It goes like this: Critically acclaimed but popularly neglected literary novelist, on the cusp of 50, finds himself staring down the career void. After the figurative dark night of the soul he makes a last-ditch stab at commercial viability by writing a thriller under an assumed name. In the Hollywood version, the book would inspire a pre-publication bidding war, garner its creator a mid-six figure deal and a film option, become a smash hit, and – hey, why not? – rack up critical kudos to boot. The voice of reason, that old bore, naturally breaks in loudly, saying something like “Yeah. Right.” But this time, for once, the voice of reason is sadly mistaken.
It helped, of course, that the book in question, City of Ice by “John Farrow” (the author’s real identity didn’t stay a secret long, hardly surprising considering the tightness of this country’s book world) was a sterling example of its genre, creating an indelible impression of the dark forces at work beneath the surface of winter-gripped Montreal, and introducing a cop for the ages in Sergeant-Detective Émile Cinq-Mars.
Happily, the newly published followup, Ice Lake, is better still, sporting a tighter plot and doing an even more effective job of drawing many uniquely Montreal strands – Mohawks, bikers, monks, the mob, English/French detective duos, ethically challenged pharmaceutical firms and long, long winters – into a gripping whole that scratches the popular thriller itch without compromising the thematic richness that made its author a writer’s writer to begin with.
Ferguson, now 53, is a living argument for the idea that those meant to write will write. Born in Seaforth, Ontario, he was raised mostly in Park Extension, then as now home to some of Montreal’s meaner streets.
“Growing up in Park Ex, there weren’t any (writer) role models to speak of. It was rare enough for anyone to even read,” says Ferguson in the New Navarino in Mile End, just down Park Avenue from one of his old apartments. In conversation he is given to long pauses and soft-spoken to the point of being at times nearly inaudible. “At the time there were two writers in the city, two big names at least – (Mordecai) Richler and Hugh MacLennan. I’d read them both by the time I was twelve or thirteen. Interestingly, they were both strictly novelists, not short story writers. So I think I twigged early that I’d be writing novels.”
As far as more direct stylistic forefathers go, William Faulkner springs to mind as someone the young Ferguson must have read with wide eyes. The novelist confirms as much.
“He was the influence I had to overcome, he was so dominant in my head. As I wrote somewhere, he’s one of those writers I wish I could bring back to life so I could have the pleasure of killing him. But as a young writer I was such a sponge that probably everything I read was some kind of influence, though I’m not really sure how influences stick.”
Taking the drastic course of dropping out of high school and hitting the road, Ferguson took his writerly baby steps in some of the unlikeliest settings; his is an even more extreme version of David Adams Richards’ “no safety net” philosophy.
“I promised myself I’d never take a job I liked, or anything that might set me off course. I was writing in bunk cars in the Northwest Territories, Northern Alberta, and Northern B.C. It wasn’t exactly accepted behaviour, so I would write in such a small script that no one else could possibly read it. I discovered some of it recently, and even I couldn’t read it. I could then, but I can’t now.
“Later, when I was driving a cab in Montreal, I’d write in the daytime and drive all night. I was younger then, I didn’t need more than five hours sleep. Though I think there were times in the cab when I fell asleep. All that was part of a long apprenticeship. I wrote books that weren’t published, books I knew wouldn’t be published, because I wanted to try out new things.”
Those that were published, starting with High Water Chants in 1977 and continuing to The Timekeeper in 1996, got the kind of hosannas that looked great on grant applications but never quite landed their author on the industry A list. Asked if there was a sense of being shut out of the citadel, Ferguson nods, and offers two possible reasons.
“Always, in all my books, I tried to stick to the idea that language should be serving the story, and not be the focus. And that kind of moved me to the outside of what was happening in Canadian writing.
“And being a Montrealer tends to segregate you. I remember when a prize was brought out for (English) under-40 writers, it was mentioned that the (nominated) writers covered the whole country except British Columbia. But there were none from Quebec. It’s just assumed that Quebec’s French so there can’t be any English writers. Well, we are here!”
When I ask him to walk me through the thought process that led to John Farrow, Ferguson obliges with a loquaciousness that may owe something to the fact that we know the story has a rather happy ending.
“Desperation entered into it, sure. I’d been at low ebbs before, but this was cumulative, you know? The book I’d just done (The Fire Line) was dead in the water. The line on my sales graph was going straight down, no bumps at all. The next one (The Timekeeper) was written and sold, so I had a little bit of time. Something had to be shaken up. My hardcore belief was that all I had to do was keep writing good books and I’d get a break some day, but finally I had to say, ‘Well, maybe not. If I wrote War and Peace tomorrow, it might not be published, and if it was, it wouldn’t sell more than 200 copies, just because my name was attached to it.’
“So, what do I do next? I’m a novelist. I can’t walk away from that, so what do I do to support this habit? I’m getting older, the grants have stopped coming, young writers don’t know who the hell I am. So I considered my options: What about writing movies? What about writing for television? Can I turn myself into a journalist? But everything had a roadblock. Writing for film you have to have connections, and there’d be a learning curve of four or five years. I didn’t see how I could support that. TV – well, I think I’d rather go back to driving a cab.
“Finally I thought, why not write a crime novel? Do it under another name. Clean the decks, see what happens. It could fail, because many writers have tried it and failed. But if I do fail, then I can deal with getting a job. At least I’ll have taken one real shot at something else. And I thought it’s really not that far removed from what I like to think of as my strengths, which are writing about character and story. But it could very well have been a dead end. When I mentioned it on the phone to my publisher at the time, I could feel the agony and the silence at the other end.”
Was he always a keen thriller reader?
“No. I knew the books I liked, and there weren’t that many of them – the Le Carré spy novels, Gorky Park (Martin Cruz Smith), and early James Lee Burke. A while after I’d started, I told a friend who’s a literary novelist what I was doing and he said, ‘Well, you have to start with a dead body.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I did that.’ So somehow I knew. But it wasn’t as if I read 20 books to study the genre. I thought I’d play it by ear, trust my novelist’s brain.”
Presumably the linguistic pyrotechnics of a novel like The Timekeeper wouldn’t fly in a genre novel.
“Oh yeah, the language has to be reined in. The story doesn’t really ask for language to do the work. In books like these (he points to the two Farrow books on our table), I’m free to use everything I already know about writing fiction, whereas in the literary books I’m always trying to get at what I don’t know, to get into new territory.”
Ferguson cites a well-remembered local Biker War-precipitated tragedy as having planted the seed for City of Ice.
“When the young boy, Daniel, was bombed in those East End streets that are very similar to Park Ex, I was outraged, and later I thought that all this was going on here and no fiction writer was touching it.”
Though he may not have known it, Ferguson had been doing some pretty effective Montreal underworld research years before the Ice books were a gleam in his eye.
“Of course,” he smiles. “My cab life took me all over the city at odd hours of the night. I’ve picked people up out of every bar in this town. And I’d worked in a mafia bar for a couple of years as a waiter. My brother was a bartender. So you kind of absorb stuff.”
Émile Cinq-Mars takes his name from a real-life Montreal cop of the ’50s and ’60s.
“Jacques Cinq-Mars, yeah. (Nick) Auf der Maur wrote a column about him that stuck in my mind. He operated very independently. When he retired, they immediately reorganized the police force so that someone like him could not exist again. They didn’t want independent heroes; everyone had to be subservient to the bureaucracy. So I thought I’d bring back someone like that, someone whose high ethical standards are very interesting in that environment.”
The elderly Jacques Cinq-Mars, it turns out, has expressed a wish to meet Ferguson, presumably because he liked the first Ice book. Has there been much other feedback from real-life crime fighters?
“Yeah, quite a bit. Cops like it a lot. One comment that came to me indirectly from an English detective was ‘You’ve got the English-French thing down cold.’ I was very pleased with that. My book talked a lot about Russian gangs, and a Wolverine told me they’d been slowly realizing that the Russians probably are the major force in crime in Montreal. And apparently, when the identity of John Farrow was still a secret, the SQ was trying to find out who I was. They thought I must have been from Toronto. (Laughs.) And I live right under the nose of the guy who was asking.”
Cinq-Mars, the character, appears fully capable of running indefinitely. (His much younger partner Bill Mathers, on the other hand, is showing distinct signs of burnout.) Did Ferguson create him with longevity in mind?
“I’ll take it book by book, but yeah. I’m learning a lot about crime. And I have a suspicion – I’m not saying I’ll do it – that I may someday write a wholly literary novel, in which crime conventions fall by the wayside, about a cop named Émile Cinq-Mars.”
Maybe it’s the residue of those years of hard graft, but Ferguson hardly exudes a lottery winner’s giddiness. A mutual acquaintance confirms to this writer that there’s no visible sign of newfound wealth in the Hudson home Ferguson shares with his wife Lynne Hill. Surely, though, the sudden state of financial security – he also has the satisfaction of seeing those famously non-popular Ferguson novels gaining a substantial new readership in French translation, both here and in France – must have effected some change in his routine.
“I was asked to do a play and said ‘Okay’ and I did it. (Infinitheatre will be staging Long Long Short Long next year.) In the past I would have had to say, ‘Well, if I had time, but I’m working on this novel …’ So it’s a real luxury now, and the novel can actually benefit if I step away from it a bit.”
Also in the pipeline is the film version of City of Ice, to whose screenplay Ferguson was initially reluctant to contribute. “You have to be ruthless with the book, which I could be but don’t particularly want to be.” However, as he says half-jokingly, “Pressure has been brought to bear,” so he may yet take a more active role.
How much can be revealed about the novel in progress?
“I’ve done about a quarter of it. It’s very ambitious. The voice and tone are not only different from the Farrow books but different from anything else I’ve ever done.”
So it seems Ferguson won’t be blowing that Ice money on wild living, or even easing off a bit on the work rate. This is a man, after all, who continues to teach a weekly Creative Writing class at Concordia.
“I don’t find myself any less hungry. In fact, where once I would have approached a new Trevor Ferguson novel with a certain sense of depression, like ‘What’s the point? I’m writing into a vacuum,’ now there’s a sense that the books are going to go out there and get read. That’s liberating.” mRb