John Mc Fetridge is often compared to Elmore Leonard and belongs to a new breed of Canadian novelist writing neo noir. He is at the top of his form. Novels like ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and ‘Let It Ride’ are multi-layered narratives written with sophistication and punch. If they’re not already sitting on your bookshelf, go out and buy them. Now.
He was kind enough to let me interview him and I found him to be a source of great understanding about the crime novel.
We also talked sport. John wanted to play in goal for the Montreal Canadiens. Now he follows Toronto FC.
Many comparisons have been made between your style of writing and Elmore Leonard’s and contemporary crime writing has inherited a tradition that stems from him and goes back to Hemingway. Conversely, we have writers using more descriptive styles and an interior approach to character: what do you feel about major writers like James Lee Burke with his descriptive and Gothic prose?
I admit I have a tough time getting into descriptive and gothic prose. I wasn’t one of those kids who read a lot of books and even now I’m often embarrassed that I don’t read more. I grew up reading mostly newspapers (and even then mostly the sports section) so I don’t have a great appreciation of “writing,” as much as I do storytelling. But I’ve really been enjoying Brian McGilloway’s novels recently and although they don’t have a huge amount of descriptive prose, he makes excellent use of the landscape of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.
Your novels are packed with action. ‘Let It Ride’ is typically high octane. You put a lot into your novels while maintaining a cleanly balanced and readable prose style. How much research do you carry out?
I do quite a bit of research. A few things in Let It Ride were inspired by actual events as they say – the three women robbing spas at gunpoint was real, for example. And I do a lot of research online. Right now I’m spending a lot of time researching money laundering and crime at casinos. And old rock music. And sometimes I treat my friends and family as research. My brother and my nephew are both in the RCMP and a few of my cousins have done jail time and they’re all storytellers to some degree.
How do feel your writing is distinctively Canadian and distinguishes you from an American author?
In many ways, certainly literary tradition, Canadians have always been influenced by the UK and the USA. They may be two countries divided by a common language, but we’re stuck in the middle.
So, I try not to think about it too much. But I would say that what distinguishes my writing from American writing is the Toronto setting. Toronto is a big city that on the surface looks like an American city – the same chain stores, the same makes of cars on the streets and so on, but it’s definitely not an American city. Toronto was a fairly small, mostly British city twenty-five years ago. Now half the people who live here were born somewhere else and all those cultures are still fairly separate. The USA may be a melting pot, but Canada is hanging on to the idea that it can still be a mosaic.
I don’t make that a focus in my writing, but it is the background that everything takes place against.
What’s it like working for the TV cop show ‘The Bridge’ and how does it link with your prose writing?
There are a lot of great things about working on a TV show. For one thing, it’s very social. There were six of us in the writers’ room, so that’s quite different than the isolation of writing a novel. And when outlining a story we all worked together so there was a lot of cooperation.
And the outlining process is also very interesting. An episode of a TV show has to fit a pretty tight formula – not just that the story has to be told in sixty minutes, but there are only certain characters and locations that can be used. At first that seems very limiting but when one of the more experienced writers said that writing episodic TV is like writing haiku, I had a better perspective. And that just sounds classier than it’s like writing limericks.
We love football in England. Tell us about your passion for soccer and Toronto FC.
Ha, good question. I was thirty years old when I got married and moved from Montreal to Toronto and I certainly wasn’t going to give up my Montreal teams (although my baseball team, the Expos, abandoned me and moved to Washington to become the Nationals) so when TFC came along in 2007 it was my chance to have a home team again. I didn’t know much about soccer but my neighbour is from Glasgow and we go to the games together and he explains some of the finer points.
Going back to that point about so many people in Toronto being from somewhere else, many of them, of course, are from places where soccer is big. The crowd (other than me) is very knowledgeable and represents the ‘new’ Toronto more than a baseball or hockey crowd. TFC’s first star, Danny Dichio said, “No disrespect to those American grounds, but it’s a family-day-out thing. Here we’re playing in front of real football fans.” In Canada we’ve been connected to most things American forever and soccer is a chance for us to connect with the rest of the world. If TFC can win its qualifying games against Motagua of Honduras we’ll be in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time with teams from the USA, Mexico, Central America and the Carribean. North American sports teams don’t have those kinds of international competitions.
And I really like the sport, it has a different flow than we’re used to in North America. Our football, hockey, basketball and baseball all have any stoppages in play. It’s not something I really noticed until I started following soccer and the game just keeps going. I’m sure that’s symbolic of something if I think about it enough.
It’s been said that your novels mix police procedure with perp procedure, allowing analogies between the two to emerge. Do you think it’s true that great detectives have strong criminal shadows?
Interesting. Makes me think of another sports quote, a baseball player, Dave Winfield once said that the team had a symbiotic relationship with the fans and the joke was that every sports reporter had to scramble for a dictionary.
I do think it’s true that detectives are only half the equation. My brother told me he liked working in the narcotics department best because the crimes were ongoing, the detectives didn’t come in after it was over as in homicide. He described it as more of a chess game, the criminals are trying to keep doing what they’re doing and the police are trying to catch them. Of course, the police have to follow the rules and collect evidence that will be admissible in court. One thing I try to show in my books is that things are getting out of whack. Organized criminals have much better funding and resources than most police departments and, of course, criminals don’t have to play by any rules.
Name an experience that changed your life and influenced your writing.
Okay, one more sports reference. There’s a hockey commentator in Canada named Don Cherry, a much-loved (or much-hated in some circles) guy who was famous for failing to make the NHL (he played a handful of games and the rest of his playing career was in the minors). But then he made it to the NHL as a coach, except that his teams never won the Stanley Cup and the time they got closest they got a ‘too many men on the ice’ penalty (a coach’s penalty) and they lost. So, last year there was a TV biopic about Mr. Cherry and in one of the promos leading up to it a young reporter asked him, “Do you think your life is defined by your failures?” Cherry thought about for a moment and said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
So, I don’t think there’s a particular experience that changed my life and influenced my writing, but I think my writing is more the product of my failures than my successes. I failed at a lot of things I tried for a lot of years. You know that expression, those who can’t do, teach? Well, I failed in my (many) attempts to get into teacher’s college, so what do you do if you can’t do AND you can’t teach?
The experience, then, that most influenced my writing was my realization that I was only writing for myself, only writing what I really wanted to read. Oh, lots of people had given me that advice, every writer says it, but I spent a long time trying to write for agents and editors and professors and failing. Now, of course, I think it’s good that none of that writing I did for other people sold because I’d be stuck doing that instead of what I love to do.
This is a really interesting answer.
There’s another one which goes, those who can write do so and those who can’t make it as a writer go into publishing and those who can’t make it in publishing become literary agents and if you can’t make it as a literary agent, God help you.
That’s funny. My agent was in publishing, I’m not sure she realizes she’s on a downward spiral.
There are a lot of fine writers on the net who would love to get into print, do you have any advice to give them?
As for the question, I don’t have any advice beyond the standard, ‘you write the best book you can and you keep sending it out.’ There doesn’t seem to be a standard way to do things anymore. My first novel was published by a small press in Canada (who still, thankfully, publish my books) before I had an agent.
Last year I met Stuart Neville and he told how he had a short story in an online magazine and got a call from an agent who read it and then placed his novel with a big publisher. Declan Burke co-published his first book. All bets are off, it seems.
My bold prediction in publishing is that we’ll see many small presses find solid niche markets. So, I guess if I have any advice it’s to look beyond the big publishers.
Your writing contains a lot of information yet at the same time it never loses its flow. Because you put so much into your narratives do you find you have to structure your books carefully?
Yes, I am finding that I need to structure the books more. I like to start with a theme, a question. With Dirty Sweet it was, “Why do some people see everything as an opportunity and others wouldn’t recognize an opportunity if walked up and shot someone in the head?” So to speak. At first the book was just exploring the question of opportunity.
But with more books I did find that things could easily get away from me. There have been some negative reviews of Let It Ride complaining about just that, too many characters, too many sub-plots and not enough structure to hold it together. So now I’m more conscious of structure. Though I still think in terms of theme, of questions and I’m still more interested in characters than plot. Oh well, you write what you can.
Name two novels you wish you had written and why.
Two? At last you didn’t say one.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” A lot of people like Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane have praised the novel so I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but everything they say about it is true. For me, Eddie Coyle brought to life a world I really understood, filled with characters I knew. And the style of writing fits the characters perfectly. Many people have called Eddie Coyle the first “dialogue-driven” novel, but what George V. Higgins did was to let the characters tell the story themselves – in their own words and with their own values. Every character in the books has an agenda, everybody wants something. It’s really a complete novel.
And then I’d have to say something by Roddy Doyle. “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,” and “Paula Spencer,” are fantastic books, deeply insightful and moving. And even funny in places.
I just realized that both writers I mentioned (well, at least those books by them) are almost completely character studies of people not doing so well in their lives. Maybe I like those books now because I turned fifty and things are going so well in my life that I can get into a story like that almost as a tourist. They certainly weren’t the kind of books I read when I was going through those kinds of things in my life. Have to think about that.
Thanks for the interview it was fun..
You’re more than welcome John, it was great talking to you.
There you have it. John McFetridge: