"The Beggar's Garden," Michael Christie's debut short-story collection, garnered a remarkable amount of critical acclaim when it first appeared in his native Canada in 2011. The Toronto Star called it "about as good as a first book can be." The National Post hailed it as "a sympathetic and compassionate examination of modern urban loneliness and disaffection." "A vibrant depiction of a grey world," gushed the Telegraph-Journal.
Indeed the book, comprised of nine interlinked narratives, made the kind of "read 'em and weep" splash that nearly every young author dreams of -- a royal flush at a time when uncompromising literary fiction is by no means guaranteed an audience. Christie's unflinching focus is the sometimes rough-hewn realities of Vancouver, British Columbia's Downtown Eastside -- a neighborhood he populates with a hallucinating crack addict who receives a vividly imagined visit from atom-bomb inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer, a dumpster-diver and a woman who has taken to dialing 911 in the hopes of making a love connection with a paramedic, among other memorable characters.
But perhaps even more remarkable than his favorable critical reception is the author's unique background: Christie honed his literary aesthetic as a staff writer for the Canadian skateboarding magazine Color.
For those already familiar with the well-designed print quarterly, Christie's artistic evolution may not be all that surprising. For a decade Color has striven to elevate the skateboard-magazine genre, both through the quality of its writing and by making a point to include all manner of cultural reportage -- be it book reviews, fashion editorials or artist profiles. With deserved pride, Color describes itself as "the only skater-owned, independent skateboard magazine in Canada."
"I saw my writing in print for the very first time in a skateboard magazine," Christie recently wrote in an email. "I kind of underplayed it at the time, but it would be difficult for me to describe how important this was to break down that wall and to acquire the feeling of authority necessary for me to eventually attempt writing my own book in earnest. ... The good thing about writing, however, is that, like all arts, it's gentle on the knees."
Not that Color began simply as a result of rarified discussions among young aesthetes.
"[I] feel as though spite had something to do with starting Color," wrote Sandro Grison, the magazine's founder and publisher, in an email. "Getting ripped off after doing some design and editorial work for the leading Canadian skateboard magazine at the time made me start to question everything, from who the people are behind these publishing companies, their motives and why what I was experiencing in my life as a skateboarder -- our interests, and the things we were being exposed to on a daily basis -- wasn't represented in their pages at all. That whole thing really made me think, '[Forget] you, I'll just make my own.' I remember everyone (including banks) telling me we couldn't do it and that really just made me want to do it even more."
Appropriately enough, in 2003 Grisson dubbed the inaugural issue's release party "Burning Bridges" -- an event for which the neophyte publisher booked his favorite heavy metal band, 3 Inches of Blood. Grisson also notes that, at the time, he did not own a car, wristwatch or, "if you can believe it, I didn't have a cell phone, either."
It's probably both in spite of and because of this devil-may-care attitude that Grisson still finds himself at the helm of this well-respected print publication, now with a circulation of about 20,000 per issue.
"I believe that skateboarders may not all be smart in terms of schools and accreditation, but make no mistake: They're smart -- all of them," Christie adds. "It takes a certain kind of person with dedication and an analytical mind to do it well. Of course it makes sense to give them that credit when you're making a magazine. ... This is the approach that Sandro takes with Color. This creative faith has been well-rewarded with a super-dedicated readership that feels a genuine connection to the mag."
For Christie, the continued comingling of literary and skate culture feels natural, if a bit surreal.
"'The Beggar's Garden' was just published in France and I was invited to this incredible literary festival in Paris,'" he writes. "It was basically a few weeks hanging out with some of my very favorite writers, me just trying not to fan out too hard. We would walk past skate spots like the Dome that I'd been to on skate tours before, and I'd have to resist the urge to tell the other writers exactly what went down at that spot.
"So it's a new kind of stoked for me, but the feeling is exactly the same as when I went on a tour of Canada with the Chocolate team and skated demos with Gino [Ianucci], simply trying not to creep out on him or his style the whole time, just honored to be rolling around on the same pavement as he was. So yeah, I just try to stay stoked."