1. You’re a full-time journalist. How did you find the time to write a novel?
I had the fortune while I was writing Everything I Own to be an editor and not a reporter. Being an editor meant I had set hours, except for when major news broke out, like September 11 or the death of the pope. I came in at the same time and left at the same time every day. These hours also happened to be at night and I pretty much trained my body over the course of my journalism career to hit the hay when I got home at night and wake up early the next day. So I had a set amount of time in the morning before lunch that I could devote to writing Everything I Own. It wasn’t always a lot of time; I did have my household and family duties also: shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, feeding the cats, doing laundry (sometimes), being with my wife and daughter! Some days I wrote a whole page or more; others it was one paragraph. I was grateful either way.
2. How long did it take to write the novel?
It took me two years, roughly, to write Everything I Own, to a draft that was ready to send to publishers. By the time I moved to Abu Dhabi in January 2008, the novel was pretty well done. It took me until September 2010 to find Guernica Editions to take it on, but that was a combination, I suppose, of my being in the UAE, of the lag time between sending queries out and waiting for responses and then sending the manuscript out and waiting for the response on that. It can be demoralizing and frustrating, but I’d done it before and I’ll keep doing it.
3. What else have you written?
I’ve written quite a bit actually. Most of my published work has been journalism. I’ve written for all the newspapers I’ve ever worked for going back to my beginning reporter’s job, at the Transcript-Telegram in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which is now defunct, and including The National in Abu Dhabi. My journalism runs the gamut from reporting to reviews, commentary to cooking.
Among the books I’ve published is a cookbook called Salut! The Quebec Microbrewery Beer Cookbook, which was published in 2003 by Véhicule Press. It’s a cookbook where everything in the book, more than 100 recipes, is made with Quebec microbrewery beers, like Boréale, Unibroue, St. Ambroise and Cheval Blanc. There are a couple of essays in the back, too. One on beer and cheese, one on the history of beer in Canada and Quebec, and the other a story about my own relationship with beer over the years that I eventually expanded on and rewrote for Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.
I also edited a few anthologies of Quebec literature in English: 32 Degrees, which published excerpts of master’s degree theses from Concordia University’s creative writing program; Future Tense: New English Fiction from Quebec (again from Véhicule) and The Urban Wanderers Reader, the excerpts of which were culled from a reading series my wife, the writer Denise Roig, and I ran in Montreal in pre-Blue Metropolis days. (Product endorsement: Denise is the author of A Quiet Night and a Perfect End; translated in French as Le Vrai Secret de bonheur; Any Day Now, which was a QWF fiction nominee; and Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry School.)
I’ve written a whole bunch of books for children, which I read aloud to my daughter.
Only one probably had any chance of ever being published, but picture books are a tough racket to get into. I adapted a novel called Extravagance by Gary Krist into a screenplay, mostly for exercise, and if I had any money I would love to have optioned it formally and tried to get the thing into production because it’s such a great, visual novel.
Then there are the novels, over 18 years, which I wrote that never got published. Everything I Own is actually my fourth novel! In Hardraw Scar, a baseball writer goes to northern England to rediscover his roots; in The Frog, the Princess and the Car Sales King, a trio of friends deal with the consequences of childhood abuse; and in These Days Are Nights, I explore freedom of speech in a time of terrorism, which makes it sound more idea-driven than it was. A suicide bomber tries to disrupt a speech about to be given in Montreal by a former Israeli prime minister. None of the novels got picked up. There was some interest in each of them, but … the publishing game is so subjective. An agent or a publisher is either gonna like something or not. Or, more accurately, a 23-year-old English lit grad is either gonna like something or not. So you either deal with it and keep writing or you let it flatten you and quit.
4. What kept you going after so many rejections?
Simply? The need to write. I have so many stories inside my head and each day I encounter more people and go to more places that feed these stories. My need to create is a biological imperative, no different than the imperative Michel Laflamme feels in writing songs in Everything I Own.
5. You were born in Massachusetts and you live in Abu Dhabi, but the novel is set
in Montreal. What’s your connection to Montreal?
My parents were born in rural Quebec and migrated to Massachusetts, straight down Route 5, in the 1950s. I was born in Holyoke, a mill town along the Connecticut River, and lived there until I was about four. My first language was French and I can remember speaking it to the good sisters of the Présentation de Marie in kindergarten before being told not to. The school and the church were in a French-speaking parish or enclave of Chicopee, the hilltop district of the city known as Aldenville. We were surrounded by descendents of Quebecers: all kinds of Aubuchon, Desmarais, Brault, Gaudet, Lamontagne, Page, Lepage, Thibault, and Benoit. It just goes on and on.
My connection to Quebec has always, therefore, been quite strong, but I was probably destined to be like many other New Englanders if two things hadn’t happened almost simultaneously: the US government okayed dual citizenships with certain countries, including Canada, in 1988, and I had been thinking about going back to school. I didn’t have a whole lot of savings – I’d only been in the workplace a few years at that point – so I applied for a “delayed registration of birth” in Canada, and moved to Montreal to attend Concordia University, where I got my creative writing degree.
I lived there 17 years until my move with my family to Abu Dhabi.
The interesting thing about my history is the tie to Michel Laflamme’s. He, too, is
Massachusetts born. There were many families who migrated to New England from Quebec – there are more francophone surnames in New England phone books than in all of Quebec – and many left to return when the economy in Quebec improved, or for other reasons. The Laflammes were one of those families that returned. This almost happened to my own family. When I was still in grammar school, on one of my family’s summer vacations in Quebec, my father was being considered for a job in Drummondville. My father told the prospective employer we were headed back to Massachusetts at a certain hour the next day or something like that and the employer told my father he’d call him first thing. The call came after we left. This would have been in the middle of the whole indépendantiste movement. I could have grown up a little separatist. In some way, Michel’s story is my asking “what if?