Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

NEW SERIES! The In Character Interview with Trevor Cole

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Trevor Cole

The one thing all great books have in common is memorable, fascinating characters. They may be painfully relatable, or utterly awful but somehow captivating, or simply people who feel incredible real. So we're thrilled to launch our newest interview series, the In Character interview, which asks authors to talk about how they create those characters we love or love to hate, and hate to leave.

We're launching our new series with an author known for creating fantastic characters, Trevor Cole. His newest book is Hope Makes Love (Cormorant Books), the story of the titular Hope and Zep, an ex-ball player who is intent on winning back his ex-wife with Hope's help.

Trevor talks to us about whether characters really "have a life of their own", using dialogue judiciously and the characters he, as a reader, will always remember.

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Trevor Cole:

There are two main characters in Hope Makes Love, who come to readers in alternating chapters. The first — presented through her journal entries and scientific field notes — is Hope Riopelle, a 29-year-old neuroscientist who suffers from PTSD after an horrific experience in her past. Hope has lived her adult life cut off from her emotions and any possibility of love. As we meet her, she has just had an unexpected encounter with a man who appears to be infatuated with her, and she is wrestling with the implications.

The second main character, and the one who gives the novel its initial push, is Zep Baker. He’s an ex-baseball player in his early 40s, someone who bounced around the minor and major leagues and now owns a car wash chain in Tampa, Florida. Zep is the exact opposite of Hope. Where she is reserved, he is boisterous and impulsive, where she tries to suppress her emotions, he is all emotion, a ball of pure energy and unbridled reaction. As we meet him, he’s driving north to Toronto on a quest to repair his life by making his ex-wife Emily fall in love with him again. He plans to convince Hope, whom he met years before, to use her knowledge of brain chemistry to help him.

OB:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

TC:

When the fiction-writing is going well, the characters definitely seem to gain influence and power. But what’s actually happening is something different. The writer begins with an understanding of the character’s essential personality and motivations. It’s a fairly simple construct, and the writer sets up the story and character action accordingly. But very quickly, as the writing goes along, the understanding becomes more nuanced. By working out the moments of his character, the writer comes to add new texture and shading in the character’s personality, and sees new possibilities in the way a character might respond to a situation. By spending so much time in the character’s head, the writer comes to feel, instinctively, how the character will react and think and behave, and it may be in ways that are very different from the original idea. The writer looks at his or her story plan and thinks, “Oh, that’s not going to work now, because this character has evolved into someone else.” So it seems as if the characters have “taken on a life of their own,” but in fact the writer has just become more connected to the material.

OB:

How do you choose names for your characters?

TC:

It’s mostly trial and error. I’m usually trying, with a name, to tap into some essential aspect of the character’s personality, and then it’s a matter of finding the combination of sounds that represent that best. I used to look through phone books to find interesting last names, but now I take inspiration from anywhere. In my second novel, The Fearsome Particles, the name of Gerald Woodlore came from the manufacturer of shoe trees. Gerald is the kind of fussy guy who would use shoe trees, and “Woodlore” just had the right sound. In Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, I liked the three-syllable construction, and “Bray” fit the character’s me-first approach to the world. In Hope Makes Love, Zep Baker is a blunt, impulsive guy, and the name just fit.

OB:

What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?

TC:

I try to use dialogue judiciously. A line of good dialogue is a distilled, perfect parcel of flavour in a dish of prose, like bites of sun-dried tomato in a plate of pasta. It’s the highlight moment of a conversation, it’s never the whole conversation. For example, good dialogue never wastes words on greetings or goodbyes. You take those as given and get to the meaningful moment. To the writers I mentor, I recommend writing dialogue the way you would relate an anecdote. You don’t repeat everything that was said, only the line or two that stuck in your mind. The point is to never waste your reader’s time. And don’t have a character say the expected thing. The goal of dialogue is to reveal something necessary and unexpected.

OB:

Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?

I

TC:

I can be emotionally reserved like Hope and reluctant to make myself vulnerable, but I’m not damaged the way she is. I share Zep’s sense of loss and regret over the end of his marriage, but I’m not as impulsive or thoughtless as he is. I would never do what he does to get his ex-wife back, but I understand why he would want to try.

OB:

Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?

TC:

I love purely fictional creations, characters who are not just a version of the author, but are something new and unexpected conjured whole out of the narrative mist. There are four characters I can name off the top of my head who fit that mold. 1. Barbara Covett, the bitter, conniving teacher who narrates Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. 2. The tragic, hopeless and yet so loveable Quoyle from E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. 3. The obese and addled-by-drugs Des Howell, who was obviously based on Brian Wilson, in Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music. And 4. Humbert Humbert, one of the most memorable characters ever created, from Nabokov’s Lolita.

OB:

What are you working on now?

TC:

Something entirely different for me. I’m researching and writing the life of a real character — 1920s bootlegger Rocco Perri — for a non-nonfiction historical narrative.


Trevor Cole is an award-winning journalist and novelist. His previous books include Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, The Fearsome Particles and Practical Jean. He has won the Stephen Leacock Award and been nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Dublin IMPAC Award and the Governor General's Literary Award amongst others.

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