Terry Fallis — award-winning author and winner of the 2008 Stephen Leacock award, just never quits.
After unsuccessfully trying to find a publisher or literary agent for his debut novel The Best Laid Plans, he decided to go ahead and do it himself. Not too difficult a feat for someone who has spent the last 20 years counseling corporate and government clients on everything from crisis communications to media relations to marketing communications and who has founded his own public relations firm, Thornley Fallis.
Now the satirical novel is being turned into a six-part mini-series that will air on CBC in January and Fallis is hard at work on a fifth book.
Glue magazine sat down with Fallis to ask him about The Best Laid Plans and what it meant for his career, his excitement over the TV series, and his views on politics.
Glue: First of all what prompted you to sit down in front of your computer and write The Best Laid Plans?
Fallis: Well it wasn’t really the story that came first. It was just the idea of trying to write a novel that first occurred to me. It was something that I had wanted to do for a long time.
So that was the initial desire and then I tried to come up with something I could write about. I’m a member in good standing of the write what you know school of writing and having worked in politics in the early part of my career on Parliament Hill, it just made sense for me to wrote about politics. I had worked in it before and I had some views on politics, and how I think it’s gone down the wrong path and we need to fix it.
So rather than writing a rage-filled, non-fiction polemic about my views on politics, I though I would just cloak these ideas in a funny story and in characters you might come to like. So I was, in a way, conveying my ideas by stealth — by putting them in the minds and the mouths of my characters.
G: How much of your book is actually based on reality? A lot of it is humorous, but are there real people and real events in there?
F: Well there aren’t real people or real events, but there are certainly people like that and events have unfolded like the events in the novel. But none of them [are] actually based on any actual incidents. But certainly there are experiences like that that have happened in politics and everything that you read in the novel could actually happen. It’s not an unrealistic portrayal of politics, I don’t think. It may be a little bit torqued in places, you know, for comic effect. But in general all the stuff that happens, you know we’ve seen stuff like that for years.
G: What about the Angus McLintock’s of the world, do you see a lot of those?
F: No not many, which is why I wanted to created one. I think we need more politicians like Angus McLintock. So he was the character that really embodied, for me, the types of characteristics I would like to see in our politicians — those who put the national interest ahead of everything else, those who are honest, and want to do the right thing and aren’t necessarily guided by their own personal interests or their party’s political interests; they are really guided by the national interest or the public interest.
There are certainly some politicians like that. But it’s actually quite hard to sustain that kind of a personal ethic when you are a member of a party, because party politics, it just makes those things a little different, a little harder, a little more difficult to pursue.
G: What about your character Daniel Addison? After a number of years, he becomes a little disenchanted with his career — do you find that this is often the case on the Hill?
F: Yes, I think it’s true. When young people arrive on Parliament Hill, fresh faced and ready to serve and to do what they believe is right, it often doesn’t take very long before they are infected by the malaise of politics.
I certainly went through that process and that sort of transformation that Daniel Addison undergoes in the early stages of the novel, where he ends up feeling more cynical and jaded and jaundiced. I went through that process when I worked on Parliament Hill. That’s certainly one autobiographical aspect of the novel, you might say — my experience was quite similar to Daniel Addison’s.
I hope that that changes over time and I hope that young people continue to work on Parliament. We need good people with the right intentions to be up there working. [I] just hope they can do it for longer than I felt I could do it.
G: What advice would you have [for] those students, so that they don’t end up feeling that same way?
F: Well I think it’s easier for people working on Parliament Hill if they look at the big picture and they see that there’s 150 years of inertia behind how we practice politics in this country. And I think they have to keep the faith.
And I think it helps to have a greater interest in policy than in politics. If you’re more interested in the actual policies that a government might introduce to deal with some of the challenges that we’re confronting as a nation, that’s probably more fulfilling work than just working in the straight political trenches, where you don’t really have the luxury of thinking too much about policy because you’re too consumed with politics.
But we need those people up there working, because we need that energy and in a way we need that kind of enthusiasm that is going to — I think — counter some of the problems we have in politics.
G: So your book is now turning into a mini-series. I hear you’ve been on set. How does it feel to see your book come to life?
F: Well, it’s a very surreal experience, when you spend a year or so creating these characters in your mind and then living with them for the next five years after that and all of sudden to have those characters come to life and to sit down and have lunch with Angus McLintock in between shooting scenes. It is a very usual and surreal experience — I loved it.
I think they’re doing a terrific job; the characters are wonderful. I think the proof that it’s going well, at least for me, is that now when I think Angus McLintock and Daniel Addison and the other characters in the novel, I no longer conjure up in my mind the images that have been there over the years from when I started writing the novel. Now the images that come into my mind are those of the actors who are playing the characters in the TV series.
So that transformation was quite swift and complete. So it’s quite exciting. And I’m looking forward to seeing the show when it starts in January.
G: Can you talk to me a bit about some of the challenges? Because you were involved with the process a little bit of turning the book into the series, what are kind of the challenges associated with that?
F: Well there are a lot of characters in the novel and it’s tough to have a TV show with so many characters, so we’ve sort of cut down on the number of… well I mean, the major characters are all the same, but the sort of ancillary characters, the more minor characters, some of them have not made it into the show because it’s just too unwieldy to manage. It’s always tough to shoot politics, because it’s not always easy to get access to the Parliament buildings. So one of the challenges was to actually get in to Center Block and to the Library of Parliament, where they have been doing some of the shooting, because they’re not used to doing that and approval has not been granted to do that sort of thing for many, many years. So that was one of the challenges.
So the scene we were shooting last week comes quite late in the story. So I got to have a little cameo in one of the scenes which was kind of fun.
G: Oh that’s great. Like an Alfred Hitchcock moment?
F: Yeah, exactly.
G: That’s great. So I called you at your PR firm today. So I’m just wondering, if you’re still working there full-time, when do you find time to write?
F: It’s always a challenge. I still work here most days. Four out of five days at least that I’m here. So to me writing becomes a bit of a weekend endeavor. I’ll often write late Friday nights and early Saturday mornings and Saturday nights. So it’s not easy to balance it all, that’s true. But if you love it enough you figure out how to do it and you make the time for it. And that’s what I’ve somehow managed to do since 2005 when I started writing the first novel The Best Laid Plans. So you get used to it.
G: Is there one that you love more than the other?
F: That’s like asking “Is there one of your children you love more than the others?” I think I probably like the book I most recently finished most of all. Each time I finish one that becomes the one that I tend to like the best. I’ve been doing a lot of talks and readings from my third novel Up and Down and my forth novel called No Relation has been finished for a couple of months now and it will be out… it’ll be on bookstore shelves in this coming May. So I’m hard at work on my fifth now. It never ends. You just have to keep going.
G: That’s great. I just have one last question for you. So you were named — this year — as the author of the year by the Canadian Booksellers association. The criteria for the award is “a Canadian author of an outstanding literary work, published in the previous year, that makes a significant contribution to Canadian culture.” So I was just wondering, what do you think your books contribute to Canadian culture?
F: That’s a good question. Well, I think of it on two different levels. On one level I hope people just read them and enjoy them — let them be a distraction [from] the pressures and the stresses of their daily lives. I think we sometimes need books, in the same way that we need movies, or other distractions to help inflict perspective on the rest of our lives, because we’re so busy.
So I hope it’s considered an escape — an enjoyable escape for many people. But on a another level, I —certainly for the first two novels — I hope the people will read The Best Laid Plans and The High Road and give passing thought to some of the issues that those novels try to illuminate, about how we practice politics in this country and the things that we might do to make our democracy a little stronger.
I don’t know if that’s a contribution to culture. I’m just happy to be on bookstore shelves in this country and hope that people enjoy the stories.