Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Robert Hough

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Robert Hough

Robert Hough's newest book, Dr. Brinkley's Tower (Anansi) is his fourth and already receiving rave reviews. Set in Mexico in the 1930s, Dr. Brinkley's Tower is based on the life of a real (though fantastical) American con man.

Robert talks to Open Book about Mexican radio, bad-boy protagonists and the best advice he's received as a writer.

You can see Robert, reading at the Harbourfront Centre, on February 29 with fellow authors Charlotte Gill and Kim Thuy. Click here for details.

You can also check out Robert's edition of our newest interview series, The Dirty Dozen!

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Dr. Brinkley's Tower.

Robert Hough:

Dr. Brinkley’s Tower describes what happens to a small Mexican border town when a charlatan doctor builds a million-watt radio tower. It’s a funny, touching love story.


How did you come across John Romulus Brinkley? And how did you find the experience of writing a character based on a real person?


I’d always been interested in Mexican radio, which describes a period in which Americans built immensely-powerful radio towers just over the border in Mexico to thwart broadcast regulations in the U.S. I always thought that a town with one of these towers would be a great place to set a novel, in that the signal, at a million watts, came through everything: fencing wire, braces, toasters, weather vanes, you name it. At a million watts, radio signals also glow, meaning that the skies lit up green. In other words, these towers were incredibly obnoxious for the inhabitants.

At the same time, I’ve always wanted to write a novel about a confidence man; though I wouldn’t want to actually be a con man, I confess that, at times, I envy their inability to feel guilt. So they fascinate me. They’re exotic creatures. After writing my third novel, I was looking around for something to do, and one day I did a little research about Mexican radio; within an hour I discovered that doctors promoting fraudulent medical procedures — i.e. con men — were the ones who were building these towers. Like that, I knew I had to do the book.


What interested you about Mexico as a setting? How did you find the research process?


Mexico is probably my favourite country; I love the ruins and those gorgeous colonial towns. The food’s great too; all those spicy sauces. Though I knew Mexico fairly well, I didn’t know northern Mexico. So after much googling, I found a tiny border town to use as a model for Corazón de la Fuente, the pueblo in my novel. The town was called Guerrero, and it was right on the border, about half-way between Piedras Negras and Nuevo Laredo.

I arranged to go, and when I got there I discovered I was only the third tourist they’d ever had. I met the mayor and the chief of police, and the head of their fledgling tourist department (a department of one, by the way) threw a barbeque in my honour. We spent a whole afternoon eating fajitas and drinking Tecate beer. Sadly, with the cartel violence that’s infected el norte today, I couldn’t repeat my trip.


You manage a large and varied cast of characters in this book. Was there one person for whom you had a particular soft spot, or to whom you found it easy to relate? Or anyone who gave you particular trouble during the writing process?


As usual, the main protagonist kept getting dialed up and down. Finally, I made Francisco Ramirez a strong, quiet, Gary Cooper-type, as that was the sort of person who would be most apt to do the things Francisco needed to do in the book. (I confess my knee-jerk reaction is to make my male protagonists bad-boys, if only because they’re fun to work with and female readers seem to like them so much. That just didn’t work for this book, though.)

Likewise, there was a lot of rooting around to find the personality of his love interest, Violeta Cruz: at first I had her falling in and out of love with Francisco in order to torque the plot, and it wasn’t working. At a certain point my editor, a very talented young woman named Melanie Little, reminded me of an insoluble truth: once you fall out of love with someone there’s no going back. Immediately, I understood that Violeta loves Francisco throughout the entire book, whether she acts on that emotion or not. Knowing that, she came easily, and the book pretty much wrote itself: it is, after all, a love story.

As for all of the secondary characters, they all arrived, fully-formed, like gifts. As an added bonus, they all charmed and amused me so I really, really enjoyed being in their company. It was definitely my most fun book to write, and I think the reader will sense that.


What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?


It actually didn’t come from a writer but from a musician I was profiling for Toronto Life about a hundred years ago; he told me that if you work in the arts there are going to be bad stretches, and the trick is to not panic. It’s advice I’ve tried to follow, though I admit I’ve not always been successful.


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


Super Sad True Love Story. I think Shteyngart is the top satiric novelist at work today. The other books that made me really envious over the past year were City of Thieves (David Benioff), Skippy Dies (Paul Murray), The Lonely Polygamist (Brady Udall), Heliopolis (James Scudmore), and Six Suspects (Vikas Swarup). I just re-read Memoir from Antproof Case (Mark Helprin) which I really enjoyed even though it was about my fourth time through.


What are you working on now?


I could tell you but I’d have to … uh … how does that saying go again?

Robert Hough is an award-winning novelist. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about Dr. Brinkley's Tower please visit the Anansi website.

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

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