Tuesday, August 02, 2016

McFetridge Sows Crime Among His Roots

If I’m correct, the first time I met Toronto, Ontario-based crime-fictionist John McFetridge was during the 2008 Bouchercon in Baltimore, when we gathered together with way too many other people in an auditorium to see editor-bookseller Otto Penzler interview writer Dennis Lehane on stage. As it happens, I had packed along for that trip a copy of McFetridge’s third novel, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, but hadn’t read much of it by the time I met its author, so I hoped he wouldn’t ask my opinion of the work. (Which he did not.)

I didn’t return to his fiction until 2014, when the first of his Eddie Dougherty mysteries, Black Rock, saw print. With its unusual setting of 1970s Montreal, Quebec, and its stripped-down, dialogue-heavy style, the novel struck me as something rather special. I wrote in a spring books wrap-up for Kirkus Reviews that McFetridge was “still looking for a ‘breakout book,’” and added hopefully: “With its well-etched family drama and dynamic historical background Black Rock might finally be the one.”

Whether a breakout work or not, Black Rock got me interested in McFetridge’s storytelling in a way that his handful of previous novels had not. I was quick to snap up his second Dougherty yarn, A Little More Free, when it came out in 2015, and asked his publisher to send me a copy of this year’s third series installment, One or the Other, long in advance of its August 9 release date. My hope was to conduct an e-mail interview with McFetridge, which I managed to complete just recently.

The results of our exchange are posted today in two parts. The first segment, focused around One or the Other, fills my new Kirkus column. Part II can be found below. It covers McFetridge’s educational and reading history, his interest in filmmaking, his early Toronto-backdropped novels, parallels between his own life and the Dougherty yarns, and why he chose Montreal—the city of his birth almost 57 years ago (his next birthday is in November)—as his setting for fiction.

J. Kingston Pierce: I’ve read that you attended high schools in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario. What made you such a peripatetic teenager? Was it the result, perhaps, of one of your parents having to move around for work?

John McFetridge: Both my parents worked for the phone company. My father was an installer and my mother was a clerk, so we didn’t move for work. But when I was a teenager in the early 1970s my father had a couple of heart attacks and open-heart surgery. (I used some of those experiences in A Little More Free.) In those days that meant some long hospital stays, and I was the youngest of three kids and the only one still at home (and maybe not the best-behaved kid in the world), so I was sent to live with various relatives while all that worked itself out.

JKP: Are your parents still around?

JM: My father passed away in 1985 but my mom is living in New Brunswick. She had a pretty severe stroke a few years ago.

Author John McFetridge (photo by Jimmy McFetridge)

JKP: Have you been a big reader your whole life? And were you always interested in crime fiction, or is that a more recent interest?

JM: I was not a big reader in high school. I did read a little, but I wasn’t a good student. I was about 10 years old when my older brother [Bobby] joined the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police], so I was interested in the cop’s life, so to speak. And when I was in high school I did read Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field and The New Centurions and a book called Walking the Beat, by Gene Radano, which stuck with me so I looked it up a little while ago. One of my favorite books that I read in high school was The Super Summer of Jamie McBride [by Christopher S. Wren and Jack Shepherd]. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I started to read a lot more.

JKP: How is it that you started out at Quebec’s Concordia University wanting to study economics, but wound up—nine years later—with an English Literature degree? What changed in between? And one can’t help but ask, did it really take you nine years to get through college? Was that because you were working at the same time?

JM: Yes, I was working at the same time. Concordia University in Montreal started out, in the 1920s, as Sir George Williams College, a night school attached to the YMCA. It became Concordia in 1974, but for quite a while it still had a lot of evening classes that made it easy to do a part-time degree. After high school I had gone out west and worked, and then returned to Montreal, and I figured I needed to get some kind of career. I had met a couple of movie producers who were raising money through stock brokers (some of this will be in the next Dougherty book), so I thought I could become a broker and I enrolled in economics. I was wrong.

JKP: Early on, you wanted to be a filmmaker. How and why did you make the transition into penning novels?

JM: As I said, I wasn’t a big reader in high school, and when I was working blue-collar jobs everyone I knew saw movies but not many read novels. So, I thought to get to the audience that was like me, I needed to do it with movies. And I was intimidated by the idea of writing a novel. But when I started taking creative-writing classes and trying to write short stories, I started to realize that [novel writing] was the best way to be able to say everything you want to say. There’s really nothing like a novel to tell a story. And to understand other people. I realized a while ago, for instance, that the best insight I had into my mother and her life was through the stories of Alice Munro; they really gave us a way to talk to each other.

JKP: You went to college back in Montreal, but you now live in Toronto. When did you move to the Ontario capital? Was it before or after attending the Canadian Film Centre there in the early 2000s?

JM: It was before. When my wife and I were married in 1990, she was living in Hamilton, just outside Toronto, and I was in Montreal and we had to decide where to live. I was ready for a change of scenery, I think.

JKP: The first book you saw published was Below the Line, a 2002 short-story collection about filmmaking in Toronto, which you co-authored with Scott Albert. But did you try writing other books before that? Are there as-yet-unpublished John McFetridge novels gathering dust in a drawer somewhere?

JM: Yes, there are a few in the drawer. I haven’t looked at them in a long time, but the Eddie Dougherty series is getting into the 1980s and I wrote a private-eye novel in Montreal in the mid-80s, so I may get it out of the drawer and see if there’s anything I can scavenge.

JKP: Save for that first book, your subsequent ones have been novels published in Canada by small, Toronto-based ECW Press. Did you try selling your work to larger houses? How did you wind up with ECW, and can I assume that’s been a good relationship?

JM: It’s been a very good relationship. I’ve had three different editors at ECW and each one has been excellent and has helped me in different ways. I did have a couple of contracts with American publishers, but the timing was bad. My first two novels, Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, were bought by Harcourt, but it merged with Houghton Miflin just as they were being published, and my novels got lost in the shuffle (they did print a paperback of Dirty Sweet and a hardcover of Everybody Knows with, I think, terrific covers, but I don’t think they ever made it to stores). Then my next two books, Swap and Tumblin’ Dice, were picked up by St. Martin’s, but my editor left just before publication and those books disappeared, too. There is an American version of Swap called Let It Ride [2010] that I see sometimes, but it’s pretty rare.

And I’m very comfortable with ECW. I’m an old guy and I think of indie presses like indie record labels or indie movies. I’m glad I had the experience with Harcourt and St. Martin’s, but I’m very happy to be with ECW.

JKP: Have you given up on selling your books to the big U.S. publishers?

JM: I don’t really know a lot about the business end of things, so if a deal came along I’d certainly look at it, but it isn’t something I’m pursuing.

JKP: You wrote four novels in your so-called Toronto Series. For readers who haven’t yet discovered those books, could you please summarize what you intended to achieve with them?

JM: Toronto is a steadily growing, ever-changing place, and I was really just trying to get to know it myself. Within Canada, Toronto is the city everyone loves to hate because it’s the biggest, and the joke is it thinks of itself as the center of the universe. But within Toronto, of course, not many people really feel a part of the center. A little more than half the population of Toronto was born somewhere else, some in another part of Canada like me, but most in another country.

And I felt then that one of the best ways to see characters in many different and diverse neighborhoods was to follow cops and criminals around. I still feel that way. Criminals, especially in organized crime and drug dealers, often move between richer and poorer neighborhoods and cops go anywhere they’re called.

JKP: Yet, just four books into the Toronto Series, you gave it up. Were you personally ready for a change, or was this something suggested by an agent or publisher?

JM: I was ready for a change. After I wrote Black Rock, Jack David [the co-founder, with Robert Lecker, of] ECW asked if I could write another Eddie Dougherty novel, which was not something I was thinking about doing, but I’m very glad he asked. Then he asked if I would be able to link the series, and I thought I would. There are some characters in the Toronto Series who, like me, moved from Montreal to Toronto, and now I’m very excited about seeing some of those people earlier in their lives [in the Dougherty novels].

JKP: So Black Rock finally moved your attention back to Montreal. You’d been born across the St. Lawrence River, in what was at that time a separate city, Greenfield Park (since merged with Longueuil). Was it useful to have put some distance between you and the Montreal area by the time you started penning the Dougherty mysteries?

JM: Yes, I think it was. And also a little distance [from] my younger self. There’s not much that’s autobiographical in the Toronto Series (except I was arrested, along with everyone else on my shift, as a night-shift cleaner in a department store), but Eddie’s parents live in the house I grew up in and Eddie’s younger brother, Tommy, is exactly my age and going to the high school I went to.

JKP: What is it about Dougherty that made him seek a life in law enforcement?

JM: He didn’t start out looking at it as a life in law enforcement. It started out as not being at another desk in another classroom or at a desk in an office. Like a lot of cops of his age, Dougherty played sports and gave the referee a hard time, but understood that without the refs there wouldn’t be much of a game, and that’s how he saw the cops. As he gets more experience on the job, though, he starts to really appreciate that most of the interaction he has with people is when they are in a time of crisis—maybe minor, like a fender-bender, and maybe major, [as] when a loved one has been killed—and he starts to realize that he has a chance to make a positive difference in these moments.

JKP: You integrate a great deal of history into the Eddie Dougherty books. Has it helped that you lived through the 1970s, so you remember at least the highlights of that era? And when it gets down to re-creating Montreal street scenes, or now-defunct businesses, are you drawing on memory to some degree?

JM: Yes, I’m drawing on a lot of memories. Which is fun now, to reminisce like that, it helps to balance some of the unpleasant things that I research for the books, like the murders of young women or the [1972] nightclub fire.

JKP: Is your historical research mostly a matter of reading old newspapers and other publications?

JM: I do read a lot of old newspapers. And magazines. I try to interview people as much as I can, too. I wish my father was still alive, he spent his whole life in Montreal and a lot of it driving around in a phone company van with ladders on the top going to every neighborhood in the city. Driving with him was an adventure with a running commentary.

JKP: Even after you seemed to become comfortable as a novelist, you went back in 2010 to compose an episode of the Canadian TV crime drama The Bridge. Do you still harbor aspirations as a screenwriter?

JM: Yes, I interviewed for another TV show gig a couple of weeks ago. I still like TV and the big audience reach it has. Plus, writers’ rooms are usually catered and the food is really good.

JKP: Finally, what sort of books do you read these days? Do you read a lot of crime fiction, and if so, who are the writers you prefer?

JM: I just finished Stephen King’s Bill Hodges crime-fiction trilogy and enjoyed it a lot. I do like to read crime fiction and I wouldn’t want to give it up. I really liked Sam Wiebe’s Invisible Dead, a terrific private-eye novel set in Vancouver [British Columbia]. Also I’m reading the Women Crime Writers collection that Sarah Weinman edited and discovering some great writers I hadn’t read.

Also, I read a lot of non-fiction for research, but also for pleasure. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, by Jefferson Cowie, is a very good book about the ’70s, and now I’ve started reading about the ’80s. Some of it I’m looking forward to, but some of it I never wanted to think about again.

1 comment:

Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an excellent interview, gents.

John: Is your mother from New Brunswick? My father was from St. John.