Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Your Character Needs a Job

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Your Character Needs a Job

One of the most exploratory aspects of writing Poison Shy was writing my protagonist's job.

Unless your character is homeless, or lives off an obscene inheritance, he or she will need an income. Some writers use their own jobs as inspiration. In literary fiction, for example, one sees a lot of characters employed as writers or teachers, which makes sense. Some of my favourite novels that feature characters who work as writers, or teachers, or both, are: David Lurie in Coeztee's Disgrace, Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita, Jack Gladney in Delillo's White Noise, and James Dixon in Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, to name just a few.

In crime fiction, one sees a lot of police detectives and private investigators. In chick-lit, we get fashion experts and magazine columnists; in fantasy, we get wizards and royalty, and in sci-fi, we get scientists and starship pilots. These are not necessarily clichés, but functional tropes within the given genres.

Then, in some novels, you find a character with a job that's so unusual, you couldn't possibly have seen it coming. Mason Dubisee, in Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall's Ghosted, starts out by operating a portable hot dog cart called the Dogmobile at the corner of Bloor and Spadina, and when that doesn't pan out, he becomes a suicide note ghostwriter-for-hire, offering his services to breaking-point depressives across the city. Mason's jobs set the tone for the whole novel, and bring us into a dark and troubling world we can explore from the comfort of our sofas.

When I was writing Poison Shy -- a novel that deals with themes such as fear, insanity, obsession, and privacy (and the lack thereof) -- I knew I had to give the protagonist, Brandon Galloway, a job that accompanied those themes, thereby allowing me to explore them more deeply. It wasn’t long before one such job came to mind.

Brandon works as an exterminator for a pest control company. He kills bugs and rodents for a living. He enters the private homes of strangers and eliminates unwanted threats. He gets paid to be inside your house when you're not there.

I have never worked as an exterminator. I wouldn't be capable of doing so. But researching the job, imagining what it might be like to go hunting for vermin in someone's private space, reading insiders' stories in gross detail, learning the industry terms, and thinking about the kinds of people who might be attracted to such employment were all extremely fun to do.

Then I thought, what would happen if someone who was a little unstable had this particular job? What if he saw something, or someone, he couldn't stop thinking about?

Sometimes the best novel ideas splatter out of the still-wet ink of a question mark.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Stacey Madden

Stacey Madden holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. He lives in Toronto. Poison Shy (ECW Press) is his first novel.

Go to Stacey Madden’s Author Page