Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An interview with John McFetridge, Part I

Crime fiction is largely a fiction of cities. Think of Georges Simenon's Paris, Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, or Ed McBain's New York. And think of John McFetridge's Toronto, because no crime writer in recent years has imagined a city more vividly. In the first of a two-part interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, McFetridge, author of the novels Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Dirty Sweet, talks about his city, his country and his craft.

(Read Part II of the interview with John McFetridge here.)

(John McFetridge will join Declan Burke at Fergie's Pub in Philadelphia at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 8 for a special international Noir at the Bar reading.)

To what extent is your fiction a portrait of Toronto? To what degree, if any, do you try to create a Toronto of the imagination, as so many others have done for New York, Los Angeles and so on?

A big extent. It was really my intention to write a book about Toronto. In fact, when I started writing Dirty Sweet, I wasn't thinking about writing a crime novel. I really wanted to write something about what I saw as Toronto's main characteristic – that it was a city of opportunity. Having a murder set things off was the easiest way I could find to then follow a diverse group of characters that all tried to benefit from the situation.

I was after as complete a picture of the city as I could get. The other day a friend of mine paraphrased the science fiction writer, A.E. van Vogt, something about, `Don't save anything for the next book, put everything you've got into the one you're working on,' and that's certainly what I did. And still do. I wrote Dirty Sweet as a kind of last resort – I had been sidetracked by screenplays for years, and that kind of writing is all about compromise and getting notes from so many different sources (producers, director, distributor, in Canada Telefilm give you notes, sometimes a provincial agency, usually a TV broadcaster is in on it, too ... ) so when I finally came to my sense and decided to just write exactly what I wanted, it had to be a novel.

What difficulties, if any, do Canadian crime writers have breaking through in the U.S.? In Canada?

Canadian writers, especially crime writers, I think, often get bad advice, particularly about setting. I had a few agents tell me that a book set in Canada would never sell outside of Canada, and Canada was too small a market to be stuck in. I've always thought of crime writers and their cities, not their countries: Robert B. Parker – Boston, Ian Rankin – Edinburgh, James Ellroy – L.A., Louise Penny – Three Pines, so the country of origin never seemed important to me, but the attitude persists.

I think when people follow that advice and set their books some place they don't know well they run the risk of having a main `character' being underdeveloped. We may also have a tendency in Canada to worry about a shandze fer de goyim, worry about looking bad in front of the rest of the world. All part of that Canadian insecurity thing. I'm still waiting to find out if Canada is mature enough for a warts-and-all look at itself.

So that's the problem getting published. By now, though, I think there have been enough Canadian successes like Louise Penny and Giles Blunt to put an end to the setting issue so, we have the `breaking through' problem. That's just as tough as getting published, I think. So far the breakthrough Canadian writers in Canada have been of the `lone detective solves the crime' genre, like Louise, Giles and Peter Robinson, and they have written very consistent series. Louise started out with a big success her first book, it may have taken Giles a couple or three to really get going, and Peter Robinson spent quite a few years and many books paving the way for the rest. I think in most cases in crime fiction producing a steady supply of books is almost as important as producing really good books. It takes a while to build an audience and to be found by readers.

Canada, as in most things, is somewhat in between the American and British sensibilities, so that complicates things.

I think the only way to approach all this is to ignore it, just not think about it, and write books that you really like yourself. The old clichés are true in this case: write the best book you can, the book you want to read, and then write another one.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has multiple protagonists. Why is this attractive for an author? The ensemble approach will naturally evoke thoughts of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels. What, if anything, do those books mean to you as a reader and a writer?

I have to admit to also being very influenced by TV shows like NYPD Blues, The Wire and The Sopranos, which, even if they don't know it, were influenced by the 87th precinct books (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that [Steven] Bochco was familiar with the books before he created Hill Street Blues.)

As a reader, I still have a lot of the 87th Precinct books to read, but I just read Ed McBain's short-story collection, Learning to Kill, and it's really, really good. As a writer I learned so much from the way the characters are all so well-developed in just a few words and what an incredible eye for a story he has.

Maybe it's odd that TV writers and producers seem to have taken to Ed McBain's ensemble idea a lot more than novelists and publishers. Maybe readers prefer the single protagonist more than TV viewers. I have felt lately that many crime writers are under-appreciated as character writers because those characters develop over many books. Most reviews are of a single book, so the focus seems to be more about plot than character, but taking the series as a whole, and this is even more so for Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books, the characters are very well-developed. Maybe that's why crime writers have to wait till they're dead to get the critical investigations of their work they deserve. The academics have to be sure the work is complete.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere leaves a number of subplots unresolved. What does this add?

I hope it adds the readers' imaginations.

And, you know, real life is complicated and doesn't always work out, and there are no easy answers or simple solutions, so there shouldn't be in art, either. I thought it would be cheating to wrap everything up. I hope that if anything good can come out of the recent financial crisis in the U.S., it's that maybe we'll start to see the end of the era of offering easy answers to very complicated situations.

The shift in power from Montreal to Toronto is a major theme in Dirty Sweet and a source of pathos, too. I’d like you to talk about that great demographic movement and what it means to you and to your writing.

It's probably one of the most significant and under-written about things to happen to Canada in the last thirty years. I'm not sure if there's irony in it being kicked off by a “silent revolution” or not, but we don't talk about it very much, and almost no art in this country – movies, TV or books, anyway – talks about it at all.

For both Montreal and Toronto, I see it as both good and bad. Montreal in the 1970's was a fantastic place to be. From Expo 67 to the Olympics in 1976, it was all optimism. It seemed like the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup every year, and the Expos joined the National League and improved every year.

When the Parti Quebecois got elected in 1976, things changed overnight for us working-class English. Suddenly we no longer existed. The official government line was that every English person in the province was rich and lived in Westmount. That, combined with a worldwide downturn in the economy, really ended the era of optimism. Montreal seemed to clear out, and immigration dried up. I went to Alberta for a few years, but I returned to Montreal and lived there through the '80's. It wasn't always fun and, of course, I missed the Montreal of the early '70's just like I missed being a carefree teenager with my whole life ahead of me.

At the same time, a lot of those people who left Montreal went to Toronto. At that time Toronto was a very Victorian, Protestant, white city. The joke in Montreal, of course, was that Toronto had no nightlife at all, and that wasn't far from the truth. But that all changed. In addition to people moving in from Montreal – almost the whole movie business that sprang up in Toronto was built by guys like Robert Lantos from Montreal – a large amount of immigration that previously would have gone to Montreal went to Toronto.

So, on the one hand, by living in Toronto I really benefit from that new vibrancy, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Montreal if it had continued to grow and become as international as Toronto has.

On the whole, I feel we've come through most of our rather mild `troubles' and now have two pretty vibrant cities, so I see the benefits to both. Two cities of a good size and very different.

For my writing, though, I think it gave me the chance to be an outsider. The movement in Montreal and Quebec was all about becoming “Maitres chez nous,” masters of our own house, and that clearly meant people like me from the Irish working class (and other non-Quebecois backgrounds: Jewish, Italian, Caribbean) were something else. Then, coming to Toronto I was again an outsider, but in Toronto most people are.

(Read Part II of the interview with John McFetridge here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Great I/V

Smart questions, intelligent answers.

So rare these days.

Cheers John and Pete.

September 30, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

Good questions and answers.

I recently finished DIRTY SWEET, and I'm hoping to find some time before too long to read NOWHERE. I'm an American who has never been to Toronto, but got a good feel for it through John's writing.

I wish him the best of luck with the multi-protagonist stories. My agent has told me she thinks my WIP is hurt by multiple POVs, but I still look, as John does, to THE WIRE and McBain's 87th Precinct novels for inspiration along those lines, and think it's effective for the reader to know more than any single character, but still not know everything, as JOhn uses to great effect in DIRTY SWEET.

I have read in several interviews that McBain always thought Bochco ripped off the 87th Precinct when he created HILL STREET BLUES. Bochco always denied it, and I think McBain resented it.

September 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Adrian, and thanks for the cool abbreviation of interview. Yes, I enjoyed administering that I/V.

Like John, I'm from Montreal, and his answers got me thinking about a number of issues I had not thought of before.

September 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'm no fiction writer, so all I can say on multiple points of view is that John's explanation makes the strategy sound so natural. No examples immediately to mind, but multiple POVs can seem like a cheap, suspense-building gimmick. If I were a skeptical agent or editor, I might not tell an author to drop multiple POV, but I would ask him or her to defend it, to make a coherent argument for choosing it over a single point-of-view character.

I have read that McBain thought of suing Bochco over Hill Street Blues. That the TV series and the novels each had an ensemble cast seems too loose a basis to assert violations of copyright. But of course McBain's books influenced or paved the way for the series, and if Bochco ever denied this, he ws probably doing so on the advice of lawyers.

September 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"(W)e don't talk about it very much, and almost no art in this country – movies, TV or books anyway – talks about it at all."

John, I've always had the feeling that the Francophone Quebecois intelligentsia never wanted to let go of the cachet that comes from being a persecuted minority. Perhaps no one else in Canada, including the potential authors and creators of art about the Montreal-Toronto shift, wants to risk offending that carefully nurtured sense of persecution and entitlement.

September 30, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Dana,I think sometimes agents and publishers work against one another. Agents often want books that are familiar and like other books that have sold and publishers are looking for something new - but no one is too keen on taking any risks.

One thing about both Declan's Big O and my Dirty Sweet is that they were originally published by small presses.

I don't know if your agent has been sending your book to many small presses - a lot of agents don't like to because there's not much money in it up front, but I've found a lot of great stuff from smaller publishers and maybe a little more risk taking.

And yes, Peter, I think you're right people have a hard time giving up being a persecuted minority - especially when it makes up a big part of their identity, and for a few academics, a big part of their income. But I do think if you go back over enough history, pretty much everyone in the world has had their turn as the persecuted and the persecutors.

Still, that never seems to matter much in the present day.

September 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I like what you had to say about "our relatively mild `troubles.'" The travails of Anglophone Quebecois are pretty far down any list of human suffering, but they're a fact of history and of human experience nonetheless -- good material for novelists, in other words.

September 30, 2008  

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