Thursday, November 19, 2015

Twenty Questions With John McFetridge

John McFetridge isn’t a prepossessing figure. His Wikipedia article is two books out of date. His Amazon author page has no bio. He’s as level as any person I know, unless you want to discuss the virtues of The Departed after a few drinks. His writing is somewhat the same. No car chases or series of explosions. His Toronto series of novels about the Saints of Hell motorcycle gang (Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Swap (Let it Ride in the U.S.), and Tumblin’ Dice) show the qualities of both Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. Ongoing crimes told from the participants’ point of view, the police often no more than an inconvenience.

His current series, featuring Montreal Constable Eddie Dougherty, are almost police procedurals. Almost, but this is John McFetridge, so not quite. Set in Montreal during the early 70s, Black Rock is, on its surface, the story of a young cop working the periphery of a serial killer case. The bigger story is how people lived day-to-day while Quebecois separatists blew up buildings on a regular basis, the killing of young women hunted to the side. His most recent, ALittle More Free, uses the murder of a Yank draft dodger to explore attitudes about the Vietnam War from both sides of the border.

I didn’t just make up that Elmore Leonard comparison. Linda Richards, writing in January Magazine, called McFetridge's voice "colder and starker" than Leonard's. "McFetridge is one of a new breed of Canadian crime fictionists building neo-noir that seems touched by both the humor and self-consciousness of life north of the 48th.” Quill & Quire reviewer Gary Butler also compared his work to Leonard, writing, “both writers seamlessly mix the police procedural with perp procedural to underscore the parallel lives of members of the opposing teams. But where Leonard tends to favour Hollywood-homicide banter, McFetridge keep the quips to a minimum, preferring punch to panache. As a result, the only time his prose gets purple is when fists are flying.”

While researching John’s bio for this introduction, I saw on his Amazon author page that “customers also bought items by” Dana King. I can’t say how that makes him feel, but I felt damned good.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about A Little More Free.
John McFetridge: It’s the second book in the Eddie Dougherty series. He’s a young cop in Montreal. In this book it’s 1972 and while still a constable in uniform patrol he’s also working with a homicide detective to find out who killed an American man who’d come to Canada to protest the war in Vietnam.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
JM: The first book in this series, Black Rock, takes place in 1970 during something we call in Canada the “October Crisis.” It was really a movement that went on through the 1960s and involved a lot of bombs and armed robberies and in October of 1970 two political kidnappings. There was a lot of that in the world at the time, of course, over a dozen high-profile kidnappings in 1970 alone (including the American, Daniel Mitrone, in Uruguay). So that was a natural setting for a crime novel, I thought. (Well, actually I got the idea after reading Adrian McKinty’s excellent Sean Duffy novels.)

So, to follow up 1970 I looked for more historical events that would be interesting to develop into a novel. In September of 1972 there was a tragic nightclub fire in Montreal and 37 people were killed. It was arson and there was a huge hunt for the men who’d set the fire. But as I was looking at 1972 one of the things that came up a few times were stories about Americans who’d moved to Canada. The numbers are unknown, anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000, and each with their own reason. But it seems like it’s still a topic that people don’t know very much about. So that made it worthwhile developing, I thought.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write A Little More Free, start to finish?
JM: About a year. I’ve been a stay at home dad for quite a while and my schedule is really set by my kids. So, I usually start a book in September when they start school and I try to finish by the end of June when they finish. This one may have gone into July and August.

OBAAT: Where did Eddie Dougherty come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JM: A recent review of this book said Dougherty was, “dogged,” and I think that’s the feature that’s most like me. Dougherty isn’t special in any way, he’s not a brilliant Sherlock Holmes detective and he has no great defining moment in his life that drives him, he didn’t see his parents murdered or anything like that – it’s not personal in those kinds of ways. He took the job as a cop because he didn’t like school and thought being in an office looked like being in a classroom. And he got to drive fast. Once he became a cop he started to realize that a lot of the job takes place at moments in peoples’ lives when they are most vulnerable and if he’s just not an asshole he can help people make things better.

Eddie is a composite of a few people. He’s the same age as my brother and joined the police the same year my brother did (and for some of the same reasons) but Eddie’s mother is French Canadian, which is based on my best friend when I was growing up.

OBAAT: In what time and place is A Little More Free set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JM: The book takes place in the fall of 1972. At first I thought the time and place was hugely important. I’m very pleased with a couple of reviews that say the book paints a very real portrait of Montreal at the time but as I write more in this series I have come to realize that the most important thing is Eddie and the other characters. The specific events could only be Montreal – the French-English divide, the American war resisters, the fanatic interest in the Canada-USSR hockey series, and so on – but really, the specifics could change, it could be the black-white divide in an American city or the Protestant-Catholic divide in Belfast and the fanatic interest in soccer games in Glasgow and the themes would be the same.

OBAAT: How did A Little More Free come to be published?
JM: After I wrote Black Rock, the publisher at ECW Press asked me if I could write another one and I said, “But there was only one October Crisis.” He said, yeah, but something else must have happened in the 70s. So now I just finished the third in the series which takes place in 1976 and I think the next one will be set in 1980. If I can keep going someday Eddie will be a cynical, old, alcoholic detective.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JM: Recently I realized that I like to read stories that have insight into people. That’s what I like about Elmore Leonard novels, there’s usually a few characters who are ‘regular guys’ but we get to know them pretty well. I’ve also started to like the kind of classic post-war American writers like John Cheever. I didn’t used to, I used to be one of those guys who complained about the ‘domestication of American literature,’ but I appreciate it more now. And also, thanks to the great work by Sarah Weinman, I’m starting to read women crime writers of the 40s and 50s, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar and others. And probably my favourite writer is Alice Munro. One thing I realized lately is that the part of our lives that usually means the difference between happiness and misery is mostly how well we get along with the people closest to us – for guys like us that usually means how well we get along with women. And I like crime stories and noir and all that but they don’t often have a lot of insight into how relationships work.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JM: When I was in high school I started fooling around with an 8mm camera and I wanted to be a filmmaker. I tried that for a long time. I think I was intimidated by the idea of writing novel (a movie can be saved by great actors, great music, great editing). Every novelist I heard talk was well-read, well-educated and well-travelled and I was none of those things. But it turns out I’m a terrible filmmaker and these days every movie I like seems to be based on a novel (or some work of non-fiction) so I figured if I was going to tell the stories about the kinds of characters that interested me I’d have to write a book. That took quite a few years, too, but now I feel that I can tell the stories that interest me with no compromises. And, it turns out, books can be saved by great editing, too.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JM: I think the most important experiences I’ve had are the people I’ve met in my life. I use little things from real people all the time for character.

OBAAT: I’m a huge fan of your Toronto series of novels, all of which are set in the time they were written. What caused you to look back to fairly recent history in the Dougherty books?
JM: Thank you very much. I like those Toronto books, too. I started writing those books because I was fairly new to Toronto and trying to figure it out. It’s a rapidly changing place with so many new people moving in all the time. I started Dirty Sweet with the idea that people come from all over the world to Toronto for the opportunity to get something going. And some of them are criminals. As I was writing those books I was looking more and more into the characters’ backstories and that kind of naturally took me into the past. I was very interested in how the present day characters came to be and that meant I spent a lot of time thinking about their pasts.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JM: When it works. When I write a scene and I think it’s good and I can move on. I think it’s probably a similar feeling that a musician gets when a solo goes well.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JM: A lot of the people who have influenced my writing have been my family and friends and people I’ve met in my life. There’s a scene in Tumblin’ Dice in which a guy explains his theory on how to be a social drinker and not become an alcoholic and it’s word-for-word something my uncle told me.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JM: I do wear pants. I have tried almost every way of writing. And a lot of tricks. I heard a guy say once that he treated going to write like going to work and put on a suit and tie and sat at his desk. I don’t go that far but I do try to treat it like a job. For these novels set in the 70s I make a timeline of actual events and then fit my story, kind of on the fly, into those events.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JM: I edit as I go and try to get a pretty clean first draft. But I am conscious all the way through that my editor will help a lot with the revisions. There’s the mystery aspect, of course, the way the crime happened and how it gets figured out but there’s also the character development, which is probably more important to me. Although I don’t feel that anything in the novel isn’t important.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
JM: I have made playlists of songs from each of the years the books are set. It’s been interesting to see the changes in pop music through the 70s. One thing that stands out for me is that disco music was a lot better than I realized at the time. Now, without my very fragile teenage ego involved I can appreciate the funk roots of disco and the liberating feeling of the music. And the horn sections.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JM: While I was doing research today, reading a newspaper from 1980 I came across this quote from Jack McClellan, a “legendary” Canadian publisher: “If you want to write commercially, abandon pretense and go for the throat. If your field is literature don’t worry about the market.” I think it still holds up today. It sounds simple but those two things, abandon pretense and don’t worry about the market aren’t so easy. Most of us think we can have a foot in both camps and that’s what sinks us.

As an aside here I want to say that on the drive back from Bouchercon in Raleigh to Toronto I stopped in a small town in Pennsylvania off the I-79 and felt I’d been there before. Then I realized it’s because I thought I was in Penn’s River. So you shouldn’t worry about the market.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JM: That’s a good question. I think tone is very important. I like to have a clear idea what the novel is about when I start – the theme. A review ( of A Little More Free said that the central theme of the book was, “… the ways in which we don’t really know those whom we consider our enemies,” and that was my starting point, thinking of the “other,” that set the tone. Then I work on a plot that can reveal that theme and then the characters that will inhabit that plot.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JM: I admire the books that, to me, speak in the characters’ voices. When I read Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women it was kind of an opening for me to start to understand my mother better. But as for a book I wish I could have written I’m not sure, there are so many.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JM: I am a reluctant traveler but I am learning to appreciate it. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can travel a little. And for me that even means a weekend in Buffalo, an exotic American city.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JM: Another Eddie Dougherty novel. I just gave my publisher Dougherty #3, which will be published in 2016. It takes place in 1976 when the summer Olympics were in Montreal and it’ll be called, One or the Other (from the song, The Shape I’m In by The Band, “Save your neck or save your brother, Looks like it’s one or the other.” So now I’ve started #4 which will take place in 1980. No title yet.

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