Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview with Peggy Blair: Hey writer! The harder you work, the luckier you get

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Interview with Peggy Blair: Hey writer! The harder you work, the luckier you get

They say where there is a will, there is a way. And you can bet Peggy Blair will find it. The Ottawa-based author of the award-winning mystery novel The Beggar’s Opera, Blair brings new meaning to words like ‘determination’ and ‘tenacity’. She is tough, she has a wicked sense of humour, and while she says she finds writing hard work, her writing seems effortless.

Blair took some time recently from her busy schedule to discuss perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, the future of writing and books, and the amazing power of book titles. An expert in aboriginal law, and an award-winning professor, Blair saw her novel shortlisted for the prestigious Debut Dagger Award by the UK Crime Writers Association and go on to win the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize Reader’s Choice contest. Her second novel in the series - The Poisoned Pawn - is earning rave reviews.

CB Forrest: James Lee Burke’s book, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected 111 times before it was published by Louisiana State University Press. Burke has said “when you get thoroughly rejected – and I mean thoroughly rejected –you realize you do it for the love of the work.” The story of your first novel – The Beggar’s Opera – and its road to publication has entered the realm of publishing legend. You were up to something like 156 rejections when a chance meeting with Ian Rankin opened a door. At what point does “doing it for the love of writing” blur with an overwhelming desire to simply prove everyone wrong or accomplish the rare feat of publication for its own sake?

Peggy Blair: I don't think it was love of writing (I don't actually love writing; I find it hard work) but I'd invested so much time at that point into trying to get it published that carrying on was easier then giving up altogether. By then, the rejections no longer stung. After the first hundred or so, you just think, okay, you didn't like it, move on.

CBF: Michael Chabon once said he felt a successful writer needed three basic ingredients: some talent, discipline, and a bit of luck. Do you believe in the adage that good writing will always find a home, or does "luck" play a greater role?

PB: I don't think luck can take you anywhere without a good product to support it. I think the old adage is true: the harder you work, the luckier you get.

CBF: Your protagonist, Ramirez, can see the dead, a gift (or a curse) passed on from his clairvoyant grandmother. Was this simply a unique or interesting character element to introduce or have you had an interest in exploring the psychic world?

PB: No interest in the psychic world at all, and I'm not remotely religious. Ramirez has both, though, and I think that is what makes him interesting. In Book Four, Umbrella Man, he's lost this power and he misses it. I think he's more interesting with it for sure, so we'll have to see if he gets it back.

CBF: Your books have terrific titles. The second and just released in the series is called The Poisoned Pawn. This is taken from an opening chess move. How important are titles? When do they come to you – before, during or after your first draft? What is a favourite book title of yours?

PB: I think titles are very important: the fact that publishers insist on changing them so often speaks to their role in marketing. I usually know pretty early on in the draft what the title will be, but The Poisoned Pawn was a change from the original title, The King's Indian - another chess move that worked well with the Charlie Pike character. For some reason, my publisher didn't think that name would sell well in the US, so my agent, Chris Bucci, and my copy editor, Alex Schultz, and I spent an hour or so brainstorming. The Poisoned Pawn is what we came up with after I had scoured the Internet looking for other chess moves that might fit the bill. (Alex, I should say, liked The Vatican's Man, but that didn't make the cut.)

CBF: The Poisoned Pawn brings Ramirez to Canada, which may or may not be seen by readers as exotic as Cuba. You have a background in Canadian studies. Why do you think we writers are still talking about whether we should set our books in Canada? Do we have an inferiority complex or a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to nationalism and our art?

PB: I think there is a practical reality. The majority of Canadian authors who want to sell in the US are told by agents and publishers to set their books outside of Canada and to use American characters. I have resisted that because I feel strongly that as Canadians, we have to be able to tell our own stories. Years ago, there was a national television program that was filmed in Halifax, but everyone involved in it was told never to mention that fact for fear it might offend Torontonians. I'd like to think those days are past. The only way we will ever find out if Americans might like our stories if they get a chance to read them. Too often our voices are overwhelmed by this Americanization of culture, and I think it's a mistake: there are ten times as many good writers in the United States as there are in Canada, and they're better at writing about their world than we are. I think we'll come to realize some that day that our work will only be recognized here, there, and internationally when it's authentic to who we are as Canadians.

CBF: You are the host of a successful Rogers Cable program in Ottawa called ‘Getting Published’ on which you interview authors. Between conducting a busy real estate practice and meeting a deadline for editing your next book, you managed this spring to read half a dozen novels in a week and conduct back-to-back interviews across two days. Have you always been an incredibly super-driven, accomplishment-oriented person? How does writing fit into your life, or how does your life fit into writing these days?

PB: That was actually a dozen books and a dozen televised interviews in two days, so it was a little crazy. I have always been a multi-tasker; I get very bored if I'm not working on several things at once. I wrote my doctoral thesis while I was running an antique store and conducting mediations as a lawyer as well as teaching two or three law courses at Queen's and Ottawa U.

CBF: Cuba is beautifully rendered in your work. It reminded me of my first trip there about 17 years ago, and also how Hemingway wrote with such affection for the island and its people. It is undergoing massive change as Fidel Castro’s revolution recedes and a new generation looks at capitalistic opportunities. How did you come to choose Cuba for your setting and do you think the U.S. will ever officially end its embargo?

PB: My daughter often says that I didn't choose Cuba as a setting; Cuba chose me. The embargo will end someday, I'm sure: it's already become a policy of exceptions. When the United States allowed ex-pats to fly to the island from Miami and increased the amount of money they could remit to family members, the changes were well underway. That said, I think there is as much apprehension on the part of Cubans as to what life will be like without the embargo as there has been about what life was with it. This is a big part of my fourth novel, Umbrella Man, in which the Russian mafia starts to take a close eye at Havana and its proximity to Colombian drugs. I don't think life in Havana will be ever be uncomplicated, which is what makes it such an interesting setting for a book. It's like Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady series in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union and then as the oligarchs take over. Except we're closer; we can see the changes firsthand.

CBF: Speaking of the old curmudgeon Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea is viewed as allegory concerning pride and resistance to defeat, and perhaps Hemingway’s explanation of the lengths he had exceeded as a writer. “I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” he said. “Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry fish.” Have you ever felt you were “too far out” with a book? What did you do to get back to shore?

PB: I haven't really felt that way. I mean, if you were to summarize the plot of The Beggar's Opera, it involves a dwarf who practices plastic surgery on the dead from time to time, a police investigator who sees the ghosts of his unsolved cases, and a man who has a love affair with a transgendered hooker. If the readers don't find all of that "too far out," I'm not sure I need to bring them back to shore.

CBF: Agents, editors, publishers, readers, writers, booksellers. Each has his or her own take on where the writing and publishing world is headed. There is a lot of doom and gloom, and yet Indigo is announcing plans for international expansion. Looking in your crystal ball, what does the book world look like in a decade?

PB: Hmmm. I think e-books will be curated so that a lot of the white noise will disappear. Right now, it's hard for readers to find good e-books unless they already know the authors: there's a tremendous amount of dreck out there. Publishers may knock out the distribution chain altogether and simply have beautiful online bookstores where readers can browse. I do think there will still be bookstores, but I think they will carry more print-on-demand books and offer seminars on writing as well as hosting author tours. The big business, I think, will be in the process of writing: there are more people who want to write books than read them and that desire to write and find an audience will grow as the boomers age.

CBF: We share an affinity for Leonard Cohen, or more precisely, his work ethic. Who else has inspired you as a writer? How about as a mother?

PB: I love James Lee Burke and the fact he is in his seventies and getting better every year. He struggled to get published too. As a mother, I discovered a book by Rudolf Dreikurs called 'Children The Challenge'. It wasn't about children as much as it was about joint problem-solving. Absolutely life-changing. I still apply his common sense approach to getting things done collaboratively today.

(C.B. Forrest is the author of The Weight of Stones, Slow Recoil, and The Devil’s Dust. He is putting the polishing touches on a new crime saga.)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page