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Crime Fiction Interview: "Off the Cuff"

My interview with Dietrich Kalteis in "Off the Cuff".

John Farrow is the pen name for Trevor Ferguson. As John Farrow he’s the author of six previous crime thrillers. Under his own name Trevor’s given us seven literary novels, and he’s also had four plays produced, including Off-Broadway, and a film produced of one of his literary novels, The Timekeeper. As a mystery thriller author, he’s been published to critical acclaim in 20 countries, and he’s recently received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from the Vancouver School of Theology and also a Life Membership in the Writers’ Union of Canada in recognition of extraordinary contributions to the union and the lives of Canadian writers.

📷Dietrich: Your novel Ball Park, the latest in the Émile Cinq-Mars series, came out November, 2019. What’s the elevator pitch?

Trevor: A sassy, yet naïve, adolescent thief, Quinn Tanner, emerges from a heist to discover that her getaway driver has been murdered. He was her boyfriend, making her the obvious suspect, yet that's not her greatest problem. What she stole ignites both the mob and the police to extraordinary actions, and a young Detective Émile Cinq-Mars is soon desperate to keep her alive.

📷Dietrich: What inspired this story?

Trevor: There but for fortune. I was raised in a district of Montreal at a time when the CBC — not the final authority, I know — designated the community as the juvenile delinquency capital of Canada. Oh, us kids, we were so proud of that mantle! The area is known as Park Extension — Park Ex, for short — and while it has been front and centre in one literary novel of mine (Onyx John) and a backdrop in others, the locale has not been in the forefront of my crime fiction. Time to change that. I vividly recall kids sent off and returning from "juvie", and how they were messed up when they returned; and the older guys who would get a few days in Bordeaux Jail, then come back home and maybe play shortstop. You could tell that they were different. They'd been subdued. Seared on my memory banks is my dad helping to get a guy out of prison in Ontario only to have him die in a shootout with police in Montreal days later. That corroded something in my dad; but all of us kids in the neighbourhood were affected, too. There were so many violent episodes and ruined lives. (So many success stories, also, for sure, as it was an ambitious immigrant neighbourhood, and special that way.) So I wanted to take that on, how the lives of the young can be swayed and brokered in one dismal direction or rescued by fateful luck, sometimes because someone intervened. Had I not run away when I was fourteen, been caught and brought back, only to flee again at sixteen, who knows? Rather than writing books, I might have been booked. (Come to think of it, I was booked, but that's another story.)

Dietrich: Okay, we'll save that one for another time. Getting back to Ball Park, did you plot the entire story out before you started writing? 

Trevor: Not a stitch. I believe that the best writing comes from the deepest recesses of the mind, from a part of the brain that's devoid of language. To plot out a novel in advance is to circumvent that depth by using one's mere (in my case, mere) intellect to devise the story. I spent decades training my mind to do this work, which was arduous and painful; I have every faith now that as I progress in a novel the plotting will be intricate and wise even when I have no clue myself how the matter will complicate itself or how it will be resolved. The joy of finding that out is both my private pleasure and, I hope, will be so for readers as well.

📷Dietrich: Since writing your first crime novel, 1999’s City of Ice, which I loved by the way, have you followed a similar process from book to book or has it changed?

Trevor: I can't deny that I moved into crime fiction out of desperation. It would be impossible to secure a more laudatory critical reception to the literary books I was writing, but they were not selling, and I was having trouble surviving. What to do? I decided to try my hand at books that enjoy an avid readership. My ambition for City of Ice was immense. Simply put, I wanted to write as fine a crime novel as I could and do it the same way as I wrote my literary fiction, as briefly described above. Rely on my senses, my intuition, my decades of development, and on what can mysteriously be summoned from the depths of mind.

Not every novel I've written since has desired the same scope. City of Ice did confirm for me the power of intuition, as the top cops in the country confirmed that what I wrote nailed the situation, and also what I predicted (the rise of Eastern European  and Russian gangs, for instance, and how the gangs would evolve), came to pass. Like me, though, my character, Émile Cinq-Mars, becomes embroiled in the gangs — me as a writer, him as a cop — yet neither of us really wants that. He keeps trying to extricate himself from the gangs to be a simple everyday cop, and I keep trying to extricate myself from writing about gang warfare and write simple cop novels. To quote another source everyone will recognize, we keep being dragged back in. Out of our control, I guess.

📷 The approach has to be singular, obviously, when I'm writing a novel like River City, which runs to a thousand pages in one of its printings and covers 450 years of Montreal history. A lot of research there that has to flood the synapses at first. That broad a canvas requires a different mindset than a novel that's meant to be a quick and intimate read. That said, the process remains essentially the same at its core. Feel the book's possibilities, sense it rising, never skirt making it as challenging to the writer as possible, welcome the exploration into unknown territory, trust in a good result, then go, and go hard.

Dietrich: How did you originally come up with your main character Émile Cinq-Mars, and how has he evolved over the course of the series?

Trevor: I was intrigued by his namesake, one Captain Jacques Cinq-Mars, who led the Night Patrol back in the 50s and 60s. Misinformed, I thought the real Cinq-Mars was dead. His exploits were legendary in Quebec — busting through skylights into gambling dens, entering a mad and syphilitic gunman's home alone while dozens of cops who'd arrived earlier cowered behind their vehicles — "What are you doing outside if there's a gunman inside?" — taking on the establishment as a reformer. Interesting to me was that the police totally revamped the department upon his retirement so that someone like him would never be allowed to prosper again. In the future, the bureaucracy would take over. I decided to bring someone like him back. My guy would not have the same approach — the real Cinq-Mars would undermine a man's will to live with a punch to the gut — so instead of a fist-first mentality, my guy would impress with his brains, but he would also be a reformer at odds with his department and fiercely moral. Other significant aspects to his nature emerged — a mystic, a loving husband, a horse whisperer of sorts — as he became his own man on the page.

I discovered that the real guy wasn't dead when he phoned me up one day. Jacques Cinq-Mars popped into my life after the first book came out and shared a bounty of stories with me. A reasonable, albeit fictional, facsimile of him appears in River City, Ball Park, and the forthcoming Roar Back, as Capt. Armand Touton. Many of Touton's experiences and encounters evolved from his.

Ball Park represents a departure for Émile, as I've gone back in time to when he's still a young man and weaning himself off his mentor, Touton. He's leaving the Night Patrol and setting up as a suburban detective. In the earlier books where he's an older cop, I had mentioned that he had never been a homicide detective yet had solved many homicides. That's one challenge in these earlier books: to have him solve murders when he's not in a position to do so within the police department, and in fact the department puts obstacles in his path to prevent him from messing around with murder. Fun. In this book then, it's still pre-marriage for him, he's a loner, he's ostracized within the department, he doesn't have the pull and the public reputation that he will gain over time. I've shown him, when older, as relying on inter-force partnerships; in these "earlier" novels, we see how that comes about. He's less sure of himself at this time of his life, finding his way and learning what will be his way. He also has to deal with his "aloneness", a holdover from his days of wanting to be a priest and all that that entails.

Dietrich: Quinn Tanner is a female thief and another very interesting character. Tell us about her, and were there challenges writing a female character?

Trevor: Let's acknowledge that there are challenges to creating any character. It's always easy to resort to the familiar and miss out on a character's individuality. Quinn identified herself to me with her sass, her smartass backtalk, her humour which was undercut with a certain bitterness, a certain resentment, and of course her progress as a thief. That chip on her shoulder had to be explored which led me deeper into her psyche and into the details of her back story. She came alive for me, and I hope I've been able to let that flow through for others. Now here's a truism of both people and fictional characters: we never wholly know ourselves. We don't get to see ourselves as others do. And we don't know how we'll handle duress and danger and tragedy until it arrives. A beauty of crime fiction, then, is that characters will come under considerable duress and danger and possibly tragedy. How they react reveals who they are, and they will learn about themselves at the same time that we do. Quinn comes under a lot of distress. The key for me in creating her was to let her declare herself, then to follow her about and be true to her and to whom she was discovering herself to be. She led me around quite nicely. I just let Quinn be Quinn and I consciously avoided trying to prove anything about writing a female character.

Dietrich: Aside from knowing it well, what makes Montreal ideal for the setting of your crime novels?

Trevor: Crime. There was truth to the axiom that at one time the only way forward for a French Quebecker was to be either a priest or a bank robber. Thieves became cult heroes in the culture. I still remember the day the head of the Hells Angels was temporarily released from prison and went to the fights. A crowd of 18,000 gave him a standing ovation. For being a murderer. That's not right. These guys are not folk-heroes although they have presented themselves as such. Montreal has been conflicted in its relationship to crime that way. The city has long been in a geographic crime triangle with New York and Chicago/Detroit, a Canadian sanctuary beyond the prying eyes of the FBI, and an open port city where all manner of illicit product arrives. The Mafia leaders in Montreal where related by blood to the New York godfathers, and one group was helpful to the other in different ways. They all get together in Florida. In the old days, Montreal was a brothel city, with more brothels than churches yet with so many churches you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window, as Dickens famously observed. In modern times, the Hells Angels and their satellites became not only the most virulent of such gangs on the planet, they received training from the old-guard Mafia to be a sophisticated and disciplined organization. Their war with the Rock Machine claimed more than a hundred and fifty lives and involved as many bombings. No small thing. It took a gargantuan effort to stick them behind bars, and now they're getting out again. Lately, I've also been close to anecdotal stories of how criminal elements have infiltrated every aspect of society. Scary stuff. Sinister crime can penetrate the lives of regular folk who purchase a townhouse from the wrong group, for instance, or buy the wrong car when someone with a similar vehicle is on a hit list.

Dietrich: You’ve been writing most of your life, going from literary novels to mystery thrillers. Describe the drive that keeps you going? How have you managed to keep it fresh?

Trevor: Yeah, friends have been known to call me a machine. Maybe when I was writing novels, plays, screenplays, repairing other people's screenplays, and teaching creative writing, all at the same time, maybe I was a machine. But that doesn't really tell the story. My enjoyment in observing stories and characters declare themselves on the page is such joy that I can't imagine not writing, although I have slowed down to one book at a time only. What has always been true for me still holds true: as I approach the end of one novel, the next begins to visit my synapses, I become enthralled, feel the pull of a lunar sway, and off we go again. I can't resist. These days, part of my drive stems from knowing that the clock is ticking. I want to kick ass within the form, so I have to get on it.

Dietrich: Are there key differences in your approach to writing mysteries as opposed to literary fiction?

Trevor: When I first tried my hand at crime fiction, a literary writer friend said, "I hope you started with a dead body." I had. So that was good. With literary fiction, I don't need that body, I also have opportunity to entertain idiosyncratic diversions throughout the tale, whereas with crime fiction the storyline needs to tick over non-stop. Otherwise, my approach is similar. I want the tale to be atmospheric, feel real even at its wildest, take odd turns, and I want lively characters and sharp dialogue. One thing I've noticed is that my literary fiction, with exceptions, usually takes place over a good length of time, whereas the crime fiction (with the exception of River City) has a shorter timeframe. I didn’t design things that way, but it seems to be how the books have worked themselves out.

Dietrich: Have there been authors over the years who you like to read who inspire your own work?

Trevor: As a young man and a literary writer, I wished that William Faulkner was still alive so that I could have the pleasure of killing him. When an influence is large, it's sometimes a battle to work your way through that influence to arrive out the other side. When I made the conscious decision to write crime fiction, Martin Cruz Smith and John Le Carré (I know, spies) and James Lee Burke occupied a high ground that greatly attracted me.

📷Dietrich: So, what can readers look forward to next?

Trevor: Roar Back is out in February in the U.K. and I believe in May for North America. It follows Ball Park chronologically and continues with the internecine gang wars. The book after that is pencilled in for release in the U.K. in August, 2020, and three months later in the U.S. and Canada. For now the title is Lady Jail. It's set inside a woman's prison in Quebec where I've visited; I was very moved talking with the prisoners there, many of whom were in for murder. The penitentiary is an experiment in prison reform where convicts live communally, cook their own food, wear their own clothes, and sleep in small group units. Lady Jail is a locked room murder mystery when one of them is killed by another, and no one will admit to the deed. Outside the walls, the Hells Angels are taking an interest. For various reasons, Émile Cinq-Mars is called in to investigate. Who will be next? provides the thriller aspect. 

After that, I'm continuing with the older-and-in-retirement Émile Cinq-Mars. The books are written so I don't mind talking about them. A Patient Death deals with the opioid crisis at its American epicentre in New Hampshire; and Bright Shining as the Sun involves a case from the past that effects a case in the present which Cinq-Mars works on from his hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound. So, the books are coming, always.

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Clink the link for a Montreal Gazette article on the novel Ball Park and on the matter of my leaving Montreal to live now on the west coast.

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