Monday, August 8, 2016

Twenty Questions With John McFetridge

I have a soft spot for authors I feel write much better than most best-sellers but garner a small fraction of the recognition. Best sellers too often have to seek the lowest common denominator of reader. That’s how to become a best seller, not how to write the best book.

My taste leans toward those who put in the work to make their books as good as they can write them without pretense. They tell good stories with fleshed-out characters who speak realistic yet entertaining dialog and manage to surprise you while never breaking the compact to remain believable.

No one does that better than John McFetridge. I became familiar with John’s initial crime novel (Dirty Sweet) and blew through the remainder of his Toronto series about the Saints of Hell motorcycle gang as fast as he could write them. (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Let it Ride, Tumblin’ Dice.) The Saints were no literary version of Sons of Anarchy. (Which would have been tough, since Dirty Sweet pre-dates Sam Crow by two years.) John’s bikers are all about dressing in suits and moving away from the road and the tensions such a change provokes. They’re as much character studies—with the Saints as the protagonist—as they are crime stories.

John has since moved on. (Though I’d love to find out what happened to Nugs.) His current series shows the evolution of young Montreal policeman Eddie Dougherty as he grows from recruit constable to detective through the 70s. The series works its way through such pivotal Montreal events as the Quebecois separatist bombings (Black Rock) and the Canada-USSR hockey series (A Little More Free). Volume Three, One or the Other, drops tomorrow and looks at the 1976 Olympics. John was kind enough to drop by and talk with OBAAT about it.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about One or the Other.
John McFetridge: One or the Other is Number Three in the “Eddie Dougherty series.” It takes place in 1976 in Montreal with Dougherty teaming up with a cop from a suburban police force, Francine Legault, to investigate the deaths of two teenagers whose bodies were found in the St. Lawrence River. Suicide? Murder-suicide? Murder?

OBAAT: Black Rock was the story of a serial killer during the time of French Canadian nationalist bombings; A Little More Free looks at American draft evaders against a backdrop of the Canada-USSR hockey series. One or the Other tells of a $3 million armored—sorry, “armoured”—car robbery during the lead up to the 1976 Olympics. How do you decide which events to use in conjunction?
JM: For each book I do a lot of research and make up a timeline of events. I usually start with a big event – the October Crisis, the fire at the Blue Bird CafĂ©, and in this case the summer Olympics. Then I see what kind of a theme emerges from the events in the timeline. I use the Francis Ford Coppola theory that says the idea, or the theme, is the question and the book is trying to find the answer. These are pretty basic themes. For Black Rock it was what is the value of a life? A Little More Free was what are the consequences of trying to be yourself? And I like to have historical events as the beginning and the end.

OBAAT: One or the Other is the third Eddie Dougherty book, all of which take place during times of broader events in Montreal during the 70s. Is the research getting easier to do, or harder?
JM: Nothing ever seems to get any easier. But I will say it’s not getting any harder. I do enjoy the research.

OBAAT: It’s not like the 70s are ancient history. You were around during the events described. What have you learned you didn’t already know and what has surprised you the most?
JM: Sometimes it seems like ancient history, sometimes pictures from the 70s look very old. But you’re right, of course, it’s really not that long ago. I think the biggest surprise for me has been perspective. I looked at events in the 70s as a teenager and a young adult and now looking back at them as a guy in his mid-50s very different things seem important. I guess I’m mostly surprised by how people adapt and life goes on and we get by. All those news stories that were huge events just got dealt with and new ones came along.

OBAAT: Last time we spoke you said Eddie became 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.” You went on to say he came to realize a lot of his job takes place when people are at their most vulnerable. Has that changed him since Black Rock?
JM: Yes, it has. In Black Rock Eddie was 23 years old. In One or the Other he’s turning 30. So, some of it is just the natural maturing that happens through your twenties, and some of it is what he sees and deals with on the job. Eddie didn’t consider himself a real deep thinker, he wasn’t a guy who thought much about a moral code or justice or victims or much of that – the things that often show up in crime fiction – but he is starting to now. I hope this series shows some of that development.

OBAAT: Let’s say One or the Other is going to made into a movie and you have creative control. Who directs it? Who’s Eddie? Even better, who’s Rozovsky, the crime photographer?
JM: My favourite director is John Sayles and I think a movie like City of Hope, the way one event bleeds into another and the characters’ actions are effected by events is a pretty good model for what I was after, so I’d say him. But a movie set in Montreal might need a Canadian director, someone like Denis Villeneuve who directed Sicario. Also, I worked on a TV show last year and one of the episodes I wrote was directed by April Mullen and she did a great job, so I’d say her. Rozovsky is tough to cast. If it was 1976 it would be Richard Dreyfuss – he has the Montreal connections from Duddy Kravitz, after all, but today, I don’t know, probably a Brit doing a Canadian accent.

OBAAT: No offense, but your books don’t sell at quite Lee Child or Michael Connelly levels, yet you’ve been with ECW Press since Dirty Sweet came out in 2006. That’s just about unheard of in the current publishing world. Describe that arrangement a little.
JM: None taken. Like most things in life, I think it was mostly timing. ECW have been around 40 years, but it’s really only been a commercial press for maybe 15 or 20 years (before that it was very academic) so I got in on the ground floor. And I think we all still have the hope that one of these days these book sales will take off. ECW now distribute in the USA as well as Canada and as long as we don’t lose our minds here and have some kind of Brexit and pull out of North America, ECW and I can continue to grow together.

OBAAT: You base much of Eddie Dougherty’s life on your brother, who joined the Mounties about the time Eddie joined in Montreal. Your Toronto series (Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Swap (Let is Ride in the US), and Tumblin’ Dice) feature criminals and they’re just as convincing as characters. So now the obvious question: what’s up with that?
JM: Thanks. I think a lot has to do with the KISS rule, keep it simple, stupid. I’m more interested in the day-to-day activities of the characters and I do like ‘regular guys’ (guy is gender neutral) more than quirky or really unusual characters. I don’t know why, really. I like the grinders. Sure, Sidney Crosby is a star but you need a few Matt Cullens to win the Cup.

OBAAT: Who is your favorite character of all you’ve written?
JM: I do like Eddie Dougherty. And Judy McIntyre, there’s more to come from her, for sure. I spend very little time in my writing with creepy bad guys. Some writers do that really well and I don’t mind reading it but I like to spend time with people I like so I do like most of the characters in my books.

OBAAT: When asked what you liked best about being a writer, you said, “When it works.” What do you like least?
JM: I guess the obvious answer is when it isn’t working. But I’ve been doing this a while now and I’m getting a little more confident and feeling that it can be worked out. I really like this, it’s a dream come true to be able to do this so there isn’t much about it I don’t like.

OBAAT: How often do you write?
JM: Every day. I have the really lucky position that when my kids were little I was a stay-at-home dad so I was out for the workforce long enough to really lower expectations going back in. And then I made some money writing for TV so that took some pressure off, too, so now even though I don’t make much money from my books it’s enough to justify my doing it every day.

OBAAT: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
JM: When the movie Bull Durham came out I read an interview with the writer-director, Ron Shelton and he said, “If you give people their dignity they’ll never let you down,” and I liked that so I think I’m trying to show people in vulnerable situations still have their dignity. That would be my take-away. Dougherty is going to go through a lot but he isn’t going to get too cynical and certainly not misanthropic. 

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
JM: I do like to see some resolution to the question posed by the book. That’s probably why I tend to ask easy, obvious questions ;).

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
JM: I am. I write the books for myself so that I can feel after putting in all that work at least one person really likes it.

That's a badass answer, so I used a badass picture
OBAAT: What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?
JM: I’d like to meet Stephen King, maybe watch a baseball game with him but he could never get me to like the Red Sox. I’d also like to meet Alice Munro and find out if after she won the Nobel Prize there was a non-Canadian moment when she said, “Fuck you,” to all those old English profs who called her writing, “housewife stories.”

OBAAT: Do you have a specific writing style?
JM: Just the keep it simple style.

OBAAT: You said before you liked to read “crime stories and noir and all that but they don’t often have a lot of insight into how relationships work.” Why do you think that is, and to you think is a natural weakness in the genre? Who do you think writes crime and does that well, if anyone?
JM: I think in much of the crime fiction the roles are set early on and then the characters play them out. Anti-heroes and femme fatales tend to be a little predictable.

OBAAT: What book are you reading now?
JM: I just finished Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers and now I’m reading Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, the first novel in Sarah Weinman’s Women Crime Writers of the 40s and 50s collection. I’m looking forward to all of them.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JM: The next Eddie Dougherty, set in 1980. American hostages in Iran and the first Quebec referendum on separation – referendums seem to be in the news these days, everything old really is new again. Also, spies.

OBAAT: You and I both write series, which means there are multiple thigns happening with multiple books all the time. For example, you’re promoting One or the Other. I expect Dougherty Number 4 is done, or damn near, and you’re already thinking about ED5. Do you ever have trouble remembering which anecdotes happened in which books? (I’m asking for a friend.)
JM: Yes, I do. I’ve started to keep a lot of crib notes. And my excellent editor has found mistakes I’ve made. In this series there are some big changes in the characters’ lives; Eddie and Judy get married and they might have kids, Eddie does move up to detective and Judy settles into being a high school teacher so I hope the same things don’t keep coming up, but I know some will sneak in. I just used one of my uncle’s stories, a little life advice he had about social drinking and how to not become an alcoholic and I realized I’d used the story once before. But it wasn’t in a Dougherty novel (it was in Tumblin’ Dice) and I like it so I used it again.

1 comment:

seana graham said...

Great interview, you guys. I love the Eddie Dougherty series. I'm about a hundred pages into the third right now. As an American, I particularly like getting the Canadian perspective on the era. We are clueless in general about the north of the border perspective.