Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with David Weedmark

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David Weedmark

Ottawa writer David Weedmark talks to Open Book about the difference between writing fiction and poetry, his experience working alongside migrant workers on Niagara vineyards and how this inspired his the first novel, The Tanglewood Murders (RendezVous Crime/Dundurn Press). Check out his popular blog and website, www.davidweedmark.com.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, The Tanglewood Murders.

David Weedmark:

Well, it starts with a man who decides to take a summer off to work on a farm to do some honest labour in the fresh air and sunshine. But things have changed since he worked there as a teenager. Much of the soil has been capped with concrete to make greenhouses. It’s like working in 19th-century factory. But it still has the illusion of being a farm and a vineyard. Everyone keeps to themselves, no one interferes with anyone else, until a young woman is murdered. That tears open the veneer of tranquility, and all the nasty secrets beneath the surface start pouring out.

OB:

When I'm reading a novel, especially a mystery, I often wonder how much of the plot the writer had worked out ahead of time, and how much emerged during the writing of it. Did you have a clear sense of the ins and outs of The Tanglewood Murders when you began? Did anything surprise you?

DW:

The way you’re supposed to do it, I’m told, is to start at the end and work your way backward. I don’t quite work that way. Before beginning the novel, I examine each character, and let them share their motivations, their dreams, hopes and fears. So when I begin, I know who the killer is, how it was done, why it was done, and who else had reasons to do it. But once that is set, the interaction between characters and the path towards discovery really writes itself. Anyone else who might be killed, who might be arrested, who kisses whom, that’s usually just as much a surprise to me when I’m writing as it is for the reader.

OB:

Prior to publishing The Tanglewood Murders you had published a couple collections of poetry. Why did you decide to turn your attention to fiction? Was it a deliberate decision, or did you just find yourself tending in that direction?

DW:

Actually, I’ve always written fiction as well as poetry. I have stacks of short stories behind me, as well as an earlier novel, none of which are published. Nor will they ever be. There’s really no market for short fiction. And my first novel was, in hindsight, just a practice run. You have to write a lot to become good at it. You have to write even more if you want to achieve any mastery over the craft. In fact, I began writing poetry when I was 13 as a way to improve my fiction. Poetry, I found, was a good way to sharpen my pen, develop my language skills, and plunge myself into the nuances of language, the textures of words and the spaces between words.

OB:

How does your creative process differ when you are writing fiction as opposed to poetry?

DW:

Fiction and poetry are vastly different processes. Poetry comes from deep within, beginning with an idea or a feeling that comes over me, much like a fever. It’s an exhausting, always painful process, like pulling roots from the soil, discovering how deep it goes, how far it spreads, what it’s connected to and why. Writing fiction is much more enjoyable, and far less lonely. The characters come alive and writing the story, when it works well, is much like watching a movie playing out in your mind. With fiction, I can often forget that I’m writing. I lose myself in it. Poetry, however, is all about the process. You never lose yourself in it. I usually write fiction at a keyboard. Poetry, I write with a pen.

OB:

What was the biggest challenge to writing a crime novel?

DW:

There are quite a few challenges, actually. You have to keep your facts straight, because anyone with a web browser or who has watched Law & Order is very knowledgeable about things like forensics and police procedure. Another challenge is not focusing too much on the facts alone. When a crime novel is only about the “whodunit” then I think you have to ask yourself, what am I getting in 12 hours of reading that I couldn’t get from a 60-minute TV show? The novel, I believe, should be more than that. Readers should be able to submerge themselves in the characters, in the story, while at the same time having enough action to keep turning the pages.

OB:

The Tanglewood Murders is set in Niagara's wine country. Tell us about why you chose this as the background for your novel.

DW:

I grew up in Southwestern Ontario and worked in the vineyards and farms there when I was in school, then later during the recession when there wasn’t any other work available. Because the novel takes place on a vineyard, it made sense to locate it there.

OB:

When you were working at the vineyard, did you know that the experience would find its way into your writing some day?

DW:

Absolutely. Working side by side with migrant workers is really like living in a different world. The people who live in the towns or cities and drive by each day really have no idea about the people who work and live there. Few of the Mexican workers speak English, and the Mennonites, not all of them, but a lot of them, really live in a separate world. It’s one of the reasons I sometimes have my doubts about multiculturalism, even in Canada. In this case you really have communities living side-by-side, isolated from each other and completely ignorant of each other.

Very few people know what life is like for farm workers, and how they are often treated. Even the laws are different on farms. Human rights are left to the discretion of the employer. Living conditions I’ve seen for migrant workers are disgusting. Ten men crowded into one room to sleep. No toilet seat on the toilet. No shower curtain. There is no such thing as overtime pay on a farm. When have you ever seen an employer spit on a Canadian worker for fun? When would you ever see a Canadian worker cut his hand open on the job, then be told to wrap it in a rag until Sunday? I’ve seen this with migrant workers.

OB:

One of the obstacles to solving the murder at Tanglewood is the fact that the victim is the daughter of a migrant worker. The community and local police force show less concern about the crime, and assume another migrant worker must be guilty. Why do you think that Canadians are so unaware (and seemingly unconcerned) of the conditions faced by migrant workers in our country?

DW:

There are several reasons for that. Language is an issue, certainly. As well, migrant workers live and work out on the farms and don’t have the time or opportunity to interact with anyone else. If they did have the opportunity, they wouldn’t talk about it anyway, because they know it could cost them their livelihood. So it’s difficult to empathize with a situation you don’t see or hear about.

Besides, the belief is that they come here by choice and if it was really so bad, they wouldn’t come back. This belief is also shared by representatives of the Mexican government I’ve spoke with. This isn’t to say all migrant workers are mistreated. The point is that it is left to the whims of the employer. The mechanisms in place to protect Canadian workers in a factory are not there for farms, and are basically nonexistent for migrants.

OB:

Can you recommend a few of the best crime novels you've read lately?

DW:

Anything by Peter Robinson, especially the Inspector Banks novels. He’s a brilliant writer. Right now I’m really enjoying Stieg Larsson’s work. I tried reading his first novel a couple times last year and couldn’t understand what the fanfare was all about. But once you get past the first twenty pages, it’s really a good book.

OB:

What will be your next project?

DW:

Right now I’m finishing the manuscript for my next novel. It’s centred around the Oak Island mystery in Nova Scotia.


Poet and novelist David Weedmark, who was born and raised in Ontario, has lived and worked throughout Canada. Early in his career, David acted on the advice of his professors at the University of Toronto by foregoing an academic path in order to explore the world and to “live a life worth writing about." In the process he embraced many different occupations and lifestyles. His first novel, The Tanglewood Murders, comes from his experiences working with migrant farm workers in Southwestern Ontario. His early work received encouraging words from scholars and critics and his first poetry collection, First Stirrings, was honoured with a 2004 Governor General’s Award nomination. Postcards from Paris, a second collection of poetry, prose and sketches, followed. David currently writes full time. He lives either in downtown Ottawa or at a remote cabin in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, depending on the season. Visit him at his website, www.davidweedmark.com.

For more information about The Tanglewood Murders please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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