Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Scott Thornley

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Scott Thornley

Scott Thornley's creative career earned him a place in the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, but it was only recently that he turned his talents towards fiction. Here, he tells Open Book about the dreams that inspired his debut novel, Erasing Memory, the intuition he trusted to guide him through the challenging task and the powers of observation that allow Detective MacNeice — and Scott himself — to see beyond the exterior.

Erasing Memory (Random House) launched on January 11th at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. The photos below were taken during this memorable evening.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, Erasing Memory.

Scott Thornley:

It is the story of a haunted man, MacNeice, coming upon a haunting scene of a beautiful young woman, dead on the floor of a cottage, with Schubert’s second piano trio playing on a portable record player — her arm over the turntable causing the needle arm to play the same passage until it hit her arm, then playing it over and over again.

OB:

You've explained that the book was inspired by a series of dreams that you had over the course of a few months. These must have been chilling nights — to be dreaming of a such an intricate murder scene — but how difficult was it to move beyond the initial subconscious inspiration and into the actual writing process?

ST:

The book began with dreams. They were at times vivid, bordering on nightmares, but so compelling that I awoke each night and wrote them down as I recalled them. I’d sit on the edge of the bed with the lights out, so not to disturb my wife. They went on for seven or eight months. When my wife picked the book up, I suspect to find out what I’d been doing all that time, she said, “This is a novel, you should write it.”

I began writing from the notebooks and the story unfolded — as if it was waiting to get out. Several chapters into it, I hit a point where I thought, or wondered, should I be creating charts, post-it notes, arcs of drama and dialogue, forecasts of coming chapters…? It was chilling. As a designer, I have always trusted my intuition — it has never failed me — and the thought of doing the book in such an ordered or structured way was foreign to me. My breakthrough came with this simple notion: Why can’t I discover and respond to events as MacNeice does? What if we both reacted to them as they unfolded — wouldn’t that be more immediate, and authentic to my style? I went with it and the book unfolded fairly quickly.

OB:

The jacket flap of your novel coyly suggests that your hometown of Hamilton may have inspired Dundurn, the fictional city in which your novel takes place. Why did you prefer to work within a fictional city rather than the real thing?

ST:

I wanted the freedom to move geography about, to refer to places without someone saying, "Hey! We don’t have that in Hamilton…." And, because the work is fiction — all the characters are imaginary — I saw no distinction between the characters and the place. I love my hometown; I know how rabidly proud Hamiltonians can be, and I am — so I thought, everyone I know there, as well as those, like me, who’ve had to leave to find our work, will share the knowledge that it is Hamilton without having concerns about the things that are not.

OB:

Erasing Memory is set to be the first book in a series of Detective MacNeice mysteries. What is it about MacNeice that will allow you to keep good company with him for years into the future?

ST:

I identify with the man in many ways. Like him, I lost my wife to cancer. Like him, I’m paid to observe, and the success of “my day job” is a testimony to my ability to observe. He intrigues me in every way, but it’s not just MacNeice. I am attached to all of these characters and, having just completed the second manuscript, my respect for each of MacNeice’s team, and the man himself, continues to grow. They are real for me! I believe all great fiction is true. It cannot be great if you don’t believe it — and I believe these people. I even have tremendous time for the villains. If they die, I miss them; if they are truly vicious — I still find some aspect of humanity in them that I’m attracted to…and I love the tension of their relationship to MacNeice.

OB:

MacNeice is no ordinary detective — he reads e.e. cummings, listens to opera and jazz and enjoys a shot or two of grappa in the evenings. Did MacNeice's character develop as you wrote the novel, or was he fully formed in your mind when you began?

ST:

MacNeice — named after the British poet Louis MacNeice, who was a friend of my beloved uncle’s — did seem formed from the start. I have never wondered about him, or asked myself, "Would he really say, or do that?" In that sense, and perhaps because of that early decision to let both of us react to circumstances, he is certainly “fully formed.”

OB:

In Erasing Memory, the best detectives rely on a combination of close observation and intuition. Would this description apply to your writing process as well? Can you give us an example?

ST:

Without question. But not just to my writing, to my whole career as a graphic designer. The book flowed from dreams and thereafter, it flowed intuitively as if I was standing next to him, a shadow perhaps, listening to him listen to me. If I saw a bird (I love bird-watching) — suddenly what I saw was MacNeice seeing it…if I make myself clear. Ironically, it works the other way around. MacNeice comes into my life…recently, a break-in in Toronto went wrong and a woman was murdered, her husband was injured, but her daughter, tied-up in another room was unharmed. I said, or MacNeice said, as the news item finished on the radio — “The daughter was involved.” My wife said, “How do you know?” I said, “I don’t. MacNeice does.” Inside of a week, the daughter was charged.

OB:

You are best known for your work as creative director of Scott Thornley + Company. How did your vast experience working in advertising, branding and communications help you in the writing of your first novel?

ST:

I’ve always wanted our work — images and words — to be up under people’s ribs, to move people, to move them to act. We’ve never worked on trivial accounts — our clients save lives, others enrich lives, change lives — the words came easily in that respect, it was a commitment to effect change. If the words and the images didn’t do that, they weren’t the right ones. Condensing vast amounts of information into a tagline (Where cures begin or, The finest instrument is the mind) is the reverse of writing a novel where a simple but elegant death opens the door to an opportunity for storytelling on a grander scale. I’m only sorry I didn’t begin earlier — but then the dreams came when they came.

OB:

How difficult was it to balance the demands of your work at Scott Thornley + Company with the writing of Erasing Memory? Did you ever find yourself creatively spent?

ST:

The work we do, and that I do, is so thrilling and the novel was such a rush, that I never felt (and I’ve never felt) burnt out creatively. In a way, if you believe everything is coming from you — and not speaking through you — you have a risk of running out of gas. I believe I’m always a conduit — for my clients to tell their stories when they don’t know how, or for dreams to come to life. That said, my wife ratted on me with my doctor by saying, “He worked 365 days last year.” The doctor didn’t believe she was serious, but my wonderful woman said, “Nights, weekends, holidays, and his practice — 365 days.” The balance between all work — however joyful — and the rest of my life is now something I’m committed to working out. I told my staff recently that I’m taking Friday’s off…it’s step in the right direction.

OB:

Which writers would you say have had the greatest influence on your work?

ST:

I’d never read a mystery novel before I wrote Erasing Memory. I love the ancients — Pepys, Aubrey and Evelyn… I am hooked on letters, diaries and correspondence…and my uncle — Wesley G. Woods O.B.E. of Suffolk, England, is largely responsible. As a classical scholar, former Anglican Priest, bomber navigator, cultural diplomat, birdwatcher and painter — a man who spoke eight languages fluently — he was not only my uncle, he was my mentor, and the closest I’ve ever had to a father.

OB:

Can you give us a teaser for the next MacNeice mystery?

ST:

I have just completed The Ambitious City and will turn it in on Friday, February 11, 2011. As for a teaser, go to ErasingMemory.com…more wouldn’t be fair to you, or to me.


Scott Thornley has had a diverse career, from designing the Gemini Award for the Academy of Canadian Television to the logos for Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid. As president and creative director of Scott Thornley + Company (a strategic creative firm that defines, builds and maintains the brands of clients in Canada, the United States and Great Britain), Thornley has worked for twenty years with the pillars of the Canadian and international cultural and scientific communities in the field of applied storytelling. Having won over 150 international awards for design, he was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts in 1990. His interests also include drawing and photography — both of which he has exhibited. Scott lives in Toronto.

For more information about Erasing Memory please visit the Random House website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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