Monday, May 4, 2020

John Farrow (Trevor Ferguson)

John Farrow is the pen name of Trevor Ferguson, who has written numerous novels and plays, all to extraordinary acclaim. His Émile Cinq-Mars crime series has been published around the world and cited by Booklist as "one the best series in crime fiction today," while Die Zeit in Germany suggested that it might be the best series ever.

Farrow's newest novel in the Émile Cinq-Mars series is Roar Back.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

A title should haul its weight. Roar Back suggests a battle, one with a history, where the hero of the piece has suffered a serious setback, and where he now embarks on a quest to win what was lost. The words are meant to convey action, and a motorcycle wheel on the cover in combination with the word roar, suggests a biker component, and not geriatric or recreational types. In a quiet moment, the hero provides further dimension to the title as he contemplates roaring back against any part of society that does not permit others to live in peace. The reader, hopefully, is onside by then, roaring back in concert with our protagonist.

What’s in a name?

A lot went into naming Émile Cinq-Mars. Although he’s become the central detective in a series of novels, initially he had to carry a big book and I was searching for a unique and impressive moniker. He’s French, but it’s a rare surname in the language. Its origins are unknown, and that’s been useful. Some say it derives from a corruption of Saint-Marc, perhaps a village once, or that Cinq (five) might refer to the fifth son of a Marc or Mars. The bad guys like to directly translate his name into English, March the Fifth, as a way of trying to irritate or diminish him. But I also was naming him after a real cop and a genuine folk hero, who preceded him in time, one Captain Jacques Cinq-Mars of the Montreal Night Patrol. When he retired, the police force was revamped so that someone like him would never prosper again: the bureaucrats seized control. I brought a guy like him back, in fiction. My guy revived the real man’s aura and moral comportment, although not his methods. I could go on, but that’s the point: the name leads me into places and helps me to bounce with it from pillar to post, and he isn’t confused with anyone else.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Given that my teenage reader self was engrossed in Dostoevsky and Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, et al, he’d be taken aback by this turn to crime fiction. On the other hand, that kid would probably nod affirmatively that of late my crime fiction, as in my earlier literary fiction, has found its way back to the old neighbourhood, the tough streets of Montreal. The crime fiction is a way of evoking those streets and my older self is happy to get it done. The first literary novel my kid-self read, at age eleven, was In Dubious Battle by Steinbeck, and the union quarreling, and sudden violence, of that novel struck a chord that resonates to this day in my own crime stories.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I do not map out a novel, I refuse to know what it might be about, so I’m patient with beginnings. They need to be evocative enough and sufficiently compelling to excite me to continue. Consequently, they’re rewritten a couple of hundred times before I proceed. In Roar Back, two men meet in a coal cellar where there is not a speck of light. They cannot see one another. They cannot see a hand an inch from their eyes. The deprivation of the senses is discombobulating and in that environment, one man grills the other, to see if he’s fit for a secret mission. Evocative, and if I feel it myself I trust that the reader might also. As importantly, I need to sense that the book that’s coming is worth at least a year of my life.

Dramatic and somewhat surprising endings are fine in themselves, but the most important aspect for me is that they feel natural. What happens during the novel is interwoven with who the characters are and what choices they make, as well as what they endure and, when fortunate, overcome. How things wrap up and how the threads knit together must feel inevitable and follow the same rule. This author will not manipulate an outcome. The characters themselves determine how the matter is resolved. They’ve taken over the book. Their passions, their faults and failures, their intelligence, their lusts, their courage: through these aspects, the ending is determined. By them, not by me.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

My principal character is French, Roman Catholic, a cop, a horse whisperer, very tall, absolutely brilliant intellectually with the strength of a battalion. I hope I’m not the opposite of all those things, but I am none of them. To put myself into a novel I’d have to write about writers, an idea that makes me ill. Now, do I catch glimpses of myself here and there? Admittedly, there are moments a person can share, or steal, going from a real-life scene to a version of it on the page. I can make use of an anecdote that’s too priceless to pass up, and perhaps an insight of mine passes muster and finds its way into a character’s head. In my case, it’s more likely that the lesser characters pick up these tidbits. For me, the challenge of writing is being in another’s skin, and the danger of writing is to recreate a better self to represent one’s own self. I endeavour to be successful at avoiding the latter and being faithful to the former.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

As a teenager in a jazz bar (illegally), among hookers and heroin addicts, gangsters and losers, a great American jazz musician complained to another musician sitting at my table, “The vibrations in here are low.” (Ah, sixties lingo.) The musician at the table nodded, then later said privately, “The vibrations in here? That’s his job.” From that, I took it to heart that my job was to pick the reader up and drop him off at the next station. Not to ask the reader to tolerate shallow characters or run-of-the-mill prose, wooden dialogue or stories we’ve all read before. A musician taught me that my job is to deliver, and I still resort to music often, to sustain me through a long novel, to invigorate my work if I’m dragging, to electrify the creative juices, and to get me dancing. The dance of life ought to be on the page, and music of all sorts helps me get there.
Visit John Farrow's website and Trevor Ferguson's Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: Roar Back.

--Marshal Zeringue