A conversation with consummate author, Trevor Ferguson
JOHN FARROW, a.k.a. Trevor Ferguson, of Hudson, Quebec, is the author of fourteen novels and four plays. He has lived and worked throughout Canada as a heavy equipment operator, bridgeman, cabbie, and eventually as a university instructor in Creative Writing, although he has since retired from that job. His novel The Timekeeper was a feature film. Booklist has called his crime series “the best of our time,” while Die Zeit in Germany called it “the best of all time.” The New York Times wrote, “John Farrow is an authoritative writer who creates characters with depth and plots that say something about them.” Of Perish the Day, Lee Child offered, “The best yet in one of my favourite series.” Of Farrow’s recurring detective, he wrote: “I love Émile Cinq-Mars!” The series continues with Ball Park and Roar Back (May, 2020).
James: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Trevor: That’s a story. I was working in the far north of Alberta when I was almost run down by a train, missing death by a whisker. I quit the job that day (another story) and booked into a tarpaper motel along the Mackenzie Highway. I was homeless, jobless, separated from family and friends by a continent and my near-death experience continued to resonate. Under the northern lights in that vast wilderness I pondered what I was going to do with my life that had suddenly, and amazingly, been spared. I came to a determination. The only paper available was a Gideon Bible in my room; using that, I wrote in it that I was going to be a writer, that nothing would stop me, that I’d never take a job I liked because that might detract me, and I signed it. Then lived up to the vow. I was sixteen.
James: That is, without a shadow of doubt, the most unique and marvellous anecdote of how someone became a writer I’ve ever heard.
James: What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Trevor: The first and most common trap is to obsess over publication. Job One is writing and improving the writing and fighting for the writing to be better, and better, not fretting about publication. The hell with publishing. Do your job and write a better book. It’s a trap because worrying about publishing will skewer the work, rarely for the better. If publication does not happen? Aspiring writers quit, because that’s all they wanted in the first place. Writers who lean on the work, not the career, break down what they are doing, find another way, and carry on.
As far as the work on the page goes, a common trap for aspiring writers is to put their notes down right off the bat, usually without realizing that that is exactly what they’re doing. First, I don’t think writers should have notes, not even mental ones, but if they do, they shouldn’t look at them, and they should never let them squiggle onto the page. What a story requires at the outset is atmosphere, a sense that matters will unfold. The writer needs to romance the world of the story. Writers too often fall to telling us too much rather than create the world of the tale. Learning how to trickle and withhold and disseminate information is every writer’s first challenge, and many never learn to do it properly, they merely stick their notes down on the page then try to make them look nice. That’s not the answer.
James: How profoundly true. That is very sage advice, indeed, Trevor.
James: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
Trevor: I won’t pretend to be a psychiatrist. You need to be strong and to believe in yourself, and that takes an ego. Yet an ego that pushes well into narcissism is going to bungle everything. An ego obsessed with the self won’t write a good novel. I know writers who come across as egotistical — in that they let their egos show (and it ain’t pretty) — and yet they have careers, but what is perceived as ego is really insecurity. Writers are tested on the page constantly, and in the public sphere often if they are fortunate; to deal with that takes strength, inner conviction, and confidence. Much of the latter is learned, developed, and nurtured, with ego being a fallback along the way when no one else gives a hoot.
James: The wisdom of your analysis is very perceptive, Trevor.
James: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Trevor: I would never half-finish a book. Even if it’s going badly, there is much to be learned, and therefore it must always be finished. (I might attempt many starts to find one that clicks, but those that I reject never get beyond 5 – 10 pages). A writer should never give him or herself the option of stopping part way.
At one stage in my career, I wrote an unpublished novel between every novel I wrote for publication, just to learn and test myself. One of these (The Fire Line) I did publish, because I liked it so much, even though it was written to develop my chops for the next one (The Timekeeper). From the outset I only wrote novels, not short stories, because I wanted to develop as a novelist. There were many books on which I cut my teeth, and which are now at the National Library as unpublished novels. Novels in those two strains (the experimental ones and the early attempts) probably add up to ten or twelve. Maybe a few more than that.
James: Your work ethic is impressive, Trevor.
James: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Trevor: When carpel tunnel developed and I could no longer write my novels by hand (minimum seven drafts), I invested in a computer and have kept up with technology ever since. I don’t spend other monies as a writer. The point is to earn it, no? Publicity, etc., ought to be the publisher’s cost, not mine.
James: How do you select the names of your characters?
Trevor: For the most part I let them name themselves. Give them a little time and a bit of mustard, and they will reveal not only their names, but their identities as well. Sometimes it works the other way around: a name pops to mind, and the identity of the character follows.
James: Do you feel like it’s most important to have A) Strong characters B) Mind-blowing Plot twists or C) Epic settings?
Trevor: Vivid characters are the most challenging and therefore the most important. The characters separate novels that are wheat from those that are chafe. I’ve never had my mind blown by a mind-blowing plot twist. I prefer what’s subtle and intriguing and interesting and natural. Nothing is easier than a big plot twist, so I stay away. Plots should occur as life occurs, emerge from the lives of the characters. Too many writers manipulate their characters to suit their plots. That’s opposite to what we know about life. Make no mistake, my novels have very intricate plotlines, but it’s the characters who create the plots by the choices they make. Also, characters are influenced by their environments, so the setting should feel real and the story should naturally emerge from that environment.
James: A very interesting perspective.
James: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Trevor: Occasionally. For instance, in BALL PARK I’ve come back to a story that first appeared in RIVER CITY, where a cache of explosives is located on Cuban embassy property during the FLQ crisis in Montreal. The cache was meant to support the terrorists. The world does not know that story and readers assume it’s fiction, but it’s not. The incident had to be kept under wraps in a secret deal worked out between P. E. Trudeau and Fidel Castro, but the police officer on the scene at the time — and a hero in that moment — let me know about it.
James: That is an extraordinary secret. Are all your hidden secrets as notable as that?
Trevor: Ah, no. I think as far as “notable” secrets go, that one’s rare. Others of interest though are embedded from time to time, but some secrets must remain so, at least disguised as fiction.
There are times when my settings are accurate. When “The Timekeeper” was made into a movie, I visited the original location in the Northwest Territories with the director, where a wilderness campground conformed to the book. Forty years after the book was set, the director could say, “Over here should be the outhouses,” and right there we found the holes, covered with plywood. We could see where the kitchen had been and the bunkhouses, even after forty years because the climate is so brutal that nothing grows except over a very long time. That said, in my city novels, I will take landmarks from the past that have been removed and put them back, and I will anticipate how some areas will change and alter them ahead of time. All of this to place the sheen of fiction over the reality, so that the fiction feels perfectly real, even when it has been deliberately distorted. That’s the goal, in any case, to mix and match the real and the fictional, so that it all feels real, and often is, even when truths are secret.
James: What does literary success look like to you?
Trevor: There’s then and there’s now. I’ve been published on every continent not principally populated by penguins. I’ve had bestsellers as far afield as South Africa and France, Singapore and, yes, even Canada. I’m been published in at least twenty-four countries. I’ve had half-million dollar advances. I’ve enjoyed a critical acclaim around the world that most writers would die for. (“The best series of our time” — Booklist, New York; “The best series of all time” — Die Zeit, Germany.) I’ve enjoyed the respect of my peers. (“… one of my favorite series.” — Lee Child.) I’ve had a hit play Off-Broadway and one of my plays was seen by more than 22,000 people in Montreal. I’ve had a feature film made of one of my novels (The Timekeeper). So there’s been that kind of success and I appreciate it, but the only success that matters is this: when the book drops in its final form, if I’m content with what is on the page — and I can be brutally hard on myself — then that’s literary success. The rest is just noise.
James: It seems you are enjoying an extremely illustrious career sustained by your pragmatic acumen and determination. I’m in awe of your perspicacity and inspired by it.
James: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Trevor: When it comes to crime fiction, I’ve known enough criminals and punks, and hung around the tough quarters long enough, and had too many friends shot and killed, to be well acquainted with what I need to know. I’ve known the key cops in my city, and I’ve knocked around the world enough that I don’t research my work because I know the subject matter like the back of my hand. I also write fiction, not non-fiction, and I have confidence in my imagination to be and feel real, and as long as everything feels real, that’s what I’m after. (And when a top cop in the RCMP recommends a novel of mine, City of Ice, for “showing it like it is,” which has happened, I know I’m on the right track.) Occasionally, if there’s something I need to know, I’ll find out about it as I go. I must do it that way, as I discover my novels as readers do, as I go along. Generally, I find that research directs a lot of writing and not in a good way, for it often stifles a writer’s imaginative cognition (I know, no one wants to hear that), so research-avoidance is something I practise.
James: I’m in complete accord with your approach that you discover your novels as readers do, as you go along.
James: Do you use any special writing software? If so what is it, and what are a few of your favorite perks of it?
Trevor: I do use Scrivener, mainly because the chapters are laid out in a grid and I can zip to whichever one I want instantly. I can also keep track of my characters as they develop in a side margin.
James: What behind-the-scenes tidbit in your life would probably surprise your readers the most?
Trevor: I think it surprises people that although I taught Creative Writing at university and recently received an honorary doctorate (of Divinity, now that’s a surprise!), I myself never graduated High School or attended university as a student. I was on the road in my mid-teens and I suppose I still am. Another thing might be that when the federal government was fashioning new laws to combat organized crime, and specifically the biker gangs in Quebec, the top cops were secretly called to Ottawa from the RCMP, the provincial police, the Montreal police, and, oh yeah, a novelist was also invited: me.
James: These are massive affirmations that your self-confidence in your abilities and chosen career path are well founded.
James: What was the hardest part of writing your author bio?
Trevor: Keeping it up-to-date. Also, short and to the point. But I don’t find it hard. To be honest, I really don’t understand the question! Is writing a bio supposed to be hard? That one has passed me by.
James: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Trevor: I like to sail. I have a very small boat now, having downsized. But I pull it on a trailer so can sail in different waters. I also walk a lot.
James: Do you read the kind of books that you write or do you tend to read books that are the opposite or different – and why?
Trevor: I’ve written literary fiction and crime fiction, seven novels in each category now. I tend to read literary fiction more. As a rule — not exclusively — literary writers care more about the line, the words, the feel of the language. Fiction not written well bores the heck out of me and while fiction in both genres too often is not written well, there’s a lot of crime writing in recent years where the writing is competent but rather bland. Writing can be simple, but very good. I love that.
James: What question do you wish that someone would ask about you/your book, but nobody has? What is your response to that question?
Trevor: Q: Were you influenced by Louise Penny? Her character, Gamarche, when said quickly, even sounds like the name of your guy, Cinq-Mars.
A: No, because my series first appeared, world-wide, seven years before her series first appeared. People seem to forget that, or not know it.
James: Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.
Trevor: From: The Storm Murders by John Farrow (last paragraph, first chapter)
Silence throughout the countryside, interrupted for those moments, ensued for a spell, then broke again. Across the snowy fields, echoing off the hardwoods, came the bark of yet another gunshot, so the quiet that returned, contrasted by the shot, felt immense, sustained, eternal, as brilliant as the sunshine, until there occurred a rising bedlam, a raring noise, distant at first then drawing closer as sirens raced to that snowbound cottage, police and ambulance and more police, and something in the wailing, something in the plaintiveness over the waves of fresh snow on the serene fields, suggested that their speed was insufficient, that their urgency, both provoked and necessary, was too little and could only arrive too late.
James: A very powerful passage to end with. It is with reluctance we draw our conversation to a close. I have learned much from our guest, Mr. Trevor Ferguson, and will attempt to employ the kernels of insight he has generously imparted.