Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Joey Slinger

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Joey Slinger

Toronto-based comedic writer Joey Slinger is most recently the author of Nina, the Bandit Queen (Dundurn). His novel tells the darkly funny story of a mother named Nina, who robs a bank in order to fund a public pool where her children can play.

Joey talks to Open Book about the inspiration for his protagonist, his love of crime capers and the importance of humour.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Nina, the Bandit Queen.

Joey Slinger:

Nina Dolgoy is a 34-year-old welfare mother who is scrambling to survive crippling poverty in the most desolate part of town. But her heart is in the right place and her intentions are pure. All she'd like to do is make the neighbourhood she lives in a bit nicer so her four little daughters won't end up as crack addicts or hookers, or, in the worst-case scenario, both. She believes that if she can get the community swimming pool — long-since condemned and boarded up — repaired and reopened, local children, all of them, not just hers, will be able to burn off their wayward energies and grow into solid citizens. To do this she enlists her neighbours in a fund-raising campaign.

Unfortunately, since there is something altruistic about her idea, she runs headfirst, and calamitously as far as her children go, into one of the great truths of the ages: No good deed is ever allowed to go unpunished.


How did the character of Nina come about? What do you see as her strengths and weaknesses?


The question that intrigued me was how does a chronically poor individual with absolutely no clout — political, economic, or any other kind you can imagine — raise the money necessary to do good works in their own community? And as I thought about this, Nina drew herself together in my tiny mind. She was a person oppressed from every angle, with zero — absolute zero, if you want to get scientific — influence. Not even her husband and children had ever given her credit for anything.

Obviously in a character like this there is plenty of room for growth. So it's too bad she ends up growing in a way that is more than slightly anti-social. The only method she can think of to raise money herself is by robbing a bank. Then again, it's the only method that fits her skill-set. On the other hand, robbing banks offers way more possibilities for comedy than, say, having a bake sale. This makes it a lot more entertaining for the reader and a lot more interesting for me, the writer. Anyway, she doesn't know how to bake.


Nina feels like reopening the neighbourhood pool would keep her daughters out of trouble. What are your feelings about shared public spaces?


My feelings about shared public spaces are fairly positive as long as the people who share them use the designated waste receptacles and don't just drop their trash any old place.

My book isn't really about that, though. It's about access to the political process: who can get it and how they can go about it. For the poor and marginalized it is pretty much denied. To get the system working in their favour requires a lot of ingenuity and courage, qualities that Nina, to her surprise (since she had no idea and was never encouraged to give it the slightest thought), turns out to have in substantial amounts. More than anything else, the theme of the book is that she ends up discovering this and how the discovery comes about.


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


If the theme of the book is Nina's discovery that she's a stronger and more effective individual than she ever imagined, the architecture is along the lines of a crime caper: a bunch of people trying to beat each other out to get hold of a pile of cash that has gone missing.

And as far as I'm concerned, the Proust of caper writers, at least in the hurt-yourself-laughing category, was Donald E. Westlake, and someday I'd like to read Proust to find out if it's true. Any comic novelist who steals as much as he can get away with from Westlake, and it isn't too hard now that he's dead, is on to a very good thing.

To be honest, I would much rather entertain readers by making them laugh than by having a character triumph courageously over some adversity or other — unless they triumph over the adversity by sneaking up behind it and whacking it over the head. The thing is to make sure that when somebody gets whacked over the head, or gets their brains blown out for that matter, it's essential to the plot and not just another instance of gratuitous violence. No writer today wants to stoop to gratuitous violence, certainly not if they hope to get their books bought by school libraries.


Is there a book you've read recently that you wished you had written?


Yes, War and Peace. I wished I'd written it because it would have been a lot funnier. I don't want to discourage anybody from reading it, not when there are people who need something to pass the time and are counting on it to fill in the next six years, but if they're hoping for some laughs they're in for a big disappointment.


What are you working on now?


Another novel. At the moment I'm trying to come up with a plot and some characters. After that, it will be clear sailing, and at my usual writing speed it should be finished in 2042 by which time I'll be 108. If it turns out not to be funnier than War and Peace, I'll kill myself.

Joey Slinger, formerly a Toronto Star columnist, has published two collections of columns, No Axe to Grind, which won the Leacock Medal for Humour, and If It's a Jungle Out There, Why Do I Have to Mow the Lawn? He makes almost no excuses for living in Toronto where he divides his time between the dark craft of comic novels, Punch Line being his first, and searching for his car keys.

For more information about Nina, the Bandit Queen please visit the Dundurn website.

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

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