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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Behind the Scenes with, John Brooke, the Creator of the Inspector Aliette Novelle Series

John Brooke lives in Montreal. He is the creator of the Inspector Aliette Nouvelle series of literary mysteries set in France. The most recent is Stifling Folds of Love. Brooke has won Canada's Journey Prize for his short story "The Finer Points of Apples", and he won a CBC-Quebec short fiction prize for The Death of PJ Barfard.

Tell us about the genre of your work. 

My primary focus these days is a series literary mysteries featuring a French policewoman called Inspector Aliette Nouvelle. I’ve just published the third, Stifling Folds of Love. I am working on the fourth. I’m not sure where the term ‘literary mystery’ comes from. A writer? Or a book marketer? I suppose it’s meant to separate the ‘thriller’, which is mainly powered by plot and action, from an approach that moves at a more measured pace and allows for a more psychologically complex cast of characters. When you think about it, the Sherlock Holmes stories were literary mysteries; the ‘thriller’ came later, but the term took over a corner of the bookstore nonetheless. I get worried when someone pegs my books as thrillers.

Why did you choose this genre?

I chose this genre because the first story I ever attempted was a police story. I was working in the film business in Montreal. Writing mystery novels had never occurred. I happened to notice a brief item in one of the French language dailies - a wire service story from France: Jacques Mesrine, Public Enemy Number One, had been tracked down and arrested north of Paris. The cop leading the operation was a woman. What struck me were two things. One: that France would have such a figure as a Public Enemy Number One. This was the mid-80’s. I thought Public Enemies had disappeared into 40’s film lore. I wondered what kind of man filled this anachronistic role in modern France. And two: that it was a female cop who’d caught him. I was fascinated by the idea of an emerging feminine hero tracking down an outmoded ‘macho’ hero, and taking the hero mantle for herself. Being a former Lit major, I had to notice the mythic subtext framing that brief news story and it inspired me to write. The context was police and crime. So without really knowing it, I began to write a literary mystery: The Voice of Aliette Nouvelle.

What are some of your books, stories that have been published?

I have published four books of fiction and a few short stories. I have been fortunate to win prizes for my two of my short stories. My books are:

The Voice of Aliette Nouvelle (ISBN 0-92183365-2) Aliette tracks a former Public Enemy Number One - who ought to be long gone, but can’t quite disappear into history. Mutual attraction is a mutual mystery.

All Pure Souls (ISBN 0-921833-80-6) Inspector Nouvelle uncovers a Goddess cult behind the murder of an up-market Marilyn Monroe ‘lookalike’ prostitute

Stifling Folds of Love (ISBN 978-1-897109-57-1) Celebrity gossip clouds the inspector’s love life – but the city’s ‘most eligible’ lovers are dying and it’s her job to find out why.

Last Days of Montreal (ISBN 0-921833-91-1) This a departure from the Aliette Nouvelle project. The book, based loosely on my own experiences and feelings, is about life in a small Montreal neighborhood during the politically difficult times surrounding the 1998 Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty.

All my books are published by Signature Editions, based in Winnipeg. They can purchased online in both paper and eBook format… The latest is Stifling Folds of Love, which makes the Aliette series a trilogy.

My website provides links to purchase and/or to find out more.

How do you come up with the names of places and characters in your books?  

The genesis of a French inspector’s name: Aliette - Borrowed from a little girl who causes trouble in a Luis Buñuel film, Le Fantôme de la Liberté. (The Ghost of Freedom.) Nouvelle - New, in the feminine. I’ve been told it’s not a real French name – you wouldn’t find any Nouvelles in a French phonebook. I’ve never looked. (There are none in the Montreal directory.) But I’m not writing reality, I’m writing a story. I situated her in a border city on the Rhine, where France shares space with Germany and Switzerland. I liked the idea of her being on the edge of literal boundaries, and crossing metaphorical boundaries as she goes about her investigations. The city is never named.

For the rest of the characters in the series, I have no method in selecting names. I try to have fun finding French names that sound good to me. They may be a little corny. They may carry a bit of symbolic weight - like Aliette does. I hope not it’s too obvious. The best names will make me laugh – my own private French joke derived from the French side of my life. Claude Néon. J-P Blismes, Tommi Bonneau, Pearl Serein, Flossie Orain, Hermenegilde Dupras, Ondine and Georgette Duguay…

In Last Days of Montreal, ‘Last Days’ is the only known name of the central character. The sign on the back of his electric wheelchair is both a warning and a prophecy to a city in danger of losing its unique identity to the crass demands of politics – and the people who know him simply call him ‘Last Days.’ It seemed a perfect name for a beer-soaked Don Quixote type travelling through a damaged world.

How did you develop the character of your protagonist in your books?

You develop any character by putting them into a situation that requires both action and self-reflection – the self-knowledge gained as situation unfolds is deeper ‘character’. Writing a detective series provides endless opportunity to explore trenchant aspects of a central character and those surrounding her. I’ve tried to build the Aliette Nouvelle stories around underlying themes. As I mentioned, the theme behind the plot in the first book is the hero’s identity – how a ‘new’ Aliette wrests the hero mantle from a tired, obsolete man. In the second book it’s Aliette’s spiritual relationship to the world she lives in: the context is a murder within a goddess cult; our hero’s sense of what she ‘believes’ is tested as she solves the crime. In the third book, murders occur within the context of celebrity gossip and spectacularly public love. Aliette works through it while trying to protect the naturally private area of her own heart that wants to keep love quiet… So in all three books you have a hero who faces challenges to essential parts of her character. We hope she comes out ahead.

What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?

In the Inspector Aliette Nouvelle series the ‘bad guys’ change from one story to the next. In each, they represent the force that challenges a part of Aliette’s character and the values defining it. The recurring elements in the series are the people she works with. By design, they are mostly men. Not necessarily ‘bad’ men, but men whose point of view will usually differ from Aliette’s. In that sense, you could say a ‘man’s world – or the ‘male perspective’ - is the recurring nemesis this female investigator comes up against time and again. Which I hope gives Aliette a certain contemporary universality.

What’s your favorite thing about your books?

If you are asking what is my favorite thing about my books as finished products, that’s a hard question because I don’t read them as a consumer of crime fiction. What’s more, readers I meet often express a completely different sense of what I’ve written from what I intended. (One good reason why a writer – or any artist – should just work to please him/herself.) But to answer your question, I will say my favorite thing is a playful quality, something that makes my mystery books a bit more like a ‘tale’ and a little less like a slice of life from the literal world. Even when the context is tragic, or sometimes violent, that is what I aim for. It’s not ‘absurd’ – Aliette is a serious woman. It’s just not ‘hard nosed’… Whimsy? A cartoonish tinge? It’s difficult to define categorically. Whether I succeed or not, only a reader can tell.

As for the writing process, my favorite thing is the enjoyment of finishing. There is so much uncertainty in the first stages of writing a book - first in finding the story line, and then in making it work. It can get very uncomfortable in terms of confidence and even interest. (How many times have I heard someone say they abandoned a writing project because they grew ‘bored’ with it?) It can last a year, or longer. That’s a test of will and patience, and ultimately imagination - a long slow battle with the Muse. When I come out the other end feeling I’ve got something solid, the finishing stage is something to be enjoyed. A book may be three hundred pages long, but it can still be just as elegant and precise in design and detail as a sonnet. And the rhythm can feel like a song. Many readers will never even notice. But creating that final level of quality is highly pleasurable. Something definitely worth working for.

How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genre?

The main difference between writing a police series and ‘one-off’ novels or short stories is the continuity – the world you begin to create. This both makes you want to go further and helps you go further, because one story always opens a door to a possible next, and the familiarity with the territory and main character makes starting the next slightly less daunting. Although you can certainly do this with novels and short stories. Faulkner’s novels unfolding in Yoknapatawpha County. Runyon’s stories set in the Prohibition era New York City underworld. My book Last Days of Montreal is not quite a novel; strictly speaking, it is a collection of ‘linked stories’ featuring recurring characters, albeit in different roles – sometimes central, other times peripheral. And all those stories are set within the same well-established cityscape.

Why and when did you begin writing?

I began writing in my forties. I am sixty now. I have always worked on the so-called creative side. I was in the film business, working as an editor, also producing some short films of my own. When I tumbled across the idea for the first Inspector Aliette Nouvelle story, my first attempt at that was in fact a film script. I could not sell the finished script, but I still liked the story so I began to transpose it into a book. I’m not sure I like the word ‘novelize’ but I suppose that’s what I was attempting. In any case, I had the story already there in front of me (which helped!) – the goal was to make it deeper, more psychological, and to turn images (film scenes) into viable prose. I also began writing short stories about the life here in Montreal during the politically crazy years of the Referendum. No one taught me - no Creative Writing course. It’s interesting how, when you feel the need to express something, you can find a way.

What is your writing schedule?

I try to adhere to a Protestant-work-ethic nine-to-five writing schedule (seven-to-four is more accurate) with time off in the afternoon for exercise and maybe a run. Perhaps a bit more work in the evening if the energy is good. I rarely work on Saturday. I work a little but not much on Sunday, just enough to get me ready to go again on Monday. If I receive a contract for some corporate writing or translation, that gets priority - bread and butter is a necessity. Over the course of a year the portioning of free writing time to business writing time is pretty even, and I manage to move my fiction projects forward according to plan.

What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?

I am currently working on a fourth Inspector Aliette Nouvelle mystery, which, all things being equal, will be published next autumn. And I am planning a fifth. I have a novel about fatherhood built around a golf game that I keep trying to perfect. And I have anti-war story I’m working on. But for now I am focused on giving Aliette the market presence that a five-book series (I hope) will bring.

What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write (especially mystery)?

To would-be writers in general I say: learn to enjoy it for itself. The market may or may not find you (or like you!), but you and your stories may have to co-exist for a long time. Even the people closest to your life won’t care much about your writing, beyond polite words. So understand what you’re getting into and find a way to love it, quietly but strongly, and over the long term… For anybody contemplating writing a mystery, my advice would be to keep it close to home. That may sound strange coming from an Anglo boy from Toronto whose detective is a woman in France. But even if your setting is Mars, all mysteries are mainly about the cop, not the crime, not the bad guy; and you the writer are the soul of the cop – it all goes through your sensibility, your values, your take on the things occurring in the world. So start from there. Though you may revere the tough voice of Philip Marlowe or Harry Bosch’s edgy discomfort or the neurotic strength of Harry Hole, they belong to someone else. Your cop is you.

Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?

Two things: Take a hint from film and TV – if you can’t see the story for all the prose, try writing it out as a series of present-tense ‘scenes’. Dialogue. One or two sentences laying out setting and action. This may help you get the story down from A to Z. Then you can go back to perfecting the art of prose. And: Be a mimic. We all start by copying someone else – typically, someone we admire. Go for it. Mimic the voice and style of the writer you admire most - it will help you get inside your story. But there comes a point when you have to say ‘thanks, old friend’ and let your own voice take over. That can be a bit scary, but it has to happen. You have to be aware that it’s happening, and let it.

What do you do when you are not writing? 

I play hockey in Jarry Park, ten minutes from my house, on ice skates in winter, roller blades in summer. I’m sixty and I love it, but I know I am getting close to my body’s limit. I also enjoy golf when I visit my parents in Ontario, and riding my bike through the valleys of the St. Chinian wine district in the Midi region of France when we visit Annie’s family. I do my tai-chi, jog and otherwise try to stay fit - I believe it helps when you’re sitting in front of that empty page/screen. Our life in this part of Montreal is such that can we walk almost everywhere we need to go. Or ride our bikes. I read. I listen to music. I know it’s futile, but I root for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?

To be honest, I’m not sure what a ‘Made It’ moment is any more – if I ever knew. I used to think it was finding out I’d won a literary prize, which has happened more than once – but that was false signal. Real ‘Made It’ moments happen when I’m running in the park and one tiny sentence appears in my head that knits an idea together perfectly. I remember that happening when I was writing the story that won the big literary prize that was supposed to change my life…When my first novel was published and I received my box of ‘author’s copies’ and took one out and held it in my hands, I wept, very privately. But even that was not a ‘Made It’ moment. As with my prize-winning short story, the moment happened long before the box of finished books arrived… I was trying to write that first book but I needed something more solid to use as a resource. Annie, the French woman I live with, only had a vague idea what I was up to. (It’s the language difference – especially in the early stages.) Still, it was Annie who happened to go into a used book store in rue St. Hubert and come home with a copy of the out-of-print memoir that became both the central motif and primary source of research for my first mystery. Receiving that book from the woman I love on a Saturday afternoon was a ‘Made It’ moment, but I had no idea. I don’t think we ever really do.

Note from Sylvia: You can visit my other blog at: features a preview to my new book, Traveling a Rocky Road with Love, Faith and Guts.

1 comment:

JLC said...

The most interesting profile you've published, I think. A teaser for the books, a glimpse of a person I'd very much like to meet, a writer I'd give a lot to have a conversation with.