Robert Rotenberg on engaging readers, why more men should read fiction and his love of #haiku.
Robert Rotenberg is one of Toronto’s top criminal lawyers. He lives in Toronto with his wife, television news producer Vaune Davis, their three children, and their little dog Fudge. Visit him online at www.RobertRotenberg.com and follow him on Twitter as @RobertRotenberg.
Stray Bullets (Simon & Schuster) is Robert Rotenberg’s third intricate mystery set on the streets and in the courtrooms of Toronto.
Read an excerpt on Scribd.
Julie Wilson: We know that The Scotiabank Giller Prize has a huge impact on the sales for the winning title as well as its author's long term career. You're nominated for the prestigious Crime Writers of Canada 2012 Arthur Ellis Award (announced May 31) for your novel The Guilty Plea. The other nominees are William Deverell, Louise Penny, Alan Bradley and Peter Robinson, each of whom has won the award in one of the categories for Best Short Story, Best First Novel or Best Novel. How integral are awards to writers of crime fiction?
Robert Rotenberg: It seems that in the last year or two the Crime Writer's of Canada has started to break through and this year, in particular, the Arthur Ellis Awards appear to be getting a lot of attention. The CBC has gotten involved, newspapers are more on top of it. All good.
I have a theory. The Canadians are the "New Scandinavians." We are producing great crime fiction that is selling all over the world, with a powerful sense of place and character, set right here.
I've received a few nominations in other countries. My favourite so far was in France, where Elle Magazine readers picked my first book, Old City Hall, as the December book of the month. What I like is that it's the readers pick. I'd like to see Canadian magazines be as tuned in to mystery writing as Europeans are.
For me, the rookie in the field of "Big Name" Canadian writers, it's all good. I'm honoured.
JW: How important is it for you to engage directly with your readers? What's the exchange between writer and reader?
RR: I take every appearance very seriously, including cracking a whole bunch of jokes. I don't just stand, read a bit from my book, and sit down. How boring. I read a little, I talk, I bring earlier draft copies of certain paragraphs to show how I changed things, and I sometimes give short writing seminars. I often read a passage from something I am working on. I find the time goes fast. I ask a lot of questions.
In other words, I love talking about writing. I now go to high schools and talk to students and plan to do the same next year in young offender’s jails.
I get so much great feedback. And I love hearing criticism. It can only make me better.
But most of all, there’s this intangible sense that for some magical reason here I am, at five in the morning, everyone in my house and everyone I know are asleep, and I’m typing away, and a year later I'm reading out these words and people are laughing, listening, and moved. That's what it's all about.
JW: How close knit is the crime writing community in terms of support, feedback, and professional advice?
RR: I spent twenty years getting up at five in the morning to work, and didn't know any other writers, except my great friend Douglas Preston who lives in the States and has been my biggest cheerleader right from the get go.
In the last three years I've met writers who I never dreamed I'd get to know. NAME DROPPING ALERT!!! Ian Rankin, Jeffery Deaver, Scott Turow, Michael Connelly. They are all pretty much like me: hard working, straight forward, and looking ahead to the next book. They are all incredibly supportive.
But my real new community are contemporary writers in Canada. Andrew Pyper, Pamela Callow, Howard Shrier, Dorothy Macintosh, David Rotenberg (bit of a cheat since he's my big brother), Vincent Lam (my neighbor!), David Bezmozgis (taught me at Humber), and many more. We talk, we email, and we prop each other up.
What we don't do is get together every Friday and drink rare wine and talk about great literature — only in the movies.
JW: Do you ever stumble across a news item and wonder if you'll end up writing about it?
RR: Since I'm still a criminal lawyer, usually when I hear about a murder or other nice and juicy crime, I think, "Hmm, am I going to get the call to defend that case?"
JW: You started writing your first novel, Old City Hall, in 2001. You finished it in 2007, and now have a multi-book deal with Simon & Schuster to produce a book a year. You're three novels in. Has the writing changed, or your approach to the writing craft, now that your deadline is always imminent?
RR: No. (Just kidding, but I felt like giving you a short answer.)
I'm on pace for a book a year. Learning to write less, and think more. That's the hardest part. Thinking. Agatha Christie said she got the best ideas doing the dishes. Good thing, I guess, she didn't have a dishwasher.
Everyone always asks if I outline my books. The answer is, never did, now doing it more. But I resist, and think I always will, mapping it all out in advance.
My life as a lawyer is all about never really knowing who is telling the truth, what half-truths I'm getting, what secrets are being hidden, and how it's all going to turn out in the end. That's how I see life. That's how I see my books, and that sense of mystery for me is something that I want to keep alive for the reader.
As for carrying my characters through — Daniel, Ari and Nancy — they are like people you meet. Slowly the friendship grows until now I talk to them every day. Nancy has a lot of big decisions to make in her life, and she tends to avoid them. So I worry about her a little, but trust her spirit. Daniel, he can drive me crazy sometimes with his impatient energy, but at other times he’s one of my best friends. Ari, he’s a very long story. About seventeen more books worth, at least.
JW: Criminal defense lawyer Edward Greenspan is one of your trusted readers. What makes him an ideal first reader of your work?
RR: "Eddie," as he likes to be called, has that wonderful quality of all great readers: an insatiable curiosity. I'm amazed, as I get into this world of mystery writing, how many brilliant people love reading these books. University professors, high court judges, even defense lawyers. I think it's the puzzle in it, mixed in with complex characters.
Eddie is one of the very few people I allow to read my books in manuscript form. His comments are always pitch perfect, and he makes sure I get the legal stuff right. Lucky me.
JW: Toronto features heavily in your novels. From a guest post in The Afterword, you say a strong sense of place makes stories more compelling, yet you'd been told that books set in Canada didn't sell internationally. You continue, "Perhaps I’m just pigheaded. But let me tell you a secret. For me it’s fun to hang out a five in the morning at the Calabrese Bakery on Dundas Street West. Eat lunch at the Vesta Lunch on Dupont, a restaurant I must have driven past a thousand times. Wander around the Ontario Food Terminal, truly one of the great unseen-by-most-people places in this city. Accuracy matters. Every detail. Near the climax of my first book, Old City Hall, there’s a scene on a Toronto Island ferryboat. As initially written, I had the big tug tooting its horn twice. Just before I finished the final draft, I took another ride to double-check. Sure enough, it only blows its horn once. So I had to rewrite." (Old City Hall locations on Google Maps.)
RR: I am very happy when critics write that Toronto is a character in my books. I’m not trying to write a fantasy about the city, making it out to be some cutesy-multicultural-northern-Disneyland place. Nor do I try to exaggerate the grit and crime. My real goal is to write about this place. Here and now. Think of England in the early 1800s or California during the 1930's Dust Bowl. What would you read now to really know what it was like then? Dickens and Steinbeck, of course. I’m not saying I’m either of those writers, but that is the real joy of fiction: it can tell the truth.
My books have been published in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia, Japan, India, Israel, Greece. A friend saw them in Hong Kong last year. I think that’s it for now. So, it's a real thrill to think I’m doing my small part to put Toronto, and Canada, on the map.
JW: Have you found new fans in surprising places?
RR: I now get emails from people all over the world. Some are ex-Canadians who love the books because they are kind of homesick. Others have never been here, and like to see a new world. Others respond to the characters, in particular the relationship between Ari Greene and his father.
Some of the most touching emails are from readers who tell me all about their relationships with their parents, their grief when they lose them.
I write back, to everyone. You can contact me via my website at www.robertrotenberg.com.
As well, every week I get a website traffic report. It is amazing to see people in the strangest and most distant countries visiting my site, reading my bio, reading the first chapters of the books. The part called "Ari Greene’s Toronto" is really popular. Which is very, very, cool.
JW: You've recorded spots for both the National Reading Campaign and the campaign to save Toronto Public Libraries. How did reading feature in your youth, and ultimately figure into your writing?
RR: Got an hour?
Reading is key. I think every writer, and I’m sure all of your readers, snuck books under their covers and read long into the night from the time they were kids.
I still read every day. I still love great writing. "Read a lot, write a lot," Stephen King said in his terrific book, On Writing. Great advice.
I am now amazed when I find people, in particular, men, who say to me "I don’t read," or "I don’t read fiction." If your life is one big restaurant, that is like saying: "I don’t eat dessert." What a loss. Life is tough. Why not try to sweeten it when you can?
JW: Is this why you write haiku? What's the allure of the #HAIKU Twitter hashtag for you? And how are you using it? What is it about social media that makes it the appropriate forum for you?
#HAIKU #PARIS Grey sky overhangs/ An April not in Paris:/ Tulips pushing through./ #TULIPS #APRIL #SKY
#HAIKU #OBAMACARE People who are sick/ Just let them eat brocolli:/ Or off with their heads./ #BROCOLLI #SUPREME_COURT #HEADS
#HAIKU #NON_STARTERS Snow in late April/ Mitt and the economy:/ Syrian Ceasefire./ #APRIL #CEASEFIRE #ECONOMY #SNOW #SYRIA
RR: Hey, those aren’t bad.
When I dipped my toes into social media, I was determined to do it my way. Not flood people with boring information. So if you follow me on Facebook, or Twitter, or subscribe to my website, you rarely hear from me.
When you do, I try to make it short, funny, meaningful. I assume people could care less about what I eat. Thank goodness for that.
Perhaps the hardest thing to do in writing is the classic: show don’t tell. And haiku’s with their tight 5-7-5 structure leave no room to fiddle.
It seems to be working. I’m slowly but steadily gaining a loyal following.
Add to his twitter numbers:
Foodies look elsewhere
I write the haikus early in the morning, once or twice a week. They’re a good way to warm up, and blow off steam if I’m pissed off at crazy Republicans, or murdering dictators or I’m captivated by the early-morning light. But right now I’m hungry, so I’m going to cook up some . . .