Please welcome our featured author, John McFetridge and his discussion on his new title Tumblin' Dice and various thoughts on what's come before and what might be next!
McFetridge writes gritty, dialog-intense crime novels set on the streets of Toronto. His books have been compared to Elmore Leonard's, with one critic, Linda Richards of January Magazine, noting that McFetridge's voice is "colder and starker" than Leonard's. "McFetridge is one of a new breed of Canadian crime fictionists," she writes, "building neo-noir that seems touched by both the humor and self-consciousness of life north of the 48th.” Quill & Quire reviewer Gary Butler agreed with the Leonard comparison, writing that “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.”
John’s new book is titled Tumblin’ Dice. He graciously took time from his busy schedule to answer questions from New Mystery Reader’s Dana King.
NMR: Your four crime novels all involve the Saints of Hell motorcycle gang, but they’re not written as a traditional series. They’re four separate novels, with the Saints present—and progressing—in each. Was this the plan from the beginning, or did it just work out that way?
JM: It just worked out that way. I started out just trying to write a book and then just trying to write another one. Somewhere along the line I realized I was starting to develop this cast of characters that I liked quite a bit.
NMR: Why bikers?
JM: Mostly because they were the new kids in town. A lot of the history of the bikers I use in the books is thinly fictionalized - in Montreal in the early 70s they were hired as the muscle for the traditional mob and they did a lot of street dealing of drugs and over time they became more of a rival to the mob, importing their own supply and so on. Eventually they became a national organization and in some ways they really mirror a successful company. And they can be pretty colourful characters.
NMR: I sometimes picture you sitting at your desk like Peter Graves in the old Mission: Impossible shows, perusing head shots of available assets. Pick a few, discard a few, bring in some new ones, until you have the cast you want. Do you have your characters in mind when you start, or does the cast evolve? (“Hmmm, this would be a good place for Nugs.”)
JM: The cast evolves. But I like these characters (even the bad ones) and I like to think about what they’re up to now. When I started Tumblin’ Dice I was thinking about the reunited rock band and as I researched the casino circuit I found a few articles about the management companies that run the casinos and some mentions of organized crime. One of the companies involved in running casinos in Ontario really did lose its license in Atlantic City because of close ties to organized crime. So then it seemed inevitable that the bikers in my books, involved in most aspects of organized crime, would make a play for the casinos.
NMR: The concept of honor plays a key role in Tumblin’ Dice, though it kind of sneaks up on the reader. (At least it snuck up on me.) Was this always intended to be a key element, or were you into the book and realized this was how things were playing out and ran with it?
JM: Good question. I'm going to cop-out and say a little of both. There's a tradition of honor in organized crime fiction (and maybe even in real organized crime) and there's a saying in rock'n'roll, "You want me, you want my band." I had this idea that the book was going to be about how people worked in groups - the rock band, the mob, the bikers - and how people fit into groups. So things like traditions and honor become important. And so does challenging those ideas.
NMR: What was the most challenging part of the book to write, and how did you overcome it?
JM: The ending is always the toughest for me. I write in that, "throw a lot of shit at the wall and see what sticks," way and as you'd expect, that can get messy. You want the ending to be both surprising and inevitable. So after about two thirds of the book was written I worked back from the ending.
NMR: What do you want readers to take away from Tumblin’ Dice?
JM: Well, it's pretty nostalgic in tone so I'd like it if it triggered some fond memories for people. When I started researching the book I went to a few classic rock concerts and had a much better time than I expected so maybe if the book gets people to do something they enjoy, that would be good. And I’d also like it if people maybe thought a little bit about the personal sacrifices we make for others – families, friends, all that. Sure, we’re all individuals but we’re also part of groups and we do need to work together (maybe using organized criminals as an example of the benefits of working together isn’t the best idea, but it does often work for them ;).
NMR: Your female characters are as fully-developed and multi-faceted as anyone’s, and you write quite a bit from their point of view. How hard is this, and what do you think makes you so good at it?
JM: Well, first of all, thank you. Not everyone agrees with you here and I’ve got the reviews to prove it ;). But I think it may help that this book is about some very tradition-bound organizations (cops, organized crime, rock bands) so even the slightest ‘facet’ from a female character can seem ‘multi.’ I always think of characters in terms of what they want and why it’s tough for them to get it.
NMR: Your style and even your grammar are like no one else I can think of. Moving a character’s speech in and out of quotation marks, multiple characters talking in the same paragraph. It seems almost breathless, but never hurried. Is this a conscious decision, or has your writing just worked out this way?
JM: This is a conscious decision. I’m trying for a very conversational approach. One of the things I noticed in speech patterns when someone tells me a story is how they sometimes use exact quotes but most often paraphrase. I’m really trying to get that storyteller voice rather than an authorial voice. Some people like it, some don’t.
NMR: I sensed an increased influence of George V. Higgins in Swap. Tumblin’ Dice shows signs of a Richard Price influence, where the crime is less a part of plot than it is a part of the setting. You’re a fan of Price; was this intentional?
JM: Yes, it was. I first read Richard Price was I was in my twenties, his novel Blood Brothers, and I’ve been reading his books ever since. Freedomland is a personal favourite but I also love Samaritan. Price never has easy answers for his characters, he’s always willing to show that things are complicated.
NMR: What I like most about your books has also been cited as a reason they don’t sell better. (Multiple points of view, focusing on the bad guys, multidimensional bad guys, few tidy resolutions.) Has your publisher even pressured you to change anything to make the books more commercial?
JM: No, I’m very, very lucky to have a publisher (ECW Press) and an editor (Michael Holmes) who really like my books the way they are. I get input, of course, and good criticism, but never pressure to write something more commercial. No one can really tell what will sell, all we can know is what we like.
NMR: You recently released an e-book, The Pitch, containing several possible TV pilot ideas. Has there been any movement on any of them, too recent to be noted in the book? Pulp Life, in particular, was a fun and original concept that would work well on cable.
JM: Thank you. I really like Pulp Life. I haven’t given up on a TV series but it’s been turned down by a lot of places. Still, you never know, networks change development people and old projects become new. I’m thinking about putting the characters in a novel but I really like the short adventure aspect of it. All I know for sure is that the hard-boiled writer, Danny, is going to have an affair with the cozy-writer (and older woman) Abigail Bainbridge. TV show, short story, novel – that part I’m not so sure about.
NMR: You’re working on a screen play for Dirty Sweet. How’s it going?
JM: It’s done, but again, mostly being turned down by money guys. It’ll stay in circulation and you never know.
NMR: What do you read for fun?
JM: I like a lot of current crime fiction. I buy pretty much every anthology that gets released to e-book these days.
NMR: What’s next?
JM: I’m working on a book set in Montreal in 1970. I was eleven years old that year and we had something that became known as the “October Crisis” when two men were kidnapped by a terrorist group and one of them was murdered. But that was really just the boiling point to a few years of bombings and riots and other tensions in the city. That will mostly play in the background of my novel which will be, I hope, more of a murder-mystery with clues and an unknown killer than I usually write. It’s going to be called Black Rock, the nickname of the Irish Commemorative Stone in Montreal:
John McFetridge was born in Greenfield Park, Quebec and attended high schools in Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario. He started Concordia University in Montreal in 1981 as a mature student in economics and graduated in 1990 with a major in English Literature and minors in History and Creative Writing.