Trevor Ferguson writes his way through trying times and forges ahead with new novels

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

Jack Todd presses on with new stories amid publishing and print media freefall

Heavyweight sports columnist Jack Todd talks journalism and his new novel

Newsrooms are abandoned. Bookstores await shipments to stock their empty shelves. As Quebec braces for the next wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jack Todd is hunkered down in his basement office in Longueuil’s Greenfield Park. Despite the decline of the print media and publishing industries, Todd is focused on penning his next piece of writing on his own terms. Whether it’s a new novel or commenting on a Canadiens game, Todd is typing up the new stories he wants to tell.

“All in all, life isn’t that different for me,” Todd says. “I spend much of my time holed up in my basement office anyway. I write very quickly so the usual pattern is, faff around for three hours, then write 2,000 words in an hour and quit. Then tear it all up and start again the next day.”

The Nebraska-born writer had worked in the newsrooms of the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press before being drafted to fight the Viet Cong in 1969. Although he wanted to write about the battlefront first-hand, Todd conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War. He defected from the U.S. Army and moved to Canada in 1970.

Thirty years after his military desertion, Todd published his 2001 memoir, A Taste of Metal, which marked the start of his literary career outside of the newsroom.

On the journalism front, Todd has fired up his readers with hard-hitting sports columns and features for the Montreal Gazette since 1986. In his signature combative style, Todd has sparred with sports figures and angry fans alike, including Don Cherry whom he called a “national disgrace” in a 2019 article and accused of espousing “bigoted, semi-coherent rants.”

Todd was furloughed for the first eight months of the pandemic, but he has since returned to the Gazette.

“Journalism right now is at a bit of an impasse – there has probably never been so much good journalism done in so many places but it comes at a time when advertising revenue has dried up because of COVID-19,” he says.

“I hope there’s a future for print journalism,” he says. “I think that print has to remain print to succeed and to stop turning itself into a pale imitation of television or the web.”

Despite the media turmoil which has also seen the literary publishing come to a near halt, Todd released a new work of fiction in July, The Woman in Green. As a ghost story and romance mystery novel, it is a departure from his earlier work that mainly focused on stories about surviving the violence and desperation in the American heartland. It is also his only novel set in Montreal.

“For some reason, I’ve always found writing about Montreal difficult,” he explains. “I have a love-hate relationship with this city that I have to work out some day.”

Lucinda Chodan, Editor-in-Chief at the Montreal Gazette, believes that Todd is the rare breed of writer with both literary and journalistic chops.

“In his fiction he has an incredible sense of detail and a command of setting a scene which is also something that he does very effectively as a feature writer and as a columnist,” she says. “He is a masterful writer in making sure that the tone is a multidimensional tone, not just painting a picture, not just reporting facts.”

Although his journalistic career began in the 1960s, Todd released his first novel in 2008.

“I think I’m much more confident now than I was when I first began writing fiction,” he says. “It was what I have wanted to do since I was 18 years old but an early obsession with the work of writers like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon did not help at all. I’d write a few pages, compare it with their work, feel that it just didn’t stand up, and rip it up.

“My goal now is actually quite simple. Having spent a long stretch of my life flying around the world to cover sports, the thing I valued most was that book that would get me through a flight to Australia,” he explains.

Todd’s goals moving forward remain unchanged.

“For the past 15 years or so I’ve always had multiple projects going,” he explains. “One of my problems is that I have trouble settling on one thing.” The Shadow Boy, a psychological horror story set in New Mexico and Maine, is the one he hopes to see in print next. By the sound of it, the novel-in-progress represents another departure for a writer unafraid of embarking on new territories in both fact and fiction.

Newspaper revenue may be plummeting and the writing world may be subsiding around him, but Jack Todd is soldiering on.

 

Feature photo by Christine Beaudoin

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Housing advocates laud Mayor Plante’s social housing move

Landlords sound the alarm while other advocates say more can be done

Advocacy groups for social housing in Montreal have praised Mayor Valérie Plante’s use of the right of first refusal law, which gives the city priority in purchasing properties over private buyers for the benefit of the community.

The law, granted by the Charter of Ville de Montréal, was created in 2016 to afford the city greater powers in developing urban planning projects. Since then, the Plante administration has said it would use the law to help tackle the city’s affordable housing problem.

However, some groups representing landlords insist the city’s decision to purchase buildings for the purpose of social housing is a costly mistake.

Matthew Pearce, former CEO and President of the Old Brewery Mission, told The Concordian that the acquisition of Parc-

A mock advising session was at Project Genesis, a grassroots organization that helps the community resolve social issues, such as housing problems and basic income insecurity.

Extension’s Hutchison Plaza in September was a good start.

“[The mayor] should see the acquisition of the Hutchison building as the first in an ongoing process of purchasing of buildings that become available.” The creation of the law allows the city to compete with the deep pockets of private developers, he said.

About 20,000 families are currently on the waiting list, he explained.

“There are many people who aren’t homeless but are very precariously housed. Anybody who is without housing should have access to affordable housing.”

However, not everyone agrees with the mayor’s decision.

Martin Messier, President of the Association des Propriétaires du Québec told The Concordian  that the right of first refusal should only be used in exceptional cases.

“We think the best way to help the tenant is to provide financial help so that they are able to really choose the location and make sure that we have diversity in a building, so not only tenants with the same profile. I think it’s a win-win for the tenant and the landlord.”

Hans Brouillette, Director of Public Affairs at Corporation des Propriétaires Immobiliers du Québec, said he recognized that the private market is incapable of fulfilling the needs of all tenants. However, he stated that the city’s move was unnecessarily expensive and inefficient.

Aside from buying the property, the city will have to renovate and manage it, he said.

“The same amount of money would have helped many more households if it could have been used to keep tenants in their current apartment in the private market, or even to help them to move to a better apartment.”

Community organizer at Project Genesis, Darby MacDonald

“If some types of apartments are not available then the city should support promoters with subsidies to build those apartments,” he said. “It’s all politics. It’s an administration against landlords.”

In response to assertions about the private market’s effectiveness, Darby MacDonald, a community organizer at Project Genesis, told The Concordian that social housing “exists and is successful because it exists outside of the private market that isn’t serving the needs of its people.”

“Subsidies alone won’t resolve issues of people who require housing, and many of those who accept subsidies find themselves in difficult situations,” MacDonald said. One woman, she explained, accepted an apartment subsidy for five years but the landlord renovicted the building’s other inhabitants. “She’s the only person remaining and doesn’t have electricity.” 

“The solution is for the government to step in and take care of the community the way that it can.”

 

Photographs by Christine Beaudoin

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“Justice for Joyce” protestors march against systemic racism

Thousands march through downtown Montreal, calling for more accountability from the government

 

Thousands of protestors gathered on Saturday to demand action against systemic racism in Quebec after an Atikamekw woman, Joyce Echaquan, died at Joliette Hospital where she was racially abused by staff.

Mask-wearing demonstrators packed Place Émilie-Gamelin with drums, Indigenous flags and “Justice for Joyce” signs. Many were on bicycles, others pushed baby strollers. Protestors shuffled toward the speakers, all the while attempting to maintain a two-metre distance from each other.

The multilingual demonstration began with a prayer for Joyce. Buffalo Hat Singers were followed with a drum-pounding performance. Chiefs, local politicians, and Indigenous activists took to the stage to denounce the denial of systemic racism in Quebec public institutions and to call for a criminal investigation into the case of Joyce Echaquan’s death.

Cheers and chants of “justice for Joyce” punctuated remarks.

“I have spent the last few days wondering, am I next?” said one Indigenous speaker, fighting back tears. “Who’s next? I’m tired of hearing about intentions. We don’t want intentions!”

Manon Massé, co-leader of Québec solidaire, urged Premier Legault to engage with First Nations communities more respectfully and to put into practice the 142 calls to action listed in the Jacques Viens report, which in 2019 concluded that Indigenous people face systemic discrimination when trying to access public services in Quebec.

On whether political parties are working together in the National Assembly to address the issue of systemic racism, Massé told The Concordian that “The CAQ and the PQ don’t recognize that there is systemic racism [in] Quebec, [in] our institutions,” but she insisted that she is willing to work with other parties to advance change.

Jessica Quijano, who works at the Iskweu project and the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal said that the Indigenous community needs its own health centre.

“First Nations people often don’t seek medical attention because of systemic racism.”

However, she saw positives in the protest turnout.

“I think it’s hopeful to have this many people, but I always say that protests are dress rehearsals for what’s really to come.”

Jennifer Maccarone, the Liberal Member of the National Assembly (MNA) for Westmount–Saint Louis, had strong words for Premier Legault.

“I think he’s completely disconnected from the community he represents.”

She accused the CAQ of doing little to address racism in the province and acting without transparency.

“Joyce deserved nothing less than proper health care and respect,” she told The Concordian.

“You have to change the way people think,” Gregory Kelley told The Concordian, the Liberal MNA for Jacques-Cartier. He called for Quebec’s educational curriculum “to have more Indigenous content so people understand better who the Indigenous peoples of Quebec are and what are the challenges they face.”

The demonstrators observed a moment of silence for Joyce, then marched from Émilie-Gamelin toward René-Lévesque Boulevard and stopped at the Quartier des Spectacles. One nurse and one orderly have been fired from the Joliette Hospital, and three investigations have been launched. A GoFundMe page has been created for the family, and the Echaquan family is filing a lawsuit against the hospital.

Photograph courtesy of Joe Bongiorno

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