Saturday, April 17, 2010

Canada Calling: Howard Shrier

Howard Shrier is a Canadian author who abandoned corporate communications in 2005 to write crime fiction. He is far poorer for this decision but somewhat wiser and much happier, especially since winning the 2009 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.

PDD: Tell me about Jonah Geller: his world, what drives him

Jonah Geller is a young secular Jew, born and raised in Toronto, who fell into the world of private investigation more or less by accident. Unlike his older brother, who was always driven and focused (he is now a highly successful lawyer and family man), Jonah always felt a bit lost in school, especially after his father’s sudden death at age 44, when Jonah was just 14. He was one of those smart but scattered kids who couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to do with himself. He wound up going to Israel in his early twenties, searching for something meaningful. After his lover was killed by Hezbollah rocket fire, he joined the Israeli army in a misguided search for revenge, but found himself caught in the cycle of violence that haunts him to this day (all of which is described in my first book, Buffalo Jump). After returning to Toronto, he began teaching martial arts, and met a man who owned an investigation agency and eventually went to work for him.

He now owns his own agency with his friend Jenn Raudsepp, who is also introduced in Buffalo Jump.
What drives him is a sense that he has done things in his life he wishes he could change or take back. Knowing he can’t, he tries to make up for them as best he can. His mission, if you will, is to provide justice for people who can’t find it under the law or through conventional means. To make the world a better place, any way he can.

PDD: Why did you choose to write a mystery series around this character?

I grew up reading classic private eye fiction, especially the novels and stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. I knew if I ever wrote a novel, it would be a first-person PI book. And I wanted that PI to have a voice like mine—urban, Jewish, and comic. Somehow that led me to Jonah.

PDD: Both of your books have been optioned for movie and television rights. How did that come about?

The producer at Media Headquarters, Rob Cohen, read Margaret Cannon’s glowing review of Buffalo Jump in the Globe and Mail and picked up a copy. He liked it enough to contact my agent and ask about the rights. Things took awhile to negotiate, but a few months later, on my birthday, the option contract arrived. One of the Canadian networks recently struck a development deal with Media Headquarters and a pilot script for a series is now in the works.

You were a police reporter. I think most of us have the old movie image of some guy in a battered hat and trench coat who is either not going to make waves in the police department or is a young, hot blood out to expose police corruption. What does a police reporter really do?

I joined the Montreal Star (sadly, now defunct) in 1979, just before I graduated journalism school. And the place they would stick green rookies like me was the police desk. It was a fascinating job in many ways.

Much of the time was actually spent in a glassed-in booth in the newsroom, listening to chatter on scanners—almost always in French, which made it even more challenging to pick out the gems from the dross—and monitoring TV and radio stations, wire services and other sources to see what they were covering.

Some of the stories were formulaic and mundane: “A (fill in age) man was found (shot/stabbed/strangled) to death in what police are calling—choose one of the following—a gangland settling of accounts, drug deal gone sour, drunken brawl….”

Others were heart-wrenching, like the interview I did with the family of a little girl who had gone missing from her neighbourhood and was never found. Or demoralizing, like the feature I wrote about an amusement park after a near-fatal accident on one of the rides—the very amusement park I went to every summer as a kid and thought was fantastic, now revealed to be shabby and second-rate in every way.

But I got to do a lot of things I might never have otherwise done. Got tear-gassed, visited prisons, met cops and criminals, chased fire trucks.
I never wore a trench coat, but I did learn a lot, especially about the value of clean, crisp prose.

Your comments on what makes a Jewish book Jewish are very thought-provoking. You’ve lived in both Toronto and Montreal. Is there a difference in the Jewish community between those two cities?

There are definite differences between the Jewish communities in Montreal and Toronto. Being a port city, Montreal was where many immigrants first settled. Toronto was where they moved later on. Montreal Jews were more observant than their Toronto counterparts, at least in my day. Most synagogues were Orthodox. Jews there did not assimilate as readily. They also had to deal with two different strains of anti-Semitism, from the English and the French.

Today, Toronto’s community is much larger than Montreal’s and quite spread out geographically. The secular crowd tends to live closer to downtown; the more religious Jews have mostly migrated north. Consequently, you can’t get decent smoked meat south of Steeles (with the exception of Caplansky’s).

PDD: Do you have any hobbies or special interests?

I’m a reasonably accomplished singer and guitar player. I’ve sung in choirs, rock bands, musical theatre and better living rooms everywhere, and still take part in hootenannies and jams from time to time. Luckily my wife is a singer too, so we amuse each other with harmony. I also love cryptic crosswords, will read pretty much anything other than celebrity magazines, and keep hoping I’ll develop abs before I die. I used to be a rabid baseball fan but the strike of 1994 pretty much killed that. I was also a rabid hockey fan, until I moved here from Montreal. I love good singer-songwriters, like Tom Waits, Steve Earle and John Hiatt, and have been known to sample the occasional whiskey with friends. My other delight in life is spending time with my sons, now 13 and 10, who are great company—and voracious readers, like their dad. With any luck, they’ll inherit their mother’s hairline.

To learn more about Howard, Jonah and the books visit Howard’s web site.


signlady217 said...

These sound really good. They are now on my TBR list. Looking forward to them, and more.

kathy d. said...

Books sound good. For me, one thing is crucial in books with Jewish characters; there must be Jewish humor.

I grew up with my mother's Polish, Jewish immigrant family's humor and I absolutely love it. The minute I hear an older Jewish person with a Yiddish accent, I get ready to laugh because I know the humor is coming and I'll cry from laughing.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great interview. Howard, you got me thinking: I haven't heard much about Jewishness in crime fiction. My series protagonist isn't Jewish, but I have a story about to come out in EQ whose protag is a young Marrano sailor on Columbus's first voyage. Not humorous, though, Kathy--maybe because he's a Sephardic rather than an Ashkenazic Jew. I'm told Sephardic culture doesn't have the guilt or the worrying either. ;)

kathy d. said...

To Elizabeth: But Barbara is funny and she has New Yorker-Jewish humor and one-liners that are hilarious.