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Books Will Ferguson: ‘The only thing harder than writing is not writing’

Author Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize in 2012 for his book 419.

Larry MacDougal/The Globe and Mail

Will Ferguson is the author of more than a dozen books, including 419, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012. Ferguson, who lives in Calgary, is also a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. His most recent novel, The Shoe on the Roof, was recently published by Simon & Schuster Canada.

Why did you write your new book?

The Shoe on the Roof is just your basic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-decides-to-cure-three-mental-patients-who-believe-they-are-Jesus story. My mother, Lorna Bell, worked as a psychiatric nurse in the 1950s and she told me similar stories of experiments in the United States where patients who shared competing delusional identities were brought together, forced to confront their doppelgangers. It has gnawed at me ever since: How much of our identity is real, how much imagined?

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Where did you write this book?

I wrote the first draft as a short film in a university dorm in Toronto, back in those heady carefree days we now know as "the eighties." I expanded it when I was living in Prince Edward Island, then turned it into a full-length commercial screenplay after we moved to Calgary. My agent shopped it around to various studios in the [United] States back in 2007. There was interest, but no takers. On reading it again, I could see there was a novel inside, trying to get out. You could say it's a book that took 30 years to write.

What are you like to be around when you are writing?

I'm a golden ray of sunshine! I'm ice cream and cupcakes, unicorns and lullabies. Just ask my wife, or any of my concerned neighbours who often see me walking about, head down, muttering under my breath. When I get stuck creatively I tend to "walk out" the problem, which can sometimes give the impression that I am the bearded Hermit of Garrison Woods, pacing up and down the tree-lined streets talking to myself. That said, I enjoy writing immensely and get restless between projects. The only thing harder than writing is not writing.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I have tried and failed three times to get through the turgid mess that is Moby-Dick. I think some books become classics in spite of themselves.

What historical period do you wish you lived through?

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Any era before the advent of social media.

Which fictional character do you wish you created?

This may be stretching the question a bit, but if you accept that the characters in a memoir, although not technically fictional, are still reconstructions, interpreted by the author, then the most compelling character I've come across in the last few years is that of Cecile – a.k.a. "Cec" – in Lynette Loeppky's memoir Cease. Cec comes off the page as a fully-rounded, deeply flawed, captivating and contradictory character. I wish I'd written Cec.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

I've always wanted to be a character in a Graham Greene novel: a rumpled expat exile, soaked in gin and regret, holed up in some sweltering paint-peeling hotel room in old Hanoi or fin-de-siècle Havana. Jaded yet stubbornly hopeful, wreathed in cigarette smoke, haunted by past betrayals. For world-weary anti-heroes, they certainly were endearing. Think of the threadbare architect Querry in A Burnt-Out Case, the Haiti hotelier Brown in The Comedians, even the sad, cynical journalist Fowler in The Quiet American. It's a far cry from life on a quiet street in Calgary. (That will be my next project: The Quiet Calgarian. I just have to start smoking and learn to like gin.)

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