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Trevor Cole (Fehn Foss)
Trevor Cole (Fehn Foss)

Trevor Cole: ‘We had gangsters who lived lives every bit as dramatic as the ones in Chicago and New York’ Add to ...

Trevor Cole is the author of four novels, including Norman Bray, in the Performance of His Life and The Fearsome Particles, which were both finalists for the Governor-General’s Literary Award, as well as Practical Jean, the winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Cole, who’s also an award-winning journalist, just published his first non-fiction book, The Whisky King: The Remarkable True Story of Canada’s Most Infamous Bootlegger and the Undercover Mountie on His Trail.

Why did you write your new book?

I’ve always been fascinated by the era of bootlegging, flappers, spoke-wheeled roadsters and mobsters in pinstripe suits. So much happened during Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties to help shape the world we live in today. It was a dangerous time of crazy excess and corruption that led to many of the laws that govern us today. It saw the emergence of organized crime in North America, and it was a formative period for the police and detective work needed to combat it. People associate that period of rum runners and mob slayings with big American cities, but it happened here, too. It happened in the streets of Toronto and Hamilton and the Niagara region. In people like Rocco Perri and Bessie Starkman – true celebrity criminals of their time – we had gangsters who lived lives every bit as dramatic as the ones in Chicago and New York. In Frank Zaneth, we had a relentless detective as deserving of fame as Eliot Ness. When my amazing editor, Jennifer Lambert, came to me with the idea for this book, I knew that the chance to immerse myself in that past and throw light on the saga of Rocco, Bessie and Frank was too good to pass up.

Whose sentences are your favourite?

I love E. Annie Proulx’s sentences (not so much her sentence fragments) for the surprise of her descriptive choices. I love reading Jonathan Franzen’s show-offy acrobatic sentences for the thrill that comes when he sticks the landing. I love Cormac McCarthy’s sentences for their brutal certainty.

What scares you as a writer?

I’m scared of the opportunity missed. That comes in different guises. It can be the opportunity presented by a book, to fully and artfully tackle a subject in a way that’s never been done before. I’m always afraid – particularly now in the case of non-fiction – that no matter how many months or years of research I’ve done, I will somehow manage to miss a crucial nugget of information, the lost letter or even the blatantly obvious fact staring right at me, that would have made all the difference. That kind of thing keeps me up at night. But it can also be the opportunity presented by a paragraph or sentence, to find the perfect way to articulate an idea, or to realize a moment in the life of a character. I hate the thought that my work will bring me to the threshold of that opportunity, and I’ll somehow screw it up.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

For Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief – certainly a classic of CanLit, and widely loved – the word despise is too harsh. But, to me, the literary ambition of every sentence is so palpable that all surprise and delight and energy seems to have been massaged out of it. The book feels as if it was written to be read aloud, by him, to a large, admiring audience.

What’s the best romance in literature?

Have to go with the romance between the fisherman and the fish in The Old Man and the Sea. It’s enthralling, and it spans so many emotions, from excitement to hatred to admiration to love and finally to regret.

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