Saturday, July 21, 2007

Canada Calling: Giles Blunt

Welcome to our regular Canadian feature. Once a month for the next few months we'll spotlight a Canadian author. Our guest this month is the award-winning Giles Blunt, who lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Giles Blunt grew up in North Bay, Ontario, a small city that is remarkably similar to the Algonquin Bay of the John Cardinal novels. After studying English literature at the University of Toronto, he moved to New York City, where he lived for the next twenty years, before moving back to Toronto in 2002. The first Cardinal novel, “Forty Words for Sorrow,” won the British Crime Writers Silver Dagger award, and the second, “The Delicate Storm,” won the Crime Writers of Canada Authur Ellis award for best novel. The fourth in the series, “By the Time You Read This,” came out last fall (2006) and was hailed by the Globe and Mail as best mystery of the year. It was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger.

PPD: Your biography is full of irony and fun. Your books are full of mutilated bodies, deformed dwarfs, drug dealing, and depression. Where do the dark visions come from?

The short answer is, I don’t know. When my first book, “Cold Eye,” came out, some of my friends were rather taken aback by how dark it was. One friend even cried, because she thought I must be so unhappy! But you know, I’ve met horror-meister Wes Craven and he’s the most even-tempered, congenial person you’d ever want to meet. And whenever I’ve seen Stephen King in interviews, he strikes me as a completely sunny individual. So there isn’t always a direct ratio between an author’s temperament and the tenor of his fiction. I used to get terribly depressed when I was younger, but not for many, many years, so it isn’t that I’m expressing my personal emotions.

Most of the books have some fun and irony in them. “Delicate Storm” has the world’s dumbest criminal, and “Forty Words for Sorrow” has Woody, an extremely amiable thief who’s good for a laugh or two. “By the Time You Read This” has themes of suicide and child porn so, no, not a lot of laughs there. But you know, talking about depression doesn’t mean you’re depressed, nor does it necessarily make others depressed. I get a lot of letters from people whose lives have been touched by manic depression, and they are enormously moved to have it described accurately. It’s comforting to have someone describe the painful side of life without wallowing in it. Think of Paul Simon’s songs, for example, or Eleanor Rigby and Yesterday. Songs about sad things are not depressing songs.

PDD: You play blues guitar. Do the blues influence your writing or are they strictly for your non-writing time?

I almost never play blues these days. Since moving back to Toronto I’ve taken up with some musical friends who specialize in The Beatles and other stuff from that era, so I’m mostly playing very cheerful music. I love singing and playing guitar and keyboard. And I love keeping it on an amateur level because there’s absolutely no pressure to perform up to a certain standard. Once you start charging people money, it becomes something else. But, no, I don’t make any connection between my musical endeavours and my writing.

I know some crime writers make a big deal out of what their characters are listening to, but I actually find it quite beside the point. In most cases, information on musical taste will add nothing to a major character. Our sense of that character comes from how he responds to what situation he finds himself in. Do we really need to know that Macbeth, say, is fond of Scottish folk tunes? Or that Hamlet prefers Bach to Frescobaldi? What is interesting, is that Hamlet is wild about the theatre, because he then uses that passion, that knowledge, to trap the king. But if we are told that a character listens to Mozart, Beethoven, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, that doesn’t actually distinguish him from most of the Baby Boomers.

Occasionally you get a villain where the musical taste might be interesting. It’s often the case that you want a villain to be extremely intelligent, so that he offers the hero more of a challenge. So you get Hannibal Lecter listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. Or in the movie “Three Days of the Condor” you have Max von Sydow, playing a hit man, listening to Mozart as he cleans his gun—implying a love of precision. That’s why so many movie villains have English accents—and not because we hate English people, but because an educated English person sounds intelligent to our ears even when he’s talking absolute rubbish. Thus Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman play bad guys in “Die Hard” movies, or James Mason in “Vertigo,” or Sidney Greenstreet in “The Maltese Falcon.” Also, it adds the element of class warfare: it’s often not a bad thing to have your salt-of-the-earth detective bring down someone from the upper class—and an English accent, in North America at least, is a quick way of hinting at a higher class.

All of which is a long way from your question about the blues.

PDD: Aside from the craziness of selling a script—assuming you can put that aside—do you approach writing a screenplay in a different way from writing a novel?

Most scripts are written for hire, of course, and that is a very different process than thinking up an idea and making something out of it with the hope that it will sell. But if we’re talking about spec scripts—those generated solely by the writer—I actually don’t make much distinction.

To go through the process briefly:

At the point of story selection there are some differences. What works on the screen will not always work on the page and vice versa. Ross Macdonald’s books, for example, aren’t very good movies—despite the top-notch talents involved in them—because they are rather melancholy and reflective. There’s an almost elegiac tone to them that Hollywood doesn’t handle well. They’d be much better as French films. The other problem is, they tend to open up into the past. By which I mean, Archer’s investigation will take him into events of the past that prove to be motivations for present-day crimes. Good reading, but not so compelling on screen. From the opposite end, if you had an idea like “Die Hard”—excellent movie material—you wouldn’t use it for a book because it relies so much on physical gags and on elements that are highly unrealistic. Movies go by at such speed, it doesn’t matter, but if you’re sitting there reading a book you’re going to go: no way, never happen.

I’m a big outliner, and my outlining process for a book is exactly the same as it is for a movie. I write my ideas for scenes on 3 x 5 index cards and organize them into what I hope will be the most effective order. If you do this right, it helps you when your prose may let you down, or your dialogue is not up to snuff. A strong, coherent story will support any number of other infelicities. Of course, it’s impossible to do this without also expending a great deal of mental energy on character. You shift back and forth between things you’d like to see happen and characters you’d like to see reacting to them. So by the time you get to writing actual pages you should have a good sense of who you are writing about.

The two processes diverge quite a bit after that. With a screenplay, you spend no time at all describing anything. It’s all action and dialogue. There’s a lot of white space on the page, so you can turn out pages fairly quickly. But because you have so little to rely on, each of those pages is riskier. The slightest implausibility in speech or action can ruin a scene and a film.

Writing a novel is much slower. You have to convey the setting at all times. Some writers do that with a lot of description, usually boring as hell. Others do it mostly through character and dialogue. You read Elmore Leonard and you come away with a vivid sense of Detroit or Miami, but I doubt if he spends more than ten sentences, if that, actually describing them. It’s all conveyed through character and dialogue. That’s one of the reasons his books have virtually all been filmed, they are actually very close to scripts when published. I try to fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You can convey a lot of tone and atmosphere in your descriptive passages, especially if you are describing through a character’s point of view, and if the have a particular emotion dominant at the time. New York looks very different when you are depressed than when you are in love.

A novel at this stage is much more work, but you can get away with more because you have the space to tell a reader exactly what you want to convey. You have their attention for six to ten hours; a screenwriter only has two.

Then the polishing stage is much the same. I enjoy this stage in both formats, because you know you’re improving the thing every day—taking out mistakes, setting u later scenes in a way that’ll make them much stronger, making characters consistent, ensuring that your efforts are varied from chapter to chapter, scene to scene. In both cases it’s the beginning and ending of the process I enjoy the most.

PDD: Your list of nominations and awards is impressive. An Arthur Ellis, a Dashiell Hammett nomination, a Macavity, an Anthony, an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Macallan Silver Dagger for fiction and, most recently, a nomination for the Duncan Lawrie Dagger, the biggest crime-fiction award in the world. What takes you that extra step, from terrific fiction to award-winning fiction?

It’s very pleasant to win awards or to be nominated, but you can’t take them seriously. There are excellent books that don’t win awards, and lots of silly books that do. We all like to think that the judges are having a period of lucidity when we happen to win, and that they are drunk or mentally defective when we don’t, but the fact is it’s all pretty random. So, I wouldn’t make a distinction between award-winning work and other good work.

I do know that books I admire tend to have certain things in common, whatever genre they may happen to be in. Most readers love the sensation of suspense. It’s a crucial element in my favourite crime novels such as “Gorky Park,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Red Dragon,” “Live Flesh,” but also in Shakespeare (Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet especially). It’s also a crucial element in horror and farce. Think of Moliere, “Fawlty Towers,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” or Mapp and Lucia without suspense. Impossible.

But all of these also have a wonderful coming together of plot and character. The miser can not work unless you have a rich man terrified of parting with his money, surrounded by family members with expensive tastes. Othello cannot work unless you have a proud but somewhat insecure man married to a beautiful young wife.

That’s just as the premise stage. Then you have all the observations of human behaviour dramatized in every scene. Shakespeare is the unrivalled master of this, but many novelists are very good at it. When you read Graham Greene you recognize behaviour that you see all the time without maybe noticing it: the obsessed man who cannot distinguish his love from hate, the arrogant man who mistakes his pity for kindness, the detective who misses the obvious. Greene is just wonderful.

Or Thomas Harris. There’s a scene in “Lambs”—an absolute minor character, a young rural woman, is being questioned about her friend who has been murdered. She becomes sad and tearful, and Harris describes her tipping her head back so that her mascara won’t run. Very few crime novelists have that kind of eye.

I think those are some of the elements that distinguish good writing from bad, and those are the elements I always try for, but I don’t succeed nearly as often as I’d like.

PDD: Many thanks to Giles Blunt for those thoughtful answers. You can learn more about him and his books at

Next month: Canada goes calling on Louise Penny.


Sandra Parshall said...

Giles is one of my favorite writers, and I'm happy to have him visiting PDD. If you like procedurals and haven't tried his books, you're missing something great.

Sofie Kelly said...

By the Time You Read This is a terrific book. And I'm not just saying that because Giles is a fellow Canadian. Like Thomas Harris, whom he mentioned in the interview, Giles has the knack for finding just the right descriptive details.

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