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q&a

Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall near College and SpadinaPeter Power/The Globe and Mail

Your previous book, Down To This, was a non-fiction account of a year spent living in a Toronto shantytown. Ghosted also takes place in Toronto, largely around College and Spadina, where you now reside. Both books feature drug addicts and psychopaths. How real is your depiction of Toronto this time around?

The Toronto in Ghosted is quite close to the Toronto I know. College and Spadina is a wacky part of town. Within a few blocks you've got Kensington Market, a mental hospital, the Waverley Hotel - where I've slept more times than I'd have liked to. Nearby you've got the Bloor viaduct and jump-prevention barrier, and then there's Spadina itself, this bizarre, enormously wide barrier running through the city. Then there's the interesting characters populating the neighbourhood.

I take it the city's tourism office hasn't called you up to write a travel guide?

It's funny, growing up in Vancouver and Montreal I was taught to look down on Toronto as this soulless, white, boring, money-obsessed place. Before I moved here, in 2001, to live in Tent City, I'd only been here a handful of times. I found the city fascinating and decided to stay here, and I'm glad I did because it gave me a view of Toronto much different than if I'd grown up here. It's almost like I crawled out of the sewer into town, and that perspective comes through in the novel.

Life on the street seems so foreign to most people. What don't most people get about street culture?

The spectrum of humanity living on the street; that there's as many different types of people - virtuous types, assholes - as you'd encounter in a middle-class neighbourhood. Except on the street, there's a slightly different history. It's kind of like going to a different country. You've got to learn the language and history to fully understand the people.

Did you encounter any drug addicts and psychopaths whilst a journalism fellow at Massey College?

You're trying to get me into trouble. No, I wouldn't describe any of the people I met as drug addicts or psychopaths. But then, the interesting thing about drug addicts and psychopaths is they tend to be good at hiding this side of their personality.

How does witnessing and then writing about real, actual violence differ from having to create it in your own mind and turn it into fiction?

The two are dangerous in slightly different ways. There's not as much physical peril when you're sitting alone in a room hammering out a story. But you can trouble your mind and soul a lot more readily. There are a couple disturbing scenes in the book - it gets downright upsetting, actually - that I've been awkwardly confronted on. You end up apologizing for upsetting them [WHO?]/note>, even though it's entirely made up.

Readers of pulp fiction often make the mistake of confusing the writer with the main character, sort of like how Charles Bukowski stars as the main character in each of his novel. You bear a striking resemblance to your main character, Mason. Are you the same person?

It's part of the cult of personality, and I'd be disingenuous to say there weren't similarities between us. Mason lives in this apartment. He's struggling to write a book. He looks a lot like me and we have a lot of the same faults and vices. I just deal with them better.

There's a scene in Ghosted where a poker game gets out of hand and they end up playing for something neither can afford to lose. Ever been at a game where death was on the line?

I've been in games where people have lost more than they had and the game turned violent. But life-and-death stakes? No. I do know a lot of places in town to play poker any time of day. I don't visit them as much as I used to, for my safety and sanity's sake. I've got a young son, after all. But I still go see my friends every once in a while.

You're appearing at the International Festival of Authors as part of the festival's "noir" series highlighting crime and mystery fiction. Do you consider yourself a noir writer?

It's funny. The book just came out in the States, and the marketing campaign highlights the mystery, suspense, thriller aspects of the novel. Which is great, I like that, but I didn't write it with the intention of it being a noir-genre novel. I don't even really know what that means, other than the fact that it's been reviewed in publications like Mystery Scene Magazine. Actually, my favourite quote about the book comes from that review: "Reads like a film noir pounded out by a pissed-off, hung-over John Irving."

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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