’s the thing—people who have literally done nothing have seen their houses quadrupled in value. They haven’t improved the property, and most buyers would rip the houses down and build a new one anyway. They cling to this totally fictitious money that they believe they have earned as though they were spit-shining apples and selling them from their cart. It’s totally bananas.
And all this is happening on unceded territory—land that was never actually surrendered by First Nations.
This little part of BC was majority Indigenous until the late 1800s but locals will say without irony “the people who are from here can’t afford to stay here.”
Did you have an idea of how prescient Property Values would be?
I started writing the book, and it was pretty clear to me that “this book needs to come out sooner rather than later.” It’s just so much a reflection of the moment that we’re in. But when things change, either catastrophically or in a more managed way, I think there will still be a value in the text, capturing the way it was, the big gold rush years. I knew that I wanted to write something that was funny that combined crime and commentary on housing in Vancouver. It was the same way that you couldn’t make Justified and have it set in Harlan County without talking about coal. Real estate is just what we make here. I mean, we don’t, we don’t do sweet fuck all, but that’s our main export—there’s Maine Lobsters, Okanagan Peaches and Vancouver makes real estate. It’s the main economy here. We are more and more becoming a resource town, with all the terror that becoming a resource town involves. Because the resource is the space.
How did the book start?
I had what I thought was a funny idea: A group of friends that start a fake gang that gets themselves in the middle of a real gang war. Then it became about what I could set up plausibly for that story to actually unfold. It became a group of guys who want to stay where they lived who end up shooting up their house to lower its value.
You’re a fourth generation Vancouverite, right?
It’s coming close to 100 years that the first members of my family got here, which is pretty nuts. Even though my family hasn’t stayed in one place in the lower mainland there is this weird continuity. When she was at her very first daycare, every day my daughter and I would walk home through the grounds of the elementary school my grandfather went to, which is just a foreign experience for most Vancouver people. It just intensifies what you feel for the place. On the days you hate it, you hate it so much more, you just feel imprisoned by all the things that suck about it. The days you love it there is this overwhelming affection.
One of my favorite aspects of Property Values is the way that gangs are portrayed. Did you have to do a lot of research for this or is this something you were already versed in?
I didn’t want any of the criminals in the story to be based on real people, but it was very important to me that they be plausible, realistic characters in organizations that reflected the very idiosyncratic crime culture in Vancouver. So I did do a fair amount of research. Where I grew up, as a kid in Burnaby, there was a lot of gang stuff going on, but I was absolutely terrified of it. One night in grade eight, at a party, a bunch of guys from this local gang showed up outside, so I went to the other side of the room, I was that kind of kid. But somebody goes, ‘Hey, one of these guys wants to talk to you.’ I thought I was dead. Turned out it was just a kid from my karate class who wanted to say hello. But one of the things that got me writing this book was the sense that you get, whether it’s reading historical stuff about Vancouver gangs by Aaron Chapman or contemporary reporting by Kim Bolan, that any group of tough friends can turn into a gang, because of the easy money to be made in Vancouver. So I wanted to take it one step further: what about a group of friends who aren’t remotely tough?
I also really appreciated how much visibility you gave to the suburbs, and the people who populate them, which often gets overlooked when discussing Vancouver.
People in Vancouver don’t really think of themselves as part of BC, and so the suburbs are a weird in-between space. We never did the megacity thing, where the suburbs are officially amalgamated into the city, and yet Metro Vancouver, the greater Vancouver area, is what we think of when we talk about the city. Vancouver has two million people in it, but Vancouver proper is only a quarter of that. Most people aren’t in the actual city.
It was really important to me to get the three major groups that populate Vancouver—East Asians, South Asians, and Western Europeans—and to have those guys interacting in a way that didn’t presume that the white one had any greater claim to space than any of them. Growing up, I was in a similar group of high school kids. I was part of that first generation of post-official multiculturalism, where everyone you know has parents from different places and was racially different from you. The natural state of affairs in Vancouver was to be with people who look different from you, and from each other, and come with a different background. I’ve never lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t diverse. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, it’s just been my experience.
The protagonist Scott goes through a lot of personal changes throughout the book. It feels kinda rare to see millennials evolve this way in narrative fiction.
I think it would have been really easy, with a premise like this book has, to fall into the trap of doing this book as a too-broad, farcical slapstick. I didn’t want it to be a comedy sketch—and even though it’s genre, it’s crime fiction, I have too much respect for crime fiction as a category not to treat it as literature. So I didn't want cardboard cut-outs, I wanted real people, and the whole reason we want to follow a character is because their challenges change them. It’s an old cliché in creative writing, but the most compelling contradiction in a story can be that between what the character wants, and what she or he actually needs. Scott and his friends are blocked from adulthood, from maturity, by being economically excluded from the things that make you a grown-up. So I wanted to see what it would look like if they learned about sacrifice, responsibility, forgiveness—all these mature, adult concepts—by another route.
Property Values also addresses the challenge of living in a changing city for better or worse.
Well, this place is my home. It’s me, to an extent that can sometimes be very terrifying. I think one of the big lies that we tell ourselves in this age of hyper-individualism is that it doesn’t matter where you go, you’re you. That is such a naive idea. We are of the place we’re from. You can’t pretend that just pulling yourself out and putting yourself somewhere different is not a profound change. The fact that people have to leave this city often gets relayed as a “thems the breaks” thing, but it’s actually traumatic. Everyone in Vancouver is afraid, that even if they don’t leave, someone else in their lives is going to. I live in this co-op so my family is OK. No one is going to evict us and we’re never going to get priced out of this place. But that doesn’t mean that all the people I love are safe. My cousin just left for Kamloops—right after I wrote the opening scene of the book, where this guy has to do exactly that. It’s a mindfuck on a level I don’t think we can acknowledge the profundity of.