Trevor Ferguson has just released The River Burns, (Link to my review) his seventh novel under his own name. Well known for writing what he calls “the human experience,” Ferguson teaches creative writing at Concordia University and recently answered a few questions for me.
1. You recently released The River Burns. How has it been received so far?
A: The reviews and public reaction has been splendid. We’re in a relatively new era, where so many readers are able to post their responses on-line, as blogs or as part of interactive sites for readers. So it’s great to get that insight into reactions, and its particularly great when the response has been so positive. One common thread is that many readers begin by saying, “I’ve never heard of Trevor Ferguson before”, so it’s clear that I’m finding a new audience as well, and that’s heartening.
2) How much of your writing is based on personal experience? Do you include other people’s personal stories in your novels or do you rely on your imagination to come up with some of the situations in your books?
A: I don’t go to the well of personal experience directly. I have a lot to draw upon, and did my time in and around the logging world of northern British Columbia, for example, which informs my logging world here in Quebec. That was a different time than this one though, and so I’m more comfortable using personal experience as a resource that underscores and evaluates my imaginative interests. I’m an imaginative writer, conspicuously so perhaps, that’s what drives my books, whereas mirroring what has already been lived never feels sufficiently vital to me to be worth the effort. I also believe that the imagination can transcend the personal more readily and come to grips with a broader canvas of human experience.
A: My literary world has always been viewed through a wide-angle lens. And it still is. I’ve just read, Three Stations, a crime novel by Martin Cruz Smith, and also A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, which is what it claims to be (science abbreviated and simplified). I’m reading April Fool’s Day by Josip Novokavich now and I’m expecting to get back to Anna Karenina once again, after a forty-five year absence, to see what I think of that book today. (Summer project.) My hierarchy of favourite writers keeps Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy high up the ladder.
4) Most of the writers that I have interviewed for this blog seem to have a major presence on the internet through a website and on social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But it seems you only seem to be on Facebook alone. Is there a reason for that?
A: I try not to spread myself too thinly. After all, I’m a writer, and that means focus and time alone and time to mull and ponder and just imagine. Not to mention, writing for uninterrupted stretches of time. Too much interference can affect how the words arrive on the page, and so the tech side and the media side have to be managed. I don’t have any grievance with the necessity, only that they not take over one’s life too much. So I do place limitations.
5) Have you taken part in any public readings of any of your novels? If yes, how did you like that experience? Do you have any readings of The River Burns scheduled yet?
A: I’ve done a number of public readings, including one to a large audience in Wakefield, the setting for The River Burns. I have another one this week, my fourth so far in Montreal. Once again at a bookstore. I love public readings and put a lot into it. Looking further down the road, I’ll be at the Eden Mills (near Guelph, ON) Writers’ Festival in the fall, but other than that the readings are mostly behind me for this book. But I love to read and perform, for sure.
6) Are you aware of any reading groups or book clubs that have read any of your novels? If yes, what was that experience like for you?
A: Over the years I’ve stepped into a reading club or two, and the experience was most enjoyable. We had a good time and found much to discuss. That someone is, on occasion, grumpy about what I’ve written is par for the course and very much part of the fun.
7) Your biographies list that you write both books and for the stage. Is there a preference that you enjoy doing? Do you have any new stage performances coming up?
A: I was pleased to extend my writing experience to the stage. After 25 years at my desk writing novels, it was fun to be working with other artists—directors, designers, actors—and to have a “live”, rather than an invisible, audience. But at a certain point I found that I was doing too much—without exaggeration, I took stock one winter and discovered that I was involved in projects for the stage, for film, for television, plus two novels, plus teaching writing, and so had to say, Whoa, pull back and take it one project at a time. I presently am contracted to write three crime novels under my other name (John Farrow) so that will be my focus for awhile.
8) There are a number of people who follow my blog who are ‘trying their hand’ at writing. Do you have any advice for them if they are uncertain of what they are doing?
A: Hard to do that in a vacuum. Everyone is at a different stage and dealing with different problems. Read a lot and write a lot are the prerequisites. I’ve never spent one minute of my life “waiting” for inspiration, I just do the work. What has to be realized though is that writing means training the mind to do what you want it to do. So when writing a scene, write it though and finish it before revising. If you constantly fix it as you go, which the computer sometimes tricks us into doing, the mind never knows what it is that the writer wants. You want the words to flow out of your head, rapt and engaged, and only when that process is done is it time to revise. The second step, after getting good flow onto the page, is to learn to enjoy revising, as there is equal magic and pleasure there, it’s not drudgery. Enjoy every aspect, because it’s a long haul, and you’ll only get through the long haul if you’re enjoying yourself along the way.
9) How do you like living in Quebec? Does it’s cultural scene help you with your writing?
A: I enjoy Quebec and obviously it’s been a choice to stay here. No question, it hurts the career to be here, I’d be better off in Toronto or New York or London. English Quebeckers do suffer a certain cultural invisibility. But this is a fine place to work and live, and when my career was suffering the most, French readers stepped up and supported my work in translation, so that was a huge bonus for which I’ll always be grateful. French readers kept me afloat when otherwise I may have drowned.
10) Your bios. list that Seaforth, Ontario as your birthplace. Have you made it back for any visits recently?
A: Actually, Seaforth is where the hospital was located, but my first home was a town called Hensall, Ontario. I arrived in Montreal when I was three years old, so I don’t have big ties to Hensall. My parents pretty much hated the town, as well. I haven’t been back recently. Probably the last time was about 20-25 years ago. At that point, it hadn’t changed much. It’s a very, very small town. In my second novel, (The River Burns is my tenth), which was called Onyx John, I took a few cracks at a town that I called Hensvale. I changed the name because I knew that I was being mean. But after the book was published my mother was upset that I had changed the name, she wanted the town (a hamlet, really) to have its comeuppance.