Trevor Ferguson is the author of six novels, including The Timekeeper which won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 1996. Under the pseudonym of John Farrow he has also published two acclaimed crime fiction novels which have become international best sellers. Ferguson has been a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta and an invitTe d'honneur at the Salon des Livres following the translation of several of his works into French. He lives in Hudson, Quebec.
BiC: You are often described as a particularly "Canadian" writer, whether as mainstream novelist Trevor Ferguson or as your crime fiction heteronym John Farrow. Apart from indicating that you live and write in Canada, does this epithet have any particular meaning for you?
TF: A country is its story. Any novelist worthy of the art feels that in his marrow. I was weaned on prairie stories from one side of my family, Hamilton steel mill stories on the other. Outside my door, postwar immigrants were carting stories of the world, blending them to create the country's next fiction. Anecdotes and true stories, tall tales, fables, legends, the saga of the land, urban myths and various fictions¨these are codified tales that form part of a writer's shakedown cruise through his country and into the world at large, and they are a part of me, no question. I'd been coast to coast by the time I was three, again repeatedly throughout my childhood and adolescence, countless times since; so yes, I think any writer views the world through the prism of his or her own country and I'm not the exception to that. The experience of country, that story, is never far removed from the experience woven into my work. So, yeah, I endorse the beer ad, I am Canadian.
BiC: Who do you regard as your most important literary influences and why?
TF: In my youth and as a young man I read everything I could get my hands on, and it's that broad, scattered, unstructured absorption that is the principal influence. The Montreal writers, Richler and MacLennnan, were important to me. Their familiar references made writing fiction seem possible, and I'd be guided by their examples to write novels, and not short fiction, which insulated me from the usual Canadian process where young writers cut their teeth on short stories. I chose to tackle the maze of the novel which, rather than being chiselled and exacting, rewards wildness and tangents and extended meditations. I think of them as two separate art forms and selected the novel as mine.
But there was one guy I had to write through, one fellow I had to savage and get rid of as his light flooded such a massive tract of my own internal landscape and bound me to him in a lunar sway, and that was Faulkner. An eagerness to knock down the psychic walls and seek a transcendent language through cadence, to allow cadence to write the book, I owe that to him, and I'm grateful for that. But I had to write through him and that was a sojourn of some duration.
BiC: Recently in the Globe and Mail, a questionnaire was put to various literary people concerning their response to Joyce's Ulysses. Some were predictably impressed; others, like Eleanor Wachtel, claimed "I don't have a lot of time for dead writers" and relegated them to the summer vacation. What's your take on what many consider the greatest novel of our century?
TF: I swam in that book for months. I never thought Ulysses was a great novel, I thought it was a sinuous and sensuous mess, and I adored it. Now that I'm older and less wise, I still think of it as a failed novel that is also a monumental achievement. Don't try telling me that it's the greatest novel of the twentieth century though. It wins that accolade by default, because no one wants to suggest that the real winner might be, say, a simple tale written in plain English, because then everyone would have their favourites, chaos would ensue. So a book that nobody understands and few people really enjoy wins the prize. But fiction, though a vagabond in odd haunts, and despite its willingness to submit to continuous vivisection, must also reside and resonate as story. Ulysses doesn't.
BiC: What and who were some of your formative non-literary influences?
TF: I have a great enemy. Everyone should have one but few people do. He's an exceptional musician. Now an American jazz musician was playing a Montreal club in my youth and he came over to my enemy's table back in the days when I didn't know he was an enemy. The American complained about the vibrations in the room. Well, hookers were working the aisles, and pimps the rear corridor, and drug sales were going down in the washrooms, and some guys had guns and others knives. A mean place. My friend, now enemy, nodded, but when the American left the table, he said, "The vibrations in the room? That's his job." I took that to heart. The lesson inoculated me from the modern belief that if a reader doesn't catch on to a book then that's the reader's fault. The writer has a job to do, and writing multi-layered, multi-faceted books that readers at different levels of sophistication and intelligence can appreciate is one of those jobs. If a reader doesn't value a book it's not the reader's fault. The writer just didn't do his job.
BiC: This will be a two-part question. Most of your readers know the story of your struggle for literary survival as Trevor Ferguson and your providential rescue by John Farrow. First, then, why do you think your previous work did not receive the recognition it so manifestly deserved and deserves? And second, could you tell us who is John Farrow?
TF: Who knows? I can take a portion of the blame on myself, and say that I never cared much about attention, and when publicity was thrust upon me I handled it poorly. So very poorly. So there's that. Then I can say that Canadian publishing is personality-driven, rather than review-driven, and who can really take promotion of the self seriously, except twits? Several of my books have been as highly praised as any novel can be, and still they were ignored. Next, we are all placed in little baskets. Once it was tacitly understood that I could be shunted aside, then that's what happened. What reviewer, what academic, what bookseller wants to say, "Whoops! I made a mistake. Mea culpa. I should be promoting this man."? Anyone who has ever participated in putting you down wants desperately to keep you there, or else his judgment is called into question. Finally, I don't write as other Canadian writers do, and writers have a tendency to dole out prizes to those who write much like themselves. Maybe that's why I'm out of the loop. Or maybe I'm just a lousy writer who hasn't gotten that message yet. As for Farrow, he's the dude who got mad and decided to kick the doors in. So he did. You know, my British publisher told me that she just doesn't get books written with Farrow's level of confidence anymore, and that's part of what he has going for him. The time that I've put in at my desk, the craft I've developed, it's all available to this other guy, and frankly some use ought to be made of those resources. All John Farrow has to do is write me a cheque every month and I'll give him time at my desk, using my stuff, that's the deal between us. His surname I resurrected from a dead character, Caleb Farrow, a petty criminal and a real sweetheart in The Fire Line. I wanted to use a previous character's name, but found such names were specifically appropriate to their natures and didn't really work for my shadow-self. But I chose Farrow's surname because I like the agricultural genesis of the far row, the long row to hoe, I think of him as Ferguson's arrow, and because his name sounds like "pharaoh" it's not that humble. By adding my actual first name, suddenly I had a rich relation, and I like it that Farrow and Ferguson share the same shelf in some stores.
BiC: Writers of detective fiction will often project very strong, even unforgettable central characters. One thinks immediately of Conan Doyle's Holmes and Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, but also, for example, of Colin Dexter's Morse, P.D. James' Dalgleish and Ian Rankin's Rebus, among others. One suspects here that the relationship between author and character is a very special one, extremely intimate and complex. How do you conceive of your relationship with your own protagonist, +mile Cinq-Mars?
TF: At the outset, there's something humbling about the experience. In my literary fiction, the lives lived, while not my own, are not outside the boundaries of my own experience¨there's trouble, pain, sadness, joy, minor triumphs, loves and loves lost. But when it comes to Cinq-Mars I can pretty cheerfully say that I'm not about to follow him into gunfights with the mob. That's his purview, and I'll stand aside. So he's living outside the bounds of my experience. The other humbling aspect is more subtle. It's understood that I'm going to be with him for awhile, his travelling biographer, if you will. Which means that all aspects of his nature and of his history cannot be known at this time, but will be doled out as the various stories allow. By definition, then, or at least by intention, he must be a grander character, if I may say so, than any one book can fully define and appreciate. He must stun me with his intellect, with the scope of his inquiries, both metaphysical and procedural, and he must jolt me with undiscovered aspects of his nature. This means that I have to raise the bar of my own intelligence in order to create him. That's weird enough, you know?
BiC: In effect, you have two protagonists, Farrow and Cinq-Mars. How do you negotiate this proliferation of identity effects?
TF: I'm more comfortable talking about Cinq-Mars in the third person than I am about Farrow, but really, both are fictions, and should be addressed this way. The only problem comes when I discover myself referring to Trevor Ferguson in the third person, and then I wonder about it all¨where does it begin, where does it end, how much are we all our own created fictions?
BiC: There is a widespread tendency to regard crime fiction as a lesser genre. In what way would you defend its literary value?
TF: I won't defend its literary value, not as such. That's like saying, here's a thoroughbred who runs like the wind, but because his lineage is less than impressive, let's load his saddle with lead and slow him down. Good books are good books and no defence of values alters that reality. Literary books can be awful. Are such works on a higher plane merely for their serious intentions? A good story demands character, things to happen within a realized context, writing that suits the narrative, a weave of ideas and circumstances that is compelling and wise. That's true in literary fiction, and it's true in crime fiction. My literary books seek the unknown, the true, unfathomable secrets; my crime books seek to relate what we know but may not be willing to acknowledge, and while the gap between the two is a cosmic chasm, in our world it's merely the difference between a walk in the shade or a stroll in the sun, and I won't tell you which is which.
BiC: Have you ever thought of mixing the two genres of so-called serious literature and the detective mode? Say, of making +mile Cinq-Mars a character in a "serious" novel?
TF: The Cinq-Mars character has definitely been making noises that he'd like a book of his own where he's free from crime-solving. But that feels to me like a man looking to retire, who, once retired, finds himself impossibly busy. So who knows. It might be a book for +mile's retirement, or it might be a book for mine.
BiC: If you were given the unenviable task of describing the state of current Canadian fiction, how would you respond?
TF: With trepidation. Everything is opening up right now. We have Canadian writers with fat contracts and extraordinary attention complaining that they're not being taken seriously (read, not winning prizes) because they're young. Man, it makes you wish that history could be ingested. But I've heard European publishers assert that the best writing in the world right now is Canadian. It's our time. What we do with it remains to be seen. The worry for me is the proliferation of historical novels. History can be mined for good books, that's evident, but when a nation's literature is defined by historical novels, then the writing is in jeopardy of becoming bloodless and soft and removed from the thrum of living tissue. So I sense, amid the prosperity and international attention, the seeds of our literature's swift demise, as well. My experience in France has shown me that a country can lose its literature, just have a lost literature, a literature that's nowhere, that's atrophied. Not a happy prospect. Amid all those fat contracts, of which I've been a glad recipient, to be sure, it's still necessary to suspend yourself by a thread and write from a height, precariously. You just don't get around to doing that writing nice historical novels about the desperate lives of the long departed. I do, however, insist that I be allowed to write one of them myself some day. The key word here is "one."
BiC: Perhaps my own favourite of your novels is The True Life Adventures of Sparrow Drinkwater. It is one of those vast, swashbuckling, gloriously imaginative books¨rich with character and story and full of racy, even aggressive prose¨that one could wish there were more of. It ranks way up there with anything Jack Hodgins or Robertson Davies might have written. Yet it cannot be regarded as a great commercial success. Have you an explanation for this anomaly?
TF: I had a measure of pre-publicity for that novel, an article in Saturday Night. I gather that certain literati were dismayed that I'd received that kind of attention without ever having kissed their rings, prostrate on the soil before them. Who did I think I was? And so the knives came out, the book was carved up, and I laughed and wrote another novel, The Fire Line. It's just the life of a Canadian writer. I'm not alone.
BiC: I have often compared your work in the past to that of Hodgins and Davies. Does this seem appropriate to you, that is, do you recognize some sort of affinity?
TF: I'm not sure that either of them would welcome the company, and Davies might be doing a tomb-roll as we speak, but yes, for the kind of book you're talking about, we share the challenge and energy of a large canvas, an eclectic collection of people, rarefied air, a certain pizzazz. But I don't share Jack's commitment to community, and I don't share Davies' appreciation of the elites. I'm in some middle fog where my people are always in transition, while striving, striving. Fifth Business¨in that book Davies had game!
BiC: As an anglophone writer living in Quebec, you have experienced your share of neglect. But things changed for you a few years back with a feature article in L'ActualitT and a subsequent series of translations into French, both here in Quebec and in France where your books are doing very well indeed and where you have become what one could fairly describe as a "celebrity." How do you account for this unprecedented "prodigal son" reception by the Francophone community?
TF: I'm probably the only English writer in this country's brief history who owes his survival to the support of French Quebec. Certainly when my novels were being praised, but flushed, in Canada, they were being both praised and read in Quebec, and that gave me the morale boost necessary to keep going. Now in France it's the same deal. In both cases, journalists unacquainted with the literature decided to read through it all, and without any preconceptions or advice from others made their own choices. It happened in Quebec, and now it has happened in Paris. In Quebec I'm repeatedly called the best writer in the province in either language. That takes guts for a French person to say here. But Quebec has gutsy journalists. In Paris I'm referred to as one of the major writers in the English speaking world, without hesitation or embarrassment (not even on my part!) and when I mention how few copies The Fire Line sold in Canada, everyone shakes their heads, they can't believe it. France is my inverted universe. Everything's upside down. John Farrow is there and doing well, but he's the little brother to Trevor Ferguson. Good reviews in France mean respectable sales. The same for Quebec. That's just not true in the rest of Canada.
BiC: Does living in Quebec give you an "edge," a particular perspective on subject and language that stamps your work as different in some important way from that of many of your confrFres in other parts of the country?
TF: Call it an edge, but really it's just another form of isolation. I'm mildly dismayed, at times, to see how writers agree on things in other parts of the country, on aesthetic matters that have gone unchallenged and have never been stripped down. Isolation in a small community, surrounded by a larger one that's traditionally indifferent, surrounded by an even larger one with no interest whatsoever in the tiny one, allows writers here to find their own way. We don't sound like one another, which I can't say of writers, say, from the prairies or from Toronto. Read enough Canadian novels and you can begin to think you're in an echo chamber.
BiC: Apart from fiscal considerations, has success changed your life in any significant manner?
TF: What do you mean, apart from fiscal considerations? Fiscal considerations, man, that's something. Otherwise, I'm just doing my work and fighting for the time to do my work. Not much has changed there. ExceptÓI can now afford to be a playwright also, and my first play, Long, Long, Short, Long, will be produced by infinitheatre in Montreal this November. Now that's a luxury, to be free enough just to kick back and do that. ˛
The interviewer, David Solway, is the Associate Editor of Books in Canada.