Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Robert Hough on the nature of con men and the secret to writing a successful novel.

Robert Hough talks about the real-life Dr. Brinkley as inspiration for his latest novel about a con man.

Dr. Brinkley's Tower by Robert Hough (House of Anansi Press).

About Dr. Brinkley's Tower: Equal parts Mark Twain and Gabriel García Márquez, Robert Hough's wildly imaginative new novel takes us to 1931 and Corazón de la Fuente, a tiny Mexican border town where the only industry is a run-down brothel. Enter Dr. Romulus Brinkley and his gargantuan radio tower, built to broadcast his revolutionary goat-gland fertility operation. Fortunes in Corazón change overnight, but not all for the good. Word of the new prosperity spreads, and the town is overrun by the impoverished, the desperate, and the flat-out criminal. The tower's frequencies are so powerful the whole area glows green, and the signal is soon broadcasting through every bit of metal it can find: fencing wire, toasters, even a young woman's new braces. Meanwhile, Dr. Brinkley has attracted the affections of Violeta Cruz, Corazón's most beautiful resident. But is he really all that he seems?

Peopled with unforgettable characters and capturing a young Mexico caught between its own ambitions and the imperialist designs of its neighbour to the north, Dr. Brinkley's Tower is a stunning achievement in storytelling.

Julie Wilson: The doctor in Dr. Brinkley's Tower is based on a real man, an American doctor who created a treatment for impotence and then promoted his practice by circumventing U.S. regulations by broadcasting via a "border blaster," a Mexican radio tower so powerful its signal reached across the States and as far as Russia. You describe men of Dr. Brinkley's ilk as both entrepreneurs and con men. Can you expand a bit on this? Is it ambition or psychopathic behaviour that drives such a character?

Robert Hough: Ahh, but that’s the million-dollar question! Was Dr. Brinkley a con man? Doesn’t any con man worth his salt understand that he’s cheating the public? It’s clear that Dr. Brinkley believed that his goat-gland operation worked: he had it four times himself. He then took much of the revenue generated by his infamous procedure and gave it away to charity. On the other hand, thousands of vulnerable men did subject themselves to considerable discomfort and financial loss, all for a treatment that produced a placebo effect at best. So, it’s tricky. I started writing Dr. Brinkley’s Tower because I’d always wanted to write about a con man. By the time I finished, I wasn’t at all sure if I’d succeeded.

JW: Dr. Brinkley, the man, would certainly fall into the category of improbable characters. As a writer, what challenges did you face when moulding him into the right protagonist for your story? Did you have to edit out any darlings?

RH: One thing I do know is that Brinkley was a megalomaniac. For instance, he used to post billfolds that lectured people about safe driving, the importance of nutrition, the need for exercise, etc. I actually had him doing this in an early draft, but it just made him seem so obnoxious. For him to work as a character, he had to have enough actual charm to woo the "lovely and serious-minded" Violeta Cruz. I often find that when you take characters or events from real life, you have to dial them down a bit to make them believable as fiction.

JW: As with all your novels, Dr. Brinkley's Tower is told in three acts. What is it about that structure that you think appeals to readers?

RH: The vast majority of novels use a three-act structure: it’s just natural to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, it takes real effort not to. I do think, however, that some literary fiction fails to offer enough turning points, enough redirections in the story line to keep the readers’ interest. Or if they’re there, they’re not placed to maximum effect. The genre writers are good at this, though in genre fiction the characters can sometimes be thin or cartoonish, and the writing can lack a sound unique to the story. Every year, there seems to be one literary book that sells a kabillion copies worldwide—Snow Falling on Cedars, Life of Pi, Cold Mountain, The Shipping News, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, White Tiger, The Sisters Brothers—and it’s usually because the author, intentionally or not, has succeeded on both levels. It’s bloody hard to do, though I think it’s what all writers should be aiming for.

JW: At what point in the process would you say you most identify yourself with your work as its creator, and then at what point to do you feel most distanced from your work as its creator?

RH: When writing a novel, there’s always that moment in which you understand why you’ve been toiling away. My first novel, for example, was a circus book called The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. Somewhere in the middle of the second draft, I finally realized I was writing a book about a woman who couldn’t tolerate happiness. Prior to that moment, the work was a stranger, and all I could do was wonder why in the world I was investing all that effort in a book about some whacked-out female tiger trainer. Then comes that moment in which you say, "Ahh, so that’s it." From then on in, it’s a part of you, no matter.

Robert Hough, author of Dr. Brinkley's Tower (House of Anansi Press).

JW: In 1985, you spent a year working for an advertising agency. Present day, authors are expected to pitch themselves to a largely faceless and nameless audience. Have you dusted off any timeless techniques in your foray into social media that still hold true today?

RH: I worked in an agency media department for a very short period of time, and all I really did was keep track of what ads ran when and where. In other words, I didn’t actually create any advertising while working in advertising, and even if I had I’d have only done it for seven months worth. (Really, I was the worst employee Baker & Lovick ever had.) As for social media, it’s a double-edged sword. Though it’s literally a pain in the neck—I get a lot of shoulder and neck pain when I type—it’s also nice to feel like you have some role in your book’s destiny. As far as Twitter and Facebook go, I’d say that I’m slowly coming around.

JW: You also had a job as a fact-checker for Ontario Living. Your job was to phone up article subjects and ask them [from your bio] such "probing questions as, 'Would you describe the wood trim in your study as . . . you know . . . sassy-red?'" Colour theorists would suggest that the colour red raises your blood pressure. If you had to paint one room in your house red, which room would it be and why?

RH: Is that true? Maybe I sub-consciously knew that, as my office walls are a light cooling green: the anti-red.

JW: Finally, on the subject of radio broadcast, which do you prefer: live radio or podcast?

RH: There’s always a romance associated with listening to a live radio broadcast. On the other hand, I just discovered that Joe Strummer’s "London is Calling" broadcasts, which I could never listen to when they were on British radio, are available as podcasts on iTunes. So I gotta say: these podcasts suit me just fine.


Robert Hough is an award-winning novelist. Robert's debut novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. His second novel, The Stowaway, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Award and chosen by the Boston Globe as one of the top ten fiction titles of 2004. His third novel, The Culprits, was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Prize, the Commonwealth Award for Best Book (Canada and the Caribbean), and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. He lives in Toronto.

Visit Robert Hough's website: Follow Robert Hough on Twitter: @robert_w_hough

Comments here

comments powered by Disqus

More from the Blog