Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with David Rotenberg

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David Rotenberg

Both a well-known figure in the Toronto theatre scene and the author of five previous novels, David Rotenberg is most recently the author of The Placebo Effect (Simon & Schuster Canada), the first book in a Toronto-based series called The Junction Chronicles.

Simon & Schuster has prepared materials that should get readers excited about The Placebo Effect, including an excerpt available online and a reading guide.

David speaks to Open Book about writing Toronto after years of setting books in China, his protagonist's unique talent and his literary suicide.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Placebo Effect.

David Rotenberg:

It’s the first in a longish series (the second A Murder of Crows is now with the publishers) called the Junction Chronicles. It centres around a man with the extraordinary talent of being able to know — beyond knowing — when someone is telling the truth.

No it’s not like Lie to Me — this man is an advanced synaesthete.

The man, Decker Roberts, also believes that each time he accesses the talent someone close to him gets hurt. His ability brings him to the attention of other people who want to use the gift — some friendly, many not.

He’s a loner who distrusts authority of any sort — and only grudgingly ever works for them. It also slowly dawns on him that there may be others of ‘his kind’ out there and that he needs to find them to understand who and what he is.

Where in the universe he fits.


How did your plans for The Junction Chronicles come about? Much of your past work is set in China — what inspired the change of location?


I was approached by Simon and Schuster to write something other than about China. After what amounts to eight novels about and around China I was ready for a change.

I’ve been back in Toronto since 1987 after an absence of about 18 years. And yet in all that time — and all those novels — I hadn’t written a word about the city.

The Placebo Effect’s Toronto centres on the Junction but at least it’s part of Toronto — although historically, a reluctant joiner of the big bad city — which plays a role in the story. As does the extraordinary proliferation of churches in the Junction and a hidden history.


There are some superficial similarities between you and Decker Roberts — did you have fun playing with autobiographical details in The Placebo Effect? Are you concerned about readers conflating you with your character?


I’m not greatly concerned about a reader associating Decker with me. In the Chinese novels there was a Canadian director, Geoffrey Hyland, who taught precisely what I teach — and directed exactly what I directed. I killed him in the third novel. That was more fun than I thought it would be (although the actual Geoffrey Hyland, a former student of mine who is a famous director in South Africa, was disappointed). As for Decker and myself — Decker does teach the unique approach to acting that I developed — even works at the studio of which I am the Artistic Director. He knows the parts of the world that I know — Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, New York City, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, North Carolina, Cape Town, Namibia — I think you write what you know. In some way most authors write versions of themselves — themselves as fools, themselves as heroes, themselves as children, themselves out of control etc.


How does your extensive theatre background inform your writing process?


Less than most people think. Movies have a much greater influence on my writing — and popular music. Of late HBO and AMC are major influences on my writing.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


John Le Carre, Jack Miles, James Lee Burke, Thomas Cahill, Harlan Ellison, Willian Boyd, Annie Proulx, KC Constantine, James Crumley. A playwright named Robert Litz who approached me years ago in New York to work on a screen play with him. A junior high school English teacher named Mr. Gallanders — we didn’t know teacher’s first names back then — who encouraged me to read and write. Aaron Sorkin. Bob Dylan — especially when he’s not singing his songs.


What are you reading now, or what have you read and loved recently?


I have a stack by my bedside. Just finished the latest Nesbo and Mankell books and the latest James Lee Burke novel. I loved the latter. Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill. I’m very fond of Mr. Cahill’s approach to history and religious topics. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick — I’ve tinkered with historical re-orientation novels myself and am impressed with this one. The 900 Days by Harrison Salisbury — a reminder of the momentous events that created our world. The book’s a real achievement.


Do you have any reading or writing resolutions for 2012?


I have a trilogy that I started a decade ago called Dream Navigators that I really want to finish. The second book in the Junction Chronicles is now with the publishers and hopefully will be out shortly. I look forward to writing the third, fourth fifth etc in the series. The Placebo Effect has been optioned by a major Los Angeles producer (presently he’s working on Justified for FX — on everyone’s best ten TV series list for 2011 — and Gun Hill for BET) so I’m looking forward to working on that with him. My daughter, Beth, is a fine young writer and I’m interested in working on something with her.

David Rotenberg has been a master acting teacher for over 20 years. He has directed on Broadway, in many major regional theatres, for television, and he has published six novels, including the Zhong Fong detective series, all of which are available at your local bookstore or online. The series is in the process of being optioned for film.

For more information about The Placebo Effect please visit the Simon & Schuster Canada website.

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

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