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As with many novels, Andrew Wedderburn’s The Crash Palace began life as several ideas floating around the writer’s imagination.
But there were two main threads: An intriguing setting and an intriguing character. At first, however, the two didn’t meet. The Okotoks-based author had an idea about a person who ends up stranded at a remote lodge in the middle of nowhere outside of Rocky Mountain House. He also imagined an adventurous teenage girl obsessed with buying junky old cars and taking them on long journeys.
“I showed my editor at Coach House some of this stuff eventually,” says Wedderburn. “She said ‘There’s some good stuff here but you have to realize that you’ve got two different things and you have to choose between them.'”
Wedderburn agreed. The first character was scrapped but the setting survived, with the mysterious lodge in the wilderness eventually becoming the titular Crash Palace. Audrey Cole, the car-obsessed teen, became the book’s protagonist. It does not take long into Wedderburn’s sophomore novel to see why Audrey made the cut. She stubborn, insular, unpredictable and laconic. All of which makes her an unusual creation to carry what is essentially a coming-of-age story, a genre where protagonists tend to overshare their inner turmoil.
“I wanted to play with withholding and ambiguity and a lot of working on it over the years was dialling back the right amount of detail so she would be accessible but maybe not an open book,” Wedderburn says. “I wanted to give her some privacy and I wanted her to keep some things to herself and share some other things. That was important to me.”
The Crash Palace unfolds in three different periods in Audrey’s life. We meet her as a teen in Canmore who becomes enamoured with the open road and prone to buying jalopies and abandoning them after they have been driven into the ground. We next meet her in her post-high school years when she takes a job as a driver at a camp in the oilpatch rather than go to university. After making a hasty exit from that world, she ends up in the orbit of a Calgary-based band of middle-aged musicians called the Lever Men. They are good-natured and hard-drinking weekend-warrior musicians touring out of loyalty to Rodney Leverman, a physically fragile band leader whose revered cult status among musicians is not reflected in the empty bars and indifferent patrons he plays for. This eventually leads Audrey and the band to the Crash Palace, where she meets a reckless former rich kid named Alex Main who runs the place and a subtly menacing figure known only as the Skinny Cowboy who seems to wield a strange power over the whole operation.
Finally, we meet Audrey again in 2009 in Calgary’s Beltline, where she is a struggling single mother of a toddler named Shelly. One winter night after learning of the death of someone from her past, she takes off in a stolen car for one final trek to the now-abandoned Crash Palace. While nothing is ever clearly spelled out, we eventually learn that Audrey went through some life-altering experiences during her first stay at the bizarre lodge, which is run as a cultish party house for young people who want to experience revelry in the remote wilderness.
Having a young female protagonist was certainly one way for Wedderburn to shut down assumptions that this coming-of-age tale is autobiographical. Still, the author does follow the old “write-what-you-know” convention to a certain degree. He didn’t grow up in Canmore, but did grow up outside the big city in Okotoks. He lived in Calgary’s Beltline at roughly the same time as his protagonist. As the lead singer of Calgary’s Hot Little Rocket, he also travelled the same unforgiving western Canadian tour circuit in the early 2000s that the Lever Men do. While the Crash Palace may seem like a somewhat fantastical creation, Wedderburn says it’s perfectly in line with some of the more surreal people and places a band might meet while on the road in the Great White North.
“There are definitely places out there that people have created that are little escape hatches from reality that operate under their own rules,” he says. “A lot of times, the money runs out or something goes wrong and they are transient, which is an interesting thing about them. They come and go and some of them come and go and come back. That was another interesting thing to explore and play with.”
In fact,The Crash Palace often has a surreal edge to it, dancing around ideas of magic and mysticism without fully committing to anything overtly supernatural. Wedderburn also leans towards open-ended storylines and unanswered questions. It was something he also toyed with in his 2007 debut, The Milk Chicken Bomb, which was about a 10-year-old growing up in a slightly ominous fictional small town in Alberta.
“It’s what I’m interested in playing with,” Wedderburn says. “I’m interested in fiction like that that gives the reader the invitation and the openness to participate in that fashion. It’s a fun challenge as a writer to do that as well. I wanted the sense of mystery so that the emotions that I’m trying to evoke and some of those things are mysterious and surreal and touch your emotional centres in different ways. To do that kind of thing, you want it to be a bit foggy in some areas.”
While Wedderburn grew up in Okotoks, he spent much of his early adult years in Calgary. He not only played in bands, but also studied creative writing with Aritha van Herk at the University of Calgary. Five years ago, Wedderburn and his wife moved back to Okotoks with their two young children.
Still, Wedderburn takes great care, and apparent joy, in recreating Calgary Beltline circa 2009, and even includes flashbacks to the city’s fledgling punk scene of the early 1980s.
“I love Calgary and I wanted to explore it in fiction and I wanted to write something that is there,” Wedderburn says. “I lived down in the Beltline for close to probably 15 years. So there are absolutely landmarks that are real and there are made-up things that refer to things. I think there are a lot of Easter eggs for folks.”
The Crash Palace is now in stores.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021