Toronto is full of great stories and great storytellers who can convey every feeling, every action into words. To celebrate the city’s literary pedigree, Torontoist sat down with Judy Fong Bates and Terry Fallis, two acclaimed Toronto-based authors, for a four-part series to discuss their journeys as writers and their visions for the future of storytelling.
Photo of Terry Fallis by Tim Fallis. Photo of Judy Fong Bates by Michael Bates.
Every day, people use storytelling as a form of communication. Whether we are explaining to our children the concept of night (“The sun gets tired and goes to bed, and the moon wakes up to take over”) or attempting to help ourselves make sense of an election (“The vote was a resistance to a Harper majority”; “The vote was a referendum on Dion’s ability to lead”; “The vote was a solidification of the Green support”), the story is the most effective way to organize information. Spinning a good yarn is even more important when it’s your actual job.
As an elementary school teacher, Judy Fong Bates told other people’s stories to her students. Her writing career began with the realization that she longed to tell her own. She began a routine of teaching during the day and writing at night. She focused her short stories on the lives of Chinese immigrants who lived in the small towns of Ontario a generation before her. Although she describes the routine as exhausting, her diligence paid off when a collection of her short stories, China Dog and Other Tales From A Chinese Laundry, was published in 1997.
Her writing process begins with research. For the book she is currently working on, a memoir about the lives of her parents, she has taken two trips to China, gone back to the village they came from, and interviewed the people who still live there. She has searched for the evidence of what shaped their lives, like documents showing payment of the Chinese head tax. Her curiosity about the nature of people has informed her writing. For a class she taught at the University of Toronto, she advised students to create biographies for their fictional characters, to lend a sense of authenticity. Lists, she also advised, were a simple but effective way of describing the personality of a character. A series of the items on a nightstand or in a refrigerator holds an inherent interest for the reader, she says. Who doesn’t want to know what’s on someone’s nightstand or in someone’s fridge?
Photo by Iheartsharts.
Terry Fallis starts his writing by breaking down the structure. Shades of his McMaster engineering education become evident as he notes the mechanics behind The Best Laid Plans. (For example, he was very practical with chapter length. Since books are about 100,000 words and he wanted 20 chapters, each chapter is 5,000 words long.) The novel, he says, began as a short story he wrote in 2000—”about 2500 words that would become the first half of the book.” In acknowledgment of his first time writing fiction, Fallis wanted to be as prepared as possible. He spent three months outlining the book, created biographies for each character, and made chapter notes on what he wanted to write about.
His research came from almost a decade working on Parliament Hill. As a speechwriter and a public relations practitioner, he understood how to create a narrative. Fallis spent ten months “isolated on the third floor office of my house writing” after work to complete The Best Laid Plans. After self-publishing the book in September 2007, McClelland & Stewart published a paperback version last month.
It’s hard to imagine the emotional response to seeing months and years of research and work finally in print, tangible and ready to be shared with the public. Fallis remembers being hand-delivered the first copy of the McClelland & Stewart version of his book by publishing notable Doug Gibson: “It was amazing to hold it in my hands after dreaming about it for so long.” Even better was seeing the book in a store: “A stack of them were on display in my local Book City and I momentarily felt giddy.” He regained his composure, but still felt “a roiling mass of emotion and excitement on the inside.” Simply put? “It was very cool.”
Judy Fong Bates had a similar visceral reaction: “My first reading was before I had published and I felt really nervous, as if I didn’t belong. I mean, really, who was I kidding? The first time I saw my book China Dog in a bookstore I felt disbelief. Did I really write that? Is the name on the cover really mine?” And after a decade of writing? “There are times when I still feel that way!” she admits.
Tomorrow, we discuss with the authors the process of getting published in the Canadian marketplace.