Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Rotenberg on the Run

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Rotenberg on the Run

A crowded scheduling courtroom isn’t a place most conducive to writing, but Robert Rotenberg makes it work. After putting his name on the waiting list he takes a seat in a row already filled with lawyers and pulls out a pen and his latest pages.

“You say, ‘how do you write and be a lawyer?’” he says later, at a cafe down the street from Old City Hall. “Well, you’ve got to sit in court, waiting. Everyone just sits there like a dummy. Mostly, I edit.”

For those who know Rotenberg, this wouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s spent years stretching the 24 hours of each day to their limit, but that comes with the territory of having two time-consuming professions. After the release of his first book, Old City Hall, in 2009, Rotenberg started splitting his time between his day job as a criminal lawyer and churning out a growing series of crime fiction novels for Simon & Schuster.

Though he’s cut back on the bigger trials to make room for writing, Rotenberg still keeps himself busier than most. His iPhone holds a to-do list on crack, made up of multi-tiered commitments to family, work, and writing. He can’t be bothered with television, because he considers it too much of a time-waster. And according to one of his oldest friends, family lawyer Marvin Kurz, Rotenberg gets up at an “outrageous hour” just to fit in extra time to write.

“He’ll run his battery ‘til it’s at zero,” Kurz says, and he adds that, in Rotenberg’s characteristic humbleness, he won’t draw attention to the extra work he puts in.

For Rotenberg, 59, it’s all about catching up on writing success that took some time to materialize. Until 2009, his writing career was littered with rejections. At the ripe age of 16, he submitted a short story to the New Yorker, and he admits that he held onto the rejection letter — printed on the magazine’s official letterhead — for years. Prior to striking gold with Old City Hall, he wrote a first novel that he just couldn’t sell.

“My goal is to be very productive,” he says. “It took me 20 years to get published, so I have a real sense that I have to make it happen now.”

He’s certainly not wasting any time. Rotenberg’s published a book almost every year since 2009, culminating in the release of Stranglehold in May, the series’ fourth and darkest novel. Set against the backdrop of a mayoral election, with a distinctly Rob Ford-like character in the running, Detective Ari Greene stumbles onto the scene of the horrific murder of Jennifer Raglan, the crown attorney he was having an affair with. When his protégé arrests him for first degree murder, Greene must work to solve the case while under house arrest in order to exonerate himself — and the fictionalized Ford may have something to do with it.

Stranglehold received strong reviews and made the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list. Despite his success, Rotenberg shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

“A lot of writers write a book every five or seven years,” he says. “But I don’t have that time.”

With a goal to publish 20 books in as many years, there’s a sense of urgency about the short, wiry author. But he isn’t all work and no play. He smiles easily — and impishly — when discussing his novels, plays recreational hockey in his downtime, and reads often, sampling crime fiction from other authors. He also gets a kick out of knowing the ins and outs of Toronto, from the regal historical sites like Old City Hall to the depressing strip of motels on Kingston Road in Scarborough.

It’s a knowledge he imbues his writing with, using his affection for the city to turn it into a character just as vibrant and fleshed out as the lawyers and cops that populate his fictional world. Toronto is the beating heart of his novels, from the tourist traps to the residential neighbourhoods and the sketchy back alleys.

“I love that the main character is the city,” says Kurz. “Sometimes it’s like you’re going for a tour of Toronto with your friend Bobby.”

In person, he’s the human equivalent of his books: unpretentious, warm, and a walking encyclopedia of Toronto knowledge. When I meet him early on a brisk February morning — Valentine’s Day, to be exact — he whisks into Bannock, sharply dressed and a touch late. We grab a table, and it’s not long before he’s gawking out the window, excited to show me the architectural irregularities of the courthouse.

As we cross the street, he regales me with Old City Hall’s history, and by the time time we’re waiting in the security line-up, he’s talking about the benefits of writing novels that are half-procedural. “The reason why writing about courts is great is that courts are where everything happens,” he tells me, glancing around the bustling courthouse. “They’re the meeting place between rich and poor, lawyers and judges.”

When we reach the scheduling courtroom, he shows me to a seat beside his client. He makes his way to the front of the room and signs his name on the waiting list. Rotenberg sits down, takes out a bundle of pages and his pen and starts scribbling. He knows he’ll be here for a while, and he’s not about to waste that time.


Kelsey Rolfe is a student at the Ryerson School of Journalism and a freelance writer. She is also a researcher for The World Show and a book blogger in her spare time. You can follow her on Twitter: @kelseypinkshoe.

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