Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with John McFetridge

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John McFetridge

John McFetridge is, most recently, the author of Tumblin' Dice (ECW Press). The book follows The High, a fictional band of 70s rockers who are stuck playing for the blue hairs on a casino tour. Tumblin' Dice also incorporates some of the memorable characters from John's other Toronto books.

John talks to Open Book about the ins and outs of casino research, the inspiration for The High and what Elmore Leonard told him about writing.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Tumblin' Dice.

John McFetridge:

Tumblin’ Dice is about adapting to change — how some people seem to be able to do it easily and some people just can’t seem to do it at all. There are quite a few characters and interconnected sub-plots but the main story is about some guys who were a rock band when they were teenagers in the late 70s and then broke up in the 80s who are now older, maybe a little wiser and ready to try again so they get back together and play the nostalgia circuit (mostly at casinos).

A couple of the guys in the band, the singer (now a real estate agent in Toronto) and the bass player (no one’s really sure what he was doing when they reformed), have started robbing the loan sharks and drug dealers who work the casinos. When they get to the Huron Woods casino just north of Toronto they find that their old manager, who may or may not have stolen all their royalties back in the day, is now the entertainment director and they try to extort a lot of money from him. They don’t know that the old manager is now in the middle of the beginning of a, let’s say “territorial dispute” between the Philadelphia mobsters who have the management contract at the casino and the bikers who are moving in.


Several characters from your previous books appear in Tumblin' Dice. What were some of the challenges and pleasures of working with these characters?


The pleasures were that I knew these characters and it was like hanging out with old friends. Even the bad guys, I like them, too. The challenges were making sure that they all had a good reason to be in this story and had something to contribute. There is one minor character who has been in every book I’ve written (he’s even in Below the Line that I co-wrote with Scott Albert) and he was the only character I couldn’t work into this book.


Did you have a particular band in mind when you imagined The High? What influence does music have on your writing process?


Yes, I did and they’re conspicuous by their absence. A lot of bands get mentioned in Tumblin’ Dice, including RUSH and there are a few references to The High opening for RUSH in the 70s. When I saw RUSH in Montreal in 1977 the opening act was Max Webster. While I was writing the book I listened to Kim Mitchell in the afternoons on Q107 in Toronto and had a few emails with him about the rock’n’roll business over the last forty years. But The High are not exactly Max Webster, there are other bands thrown in there, too, really anyone who started out guitar-oriented in the 70s and couldn’t adapt to the keyboards of the 80s.


Did you have an interest in gambling and casino culture prior to writing Tumblin' Dice or did you find yourself doing a lot of research?


I’d never been to a casino when I started the book. I did go to a casino in Niagara Falls and I saw Deep Purple at Casino Rama. I also did a lot of research into casino management and a little bit about the business. I wasn’t all that surprised to find that the reality of a casino is a lot different from the “excitement” in their TV commercials.


What is some of best advice you've ever received as a writer?


I met Elmore Leonard once and he said that you have to write a million words before you find your own voice and I said that sounded like a lot and he said, “Well, you can start selling stuff before then.” Seriously, I’d have to say the best advice is really, “Write the book you want to read.”


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


Declan Burke’s, Absolute Zero Cool, about the best postmodern, meta, noir, crime... truly unique book as well as Adrian McKinty’s, The Cold Cold Ground, a novel that takes place in Carrickfergus, just outside Belfast, in 1981 when Adrian was ten years old using the hunger strikes at the Maze prison as the background for a murder mystery. I wished I’d written it so much that I’m writing a book that takes place in Montreal in 1970 when I was ten years old using the October Crisis as the background for a murder mystery.


What are you working on now?


That murder mystery set in Montreal in 1970.

John McFetridge, author of Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Swap, became fascinated with crime when attending a murder trial at age 12 with his police officer brother. McFetridge has also co-written a short story collection, Below the Line, and wrote for the CBS/CTV television series The Bridge. He lives in Toronto with his family and writes regular updates on his blog.

For more information about Tumblin' Dice please visit the ECW Press website.

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

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