A Canadian Novelist’s voyage through the literary frontier
Trevor Ferguson, also known by his crime writer pen name, John Farrow, has gone from teenage wanderer to bestselling fiction author. And after nearly six decades of writing, Ferguson remains as committed as ever to the craft of storytelling.
On a clear day, Ferguson can see Mount Baker in the distance, a far cry from the gritty streets of Park Extension where he grew up. He moved from his home in Hudson, Que., to Victoria, B.C., right before the pandemic struck.
“For a writer to be required to stay home and not move around much means business as usual,” Ferguson said. His day-to-day may not have been interrupted by the pandemic, but connecting with readers has proved challenging. “Dead in the water,” he said of his 15th novel, Roar Back, which was released last January. His most recent novel, Lady Jail, was released on Feb. 02.
Ferguson believes that the pandemic has cast a dark shadow over the publishing industry. “People are trying online engagement, but public readings are out, and travel is out, so it is far more difficult now to get a book into the hands of readers,” he said. “What’s not working out for writers will hurt publishers and booksellers, some will not survive.”
However, Ferguson is no stranger to obstacles. His childhood reads like a coming-of-age story in which the main character overcomes the harshness of a mesmerizing but hostile world. At 11, he narrowly escaped an assault while on his newspaper route. At 14, he ran away from home and ventured west where he worked odd jobs and began to write. There, he camped beneath the northern lights and was almost run over by a train. In a motel Bible, he wrote a promise to become a writer, and he kept his word.
“I had to break the bonds of trauma,” he said. “I’m lucky to have survived in those wilderness camps but having done so I have a deep appreciation for anyone’s willingness to gamble with one’s life to create a new beginning.”
These trials helped shape the writer he would eventually become.
“Hard experience, such as a violent attack intended to be sexual, or starving on the road as a kid, which really can rip a person apart, and being and feeling utterly alone in a hostile world, all these things formed me as a person and in a way shaped me as a writer, but helped to imbue a certain resilience which over a long career has been necessary.”
But there were also struggles on the page.
“I had to write through the Faulkner influence, and that took a decade of hard-slogging and much misery, before I could break that down and rewire how my brain worked and come out the other side with a voice that is my own,” he said. “That is the magic a writer is looking for: the natural voice that in its own way simulates breathing yet spits onto the page all manner of notion.”
Ferguson published his first novel, High Water Chants, in 1977 and went on to publish a host of critically acclaimed novels like Onyx John. Yet, a wide audience of readers eluded him. To support his writing, he continued to work odd jobs for years, including driving cabs and bartending. It was not until he began writing crime fiction under the name of John Farrow that his writing achieved commercial success.
Today, the author continues to be drawn to his detective muse, Émile Cinq-Mars.
“He is a mystic in a secular age with a great interest in cosmological sciences; a moral cop among ‘dirty’ cops and living in an amoral time. He’s conservative yet living with a younger wife and he’s a French-Quebecker whose wife is American; a faithful Roman Catholic yet he considers himself a heretic. A city cop who lives in the country with a stable of horses,” he explained. “There’s dimension and contradiction in everything he is and in much of what he does. I continue to discover wells and veins I hadn’t realized were there, so while the lazy writer in me might repeat myself from time to time, the better writer in me discovers much for the first time.”
In 2014, the author returned to literary fiction with his first Trevor Ferguson novel in a decade, The River Burns. However, he did not find the transition difficult. The prose in literary fiction is more demanding, he explained, but crime fiction requires greater attention to narrative drive.
“Good writing is good writing,” he said, regardless of the genre. “A well-conceived, intelligent, well-written crime novel can blow away a lot of poorly craftly, ho-hum writing, even if it calls itself literary,” he said. “I think there is a distinction, in ambition and style, scope and narrative inclinations, but there is no automatic distinction in quality. That has to be earned and demonstrated.”
Ferguson seeks to engage his readers with multi-dimensional characters to match the complexity of the worlds they inhabit, regardless of book classification. He believes in the power of fiction and hopes that in his characters his readers will find a world beyond themselves. “Fiction is a way of restoring the world — not necessarily repairing it — but restoring its energy to carry on.”
The future of the publishing industry may be uncertain, but the author, whether telling stories as Ferguson or Farrow, has more projects lined up, including television and film writing. After a lifetime of traversing borders, both narrative and geographic, Ferguson continues to place his faith in fiction and is busy penning new chapters.
Feature photo by Rod Ferguson