Acclaimed as one of Canada’s top humorists, Terry Fallis is not your average comic. He trained as an engineer, then worked on Parliament Hill as a political strategist for Liberal heavyweights like Jean Chrétien and Michael Ignatieff before co-founding a digital media agency. He is also the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satire on Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. He nabbed the prestigious award again this spring for his novel No Relation, about a group of New Yorkers who share their names with famous counterparts. Feathertale caught up with the unfailingly humble author in a Toronto coffee shop.
JUST THE FACTS:
Born and lives in: Toronto
First story you ever wrote: I’m sure it was in public school. I think it was about Thanksgiving.
What did you want to be when you grew up?: I wanted to be a doctor, because my dad was a doctor. It changed when I became more interested in things that flew and taking things apart and putting them back together again. So I studied mechanical and biomedical engineering. [But then] I didn’t go into that at all. I haven’t practised a day of engineering in my life.
Funniest politician you ever worked with: Bob Nixon [former Ontario Liberal leader]. A very naturally funny guy as opposed to a contrived, strategically funny guy.
Favourite author: Robertson Davies
Favourite day of the week: Friday. I suppose that’s overused but it is true.
Next project: Poles Apart is my feminist comic novel, coming out in October 2015. It is narrated by the author of what becomes overnight the world’s most famous feminist blog, called Eve of Equality. It’s an anonymous blog, so the assumption is that it is written by a feminist named Eve. In fact, it’s written by a feminist named Everett. A first edition of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women also plays a minor role in the story. I bought the first edition . . . in 1987 and it remains a treasured volume in our family library.
Number-one interview question you are asked: Where do you get your ideas? And I say, I go to a corner store called Ideas and I just walk in and whatever’s on special, I get.
Describe your workspace in one sentence: My workspace is quiet, book-lined, high above the ground and is a room with a view . . . and a balcony.
JUST THE ANSWERS:
Feathertale: I’m sorry, but I’m going to start where every other interview seems to start with you: your incredible entry into the world of published writing. Can you give me the broad strokes?
Terry Fallis: I still pinch myself every twenty minutes or so. I wrote this novel [The Best Laid Plans] and when I finished it, I didn’t know if I’d even written a novel. When you labour over a manuscript for months and months, your sense of perspective of what you’ve written abandons you. I didn’t know if what I’d written held together or the character was real or if it was funny. I just had this faint sense that it was finished.
I sent it around, as one does, to dozens and dozens and dozens of publishers and agents and waited for the feeding frenzy to ensue over my debut blockbuster novel. I diligently followed up. And after twelve months of doing that, I had not even received a single rejection letter. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was so naive and I thought, I’ll self-publish it. Wouldn’t it be easier to find a real publisher if I could just hand them a book to read instead of four hundred manuscript pages?
I realized I would have to build an audience for the book on my own. Eight or nine months before it came out, I started podcasting the whole novel, chapter by chapter, on iTunes. Giving it away for free. And I started getting some amazing comments on my blog and via email from people all over the world. It was extraordinarily gratifying because I considered the podcast reaction to be the first impartial feedback I ever got on the manuscript. I didn’t believe my brother or my cousin or my sister-in-law.
FT: They have to support you, right?
TF: They do!
FT: Did you promote the podcast in any way?
TF: There was no paid promotion. I recorded customized promos for it. I sent them to certain podcasts that I listen to, and the podcasting community is very generous, and they would play the promos on their shows. That kind of kick-started the listenership.
I think it was the podcast reaction that gave me the resolve to go ahead and hit the big red button and self-publish. I got the author’s package of ten copies of my novel at my office in September of 2007 and I started living the glamorous high life of the self-published novelist. I then ordered a box of forty-eight books from the publisher and I pitched them to all sorts of independent bookstores, most of which were kind enough to take the novel on consignment. I ran out of those books and I just had the original ten, in this box. And on a — I don’t know what it was, it’s not a lark — I went to the Stephen Leacock website and they actually accepted self-published works, which is rare for a literary award, clearly an oversight on their part. And they said you must send the jury ten copies of your novel.
I’ve told this story often and it’s utterly sincere: If they had said, “Send us eleven copies of the novel,” you would be interviewing someone else today. That’s really what changed my life as a writer in an instant.
FT: It takes a lot of confidence to take something you wrote —
TF: See, this is where I don’t want to mislead you, because I get this a lot. Interviewers say, you must have felt so sure of your writing. It is utterly the opposite. It is because I didn’t believe my own family that I sought to give it a broader audience, literally to determine whether I had written something worthy of people’s time. That may sound disingenuous but I swear to you that is true.
FT: In a review for your third book, Up and Down, The Globe and Mail wrote that the novel is “a fine specimen of what is too often dismissed as ‘easy reading,’ which is seldom easy writing.” I thought that was quite apt. Do you work at your style?
TF: I probably don’t think about it. The voice you are reading is my voice. I made a conscious decision when I wrote the first book — as if I knew what I was doing then — that it would be easiest for me to write in my own voice rather than trying to think out a different voice and sustain that. So the protagonist, in all five of my novels now, including the one that isn’t published yet, they all sound an awful lot like me. Which I’m sure somebody is going to point out at some point.
FT: Many of the reviews I read mention your straightforward style. In No Relation your protagonist Earnest Hemmingway hates the pared-down, straightforward prose associated with his more famous counterpart, Ernest Hemingway. What would he think of your writing?
TF: My writing is [straightforward], but it could be briefer. If I were to add the Hemingway scalpel, I’m sure Hemingway wouldn’t like it. I understand he was trying to remove every obstacle that exists between the reader and the story, and why the literati greeted it so warmly, but I like the language too much for that. There’s a pleasure I derive from reading nice sentences that is, in a way, separate from the story and the plot. Like, a grade five can read Hemingway and not miss a trick. I’m not sure that I want to write that way.
FT: Another quote from another review, from Quill & Quire this time —
FT: Didn’t like their review?
TF: Well, it’s tough to get a good review from Q&Q.
FT: They give you a bit of a backhanded compliment, comparing your style to a sitcom, which is meant “to be enjoyed, then forgotten. Parsing them in any greater detail risks ruining the fun.” I think when we talk about the substance of your books, that’s not the case.
TF: I was not happy with the review. I’m happy to be reviewed in Quill and Quire, but I think you can definitely read all my novels on that level — enjoy it as a sitcom bordering on farce occasionally — but if I’m really honest I want there to be an underpinning of serious illumination of some issues. I use humour to get underneath it because I think it’s easier than using rage and anger, which are the staples when trying to shine a light on something that is not right.
So my first two novels, The Best Laid Plans and The High Road, those are my love letters to democracy. They were born out of a grave sense of frustration and concern with the state of our politics and the state of our participation in the democratic process. You could read those novels and say, that was kind of fun. But I’d be more fulfilled if people gave passing thought to some of the issues I was trying to illuminate.
In Up and Down, the substrate was concern about ageism and sexism and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. There’s a thread of feminism, gender inequality in all of the novels, and in the new one it is taking centre stage.
FT: Can feminism be funny?
TF: When you laugh at the status quo, or power, or authority, you weaken it. When you laugh at patriarchy, you weaken it. There’s an old cliché that there aren’t any funny feminists. Well, the aging feminist icon in this new novel defies this stereotype. I truly believe that humour should be another arrow in the feminist quiver, and that it can be shot with great effect in advancing equality.
FT: You studied engineering but never worked as an engineer. In what ways does the engineering side of your brain influence you as a writer?
TF: It probably has a greater influence than anything else. I’m always looking for the methodological approach to problem solving in which I strip away that which is there but unimportant. What do I have control over? What do I not have control over? It’s a very scientific-method approach. Engineers don’t build bridges without blueprints; I do not write novels without a blueprint.
This notion of sitting down and just waiting for the muse to strike, I could not do that.
FT: How do you structure your writing?
TF: The whole process is about eighteen months for a book. An idea just starts flipping around in my head and there’s nothing on paper for the first six months. I want to wait and learn if there’s something to the idea. If there is, it will stay there and evolve and after six months I will start to map it out in a notebook with a timeline.
Eventually when I can see the whole story I will start what I call a chapter map. It is a table with squares on it, one square for each chapter. I like to write a common-length chapter, about forty-five hundred to six thousand words. It works well for the podcast because it takes about half an hour to read that. Which means I have anywhere from seventeen to twenty chapters in a hundred-thousand-word novel. Because I think that’s a reasonable length. So I’ll put the plot points on this chapter map, and having the bird’s eye view of the whole story allows me to assess balance and pacing.
Then I will take that chapter map and blow out each chapter to two or three pages of bullet points. Sometimes there are snippets of dialogue, sometimes there’s a funny line that I already thought of.
Some of the humour is preordained in the outline. Like the running of the chihuahuas in No Relation. I fell in love with the juxtaposition of the running of the bulls right next to the running of the chihuahuas and thought there was great comic potential in that. In fact, I had to cook up this idea of, well, why would [the protagonist] be scared of small dogs? That whole deeply rooted psychological fear of small dogs was driven solely to write that scene.
FT: To do that joke?
TF: Yes! It plays no other role in the novel except, you know, it allows his father to tell him what really happened, which is the moment of rapprochement with the father, but it’s not what I was thinking.
FT: How many drafts?
TF: (Holds up one finger.)
FT: One draft?
TF: Depends what you mean by draft. When I write my manuscript, it’s probably for other writers who don’t outline to the extent that I do, equivalent of my third draft already.
FT: Because you’ve outlined so extensively.
TF: Oh yeah, it’s there. It’s one draft. But then I go back. When I’ve done a chapter, before I start the next chapter, I read that whole chapter again and I edit. And then I go back to the very beginning once I’ve written all the chapters and I edit it all the way through a third time. So the chapters have been gone over a lot.
But I don’t recall ever cutting out a whole paragraph. I don’t recall moving something that happened in chapter 6 to chapter 4 because it works better there. All that thinking has been done. It’s very efficient.
I’m an engineer and I’m busy. I don’t want to write five drafts. When people say, “Oh, I just threw out my draft seven,” I say, “You threw it out?” I cannot even contemplate that.
FT: Each of your four published novels has been nominated for a Stephen Leacock Medal. Two have won. What does the medal mean to you?
TF: Without getting too gushy about it, the Leacock Medal is the recognition that means, and probably will always mean, most to me. Winning the Leacock [in 2008] changed my life as a writer. In short order I landed an agent and a publishing deal with McClelland & Stewart. In the years that followed, The Best Laid Plans won Canada Reads and was adapted as a CBC TV miniseries. Soon it will debut as a stage musical in Vancouver. I doubt any other winner has been more grateful than I. Okay, that may have been a little gushy.
FT: The award is unique for its focus on funny. What do you think of the literary landscape in Canada when it comes to humour?
TF: The fact that I’ve managed to win the Leacock twice may well be the clearest evidence that we need more humour writing in this country. I think it’s true that there is an ill-founded perception that if you write humour, you can’t be literary, or that your work is not serious. I think [humour] can make people think, sometimes differently from how they thought before. Humour can inflect perspective as powerfully as anything else in the writer’s arsenal. We need more of it.