I recently spoke with Terry Fallis, one of Canada’s most successful recent writers with three popular novels (The Best Laid Plans, The High Road, Up and Down) and a CBC miniseries based on his first book in pre-production. My immediate impression is that Terry Fallis is a solid guy, his humour and quirky characters are all part and parcel of how he sees his country and his fellow human beings. I believe his story is a good study for any new writer. He is one we can all look towards as a “he did it”. He took on an almost impossible challenge in an increasingly difficult industry, and remained optimistic and focused throughout. I spoke with Terry in early December on the phone from his Toronto office. Here is some of that conversation.
Jeffrey Arnold (J.A.) : You are an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurial published authors. You took your first novel “The Best laid Plans” from the rejection bin of traditional publishers to becoming the winner of several major Canadian Literary Awards including the Stephen Leacock Medal For Humour and CBC Canada Reads as the “essential Canadian novel of the decade.”
You did much of this alone, without industry support. Can you walk through these hard times and good times and talk about the emotions and the process?
Terry Fallis (T.F.): Well I wrote the first manuscript in 2005, didn’t know how to write a novel but was intrigued with the idea of trying to do it to see if I could. When I finished the manuscript I honestly didn’t know whether I’d written anything worthy of anyone’s time… I laboured over the manuscript for months and months and by the end of it your sense of perspective of what you have written abandons you. So I did what most writers who have a dream of being published do, I sent out plot outlines, sample chapters and query letters to literary agents and publishers across the country. There were dozens and dozens and dozens of them.
In my wildest dreams I sat back and waited for the feeding frenzy to ensue over my debut block buster novel. I was greeted with a deafening silence. I followed up with people, and after twelve months I had not received a single rejection letter. That’s how big an impression I made on the traditional publishing world at that time. I didn’t even make enough of an impact to generate an automated rejection letter.
But I wasn’t really that discouraged because I had read enough about the publishing world at that time and spoken to a few people who were writers to know that was a very challenging time for an unknown writer, particularly one writing fiction, particularly one writing satirical fiction about Canadian politics of all things, to break through. So I wasn’t even that surprised. After that year in my naivety, in my innocence, I decided that I would try and build an audience for it on my own and I would self publish …
You know in hindsight waiting a year and not making an impression is not really that long a time. It seemed interminable to me, but the way the wheels in the traditional publishing world grind a year is not an unusual length of time to hang on. Had I known that I probably would have waited a little longer. So after a year of beating my head against what appeared to be a locked door I didn’t see any evidence to suggest that were I to wait longer all of a sudden they would be beating a path to my door. So in January 2007 I did two things. I signed up with I-Universe, a self publishing house, and I launched down that path of editing the manuscript, proof reading, and that took quite a while.
I had the book in my hand finally in September 2007. Also in January 2007 I started podcasting the novel in its entirety, chapter by chapter and making it available on the internet for free on I-Tunes and my blog. So I would read a chapter and upload it to the internet. And I waited to see what would happen. It was a kind of experiment in this emerging world of social media…No one had done this in Canada before, given away a whole book for free via podcast….People started listening and subscribing and sending me comments. I thought only people in Canada would have any interest in hearing a satirical novel about Canadian politics, but I was getting comments and emails from all over the world. It was most gratifying. I now considered the feedback I was getting the first impartial, unbiased reaction I had ever had to the manuscript because I was not totally willing to believe what my wife and brother and other family members were saying about the novel…I didn’t trust my family to give me the straight goods. These people in Kuala Lumpur and Australia and Russia who were listening and didn’t know me at all and seemed to like it…they helped me to muster the resolve to push the button and print the book. Thus began my glamorous high life as a self published novelist. No money, no fame.
With the novel finally self published into a book in 2007, Terry began traipsing around the greater Toronto area book stores with a trunk full of novels. This was a slow and painful process. There was support, but it was slow and scattered. All of this was positioning Terry for two master strokes of good fortune. These came in the form of literary prizes. In 2008 Terry won the Leacock Medal for Humour. This award convinced the prestigious Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stuart that Terry was an author worth supporting. Next came the CBC Canada Reads Award naming Terry’s book as the Canadian must read for 2011. This brought a rapid surge in sales. Literary success was reaching out from its solitary beginning in 2005 to national recognition in 2011. Not an easy six year long road to becoming an “over night” success.
J.A. : How big a theme is hope in your personal life? Are you an optimist?
T.F. : Oh, I’m very much an optimist, always have been. I’m generally a very happy guy. I’m unlikely to ever write a novel that doesn’t have a happy ending . I’m just a happy endings kind of guy…I tend to like people, and can usually find some shred of decency in the most abominable person…I think that comes through in my writing, in the writer’s voice because it’s easier to write with the most authenticity and credibility and authority if you’re writing in your own voice. My narrators tend to sound very much like me because it’s easier for me to write that way.
J.A. : Your stories are distinctly Canadian, your settings whether its Canadian politics or a Canadian city or a northern wilderness. I think your stories resonate with Canadians. Most of us haven’t seen the perspective from the seats of political power and also from the media insider information you have experienced through your work. What do you think of us as a nation and as a people? Are we winning or losing?
T.F. : I still think we live in one of the best countries in the world. We suffer with what I sometimes call…the apathy of affluence . I think we have very little incentive to take an interest in politics because when we get up in the moring and turn on the hot water tap, lo and behold hot water comes out. The garbage is collected on Wednesdays and Fridays. Everything seems to work reasonably well if you are at a reasonable level of income, life can be very good…I like that which separates us from the US. I believe that we care for those people that are less fortunate. Perhaps it’s legislated in some cases rather than our own moral compass? I like that we have a government and a tax system that takes care of us and those that are falling through the cracks…I’m quite proud of how socially advanced we are as a nation. There are plenty of things to criticize and to lament and be discouraged about, but in general these are first world problems we have in this country…. How we’ve treated our aboriginal peoples is not a first world problem…But on the whole we have a nation that is perhaps the envy of the world. I feel very blessed that I happen to have been born in this country.
J.A.: If you were twenty-five right now how would you approach the business of writing? You were perhaps the first Canadian writer to podcast their novel. How would you use social media as an author?
T.F.: I think social media is a very important plank in any writer’s platform these days… The podcast idea wasn’t just from my brain, I had read a piece in the New York Times about an author, Scott Sigler, who is now a best selling author with a multi book publishing deal…but he started out the way I did and he decided to podcast his novels. I read that piece and I thought is there anything stopping me from doing this?…And the definitive response in my own mind was “no”. I think it’s really important. I think readers like to make a connection with the writers of the books they enjoy….Most people read books within a broader context, they like a book and they read on the back about the author and they like to know where this thing came from and they like to go and see the author at a festival in a neighbouring town…or they go to a library and listen to a reading by the author. I think it cements a bond between the reader and writer when they can connect with the writer. I think it can help make your following much more solid and established. So social media is another way that readers can come together with writers, I’m on Twitter, if someone mentions my name on Twitter and I see it, I’ll respond to them.
J.A.: If you had one thing to tell humanity that you think would help us, what would it be?
T.F. That’s very easy for me. If you’ve read “Up and Down” the concept has weaved its way into that novel in a few places. I think we just need to be kind to one another. I know that sounds very simplistic but if you play that out and everybody made it a priority to be kind, even in the slightest way possible, I think that has tremendous power across society.
J.A.: In ten years what do you want to have accomplished?
T.F.: In ten years I would like to have written five more novels. I’ve come to writing quite late in my life, I was forty-five when I wrote my first manuscript. I regret that I didn’t start sooner. ..I am enjoying this new life that I have been given so much… so in ten years five more novels, more TV series, a couple of stage productions, all of that would be a wonderful ride to be on.