Please welcome our March featured author, John McFetridge
Canadian writer John McFetridge has published three novels of Twenty-First Century organized crime in Toronto, where bikers wearing suits and driving SUVs have virtually supplanted the Mafia. With stylistic similarities to Elmore Leonard (but not quite) and George V. Higgins (but not quite), McFetridge’s voice is his own, dialog slipping into and out of narration seamlessly until it’s easy to forget you’re reading a book and not channeling the characters’ thoughts.
His newest book is Let It Ride, (Swap in Canada), which was released on February 16. John was gracious enough to take time to chat with New Mystery Reader’s Dana King.
New Mystery Reader: Some readers think, “author interview,” and assume you’re answering these questions from the balcony of your second home in the south of France. Tell them a little about the circuitous publishing route your Toronto crime books have taken to get to where they are today.
John McFetridge: Yeah, circuitous. In Canada I got incredibly lucky. When I wrote Dirty Sweet I didn’t think any of the big publishers would want it and I was right. But I knew of a smaller press in Toronto, ECW, that had published a biography of Elmore Leonard called Get Dutch and I thought they might be interested, and they were. They’ve published my three novels and I want to keep publishing with them as long as they’ll have me.
In the US things went differently. Again, I was incredibly lucky. Just as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was about to be published in Canada and Dirty Sweet was about to come out in paperback, Harcourt bought the US rights to both books. They published a US paperback of Dirty Sweet and a hardcover of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Except, a couple months before both were to be published, Harcourt merged with Houghton Mifflin, my editor was laid off and the trade division stopped everything. (I did think it was funny in an interview when the spokesperson said they weren’t sure if they were going to publish the next Philip Roth novel – imagine waiting to find out what they’re going to do with your oddball crime novel and they aren’t even sure if they’re going to publish Philip Roth.)
When I finished Let It Ride I was again incredibly lucky and it got picked up by Thomas Dunne Books at St. Martins. This time a couple months before publication my editor left to take a better job at another publisher and then a couple weeks before publication St. Martins’ parent company Macmillan had its big fight with Amazon and they pulled the books from the website. Luckily it was back for sale by the publication date.
I’m finishing up another book I call Tumblin’ Dice now that ECW will publish in Canada but I have no idea what will happen in the US.
NMR: The original Canadian title of Let It Ride is Swap. Any idea why St. Martin’s/Minotaur changed it?
JM: When I was writing the book I was looking for a title that got across the idea that all relationships are symbiotic. Give and Take? I liked the line from Billy Preston’s, “Will It Go Round in Circles,” about having a story that doesn’t have a moral, the bad guy wins every once in a while, that kind of thing. I was looking for a line that really summed up the idea that the power dynamics in any relationship can change. The Police have a line in a song, “and now the servant is the master,” but I couldn’t get a title out of it.
So, I made up a song called “Swap the Power,” and I put a scene in the book where a reggae band named Smiley’s People play a twenty minute jam version of it at a biker party. In the mid-80’s I was in a reggae band in Montreal named Smiley’s People and we sometimes played a twenty minute jam version of “Cherry Oh, Baby” so I liked that.
But no one at St. Martins did. So we went back and forth with about forty titles until we came up with Let It Ride. I like Bachman Turner Overdrive and it’s a better title than “Not Fragile,” or “Greatest Hits,” but I might use “Takin’ Care of Business,” someday.
NMR: Your books are less a series than a chronology. Characters recur, but with different levels of importance from story to story. Did you have this in mind when you were writing Dirty Sweet?
JM: No, I had no plan. I still have no plan. I don’t really know what’s going to happen to the characters until just before it does.
NMR: Your characters are more diverse than any writer I can think of. I suspect part of this is to establish Toronto as an international city in the minds of readers who might not be aware of it. (Read: Americans.) Is your circle of personal acquaintances this diverse, allowing you to write them so well, or is this solely a matter of making them up? If the latter, what kinds of research do you do?
JM: Mostly the characters are based on friends and acquaintances, usually mash-ups of various character traits. A friend of mine from high school had dual citizenship and he joined the American marines so Get is a little based on him – and a little on his brothers. I started thinking about Get as a black guy because my friend is black and that’s the way I saw him as a marine but my friend is now a high school science teacher in Nova Scotia so the rest of Get comes from other people. I have a friend named Sunitha who looks like the Sunitha in the book but she’s a lawyer in Seattle now and as far as I know never pulled any armed robberies at spas. When I first used the name Sunitha and the same physical description in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere the character was only in a couple of scenes very briefly and the real Sunitha thought it was very funny. As I was writing Let It Ride I got a little uncomfortable describing some of the things she’s doing but I think (hope) Sunitha will find it funny again.
My older brother has been a cop for 39 years so I get a lot of the cop attitude from him and his friends I’ve hung out with – and sometimes lines of dialogue.
And I have a couple of cousins and some friends who’ve spent some time in prison and they helped with some of those character traits.
But of course a lot of the characters are completely made up. The research is really just reading newspaper articles and non-fiction books – I’m always looking for lines of dialogue or odd insights, people seeing things in ways I never would. There was a line in a book about real bikers in Montreal I didn’t use but I thought told a lot about the character. A non-biker was overheard on a wiretap complaining to a friend of his who was a biker that he’d been made a fool of in a bar and he wanted some help, some muscle, to go back with him and, “show that guy,” and the biker said, “Sounds like you need to get a Louisville Slugger and go get your manhood back.” I thought it said a lot about the way the biker thought, the way he didn’t respect the guy asking for help and the way he would have handled it. You know, he didn’t say, “Oh forget it, just some drunk in a bar,” and he didn’t offer to help. I like those kind of character things.
NMR: When Get first crosses the border, he is dismissive of Canadians. His opinion changes dramatically as learns more, though much of what he learns that impresses him is criminal. Is this done as a backhanded way of letting the rest of the world know there’s more going on in Canada than they think, or is it as simple as how Get evolved through the story?
JM: It’s more a backhanded way of letting Canadians know there’s more going on in Canada than they think ;)
I admit I was getting a little tired of people advising Canadian authors to set their books in the US. This seemed to be something unique to genre novels – no one ever suggested that to Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro or any other literary writer.
But also I found there was very little literature that featured the Canada-US relationship and this was a book about relationships and changing power dynamics and I find it odd that Canada has become the US’s biggest supplier of marijuana. There’s a bit of a history of drugs coming into the US through Canada since at least the French Connection heroin that came through Montreal to New York, but with the marijuana it’s really the first time the trade is run by Canadians.
I guess I think we should be more proud of our entrepreneurs in the dope business – no wait, that doesn’t sound right...
NMR: You recently completed a gig writing for The Bridge, a show about police corruption that will premiere on Canadian television in March. (United States premiere on CBS TBA.) The cops in your books never completely solve a crime. Your brother is a retired Mountie. How well does this go over? Does he help you with material?
JM: The Bridge was a new experience for me and I learned a lot. I was more a researcher on the show than a writer. Definitely when CBS got involved they wanted the cops to solve a crime every week and that was tough for me because I’ve never seen the cops solve a crime (ha, okay that was really just a jab at my brother, he’s solved plenty of crimes).
And yes, I get a lot of help from my brother and I feel some pressure to keep it real, so to speak. That usually means that things don’t happen that fast. In my books, like the real life stuff I talk to my brother about, it’s rarely a mystery who committed the crime – the problem is gathering evidence in a way it can be admissible in court. It can sometimes take years to get enough pieces of evidence.
The Wire was a very good example of this. It was such a great show and the details about the cops trying to build a case against the highest ranking criminals took many episodes to play out – and wasn’t always successful.
One thing I’ve seen with the cops I know is that they never really give up on a case and I’m trying to get that across in the books, too. The books aren’t really a series but I will say that some crimes that have been unsolved so far may not remain unsolved forever.
NMR: Comparing your experience working on The Bridge to writing novels, were the collaborative aspects hard for you, considering you’re a “seat of the pants” writer who doesn’t like to plot ahead? Was it fun? Educational? Do you feel it improved your novel writing?
JM: Yes, I think the experience was very helpful. I enjoy the collaboration. I’m not sure it’s always the case, but on The Bridge it was very much the head writer’s show and we were there mostly to provide the raw material he turned into the scripts, so the five of us writers collaborated and then handed over the material to the head writer.
In that way it was similar to writing a novel except I do both the researching and writing myself and for the TV show it was like the writer had a staff – the way Elmore Leonard has Gregg Sutter, I guess.
NMR: Nice segue for my next question, thank you. You’ve been referred to as Canada’s Elmore Leonard, though I sense a growing influence from George V. Higgins. Am I missing the boat (it wouldn’t be the first time), is this a conscious decision, or just something that has crept in?
JM: It’s certainly the style I prefer, the least narrator possible, the characters telling the story themselves. I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard, obviously, and of George V. Higgins. And Raymond Carver, too, all the guys who grew out of the Hemingway school, I guess.
What I like about stories are the characters so I like a style that has as little between me, the reader, and those characters. In that way, yes it was a conscious decision, but I find once you get a character’s voice going you can just let him or her talk.
I think it’s important that each character have an agenda, that they want something out of whatever’s going on and knowing that helps to find their voice.
NMR: What’s next? How far do you want to go with the Saints of Hell saga?
JM: I don’t know. Some of the Saints are in the book I’m working on now. I think organized crime is a great metaphor for our capitalist ways.
NMR: You’re developing a cult following, which I suspect is more gratifying than lucrative. For those not familiar with your work, please complete the following sentence: “If you like_________________, you’ll like John McFetridge.”
JM: The most obvious would be Elmore Leonard, or maybe The Wire, but I think I’d like to say, “If you like ensemble stories with lots of sub-plots and plenty of moral ambivalence with no easy answers, you’ll like...”
NMR: What question do you wish an interviewer would ask that they never do, and what’s the answer? (This may not include questions about advance sizes.)
JM: Maybe something about how fun it is to create a fictional world and mess around in it. Most of the time we talk about writing as if it’s really hard work (and it is) but we do it because we love it. Not just the finished product, but the work along the way, too. I do this to amuse myself and I have a great time doing it.
NMR: You grew up in an English-speaking area of Quebec, and wound up in Toronto. The last question is obvious: Molson’s or Labatt’s?
JM: Ha ha, that sounds funny but it’s a pretty serious issue. When I was growing up it seemed Quebec was divided by everything; English-French, separation-federalism, Canadiens-Nordiques and Molson and Labatt. They all divided families ;)
Luckily we have a lot of micro-breweries now. There’s one here called Mill Street Brewing that makes a coffee beer which seems ideal for writers – a little alcohol to loosen the inhibitions and a little coffee to keep you awake to write.
I haven’t tried writing under the influence of anything yet, but the more I do this the harder it gets so I’m not ruling out anything!
NMR: Thanks, John, and good luck with Let It Ride and The Bridge.
John McFetridge is the Toronto-based author of the
novels Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Let It Ride and has
never worked in law enforcement or been charged with a criminal offence.