Five Questions with… Becky Masterman

(c) Neal KreuserBecky Masterman, author of the new thriller Rage Against the Dying, answered our five questions.

IFOA: You work as acquisitions editor for a publisher that specializes in forensic science. How did this lead to writing crime fiction?

Masterman: Picture this: you’re sitting in an elegant old restaurant with a medical examiner. You want to talk about a book contract, she wants to talk about how well preserved heads are when they’ve been encased in concrete. The waiter comes up to take your order and apologizes for interrupting your conversation. You say, “Oh, no problem, it’s just girl talk.” With stuff like that happening at every moment, how could I write about anything else? Also it’s awfully convenient to be able to discuss gunshot wounds with the author of, for example, Gunshot Wounds.

IFOA: You’ve said you’re nothing like your protagonist, Brigid Quinn. Who or what inspired her?

Masterman: A woman in my book club who’s eighty years old, has one lung, and still passes notes to lone male diners in restaurants. A detective specializing in sexual homicides who talks so tough but whose eyes still look haunted 30 years after retirement. A forensic anthropologist who looks like a grandmother, plays jazz piano, and investigates mass graves. And I confess, maybe a tablespoon of me, a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

IFOA: When and where do you write?

Masterman: Makes me remember a cartoon of James Thurber, a writer from the 30s, standing at a cocktail party holding a highball and staring straight ahead. His wife is saying, “Thurber! Stop writing!” But fingers are actually pounding the keyboard Friday through Sunday starting at 5 am. As I write this, I’m at the dining room table looking out the back window at a ten thousand foot mountain…with snow on it…in southern Arizona. The longer I live here the more beautiful it becomes.

IFOA: What are you most afraid of?

Masterman: I have two mosts. First, I have post polio syndrome so on a personal level I’m most afraid of falling down in parking lots or being chased and unable to run. I’m working on it, though. I nearly fell at the gym while doing step-ups and my trainer said, “Now give me five more fast before the fear sets in.” I love that guy because he treats me like I’m Brigid. Second, I’m afraid of the possibility of my daughter ever having to face tragedy in her life.  Beyond that, bring it on.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I wonder when…

Masterman:…my books will catch on so I can quit my day job and still be interesting. But my husband says now I have my writing to turn to; if all I’m doing is writing, what can I turn to then? He’s very wise.

Masterman will take part in Authors at Harbourfront Centre’s Crime Showcase on March 20.

Five Questions with… S.J. Parris

(c) The Portrait Company

(c) The Portrait Company

Journalist and author of SacrilegeS.J. Parris (the pseudonym of Stephanie Merritt) answered our five questions.

IFOA: You’re both a novelist and a journalist. How does your journalistic work inform or impact your fiction?

Parris: I’ve been a journalist for 15 years and in that time I’ve been privileged to interview a great many creative artists in all disciplines. More than anything, I think that has given me an appreciation for the sheer hard graft that goes into the creative process. When I feel I’m flagging with my own novels, I think of all the authors, playwrights, actors, directors and musicians I’ve talked to over the years and how every one of them that has enjoyed some success had to put in hours, sometimes years, of often lonely hard work – I do find that inspiring on the off days!

Being a journalist also taught me how to research thoroughly, which is very useful with historical fiction, though the great joy of writing novels is that you are free to stray away from the facts.

I think that writing fiction of my own has made me a more generous book reviewer, because I know what it’s like to be on the other side.

IFOA: Tell us about a book you read in the past few years that had a lasting impact on you.

Parris: The books that have had by far the greatest impact on me in recent years are Hilary Mantel’s two Booker-winning novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that these books have changed our perception of what the historical novel can do. She has given muscle and weight to a genre that can often be perceived as rather twee; these books are visceral and immediate, you live through every scene with the characters. And the repercussions of what went on in the reign of Henry VIII are still being felt during the period I’m writing about, so it’s interesting to me from that point of view as well.

IFOA: The series of books you are currently working on, including Sacrilege, are set in England in the 1580s. What is it about this period that appeals to you?

Parris: The 1580s, halfway through Elizabeth I’s reign, are a fascinating moment in English and European history. England is very new as a Protestant nation and the great Catholic powers in Europe, France and Spain, don’t really expect it to last; there are constant threats of invasion. It’s a period rich in intrigue, which saw the beginnings of modern espionage; Catholic spies and secret priests are all over the country and there are countless assassination plots against the Queen. There’s plenty of scope in such an atmosphere of paranoia and treason for novels that draw on murder and spy plots. My main character, Giordano Bruno, is himself a strange hybrid: he’s an ex-monk, excommunicated by the Catholic Church for heresy, working as a spy in England, so this gives him an unusual perspective on both sides.

IFOA: What is your idea of a perfect day?

Parris: A perfect day for me would involve a walk in the countryside with my 11-year-old son, a pub lunch with friends, a lazy afternoon reading in the sun and a good film in the evening. It’s the small things that really make us happy – I’m figuring this out as I get older…

IFOA: Finish this sentence: They keep telling me that…

Parris: They keep telling me that… the novel is a dying form, but I don’t believe it. People may be experimenting with different ways to access stories – ebooks, audiobook downloads etc – but it’s clear to me that there’s still an enormous appetite for good storytelling in whatever form, and more ways for people to get their stories to connect with readers, which can only be a good thing.

Parris will appear at Authors at Harbourfront Centre as part of the Crime Showcase on March 20.

Five Questions with… Jay Ruzesky

Ruzesky, Jay (c) Scott Ruzesky (cropped)Adventurer and In Antarctica author Jay Ruzesky answered our five questions.

IFOA: You’ve been interested in Roald Amundsen’s adventures since boyhood. How did you originally stumble upon his stories?

Ruzesky: I am an Amundsen through maternal lines, and he is our family’s claim to fame. He visited my mother’s farm and gave my great grandfather a compass which my mom used for show and tell in school, so I was probably imagining his adventures before most kids hear about Peter Pan.

IFOA: What’s one thing you and Amundsen have in common, and one way in which you are different?

Ruzesky: We have in common a feeling of belonging in the polar regions. I don’t know what it says about me that I felt at home in Antarctica (a place as geographically hostile to humans as you can get), but I did. A difference is that I am nowhere near as tough as he was. He skied into -50 degree winds for days in a row, and, with his crew, hauled tons of supplies up a glacier to the Antarctic plateau. I wouldn’t have the endurance.

IFOA: What’s your favourite thing about travelling by water?

Ruzesky: Maybe it’s the mariner’s genes I have—I don’t get seasick even in rough water. No doubt that was an advantage in Antarctica.

IFOA: Who is your favourite poet?

Ruzesky: Depends on the hour and the day: Sharon Olds, P.K. Page, Michael Ondaatje, Don Coles, and bp Nichol.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: Next time I’ll bring…

Ruzesky: I’ll bring a good portable audio recorder. I didn’t want to see Antarctica only through a lens, so I thought long and hard about it and then left my film equipment at home. I brought a small digital camera and got some quite good photos with that. What I had not thought enough about is what a powerful aural landscape Antarctica is. There are no planes flying overhead, no trucks on a far highway. There is only the sound of a whale spout way in the distance—like someone catching their breath; or the noise of 20,000 chinstrap penguins raising a flap. Those are sounds I wish I would have been able to record.

Ruzesky will appear at Authors at Harbourfront Centre as part of the Ben McNally Travellers Series on March 13.

Five Questions with… Matthew Goodman

Goodman, Matthew (cropped)Matthew Goodman, author of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, answered our five questions.

IFOA: How did you first encounter Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, and what made you want to tell their story?

Goodman: I knew the name Nellie Bly because of the old “Nellie Bly Amusement Park” near my home in Brooklyn, New York, but I didn’t know much about her or why she was important. Then one day I stumbled across a brief reference to her race around the world in 1889; I thought it was remarkable that a young woman (she was only 25), unaccompanied and carrying only a single bag, would be daring enough to try to do such a thing in the Victorian era. Then I discovered that Bly was in fact competing against another young female journalist, Elizabeth Bisland. I was captivated by the notion of these two young women racing each other around the world—one traveling east, the other west.

IFOA: Is there anything you learned from these pioneering journalists that you’ve been able to apply to your own career?

Goodman: These women were very different from each other, but each was fascinating and complicated in her own right. Nellie Bly was scrappy, hard-driving, funny, socially conscious; Bisland was erudite, literary, charming, quietly courageous. Each one was a writer’s dream subject, and from them I tried to learn, as best I could, how to make a real-life character come alive on the page—and I’m very grateful to them for that.

Goodman, Eighty DaysIFOA: What’s the longest journey you’ve ever taken?

Goodman: Many years ago I was fortunate enough to take a weeks-long trip to China, visiting Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Coming back, we flew from Beijing to San Francisco on China Air. In those days, at least on China Air, you could still smoke in the plane—and it seemed that just about everybody on board was a smoker. We flew over the Pacific Ocean in a thick blue haze. That was the longest journey I’ve ever taken.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with one writer, dead or alive, who would you choose?

Goodman: This guy wasn’t a writer so much as a newspaper publisher (though he did write many of his paper’s editorials), but my research for Eighty Days leads me to believe that Joseph Pulitzer would have been a fascinating lunch companion. He adored the works of George Eliot, read widely in politics and history, loved music and the arts, and could recite long passages of his favorite works from memory. One of his biographers described how “his talk poured forth seamlessly, moving with ease from a discourse on philosophy to the merits of a particular piano virtuoso to an analysis of local politics.” Plus he had a yacht.

IFOA: We hear this will be your first visit to Toronto. What are you most looking forward to? (Besides your event, of course!)

Goodman: A peameal bacon sandwich at the St. Lawrence Market!

Goodman will appear at Authors at Harbourfront Centre as part of the Ben McNally Travellers Series on March 13.

Five Questions with… Iain Reid


Iain Reid, author of the comic memoir The Truth About Luck: What I Learned on My Road Trip with Grandma, answered our five questions.

IFOA: What inspired you to write about your grandmother?

Reid: I’m not entirely sure what inspired me but I think it had to do with her impressive age and demeanor. She’s lived through so many eras, and changes, that are all just part of history for me; to her they’re strands of her life. I’m interested in how perspectives shift and stay consistent over the course of (nearly) a century of experience. We had a lot of long discussions on our trip, on a variety of topics. Both her long life and the way she still lives inspired me.

IFOA: Like One Bird’s Choice, The Truth About Luck is a memoir with you at its centre. How is this Iain Reid different than the Iain Reid we encountered in your first book?

Reid: Well, I’m definitely older. How else I’ve changed is a little harder to know. I’ve moved away from the farm. I live in a different city. I probably spend more time writing now. I cook more the last few years. I don’t feel tremendously different though, just a little older.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Reid: The History of Iceland by Dr. Gudni T. Johannesson.

IFOA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Reid: Probably finishing grad school. Study interests me. But maybe something completely different. My great-grandfather was a baker and I think I’d enjoy that. Like most jobs, I’m sure it would be more taxing and stressful than the excessively placid image I’ve built in my head. But it would smell great all day and I could wear really comfortable clothes.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It works better if you…

Reid: …go for a walk first.

Reid will appear at Authors at Harbourfront Centre as part of the Ben McNally Travellers Series on March 13.

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