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Kim Brunhuber: Kameleon Man

james hörner

kim Barry Brunhuber is an Ottawa based writer, television reporter, and documentary filmmaker. Although he began his career at CBC radio, he is currently at CJOH TV. Besides hosting a monthly book review segment, Cover2Cover, he's working on his second novel and a documentary film about the Canadian literary industry. And when he's not doing all that he squeezes in acting work for TV. His first book, Kameleon Man, explores the world of high-fashion, male models and the issue of race. (visit www.kimbrunhuber.com)

Kim Brunhuber photo

cancon
what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

Kim Brunhuber
It's a sense of urgency that's very hard to explain. I can almost hear the ticking. There are so many things that I want to do and goals to achieve that it's impossible to stay in bed any longer than absolutely necessary. Whether I'm promoting Kameleon Man, planning and filming my documentary, reading books for my review segment Cover2Cover, writing newspaper articles or reviews, or, most importantly, working on my second book, I hear the ticking. My only fear is dying before I can get it all out!

cancon
so far you've been a writer, television reporter, documentary filmmaker, model, knife salesman, soap opera actor, and played with a rap group - what's next for you?

Kim Brunhuber
When I was a small kid, I would steal blank exercise books from my teachers and then convene classes with my stuffed animals. I had a chalkboard, a bell, even those little stamps with the stars on them. The only thing I'm not doing now that I would really like to do in the future, aside from getting better at all the things I do now, is teach. There's something uniquely rewarding about passing on knowledge and experience to others. People, including myself, only succeed with the intervention of others who have no vested interest other than to help. For me, it was a handful of teachers and professors who believed in me and gave me the push or pull I needed along the way. I'd like to do the same for the young writers who are being born as I write this.

cancon
with that wide range of experience, what are some of the most fulfilling moments so far?

Kim Brunhuber
There have been so many. The night George Elliott Clarke faxed me his blurb endorsing my book. The day of my launch when the Purolator truck showed up with the first 100 copies of my book. The morning I raced to Mags+Fags to read the rave review in the Globe and Mail... I've appeared on national television, toured from Halifax to Vancouver, and read at prestigious venues like Parliament Hill, but the moment I will treasure most is an appearance I did at a high school in the small town of Stittsville, west of Ottawa. A dozen or so students gave up their lunch hour to listen to me read and talk about my experiences. They were so earnest, so appreciative... it warmed my heart to think that not long ago I was sitting in an uncomfortable high school chair much like theirs, and 15 years later, here I am, reading from my first novel. And maybe in 15 years, one of these students will be in a similar classroom, reading to a group of eager youngsters over a meal of French fries and chocolate milk. I don't know what it's like to win the Giller or the Booker, but there can't be a much better feeling than knowing that a student may one day wander into his school library and decide to do a book report on you.

cancon
did you get involved in fashion thinking that there was a book in there somewhere?

Kim Brunhuber
After doing my Bachelor's degree in Journalism, I received a Canada Council grant to write a book of short stories. In order to supplement my income, I decided to move to Toronto and model in my spare time. However, once immersed in this world of rejection, alienation and failure, it dawned on me that this would be the perfect theatre in which to tell the story of a young man of mixed race. The novel explores issues surrounding identity and appearance, which is why modeling is so appropriate. The industry is obsessed with the exterior, with creating and reshaping identities, with commodifying anything it touches, including blackness itself. In modeling, there is no separation between the product and the self. It is you who is being marketed and sold. And unlike actors, who can improve their craft with time and practice, models are a natural resource that are sold intact. Without radical surgery, it is impossible to change one's looks. You have to live with the face-and the skin colour-you were born with. Which is hard when one's entire career, not to mention one's sense of self, is tied up in your appearance. It is a precarious position in which to find one's self, and yet this is, in many ways, the reality for most people of colour in Canada.

cancon
i often feel like i'm balancing a lot of plates, but then i come across people like yourself who seems to be doing everything at once (and, consequently, i feel very lazy) - how do you keep your life in order?

Kim Brunhuber
It's tough. Promoting a novel, writing another, working on a film, freelance writing and acting, not to mention holding down a job in daily journalism... it's a lot of work. After a day spent writing my television reports, the last thing I usually feel like doing is sitting down in front of a computer and writing some more. So I've found a unique way of dealing with the challenge-I bribe myself with booze. What I normally do is write at bars, lounges and restaurants. I realize that it's Bohemian to the point of cliché, but I do find the music, the atmosphere, not to mention the martinis, stimulating. I used to take my laptop, but every time I would leave to go to the washroom, I'd find that someone had either spilled beer on it, or they had sat themselves down and made drunken contributions to my novel. So now I use a pen and a pad. My most productive hours are from 11pm-2am, so I think that being a night owl is very helpful. That, and being single.

cancon
how's your documentary on the canadian literary industry coming along? what's your focus?

Kim Brunhuber
The film traces the life of a novel from contract to bookshelves and beyond, and will also offer a candid look at the writing life. We will hop across the country, going behind the scenes of the Canadian publishing industry, getting an intimate look at an author's and publisher's struggle to sell a novel. Like in Halifax, where I was accosted by a hostile audience of black women at a reading. Or in Vancouver, where my tearful publicist was accused of being a racist. The film switches between serious and comical moments, such a reading in Montreal where only four people showed up, and a book signing in Calgary, where I found out they were selling my novel from the inside of a closed drawer. Some of the biggest problems I've had doing the film have been technical, like when I tried to interview Yann Martel without a microphone, or when I pretended I was still filming Austin Clarke when I had, in fact, run out of batteries half an hour earlier.

cancon
you're working on your second novel now - have you been struck with any second novel anxiety?

Kim Brunhuber
Yes and no. After three or four false starts, I got my momentum and finished 3/4 of my next novel before the launch of Kameleon Man. Inevitably, reporters asked me what my second book was about, and I found myself struggling to answer. Eventually I realized that if I couldn't explain what the book was about in two or three sentences, something was terribly wrong with the narrative structure. So I will now start over again. It's a terrifying prospect, but I'm sure the novel will be better for it. My experience with Kameleon Man has been so great, and the critical reaction so positive that it has given me even more confidence going into my second novel... which is great because it's an ambitious project which I'm still not entirely sure I'm technically proficient enough to carry out.

cancon
how do you respond to the feedback from your readers or critics? does it affect your work in progress?

Kim Brunhuber
My greatest fear about publishing Kameleon Man was the critical reaction. It was consciously written in a style that is completely different from the usual Master of Fine Arts-style that young Canadian writers seem to be employing, and I wasn't certain critics would know what to make of it. However, much to my relief, the reviews in papers across the country including the Globe and Mail have been extremely positive. I have yet to read a bad review of the book, though I'm sure there's a critic somewhere who's sharpening his knife as we speak. My only disappointment has been that very few interviewers have given enough attention to the subject of race, which is one of the main themes of the novel. Many journalists, especially those in television and radio, only ask about modeling and in particular my own views and experiences. This supports my view that Canadians don't want to talk about race. It's exactly that head-in-the-sand approach that I wanted to challenge with my book, and it's unfortunate that most interviewers still want to duck the issue. We can't change one of the most fundamental problems in our society if nobody's willing to acknowledge it.

cancon
what has your Chapter One tv segment taught you about writers and first novels? any recent first novels that we should all be reading?

Kim Brunhuber
It has taught me how much great Canadian writing there is, and how easy it is for a great book to get lost. For the last three years, I have been reading exclusively Canadian fiction, and not felt that I have missed out on anything. It's amazing how much great stuff there is out there. Just look at how much talent there is in Ottawa alone. I was lucky enough to be shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Awards, and a quick look at the pedigree of the other nominees says it all: two were Canadian bestsellers selected by the Globe as among the best books of the year, one book was shortlisted for the Trillium Award, and the other is by one of Canada's most decorated children's authors, and the previous year's winner. And that's just in Ottawa! The problem is, there is so much fiction being published and so little attention paid to books these days that, unless they win an award, it's easy for a great book to be overlooked. Take Thomas Troffimuk's novel The 52nd Poem. A fabulous book which no-one has heard of. It's only because I'm actively soliciting novels from small presses that I became aware of the book and was able to feature it on my review show. But it's scary as an author to see a fabulous piece of writing sink beneath the literary waves.

cancon
when you were younger what did you see yourself doing at this point in life?

Kim Brunhuber
I always knew I would be a writer. However, I was convinced I would be a sci-fi/fantasy writer. I loved Heinlein, Asimov, Tolkein, Farmer, Vance, and other visionaries in the genre of speculative fiction. However, once I reached university I realized that before I could indulge my imagination and write about make-believe races and imaginary worlds, first I had to tell stories about real races in our world. One day I will try to write the great Canadian fantasy novel. But until then, I still have at least three books in me in which people look like us and gravity actually works.

cancon
have you made any memorable professional compromises so far?

Kim Brunhuber
Yes I have. When I started writing this book, I was an unemployed student trying to survive by modeling underwear and selling knives . By the time it was published, I was a "public personality" working for one of the country's biggest television news stations. So yes, I did change the way I viewed the book when it came time to edit the novel. A lot of the swearing, sex, and other vulgarities were removed. I think the end product was a happy compromise between being true to the original voice of the character and the need not to unnecessarily offend readers. And in retrospect, I'm glad I removed much of the pornographic material. The book has been read by teens and nonagenarians, and so far I have only received a handful of complaints. Including one from my 94-year-old grandmother.

cancon
what's one question you've always wanted to be asked?

Kim Brunhuber
Would you like to have another martini, on the house?


james hörner edits canadian content.

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