Chad Pelley is the founding editor of The Overcast, and has written for a variety of Canadian media including The Globe & Mail and The National Post. He is also an award-winning author, whose third book, Four Letter Words, is on shelves May 2016. His debut novel, Away from Everywhere was turned into a movie last spring, starring Jason Priestley, Joanne Kelly, and Shawn Doyle. He has a major in biology, a minor in English and has a pile of humanities courses under his belt.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your undergraduate degree?
I was young and in love. And naïve. As a teenager who knew nothing about the world, the plan was to be a rockstar with the mediocre band I was in at the time. But the band broke up, and my girlfriend’s father was the kind of man you wanted to impress, which entailed going to university like all his daughter’s other potential suitors.
I came to love university & Memorial swiftly, for being nothing like high school. You choose your courses, the professors at Memorial really give a damn about their subjects, and the enthusiasm is contagious, and my mind was blown at how amazing and complicated and far-gone and interesting the world was outside the basements and bars I was playing music in.
I went to MUN for 7 years, bouncing around from one science major to another, unable to settle on just one. And went back years later for an English minor. In doing so, I found myself, who I was, what I cared about in the world, and how I wanted to try and fit into life in some meaningful way.
Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an undergraduate/graduate student?
Through my honours thesis project, I got a chance to see how remotely some people still live in NL, and it’s nice to know I can run away from it all and live off the land if the world gets anymore alienating than I already find it to be. To back up, my honours thesis project involved fertilizing a pond to see if the end result meant bigger salmon (via boosting the quantity of larvae they feed off). There was a man living near the control pond who kept an eye on it. I met him. I saw he so thoroughly lived off the land, he had no use for money. That appeals to me.
Also, tied to that honours degree, is the memory of reading Michael Winter’s This All Happened. Something about the book resonated so deeply with me, that I started writing my first novel and walked away from a career in biology to write fiction, ads, journalism. Which is not so weird: English and biology are both the study of life. The former just turned out to be how I wanted to study life; through words, not the lens of a microscope. And I wouldn’t have known that without the way all those years at Memorial re-wired my brain and who I am.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You can monetize your passions if you’re passionate enough about them to get innovative about it. No one told me that verbatim, but I observed it in all the right people.
What was it like to have your first novel turned into a movie? (Pelley’s novel Away from Everywhere will screen at the Cannes Film Festival this month)?
I’m just exceptionally grateful that these people wanted to spend so much time and money, and such a chunk of their careers on turning my first book into a movie. It’s the dream, and it came true. And as someone who came of age in the 90s, I watched Beverly Hills 90210 avidly – to have Jason Priestley intersect with my professional life 20 years later is surreal, the world is so small.
I had nothing to do with the process myself. I was supposed to have a cameo in it just for fun, but I was stuck up in an airplane, unable to land in fog on the way home from Barcelona
You founded The Overcast in 2014 and everyone who is interested in cultural activities in downtown St. John’s is so glad you did! In hindsight, two years after launching, would you have done anything differently? And can you comment on the decision to maintain a monthly printed edition in the face of declining ad revenues, people reading online?
Honestly, it’s been a whirlwind, the months whiz by so quickly there’s been no time to reflect on how else I could have done it. To make this financially viable, I’m playing both publisher & editor and I do a fair chunk of the writing too. The pace of the job is so speedy, and the workload so daunting, I make the occasional mistake, and learn from it on the fly, hoping I’ve been forgiven for it. Which seems to be the case – readership is still going up, 2.5 years later, and the breadth of demographics reading this thing is stunning. I would have invested more time in combating the “arts paper” box some people stick us in, but, I’m also proud of covering the arts so amply.
As for the print issues during digital times, they’re quite simply a must. They’re costly, but a must for a media with our financial structure. Where the CBC is funded by tax dollars, or The Muse is funded by the university, The Overcast relies 100% on ad revenue, and we live in a province where advertisers still prefer print ads over digital ads – the website alone couldn’t generate enough money to pay all our contributors and cover the atrocious printing bill.
The other reason is because people still like a physical copy. It’s a way to escape from the digital world and see what’s up in the real world. Kicking back on the couch with a magazine is still a wonderful way of relaxing and we should never deprive ourselves of simple joys like that.
Honestly, I might have started it under a pen name if I had my time back. There are perfect strangers who have a fully formed opinion of me based on the paper, or a specific article I have written, and I’m uncomfortable being judged as a person for my professional life not my character. People write people off so easily these days, even for something as petty as “that jerk of a paper didn’t review my book/album” as if The Overcast can afford to cover everything.
In a perfect world, what in your opinion is something the City of St. John’s should do right now for artists AND for people under 40 living in the city?
Infrastructure. It’s just not here. We’re overflowing with talented artists, but we lack the support systems to launch, foster, and substantially monetize those careers. Except in the film industry maybe, the film industry is proof that investment in the arts is an investment in the vitality of our economy. The film industry in NL right now is doing very well, generating way more money than most people realize, and that’s all because Republic of Doyle built up the industry’s ability to function and be self-sufficient here.
But to use music as an example, the infrastructure to build that industry isn’t here. Talented 20-something bands are recording demos in their basement, instead of quality albums at an affordable local recording studio (is there one here?), and they’re playing shows to the same 40 people in the same 3 bars downtown, because there’s a lack of record labels here to sign, manage, market, distribute, and book for them (i.e. launch their careers). As a result we’re forcing them into a DIY approach, which is statistically less likely to get them reviewed nationally and playing big festivals for big bucks. If you look at the bands who are now enjoying a full-time careers in music – Hey Rosetta, The Once, Fortunate Ones, Amelia Curran – the common thread isn’t talent per se (that’s subjective in a non-commercial sense) – the common thread is they went off-island and found themselves a record label. And that off-island record label is making money off OUR artists. Those bands have publicists promoting their work, booking them at festivals, getting them reviewed all over the country. You can write amazing songs – and so many local bands do – but if no one hears them, how are you to make a career off your craft? There has always been a solid music scene here, but there has never been the proper infrastructure here to launch those bands. If the city got behind the people trying to start that infrastructure, the music industry would be thriving like the film industry.
Likewise with, say, investing in our publishing houses more. There’s no shortage of amazing NL writers – all national media are in agreement we’re the country’s literary goldmine. The talent is here, if our publishers weren’t cash-strapped and overtaxed, they could afford more staff to better promote their authors and books; they could afford to publish more books, and they could afford to grow.
As for the under-40 in general, that’s more what the province can do. If you want 20- and 30-something contributing to the economy, make sure they’re not bankrupt because you revoked their baby bonuses and tuition grants. Don’t get me started on the lack of logic and higher-level thinking when it comes to the budget ‘round here. It all comes down to investing in the right industries and demographics. And how we simply don’t. And never have.
In what ways has studying humanities affected your world view? What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?
University was only ever about higher learning, and broadening your mind. Which a humanities degree will do more than most any degree. Whoever makes university about job acquisition missed the point and won’t come out of university as well-rounded and grounded as someone with a firmer grasp on humanities. There does exist the gloomy “There’s no jobs for people with arts degrees,” but in my experience, people with arts degrees either make their own jobs, or land somewhere fitting in time.
The pile of English courses I did made me passionate enough about literature to actively create my own job in it; I’ve used the languages I’ve studied in the real world; I better understand our province’s issues during all these budget cuts because of sociology and anthropology courses. I’m better connected to the world because of studying the humanities. So I feel less lost, and better equipped to do something about what’s wrong in the world.
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
I can’t eat berries without thinking they’re full of bugs because, once, when I was a kid, one blueberry was.
What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?
I wasn’t sure either. There’s only one way to figure that out. Dabble in it all – entry level courses are designed to cover all of its major’s disciplines broadly. You’ll know after an introductory course in biology or English or psychology if they’re where your passions or skills lie.
What’s your favourite place to visit?
Ouch. Mom’s cabin out in Port Blandford, which she sold two years ago. I’m still not over it, thanks for bringing it up ;)
What are you reading and listening to these days?
I keep checking my mailbox for the new Lisa Moore book; As for music, I can’t get enough of this guy named John Moreland. And I have the new PJ Harvey on as I type this: she’s such a musical innovator.
What are you most looking forward to within the next year?
I am very shortly heading to Italy and Greece to traipse around both countries for a bit. Nothing tops travel for me: your life is on pause, and your sole purpose is to bask in things you’ve never seen or done before.