Spotlight: Terry Fallis

I have been following the career of Terry Fallis for a long time. In 2008, he won the Stephen Leacock Medal for his debut novel The Best Laid Plans. In 2011, The Best Laid Plans won Canada Reads, where it was called "the essential Canadian novel of the decade". He has since written two more novels, and received the Libris Award for Author of the Year. 

He has garnered both critical and commercial success, which is made all the more impressive considering his career in writing almost didn't happen. The Best Laid Plans did not gather interest from publishers until it won the Leacock medal in 2008. Before that, Terry Fallis had been publishing it in parts as a podcast, before moving on the printing and publishing it himself. 

I got the chance to meet Terry Fallis at the 2013 Toronto Spur Festival, where he ran a panel on the topic of Canadian Satire. He knows a lot about satire, as his debut novel examined life and disenfranchisement on parliament hill. Fallis himself knows a thing or two about politics too- he is a political consultant by trade. He writes on his own time, while continuing to work in the public relations industry.

I talked with Terry Fallis over the past month to discuss his writing, his unconventional story, and his future:

Your publishing career began after you had already developed a successful career in politics. What made you want to start publishing your work?

I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was back in high school. It just took me a very long time to get around to doing it. I certainly come from the “write what you know” school of writing. So I wrote about politics in my first two novels. I worked in politics for several years early in my career so the novels required very little research. That’s the benefit of writing what you know.

The Best Laid Plans deals with a character who has become disenfranchised with politics. How much of yourself is in that character? Do you think it is important for the author to place some of themselves in the protagonist?

Some of my experiences on Parliament Hill mirror those of Daniel Addison’s in the novel, but it would be a stretch to call it an autobiographical novel. I think many writers use their personal experiences in their novels. It’s easier to write with authority and authenticity if you’ve experienced what you’re writing. So I’m definitely a member in good standing of the “write what you know” school of writing.

How would you describe the process of trying to sell and publish your debut novel?

 It was very discouraging at the beginning. I spent a year sending out query letters, plot synopses, and sample chapters to dozens and dozens of agents and publishers but was greeted with a deafening silence. So I decided to build an audience for my novel on my own and go ahead and self publish it. It wasn't my first choice, but it all worked out for me.

You might expect that I’d be a stronger supporter of self-publishing, but it’s more complicated than that. The turning point in my writing life was winning the Leacock Medal for Humour in 2008, not that I self-published. On the other hand, had I now self-published I would never have won that prize. Having done it both ways, I much prefer having a publisher behind me. Without the Leacock Medal, I suspect I’d still be a self-published writer selling books out of the trunk of my car. So I’ve been extremely fortunate in my unlikely publishing journey.

It must be hard trying to balance your public relations work with your writing life. How do you maintain creative output while working full time? What advice can you give to other writers who are challenged by time constraints, and who may have trouble feeling inspired after work?

It is difficult to balance work and writing, but if you really want to be a writer, you’ll find the time somehow. You get up earlier, or stay up later. You write Friday nights and Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. You just find the time because the desire is strong enough for you to give up other things you enjoy to write. It’s been this way since writers started writing.

 Some Canadian writers feel pressure to set their stories in America, in order to appeal to a wider audience. Is Canadian setting important to you?

Actually, a Canadian setting is not that important to me. I’m not even sure what that means, but I’ve never believed that a writers nationality should constrain in any way what or where he or she might write about. As long as good storytelling is involved, I’m less concerned about the setting. In fact, my new novel, No Relation,  is set mainly in New York and Chicago with a few quick trips to Toronto, Paris, Pamplona, Key West, and Ketchum, Idaho. But I think my writing style, the tone of the story, and how it’s written is unavoidably and unashamedly informed by my life in Canada.

I hope my novels work because of the voice, the characters, the humour, the story, and the storytelling itself. I try to take the reader on a journey in each novel, with ups and downs, some laughs and some sad moments, and characters who readers might come to like and even care about. It’s striking the right balance among all of those factors that is the trick.

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Success just seems to keep coming for Terry Fallis. In between our conversation and the date of publication, his third novel, Up and Down, won the 2013 Evergreen Award, which is presented by the Ontario Library Association. The CBC's adaptation of The Best Laid Plans is set to premier on January 5, 2014. 

You can find him at http://terryfallis.com . His books are available both online and in store. You can also find the podcast version of The Best Laid Plans for free here . His newest novel, No Relation, is set to be released in may 2014. 

Be sure to check back for more interviews in the Spotlight series. 

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