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Artist Features

I Am YEG Arts – Marty Chan

January 24, 2024

Author and playwright Marty Chan has been entertaining audiences of all ages for 40 years. Ever an innovator, he credits his incredibly short attention span” for his wide-ranging career which includes radio, television, and theatre. With his wonderfully imaginative and funny books for kids, he’s inspiring the next generation of writers and readers. In this week’s I Am YEG story, Marty talks about why he’s committed to writing the kind of stories that he wishes existed when he was a kid, how Dungeons and Dragons got him his first writing job and about the new books he has coming out this year, including Dragons on the Loose set in Edmonton.

How did you get your start as a writer? Was it always plan A for you? 

I was inspired to become a writer because of my Language Arts teacher in Grade 11, Mr. Nigro. He gave our class this awesome homework assignment. He said, I want you to imagine you’ve won the lottery, and you have $1,000,000. I want you to describe how you’d redecorate your bedroom.” I was a lazy teenager, and my idea of a dream bedroom was to have a bed I never had to get out of to do all the things I wanted to do. I used the money to put my bed on an elevator, which could sort of ascend or descend to different levels like a skylight so I could sleep under the stars; it had a library and a video game arcade… I handed it in and when Mr. Nigro gave it back to me, he said, Marty, you have got a great imagination. You should become a writer.” And it was that moment that sparked the notion of doing this for real. 

Dungeons and Dragons got me my first writing job. There was an entertainment company in Edmonton that produced a live version of Dungeons and Dragons called Dream Quest. I landed a job with them as an actor and then heard they were looking for writers for their side hustle producing live interactive murder mysteries. I got hired to write murder mysteries, and I landed a job as the head writer after about four months. Their head writer had just burnt out and I just happened to be there at the right time. The job became my training ground because I had to write a new murder mystery every week. I lasted for a little over a year and I think I wrote close to 50, if not over 50 murder mysteries in that time. After that, I decided that was enough training for me, and I went back to university to complete my degree with a major in English and a minor in drama. 

As a storyteller, what narrative or inspiration do you find yourself returning to?

Much of it is about feeling like an outsider and finding ways to fit in. Growing up as the only Chinese kid in a small French-Canadian town in Alberta, you probably don’t have to analyze that one very much to figure out why I would gravitate towards an outsider or fish out of water story. But those are the kinds of stories that I gravitate to, and I use humour as a big part of the narrative. Part of it is just when I was young, humour became sort of my self-defence mechanism, so you know, rather than have bullies make fun of me, I would make fun of myself so that I could disarm people and get past the horrible stereotyping and bullying and just getting to the point where it’s like, That guy is human, he’s normal. He’s just like us. He just has a sense of humour about himself.” 

What are you currently working on and what’s next for you? 

Right now, it’s an embarrassment of riches and just the way timing worked out. I have three books coming out in 2024. The first one is Cosplay Crime, an homage to fans of animé and manga with a little bit of mystery in it where an animé fan has to solve a mystery at a convention. That’s coming up in February. The book that comes after it is called Dragon on the Loose, set in Edmonton. It was inspired by the old China [Harbin] Gate that was torn down to make way for the LRT line, where two kids accidentally bring to life one of the dragons on the China Gate. The dragon goes on the loose and the kids have to find a way to get it back to its home. And then in the fall, I’ve got another history book called Izzy Wong’s Nose for News where young Izzy Wong is a podcaster trying to solve a mystery at her school of who flooded the girl’s toilets. It’s a funny mystery, and it’s the first of, hopefully, a series because, I just signed the contract to do a sequel to the book.

With your workshops and presentations, you work quite a lot with schools. What do you like most about working with students? 

I love working with kids because they’re incredibly honest. I worked in theatre for a long-time writing plays for adults, I appreciated the audience’s reactions because everybody knows to laugh politely and applaud at the end of the play and at a certain point, I sort of crave the kind of honesty that kids give. When I used to go into schools to do presentations in person, I could immediately tell if a kid liked my book or liked my presentation or not because they would tell me to my face what they thought. I love the fact that the kids will let me know exactly what they’re thinking. 

Now, of course, since the pandemic I’ve been doing everything virtually, so I don’t get that same immediate feedback, but I still get a charge out of when I do see their reactions. I’ve been working with a group that serves a lot of the communities in the north. Today, I presented to students in Fort Nelson, Manitoba. It would cost too much to send a presenter to these communities. But they get a ton of virtual presenters from around the world. It’s that opportunity to reach students that you normally would not be able to connect to and give them an experience that they might not normally have. 

Tell us a little more about the work you do to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. 

What I have done is a social media experiment that started around the time that the pandemic had revealed itself to be something longer than just a couple of months. I started posting a hashtag with story starters or writing prompts, and every week under the hashtag #promptmystory, I would post a different story starter for teachers, kids and parents to use to be creative. If you look for #promptmystory on X [formerly Twitter], Facebook or any of the other platforms that I’m on you’ll see a treasury of story starters that you can use to motivate your students to become the next great writer. 

You’ve been writing for kids for 20 years, tell us about what keeps you inspired and motivated to keep writing. 

I think for me, writing for kids helps me capture the kinds of stories that I wish existed when I was a kid. I mean, when I was young — I’m dating myself — in the school library, the main books were Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. And there is a pretty homogeneous look to the characters in those stories. And if I can put in a character that looks like me or looks like some of the kids who are reading those books today, maybe it can give them that sense that they belong in this world. And so, if you look at a lot of my recent novels, you’ll see a lot of diversity in the main characters. I never saw that diversity when I was young and now that I have the chance to create stories for the next generation of readers, why wouldn’t I want to represent as many of the kids out there and as many of the different races and cultures as I can? It makes me feel like I’m doing something that I wish somebody had done for me when I was a young reader. 

I think about the first time that I saw a writer or noticed that there was a writer of a colour who was successful, and it was in university. I was doing a research project and I stumbled across a collection of plays by David Henry Hwang, who was the playwright of M. Butterfly. And I looked at the back jacket and I was like, Oh look, he looks like me,” and it was thrilling. And if I hadn’t found that book, I probably would have given up on playwriting after, you know, a couple of years. But just knowing that somebody who looked like me could actually make it gave me that motivation to say, Yes, this is something I’m going to continue doing.”

And to bring that full circle earlier this year there was an East Asian directing student out of Ryerson who wanted to direct one of my plays. He said, I’ve been a huge fan of your play Mom, Dad, I’m Living with a White Girl. I want to do the show for my student production.” I was like, You’re more than welcome to.” And he told me that it meant so much to him to know that there was a play written about the experiences that he had. And I thought, Oh, yeah, everything came back full circle where if you put something out in the universe, it’ll come back to you.” The only way that we stop growing and progressing as readers and writers is the minute that people stop putting things out like that. I’m trying to write stories that aren’t specifically for an East Asian audience. I’m trying to create universal stories that happen to have East Asian protagonists, and I think that to me, that’s as important as having a story that’s specifically about my cultural experiences, because it shows the kids that you don’t have to be a certain type in order to fit into this world. 

About Marty Chan

Marty Chan loves to write. Before he became a kids’ author, he worked in theatre, radio, and television. Now his passion is inspiring the next generation of lifelong readers and writers. Using a combination of storytelling, improv, humour, and stage magic, he shares his love of words with audiences young and old.