Hometown Heroes: Michael Hingston is reinventing the advent calendar

The North Vancouver native, who now calls Edmonton home, says he's found the perfect outlet for short stories

December 17, 2015

By Max Fawcett

For Michael Hingston, it all started with an assignment from the Globe and Mail. The Edmonton writer, who was born and raised in North Vancouver, was tasked last fall with writing about the rise of premium advent calendars (which feature everything from craft beer to single malt whiskey). In the process, he discovered there were no such calendars that focused on literature. “I realized that there was this gap there,” he says, and that the short story was the “perfect unit of literature” for an advent calendar—short and digestible on a daily basis.

Hingston stewed on it for a while, but after emailing Calgary designer (and recent Vancouver arrival) Natalie Olsen in the summer, they decided to do something about it. That something is the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar, which features a daily short story from a wide range of writers including Heather O’Neill, Richard Van Camp, and Vancouver’s Zsuzsi Garntner. It’s been a big hit, too. In addition to selling out and garnering some pretty positive reviews from across the country in the process, it got an unsolicited endorsement from Patton Oswalt, who’s something of an advent calendar aficionado himself. But for Hingston, the biggest success has been the engagement that it’s generated. “We could have made a 500-page anthology and it wouldn’t have done anything—nothing nearly like the response we got to this. I think the advent occasion brings people together, and they’re willing to try something fun for a short period of time. And then they’re doing it as the same time as everyone else, and I think that community element is a big part of it.”

It’s something he says the literary community tends to lack, too. “When a new episode of Mad Men came out, Twitter was on fire with people talking shop, making jokes, sharing what they liked and didn’t like and debating their conspiracy theories. It’s the same with music. A new album leaks and suddenly everyone’s online talking about it at the same time. And I feel so jealous as a reader, because you never get people reading the same book at the same time—even a blockbuster book of the year. Nobody’s reading it at the same time, or if they are they’re fearful of talking about it in too much detail because, of course, they could be spoiling it for other people. The nice thing about the calendar is that, for 24 hours, dozens of people are reading and thinking about the same thing, and they get to chat in real time about it. It’s a rare thing in the book world.”

Hingston, an SFU graduate who wrote about his experiences working at the campus newspaper there (in fictionalized form, mind you) in his first novel, The Dilettantes, says that the success of the Short Story Advent Calendar speaks to the evolving nature of that book world. “I don’t know that it’s a replicable model, and I don’t know that the industry as a whole will learn from it. But I will say that Natalie and I are really proud that we were able to do it by basically circumventing the entire publishing industry. It wasn’t in a single book store, and there was no publisher involved. It was literally the two of us in our respective homes in Calgary and Edmonton putting this together.”

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For his part, he’s currently working on a work of non-fiction that’s still looking for a home. Why the switch away from fiction? In part, he says, it’s because editing the collection of short stories reminded him of just how challenging it can be to do it well. “Fiction is really hard, and it takes a long time. To write fiction well requires a lot of discipline and a lot of practice, and most of what I do in terms of writing is non-fiction in the first place so it feels like a more familiar set of muscles.” That said, it’s safe to assume that Hingston will be using his editorial muscles (and Olsen flexing her design ones) again in order to produce a 2016 iteration of the Short Story Advent Calendar. “I think there are a lot of people who have never heard of it still, so we may not be reinventing the wheel entirely. But we want to try some new stuff and get some new writers out there. People have reached out, and I’ve got a list. We’ll see where it goes.”

This is the first in a new series of profiles of Vancouverites who have moved on to other cities, provinces or countries but are doing interesting or inspiring things that make us proud to call them our own.

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