Write What You Want To See Next: An Interview with John McFetridge

by Nicholas Herring

Nicholas Herring lives, writes, and reads in The Beaches.

John McFetridge is the author of five novels, Dirty Sweet (2006), Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (2008), Swap (2009), Tumblin’ Dice (2012), and Black Rock (2014) all with ECW Press. He has also co-authored a book, Below the Line (2003 Signature Editions), with Scott Albert, in addition to having written numerous short stories and screenplays. His next novel, A Little More Free, will be published by ECW in 2015. McFetridge was born in 1959 and grew up in Montreal. He attended Concordia University where he minored in Creative Writing. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Laurie, and their two sons.

This conversation took place in mid-July 2014 on John’s back patio over a few beers. His dog, Luke, assumed guard duty for any crafty raccoons.

 

Nicholas Herring: First of all, your new book, Black Rock, physically looks amazing. I can’t really articulate this very well, other than to say that Black Rock strikes me as being the perfect mystery size. It outwardly looks the way the book reads and feels. Even the back cover, too, is wonderfully designed. Good picture of the author, as well.

John McFetridge: I love the packaging that ECW put together on that—I think it’s just terrific. You know, the first couple that came out from ECW came in hardcover, and those are great for library sales. ECW has been great about trying to figure out what works best. They’re too small to make mass-market paperbacks on their own, so they went with hardcovers, mostly for library sales, and eBooks. And then they brought out big trade paperbacks. This one didn’t come out in hardcover, it just came out straight like that, which I like, because it’s a better price. I was hoping for $10. It’s $15, which isn’t too crazy.

NH: Do you get much say in what price point the book is listed at?

JM: I get to sit around and talk, and then I leave and they make a decision!

NH: Ha! In terms of the overall package, how involved are you able to be; or, more precisely, how involved do you really want to be?

JM: People usually ask about the cover, and they say, “Oh, did you have anything to do with the cover?” and I always say, “Yeah, I approved it.” But it’s really not my area, except as a customer. The only input I have is that I like to go to bookstores and browse and buy books. I wanted Black Rock to be one that if I were browsing in a bookstore, I would want to buy. When my first book was coming out [Dirty Sweet], one of the things somebody said to me was, “How many times in your life have you bought a novel in hardcover that was someone’s first novel?” And I honestly couldn’t think of a time when I did that. I knew that I wasn’t going to sell much this way. But with Black Rock we wanted to break with the others because the others are four in a series—they have a bunch of the same characters in them, and they all take place in and around Toronto. Whereas Black Rock is Montreal in 1970. So we thought we should have a whole new approach.

NH: How did this new approach work?

JM: We sat around in the office at ECW and we looked at a bunch of their other books, and that size (5 x 7.5 inches) was really what I wanted. One of the ECW books that I really like is by Mark Sinnett and it’s called The Carnivore: it takes place in Toronto during Hurricane Hazel in the ’50s, and it’s just a great book; but it’s also a great package—the cover is terrific. So, I pulled that one off the shelf and said, “Make it look just like this!”

NH: When did your work begin to be published, and what was that experience like for you?

JM: The first book I had published was a book of interconnected short stories that I co-wrote with a guy named Scott Albert.

NH: Cool!

JM: It was very cool. Scott and I were both working on movie sets. We were some pretty low-ranking guys on movie sets.

NH: Were you grips?

JM: No, no, those are skilled positions! I shouldn’t say that—Scott has some skills. I was working in the Locations Department, which was usually cleaning up the location, putting out garbage cans, and collecting the garbage. Sometimes, when you move up in the position, there is actually finding the location, which is a lot of fun. Scott and I were hanging out on sets and we were both trying to be writers—we were both writing screenplays, and that kind of thing. I started to write a short story about a location scout, and I got most of the way through the story. I showed it to Scott and he said, “You should really try and do more with this.” And I said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you do something with it?” It was close to Labour Day and there was the 3-Day Novel Contest.

“What that competition was really for was producing a first draft.”

Scott got the paperwork and said, “Let’s co-write a book of short stories that takes place on movie sets. We’ll use this one that you’ve got.” I was, I don’t know, 5,000 words into it, or thereabouts. We entered and we did it over the Labour Day weekend. We scheduled a fake movie, a 16-day shoot, and we put in some big events: the director gets fired on day 14, and the actor walks out on this day, and this happens on this day. Then we each wrote stories in which those things happened. So, in one of my stories I might mention something that happened in one of his stories. And we were really thrilled with it; we thought this was the greatest thing. Sent it in—didn’t win the competition. But what that competition was really for was producing a first draft. We sent out couriered letters to a whole bunch of publishers, and a few wanted to see the whole manuscript. And then Signature Editions, in Winnipeg, wanted to publish it. We were thrilled!

NH: How long did that whole process take, the sending out, and then arriving at a publication date?

JM: Probably a year, and then there was another year in which, Karen, who runs Signature Editions, suggested that we don’t do them as individual stories, but we do it in chronological order. Because the first story took place over the entire shoot of the movie, the second story was an event that happened part of the way through the first story. Karen said, “Why don’t you just do it in chronological order?” Scott and I got together and we said, “Oh no, that’ll be terrible.” We came up with this plan where we’d put it in chronological order and we’d show her how it could not work. We did it, and we each read it, and when we got together for a cup of coffee we both hummed and hawed before we admitted, “You know, that’s better. It actually does read better.” So then it was another year to publication.

NH: You make it seem like such a casual process! How long had you been working at writing, at being a writer?

JM: When Below the Line came out, or, as it was coming out, I thought, “Man, I love this, writing books.” I had tried to write novels back when I was in university; I wrote two. I believe I still have them in the basement—as you would expect they’re not very good! Anyway, I was intimidated by the idea of writing a novel. I guess I didn’t realize how much help I’d get from an editor. But then after Scott and I did Below the Line, and we had that experience with Karen, I realized, “Yeah, it’ll go through editing. People will point out the big problems with your work.” Scott went off and he continued to work in movies and TV. He writes a lot of shows for kids, and now he’s doing web series, moving into more adult stuff. He’s got a great series called “Job Review with a Vampire” and it’s really funny. I went into writing books.

“I got it in my head that I wanted to write a book about Toronto, a real Toronto book that went around the city and that tried to get at what the most dominant aspect of Toronto was at that time.”

My kids were little. I was the stay-at-home parent because the movie set stuff was freelance, a no-benefits job. My wife is an engineer with a dental plan. So, she stayed at work and I stayed home with the kids. I really just thought, “Well, I’m just going to write.” It’s the oldest advice: write the book you would want to read. It was about 2002, 2003, and I got it in my head that I wanted to write a book about Toronto, a real Toronto book that went around the city and that tried to get at what the most dominant aspect of Toronto was at that time.

NH: How might you qualify your relationship or your sense of what it is that composes the mechanics of Toronto?

JM: I’d moved to Toronto in 1990, so I’d only been here about ten years. Everybody I knew had moved here from somewhere else. I read some article about how half of Toronto was either born in some other country or somewhere else. I thought this was funny. Nobody comes to Toronto because it’s such a beautiful city—everybody comes to Toronto because there’s opportunity here. I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to write a book about coming to Toronto for opportunity.” I guess I didn’t realize it was a mystery novel, or a crime novel—there is crime in it, cops and bad guys, too—but it was just a lot of characters that I thought were good Toronto characters, and I was trying to get the character of Toronto itself across.

NH: So, it sounds like you consciously set out to write about Toronto, but perhaps unconsciously, ended up writing about crime, about mystery; is this a fair statement?

JM: When ECW bought it, they said, “We’re going to put ‘A Mystery’ on the cover.” And I said, “But, you know, it’s not a mystery—I tell you who did it right away.” They said, “In North America there isn’t the distinction of crime novel and mystery novel. So, ‘mystery’ doesn’t mean whodunit, it just means a novel with crime in it.” Okay. Turns out it was fine—the readers understood this. No one ever complained to me, “There’s no mystery in here. You tell me who did it right away.” I got a lot of other complaints, but I didn’t get that one!

Everyone will tell you, “Oh, you know, nonfiction is the way to go.” I thought I should try and write a book that would make some money and I knew that ECW was putting out books about TV shows. Laurie got a book about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it was like an episode guide kind of thing. So, I had this idea that I would write a book about the show Law & Order, but I would write about the true stories that inspired the episodes.

“ ‘Aw man, I’m so sorry. I just had this crime novel in my head …’ ”

I went and I had a meeting at ECW with Jack David and Jennifer Hale to pitch the Law & Order book. I thought it was going to be an episode guide and we’d do the little description of the show, and then I would write a page or two, or three, about what happened in the real story. Jack said, “No, that’s not a good idea. Really, what it should be is like the 15 or 20 most interesting true stories that they were based on.” I said, “Yeah, okay. I can do that.” And he said, “So, why don’t you just write one as a sample to show us, and then we’ll sign a contract?”

Jen Hale went off on maternity leave, and I came home and I watched a bunch of Law & Order, and the one I picked was from Vancouver. There was a story about a guy on trial for murder, and during the trial he started having an affair with a woman on the jury—I think her name was Gillian Guess—and this was a real famous story. The way stories are a huge media event for three days, this was everywhere for a week. I thought this was the one I was going to do.

NH: How did your writing process begin for a project of this nature?

JM: The kids were little and they were in playschool three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 9:00 til 11:30. I’d drop them off and I’d come home and I’d sit down to work on this Law & Order book, but I always had this idea for a crime novel—for what became Dirty Sweet—and I thought, “Well, I’ll just get this out of the way. I’ll write this and then I’ll do it.” But I ran out of time. When Jen Hale came back she sent me an email saying, “Where is the Law & Order book?”

NH: Oh god.

JM: I emailed her back and I said, “Aw man, I’m so sorry. I just had this crime novel in my head and I just had to get it out. But it’s done now, so I can do the Law & Order piece.” And then I got an email from Jack that said, “Well, could I see the novel?” I sent it to him and he said, “Let’s do this instead of the Law & Order book.”

NH: Really? It was that easy?

JM: Yeah, and I said to Jack, “Great. I’m totally on-board.”

NH: What was your game plan at this point? Did you have any idea of what publishing with ECW would be like?

JM: I wrote three more novels. They’re not exactly a series, but they’re all definitely Toronto books. That first one was people coming to Toronto for opportunity; and the second one is called Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, from the Neil Young song, and that book is all about: “Man, how did I end up here?”

NH: When you are sitting down to write do you listen to music?

JM: Yeah, I do, especially when I started doing this historical novel. You kind of know the greatest hits from the past, but I was writing a book set in 1970, so I went back to the late ’60s era to listen to more songs that were beyond the top of the charts. I do find that sometimes I have to turn it off when I go to write because if it’s really familiar music, it can become background music and I can ignore it, in which case, I don’t really need it on. And if it’s not familiar, then I stop and listen to it. There was one song, “Plattsburgh Drive-in Blues” by Chantal Renaud, which I listened to a lot. It’s a French song, though there was an English version that I was never able to find. When I was a kid in Montreal—I lived on the south shore—there was Plattsburgh not that far away, just across the border in New York State, and so, when you got into your late teens that was the first place people went to drink, and there is the drive-in there, that kind of thing. It’s a funny thing: we were right next to Montreal, but people still went to Plattsburgh. Of course, in the summertime there was a beach, the Plattsburgh Beach. I was moving through the ’70s, so I finished a lot of Michel Pagliaro. He’s great—really well constructed pop songs. The famous ones are: “What the Hell I Got” and “Some Sing, Some Dance.” I know he sang in English and French, and I think he may have even sung in Italian. He was a big star in the ’70s in Montreal. I don’t really know if he broke through.

NH: Was the decision to stay home with the kids and write a difficult one for you and your wife?

JM: I don’t make much money writing, but this really was the question: if we have to put the kids in daycare, there’s that expense, so is writing the novels worth it to not have to spend that money? We figured I might as well stay home and keep writing novels. For quite a few years I worked my schedule around my kids’ school schedule: get them to school, and then write; for a while they were still coming home at lunch. Next year they’re both in high school, so I won’t see them from 8:30 ’til dinnertime. Usually I can get a lot of work done in the morning. I should probably get a lot more done. It takes me a long time, though. I don’t read fast and I don’t write fast. I’ve got friends who get a book out every year. I know a couple of guys who get a book out under their own name and another book out almost at the same time. It’s amazing! But I know I’m lucky: I get all day to write, which I really appreciate, because I understand not many novelists that I know, who have a bunch of novels out, get all day to write. For an awful lot of people it’s still part-time, at best.

NH: With Black Rock out and getting wonderful reviews, where are you now with regard to your work?

JM: Black Rock went through a lot of editing, and really good editing, but it took a long time. I’ve finished the next book. June 30th was my deadline; I think I handed it in June 29th. Roughly 18 months for this one. I had that deadline so it would come out some time in 2015, because now it’s like a series, so I did want them to be as close together as possible. I’ve never done a series with the same main character, but I think it did help a little bit that I’d already gotten to know this character quite well, and, you know, many of the other characters I’ve gotten to know quite well, and I didn’t introduce very many new characters into it. I think this helped, because with my other books there was always a new character introduced as the main character, and then the returning ones were always the supporting cast. I really like to work out timelines and backgrounds for the characters.

“It really had to sound like someone was telling you the story. I never want it to sound like a writer telling the story.

I mean, I like to know how old they are, and then, from there, I like to know what year they graduated from high school and what were the popular songs then, the movies, what was going on, what news events were happening when they were in their formative years.

NH: How do you find out what the story will be and who will populate your narratives? Does it come out as you’re writing?

JM: Yeah, that’s definitely changed. When I was working on Dirty Sweet it was really as I went along—I just wrote it one scene at a time. It’s all that standard advice about pleasing yourself. I was talking to a buddy of mine, Michel Basilières, who wrote a fantastic novel called Black Bird, and I was stuck a little bit, and he said, “Well, what do you want to have happen next?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’ve got to think about where it fits into the theme and the plot.” He said, “Aw, what do you care about that? Put down what you want to see.” So, I thought, “All right, I’ll try. I’ll just put down what I would like to see happen next!” I didn’t stop to think about whether or not all of this was working, because I simply had a couple of hours while the kids were in daycare, so it was really about just getting down as much as I could get down. And, in truth, that was my process for a couple of books. Now I know, with a novel, it’s 70- to 80,000-words long, and around the 50,000-word mark, I will be convinced that it’s a big mess, one that simply does not work. The first time, again, I didn’t really think about that because I wasn’t thinking about it as a “book”—I was just doing it a day at a time ’til it was done—and even then, I didn’t have an ending in mind, I just wrote what I wanted to see. For me, it was: what would this character do next? Well, just put him in a jam and see what he would do. When Dirty Sweet got published, and got good reviews—David Gilmour reviewed it for the National Post—I thought, “Holy crap. That’s a big deal. Why would he even do this at all? I’ve got to write another one.” So, I started the next one aware that I should really think this one through; but I also did think, “I shouldn’t think it through too much,” because I should stick with what worked for me. So, baby steps, baby steps.

NH: What happened around the 50,000-word mark with Black Rock?

JM: When I got to the point where it felt like a big mess, and it was never going to work, I thought, “Okay, wait a minute. This is the right feeling to have at this point.” I’m aware, in retrospect, that I try to rationalize these occurrences: if it wasn’t a big mess then the line would be too clear, and I don’t want that. But I do find that the crime fiction is fun for that because, you know, it’s that old Raymond Chandler line about when it slows down, have a guy with a gun walk into a room. And I’ve actually done this—I’m not sure what should happen next, so, now I’m having people shoot people.

NH: I love that you can do that.

JM: I don’t think it would work for Alice Munro!

NH: What’s interesting to me is that when you recall Dirty Sweet it wasn’t, in the beginning, a crime, or mystery, novel, but others, namely the staff at ECW, saw it clearly as such. The greats, such as Chandler, Hammett, Ellroy, and Leonard, do work with a well-defined toolkit, chock full of tropes—you know, a guy with a gun walks into a room. In Black Rock I didn’t catch a simile until page 38.

JM: Right. Wait a minute, why didn’t we catch that!

NH: Ha! But within this kind of hardboiled framework, certainly steering clear of flowery language that is not you, or yours, per se, how do you manage to sound like yourself? Were you, in the beginning, trying to emulate or imitate anybody?

JM: I remember I was down at Harbourfront and Elmore Leonard was giving a talk. He said that when he started writing in the morning he would pick up one of his books and read a few pages to get into the rhythm of it. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got a bunch of Elmore Leonard books, I can read them, too.” I’m kidding, a little. But the voice is very important to me. When I was at Concordia, Gary Geddes told me to read my work out loud, and I thought, “It’s a book, though. You don’t read it out loud.” But, you know, grudgingly, I did, and it turns out he was right. The first time I read something out loud in my kitchen, man, it just felt weird, but it is true, because the voice is really, really important. Certainly with those first books that have shifting points of view, I wanted every word in the books to be the characters’ words. And so, whatever point of view the section is from, it’s the way that character would sound. It really had to sound like someone was telling you the story. I never want it to sound like a writer telling the story.

I don’t think about labels like “crime” or “mystery” when writing—I’m just writing this story because I want to write this story with these characters. My son and I were talking about this the other day, that any book that now has a teenager in it is young adult fiction. I was telling him that when I was a teenager there really wasn’t such a thing as YA. A book like To Kill a Mockingbird, if it came out today–would it be in the YA section? Probably. So, any book that’s got a crime in it and policemen goes in that crime and mystery section. Some people get upset about this, you know, complaining about genre ghettoes, and stuff, but I think, “Man, I’m in a bookstore. I don’t care what shelf it’s on. I’m so excited my book is in a bookstore.” I try to sneak into Book City and look at my books but Stacey Madden is always there to recognize me. Somebody told me that the thrill will wear off, but for me it really hasn’t.

NH: I remember bumping into you the day you went up to ECW to get a box of Black Rock and you were buzzing.

JM: It’s exciting! I’m not even going to try and pretend to be jaded so I seem cool, or anything like that. I’m having a blast. You know what? I’m living the dream. What am I going to say? And plus, the other thing that I’ve got here is the publisher’s support. When I first told Jack I wanted to do this book set in 1970, he said, “Sure, give it a try. See what happens.” And then, when I finished the manuscript, he gave it to Kevin Connolly for editing. That guy is an award-winning poet—he’s a big-name guy—and I thought, “Oh, wow.” He spent a long time on the manuscript: it came back and he had asked such great questions, that I was just excited. Imagine that, this guy’s helping me work on my book. It’s thrilling. So, yeah, I’m not even going to pretend to be jaded.

NH: Is pairing you up with an editor how the process typically works at ECW?

JM: We talk about what I’m going to write and then I give them, usually, the first 25 pages or something, and then we agree to a contract, which is pretty straightforward. The first four books, all the Toronto books, were edited by Michael Holmes, who is also a famous poet and novelist in his own right. He was just a terrific editor. Again, Michael and I would meet, and he’d have poured over the whole thing and pulled out questions about certain things. What I discovered after a while was this: I would take all of the suggestions and I would, usually, input as many of them as I could, and then I would sit for a little while, and then I would go back and read it; if I wanted to change something back, I would—but I started to notice early on that there was almost nothing that I wanted to change back.

“It’s interesting because your name goes on the front of the book, but a lot of people are involved.”

You know, Michael or Kevin might say, “This section is too long. What if you took out this and this?” I would take it out, and then a little while later I would read it and think, “Yeah, he’s right. There’s nothing missing.” This was something that I was unprepared for because I didn’t know how that kind of stuff worked.

NH: Were you apprehensive about having to be paired up with an editor?

JM: Yeah, of course. I handled it well only because it worked so well. I haven’t had a bad experience yet. It’s interesting because your name goes on the front of the book, but a lot of people are involved.

NH: What is it like writing to merge two timelines, one factual, and the other fictional?

JM: Sometimes, when I don’t believe that these characters have got to this point in their lives, it can take me out of the story. And in other cases, with a really good story, those kinds of questions never come up. Sometimes it’s a bit of a juggling act, but sometimes it’s a bit of a boon, too, because I’m always thinking: what comes next, what comes next? This is always an issue with an 80,000-word novel. So, yeah, on the one hand it’s fitting the scenes in, but as I was working I always knew there was another something coming up. The challenge, I felt, was that most of the people who were going to read this book are going to be pretty familiar with the actual events of October.

I also felt challenged to write it so that people wouldn’t feel like skipping ahead to these bits. Because we look back at these events from our current perspective, I wanted to bring more international events into the book. As I see it, there was no isolation—everything was out in the air. In May of 1970 there was Kent State, riots in New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. A bomb went off at the University of Wisconsin and a guy was killed. Four airplanes were hijacked on the same day and one of them landed in London, but three of them went to the desert in Jordan, and they were there on the tarmac for a week, or two, and the Jordanian army had to go in, and then the terrorist group called Black September started, too. So, I have a scene in the book where the guys are watching it on TV because I wanted to show that urban terrorism was in lots of cities. When Canadians look at this phenomenon, we tend to look at it in isolation.

“It’s almost like in ’68 the world explodes, and then in ’73 it starts to become clamped down, and the years in between were just wild.”

I wanted to find a way to integrate this, which was a bit of a challenge, because other than watching it on TV, you can’t keep having your characters read it in the paper, you have to make it part of the conversation. Some days it would take a very long time, and many versions, to just have a page that flowed. I’m sure there will be lots of places where readers will say that I’m just parachuting that in, that it’s just an information dump. You should have seen the first draft!

NH: What books helped you with the history side of things?

JM: The one book is called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky. I mean, the general strike in Paris shuts down the streets; tanks roll into Prague; Saddam Hussein comes to power in Iraq. The other book was called 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America by Andreas Killen. It’s almost like in ’68 the world explodes, and then in ’73 it starts to become clamped down, and the years in between were just wild.

NH: Were you anxious about the historical details and their ability to strike the reader as natural, as organic, even vital to the story?

JM: I’ve realized now that stuff works for some people and it doesn’t work for other people, and that’s all there is to it. If it turns out that something I like isn’t structured particularly well, you know what, I don’t care, I still like it.

NH: How long did it take you to write your first draft of Black Rock?

JM: I’m going to say two years. I’d never written anything historical before. So, a lot of that is research. At first I wasn’t sure how much I was going to do—I wasn’t all that worried about every little detail, but once I started getting into it, there was a lot of real stuff that I thought was a good story. I spent a while constructing a timeline, so that in the book, every bomb that goes off, every bomb that gets diffused, is in the right, chronological order. For the next novel I wasn’t such a stickler for the timeline. It starts in 1972, and there was a big fire at a nightclub in Montreal, the Bluebird fire, a real tragedy, 37 people were killed and that was on Labour Day weekend. It was Friday night. The Saturday night was the first game in the famous Canada–Russia hockey series, just down the street at the Montreal forum. There was a robbery at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art: $2 million worth of paintings were stolen. It was a big weekend, so I put all those events in as the kick-off.

NH: The scene that opens Black Rock, a bomb on the Victoria Bridge, did you originally begin with this?

JM: No, no. I began a few pages later with Eddie Dougherty going down to join the Police Department because he liked to drive fast. And then I sent it to a couple of my friends, Adrian McKinty, who just had the third book in a series published, the Troubles Trilogy, that take place in Belfast in the early ’80s, they’re just terrific. The third one is called In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, the other ones are: I Hear the Sirens in the Streets, and The Cold Cold Ground. And Declan Burke, who was picked up by Harcourt in the States around the same time I was, which was how me met, and we had the same editor and she thought we’d like each other’s books, and we did. He has a book called The Big O and another called Eightball Boogie. They both said, “Is there any way you could start it with some kind of action or suspense?”

“In crime fiction there is a difference between American hardboiled and British hardboiled, and as always, in Canada we’re caught in-between.”

Incidentally, I was interviewing a retired policeman in Montreal who was the head of the bomb squad through the ’60s and ’70s. I told him that I’d done all this research, read everything I could get my hands on, and I said that I wanted all the bombs in the story to be real, to be ones that were actually planted. I had a big list of them and he went through them and said, “Oh yeah, I remember that one, and that one.” I really wanted to put one on the Victoria Bridge, but there wasn’t one. He said that there had been one. So, he told me that story, and he had the line that the bag could be a bag of doughnuts. He also mentioned that if the press didn’t find out about a bomb, the police didn’t tell them, which means that there were more bombs than we know about.

NH: One of the first things to catch my eye, and my ear, too, is the phrase “and Dougherty said yeah.” Its presence is so soothingly chronic, if I can be permitted to turn that phrase, that I would say it is the sound of Black Rock. When you were reading the book out loud, did you catch this?

JM: I’ll tell you, there were big discussions about this in the office, too. It started with Dirty Sweet and runs through to the third one, Swap, but I had this theory about what was dialogue and what was paraphrase, and this affected the quotes. I would have a sentence with a line of dialogue where some of it would be in quotation marks, because, to me, it was a guy telling you the story—and so, sometimes he was quoting exactly what people said, and sometimes he was paraphrasing. And I worked on this, and worked on this. The line that always makes me laugh is from an interview with James Ellroy where he was asked about Cormac McCarthy, and Ellroy says, “Why doesn’t that cocksucker use quote marks?” Well, at least I’ve got a “big theory” as to what I’m working on here.

Usually it’s this way: “Yeah,” he said, “why don’t you come over here?” I just went with the “yeah” not in quotes. After Kevin edited, it went to the copy editor, Jennifer Knoch, and she said, “Are you sure you don’t want to put the ‘yeah’ in quotes? It’s part of the dialogue.” We went back and forth a few times, and she said, “You know, are you sure?”

“I wanted every word in the books to be the characters’ words.”

Like, Elmore Leonard is an example where people say, “The dialogue is so good.” That’s true, the dialogue is good, but the reason I think it’s so good is because it fits in with the surrounding non-dialogue, the prose. I mean, there are some similarities between us—there’s no doubt about it, I’m a fan. I’ve read all the books and I like that writing style, but I think the reason I like his writing style is because it’s the closest one to capture the way that the people I know talk. My brother’s 12 years older than I am and he’s a cop, so when I was in my late teens he was, by then, working narcotics, and that’s the way they talk. You know, guys who make a joke, but it’s not a punch-line joke. They don’t wait for a laugh. They just move on with it—you know, character-talk. Joseph Wambaugh is really good with dialogue, precisely because of the way his flows with everything else. So, I was really working on this.

NH: Last summer I read Wambaugh’s The Onion Field and Ellroy’s My Dark Places and the thing I loved about them was that I read them both so incredibly fast. They were both such a concentrated experience, which is what I’ve always loved about good writing. Good anything, really.

JM: Yeah, you never get taken out of it! I mean, there are a lot of distractions in the world. You know, now, I find that if I get a number of pages into a book I don’t like, I move on, because life’s short.

NH: I was in the hospital about a decade ago and one day I was reading Ellroy’s White Jazz, and the cleaning lady, who happened to be Afro-Canadian, saw the book and gave me the greatest line ever: “White jazz. I’m sorry honey, but there’s no such thing.” White Jazz is, without a doubt, my favourite Ellroy. Do you have one?

JM: Well, I like them all, but the most recent ones I’ve read were the American Underworld Trilogy: The Cold Six Thousand, American Tabloid, and Blood’s a Rover. Blood’s a Rover is a fantastic book. It’s interesting that for each of his series I find the middle book difficult. I remember reading one and thinking, “Man, there are no verbs—it’s just a list of things!” But once you’re into it, when you’re into that flow, it’s really inescapable. I guess, too, that it is like jazz.

A friend of mine is always trying to get me to listen to more Miles Davis. What I like about jazz, and Ellroy, too, is that they’re both uncompromising. It’s really tempting to pull back. For example, when I’m writing there is a lot of second-guessing. And, you know, I had two contracts with a big American publisher, and it’s very exciting to have a New York publisher. But I also worried that things would be compromised. For example, Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? was published outside of Canada as The Beggar Maid, simply because it wasn’t an expression Americans use, but that expression is so Canadian.

When I was trying to write a book for a big, American publisher, I thought, “It’s got to be like a big, American publisher book. It’s got to be slick.” After a while I realized, “Well, I guess it’s really got to be me—that’s what they bought.” My favourite writers are those ones that are in that uncompromising zone: this is the story I want to tell, and this is the way I want to tell it. Sure, I could soften it a little bit, to make it more palatable, but why bother? Stephen King, talking about a new book, once said that it had these great, literary themes, but he also said “It’s me, so there’s a monster in it somewhere.” I thought, “It’s me. So there are criminals and policemen in it somewhere. That’s just me!”

NH: Did it take you very long to learn to balance artifice and your sincere self, or your voice?

JM: Yeah, I fought it for a long time, because the first couple of books I wrote weren’t like that. Scott and I did that one about the movie sets and it didn’t have any cops or criminals; in fact, the movie that they’re working on is a cheesy cop movie, and we were making fun of that. I did fight that idea because it’s not my life. But since I’ve started writing, I realized I do have some relatives who are cops, and I have some relatives who have been in jail. So, I do know a little bit about the world. When I sat down to write Dirty Sweet it was really just this idea of shady opportunity, about a woman, a real estate agent down in the dumps and looking for a hustle. This was the vibe that it had going, and so, I really thought that this was what I was supposed to try and go for.

NH: What drew you to revisit the Montreal of your youth?

JM: I was born in 1959, so I was eleven during the October Crisis. I really only have two memories of that time: one, we had to go trick-or-treating while it was still light out, and most people were still at work so the candy-haul was terrible; and two, I delivered The Sunday Express in the mornings, and I remember the big headline that said: “Laporte Killed.” It had a picture of the trunk of the car, open, with his body in it, and I remember delivering that paper on the Sunday morning. What drew me to it was that I wanted to get a feeling of the build-up to it, the day-to-day, because in Canada we call it the October Crisis as if it was something that happened in October of 1970, something that just came out of the blue.

“… it’s that old Raymond Chandler line about when it slows down, have a guy with a gun walk into a room.”

When you talk to people from Montreal about it, they reminisce about the mailbox bombs, and I think that’s interesting, but the mailbox bombs were in 1963, they went for a couple of months in 1963, and that was it. And that’s our big image from it. I thought that there’s a story here that we kind of know, but even in Canada, we don’t really know. For some time, I wasn’t absolutely convinced that there was a novel in it. When I did start to work on it, and I was a little ways into my timeline, The Montreal Gazette archives were put on Google, and that opened everything up.

NH: I’d like to go back to the idea of the hardboiled versus the flowery, and I’ll just throw this out there: would you say that simply saying “He said” is more authentic, as opposed to taking time to paint a scene involving the five senses?

JM: Yeah, but you know, it’s time and place, definitely. You can really go too far down the Hemingway road where everything is stripped down. What I’m working toward is that these characters really talk this way. You may require a combination of distilled stuff versus the more verbose. But, again, time and place: when something, a style, is working, it’s usually really working for the writer.

To bring music back into the equation, there are some aspects of learning to write that is very much like learning to play an instrument, like learning the scales, understanding how scales relate. So, the rules for writing are like that. There really are some rules we as writers have to abide by. It’s true, if you’re Miles Davis, you can break a bunch of them—“Who do you think you are?” I feel like I’d better not break any of those because I’d end up with something disastrous. But, you know, I started to take baby steps, timid, little steps, like the quotation marks. One of my favourite novels is by Iain Banks, and it’s called Espedair Street. It’s a rock band novel, and it takes place in Scotland. You know, it’s got some pretty flowery stuff in it, but I just love it! You know, another writer that is pretty stripped down in voice is Miriam Toews. Did you read A Complicated Kindness?

NH: Yes, I did.

JM: She is so good; her books are so good, but it’s because the voice is so strong, I find. If you were going to categorize her, she is, you know, a literary writer, but not with fancy prose. She has the characters’ voices so clear and there is no word out of place. Even though it’s a word choice unique to the character, sometimes, you’re absolutely convinced that this person is telling you the story.

NH: Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places strikes me as even more distilled than his fiction. As a writer who has clearly helped you, if not outright influenced you, is the relationship between the scales and the instrument, so to speak, more troublesome than you’re allowing?

JM: Well, yeah. I have no dark places! Well, not like he does. I’m dropping my kids off for school and I’m walking my dog on the beach. Things are pretty good. In crime fiction there is a difference between American hardboiled and British hardboiled, and as always, in Canada we’re caught in-between. Adrian McKinty talks about “dour Presbyterianism,” and I agree with him, because there is a dark sarcasm in the conversation. You know, growing up in an Irish community in Montreal—my father was born in Northern Ireland, too—I didn’t identify as Irish, although most, if not all, of my friends were guys with “Mc” names. It’s a sensibility, again, dark and sarcastic, that isn’t all that surprised when things don’t work out.

One of my friends, after reading Black Rock, said, “You know, it’s really a Montreal book, but it’s also really sarcastic.” I wasn’t aiming for this, but I’m glad that this quality met with some approval. When you’re trying to find a Toronto voice, it’s more difficult: the city is too young to sound like anything, in my experience.

Unless it’s Margaret Atwood—in a historical Toronto that is really nailed (and I don’t know, so I’m going to take her word for it)—it lacks truth. I like to work out the character’s background to help me with verisimilitude. Montreal kind of peaked in ’67 with the Expo. The ’70s were very much on edge because of this. For a guy like Ellroy, Los Angeles in the ’50s was noir, wasn’t it? All that stuff is going to inform the characters, which, obviously, in turn, affects the prose. So, it would be strange if it jumped out. The thing about modifying “He said” to “He said, softly,” if you can’t tell from the context how he is saying it, for me to add that word is telling, not showing, and I really do want to show, not tell. If I have to tell you, it’s simple: I haven’t done the scene very well. Maybe it’s like writing comedy. You know when it’s done right because you’re laughing.

NH: Are you able to read other things while you work?

JM: The thing is, I’m always writing; I’m not going to not read just because I’m writing. I am a slow writer, and I am a slow reader. Over the years I’ve found a way to do both and not worry about it posing any problem in terms of influence. It’s not like I can take much time off. So, I’ve been doing a lot of research reading nonfiction. I’m not really steeped in crime fiction. I didn’t read all the Hammett and Chandler. I mean, I’ve read most of it now. There is a big convention that happens in a different big American city every year called Bouchercon, and now I have a whole bunch of friends that I’ve met through writing crime. So, I read most of my friends’ books.

I really loved Owen Laukkanen’s The Professionals. What’s interesting about that story is that it deals with young characters just out of university rather than the typical, about-to-retire detective, who is an alcoholic and whose wife has just left him. There is another book that just came out by Megan Abbot called The Fever and it’s about teenage girls. I know Megan, and she’s really cheery. All the reviews I’ve read have said that this is one of the darkest books about teenagers, ever. I would like to know how dark she was able to make it. I’ve just read Arjun Basu’s Waiting for the Man and I think it’s just terrific. I also just read Ray Robertson’s I Was There the Night He Died and it’s set in Chatham, Ontario, and it’s really, really good. I mean, if you can write a really good novel set in Chatham, that’s saying something!

 


Nicholas Herring lives, writes, and reads in The Beaches.

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