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Mr Nice Guy

In his new book of essays Compared to Hitler, RM Vaughan refuses to name names. Well mostly

RM Vaughan never had a gap year. His transition from university student to Toronto-based artist and writer was interrupted only by a nervous breakdown followed by a rejuvenating stint working in a Montreal porn shop. So last year he packed up his art-filled apartment, gave notice at The Globe and Mail, where he was visual art critic, and moved to Europe for a while to get a sense of what he might have missed out on.

“When I left Toronto, I felt old and worn out and that my sexuality was invisible,” he tells me. “The great thing I got out of Berlin was that in cultures that are a little less difficult than in Toronto, you are expected to be sexual up until you die.”

Which is to say he got laid a lot. Amidst all this sexual rediscovery, Vaughan astonishingly managed to find the time to rediscover his output as a journalist and critic over the last couple of decades, selecting essays for his new anthology Compared to Hitler. Although the pieces range widely from personal essays and criticism to celebrity interviews, the common thread is the playful prickliness of his voice. Some have taken his brattiness too seriously; the book’s title pokes at the tendency to overstate grievances. Still, he doesn’t think everybody’s stupidly hysterical.

Who was the biggest bitch you interviewed for your celebrity column in The Globe?

Carrie-Anne Moss—there, I said it. She was promoting a beautiful indie Canadian film and she was fantastic in it. One of my first questions was: “You’ve been in some big megahit films. Has that allowed you the time and space to make small, more moving choices?” She instantly read that as, “Now that your career is over….” and went on the defensive. She answered every single follow-up question with “No” and nothing else. That film got released, barely, more than a year later. No one saw it and I never got to run the column.

When you were going through these essays, did you ever say, “Oh my God, did I really write this?”

Lots. I wrote a thing saying the Pride parade should stop, which seemed totally relevant at the time, but now that we have a mayor who refuses to go to the Pride parade, I would not write that today. I made predictions about Ryan Reynolds being taken seriously as an actor, which have not panned out. I also wrote a defence of Paris Hilton, which I still stand by. I don’t have 30 fucking stores with my name on them—do you? There’s still a kind of genius attached to that woman, but I did write a defence of her music career and I think that’s pretty much dead.

Where does your prickly voice come from?

It’s entirely organic. I am Atlantic Canadian and we have that base mistrust of enthusiasm of any kind. We have that instinct to needle and tease, especially if we like someone, so a lot of it comes out of a perverse affection. But I am capable of a full-on hate.

You’re rarely mean, though.

Even in the notes of this book, the few times I named names of people who had been unpleasant to me, at the last minute I took the names out. I just can’t go that far.

But you never know what’s going to upset people.

When I first started writing about art at The Globe I wrote about a painting by a well-known Canadian painter, who I’m not going to name. It was a massive painting. It was vibrant and crazy and I quite liked it. But there was one small section that didn’t work. That person went ballistic on that one sentence—Facebook campaign and the

whole thing. I was like, “Didn’t you read the rest of it?”

When I worked with you as an editor, I was always amazed at your ability to generate so many ideas. Did you ever think you’d be writing about the breadth of stuff you’ve written about?

Never. Originally I was a painter. I had a handful of shows, but I was a dreadful painter. Then I thought I could be a poet and that would be it, which was an illusion. So I decided to write about anything. If that makes me a whore or a hack—words that are supposed to be derogatory but that I think are complimentary—then I am that, I’m a whore-hack.