One Brother Shy

Vancouver is well-known as a city where massively mega music acts launch their tours so they can get the bugs and butterflies out in front of a friendly, non-judgmental crowd. Similarly, during novelist Terry Fallis's recent seven day "ferry horn" Gulf Island Reading Tour of B.C. — a series of gigs before his wider Ontario and East Coast tour that starts in May and runs through the summer — he stopped by the Salt Spring Island Public Library after hours on a perfect April evening to read from his soon-to-be released novel, "One Brother Shy." We were his "guinea pigs," as he lovingly called us, to see which jokes in his talk worked (almost all of them) and which ones didn't (the corniness of the nutshell gag was an unanimous groaner).

But that's Terry Fallis: a modest man, quick to friendship, with conversation supplanted with healthy doses of good old fashioned Canadian corniness. He also has a remarkable gift for engaging and witty story telling, a gift which thrust him unexpectedly onto the national star stage and into the pantheon of contemporary Canadian writers with his debut novel, "The Best Laid Plans," when it earned him the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. And ten years and six novels later, the accolades and awards continue to pile up every time he types the words "The End."

"One Brother Shy" is, in the words, of the author, "A funny novel of discovery and recovery, aided by familial love." Due to hit bookshelves May 30, Mister Write What You Know About has tapped into an area of his life that many people probably didn't know about, until now: that he has an identical twin brother, Tim Fallis. Twins and doubles feature prominently in the novel and its various storytelling elements: there's two mysteries, two reunions, two love stories, and the title itself is a double entendre about the main character's social anxiety. Fallis himself also has two jobs, as both novelist and founder of his own PR firm, and he's engineered a successful writing process that can be easily adopted for the weekend writer similarly burdened with a day job (i.e., just about every writer).

A tall man in his 50s, charming, courteous, with an excellent sense of casual style, Fallis gave an engaging presentation to an intimate gathering of devoted fans. He's never been one to take his success for granted, or let it go to his head. Even though it was a quiet Monday evening in the public library of a seaside town, Fallis worked the room as if it were a packed theatre house in the big city.

In an interview outside the library just before his presentation, Fallis took a few moments to talk about his success, the writer's life, and the whole day job juggling thing. "If you want it bad enough, you can do it," he said, with his always engaging smile.

Terry Fallis

INTERVIEWER
Congratulations on book number six, Terry.

FALLIS
Thank you. It's hard to believe. "The Best Laid Plans" came out in the fall of 2007. So now I've got six books in ten years. I can't believe it.

INTERVIEWER
And you still have a day job as well, at your PR company?

FALLIS
I do have a day job, four days per week. Although, I no longer own any part of the company. I used to be a half-owner, I co-founded the firm. Now I'm just an employee whose name happens to be in the company name.

INTERVIEWER
So is the author gig the higher priority?

FALLIS
Well, it doesn't seem like it on a time basis. I still work four days a week in the office. But my writing is certainly a priority.

INTERVIEWER
You must be in some sort of groove if you're putting out a book every two years and working a day job.

FALLIS
I do have a very specific process that I've tweaked a little bit and added a couple little elements to it, but it seems to work for me. I think that's part of our job, as writers, to figure how we write best. There's no one way, and I never suggest that people write the way I write. And when I do workshops on outlining I always open by saying I'm not telling you you should outline your novel, but if you're struggling, here's how I do it and maybe it'll help. I'm an engineer by training, so I very much need a blueprint before I write something. And it's a very detailed outline that I end up with.

INTERVIEWER
How many pages is the outline usually?

FALLIS
They vary from 30, 40, 50, and 80 pages. I think the last one was 85 pages.

INTERVIEWER
How much time do you spend on the outline?

FALLIS
Well, it is the longer part of my writing process. Probably about eight months. And even longer because I consider the first four months or so when I'm carrying the idea in my head to be part of that process too.

INTERVIEWER
And then how much time does it take to finish, once you start the official writing of the book?

FALLIS
The actual manuscript takes me about four months of weekends. And I say weekends because I don't usually write during the week because I'm too consumed with my day job. So about four months of weekends and I'll have a hundred thousand word manuscript.

INTERVIEWER
So you're able to set the manuscript aside during the week and pick it back up on the weekend?

FALLIS
Yes, I try to write one chapter, a five thousand word chapter, every week. I tend to have between sixteen and eighteen chapters in a novel, so that's how many weeks until I end up with a full manuscript. And it's pretty close to the final one, since I'm writing from such a detailed outline. I may be the equivalent of a third draft for a non-outliner, I would say.

INTERVIEWER
How do you know when you're done?

FALLIS
I never know for certain. It's more of a feeling. If I go through the manuscript a final time and have very few changes, if I'm just kind of fiddling around the edges, I know I can give it to my editor.

INTERVIEWER
Does your editor play a developmental role?

FALLIS
Sometimes. I submit about six or seven chapters when I finish them, then I carry on and he reviews them and often has some interesting thoughts on it at that stage. And it's so much better to get his thoughts at that early stage rather than when I'm finished.

INTERVIEWER
Do you edit chapters sequentially, and then go through it all again?

FALLIS
Correct. I write a chapter then I leave it for a day. Then I go through the chapter again, and then again, and then I put it aside, and go to the next chapter. It's very methodical and regimented for me.

INTERVIEWER
Do you have the luxury of putting the manuscript aside for a while?

FALLIS
I tend not to have enough time to let it sort of steep there for very long. But there's still time because my editor gets it, and then I go through his comments which are generally very minor and modest, which is nice. He attributes his light editing to my process that delivers to him a closer to final manuscript.

INTERVIEWER
Do you print out and then red line changes, or do you work on the screen all the time?

FALLIS
Generally on the screen. I print out copies for my two editors, one at M&S [McClelland & Stewart] and Doug Gibson, who is my first editor. I don't know why he's my editor but it's wonderful having the benefit of his wisdom and judgment. He's been retired for most of my novels but he still edits Alice Munro and he edits me. In that immutable order.

INTERVIEWER
I watched a video interview where you talked out how you always write about things that are personally interesting to you, and you showed a list of your interests. You had ticked off quite a few items that became previous novels, and the topic of identical twins was on the To Do side of the ledger. How do you decide which topic to write about next? How does that come about?

FALLIS
An idea occurs to me, something I care about, and then once I know what the topic is, then I figure out how to turn it into a story that people are going to want to read and stay with me for a hundred thousand words. There comes a point where, if the idea is still in my head after a certain length of time, it feels like it's ready to come out so I can start to shape it. I map it out on a basic timeline to start. Then I start to fill in the gaps. So, for my previous novel ["Poles Apart"], I knew that I wanted to write about feminism. I'd wanted to write about it for a long time. In fact, I think you can see my interest in the topic in my earlier books but gender inequality wasn't center stage until "Poles Apart." I put it off because I was worried it might be a bit controversial, a white, middle-aged man, writing about feminism…

INTERVIEWER
Mansplaining feminism…

FALLIS
Exactly. So, I wanted to make sure I was ready to do it. And after four novels, I figured if I'm not ready then, I probably won't ever be ready. So, I gave it a shot.

INTERVIEWER
What do you think "The Best Laid Plans" Terry would say to Terry 2017?

FALLIS
Excellent question. He'd probably tell me to have more confidence in the power of my characters and story to carry the readers. And that I shouldn't worry quite so much about grasping for every humour opportunity. In my first novel I think it's pretty clear, at least to me, that I didn't think my story and characters could carry as much of the load. And to compensate, I was trying, sometimes desperately, to make it funny. So I think there's probably some humour bits in that first noel that I wouldn't do now.

INTERVIEWER
So what was that turning point with letting go of that grasping?

FALLIS
I toned it down a bit in the second novel after people kept telling me how much they loved the characters and how much they loved the story. I think I exercised more humour judgment, even restraint, in the second novel while still hoping it was funny. It was really gratifying to hear so many readers report that they liked it better than the first one.

INTERVIEWER
Your writing style is very straightforward and sincere, very breezy. And you have a natural sense of humour, and it's quite unique.

FALLIS
Thank you, that's very kind. In a way it's the same lines I would be saying at the dinner table that I'm now saying on my laptop. It isn't manufactured humour. I guess there are some set pieces that you create that are designed to be funny, but that's sort of a different category of humour. But, the spontaneous lines that just come out when I'm writing the manuscript in the final stage in the process, those are just lines that just occur to me right then in that moment of writing. And for that, I thank my father and twin brother and mother and other siblings, because humour was a big part of our life growing up.

INTERVIEWER
Are there certain humour writers or stand-up comedians that you admire who you feel influenced you?

FALLIS
Not so much stand-up. But I like reading funny novels, yes, and Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, and Paul Quarrington while they aren't considered split-your-side funny, but they are very wry and thoughtful. I find John Irving very funny at times.

INTERVIEWER
Do you consider him a stylistic influence as well?

FALLIS
Yes, I definitely would. I think of John Irving as my mentor, but he doesn't know that. Although I have met him and he lives in Toronto now and apparently my editor knows him well and is going to have us over for dinner with him sometime. I'm not sure I would be able to construct complete sentences in his presence, but I'm going to try. But in particular, Irving's penchant for juxtaposing humour and pathos, and sometimes rubbing them right up against one another to make both the humour and the pathos more profound and more meaningful, has been very influential.

INTERVIEWER
That's the best stuff.

FALLIS
Yeah, and I like that, so I try to have it in my novels. I'm not just above-the-line funny all the times. It dips below the line and there's some pain and tragedy once in a while, then it slips back up on the other side.

INTERVIEWER
Yeah, there's a darker side to "One Brother Shy." I get that sense that something hard is going to happen with the dad. But I don't want to try to guess it.

FALLIS
Yeah, don't try to guess it!

INTERVIEWER
Nowadays, when a lot of writers finish their book, whether they self-publish or are traditionally published, they'll put up a Facebook page, maybe send out a free chapter, tweet a couple tweets, and then wonder why they haven't sold a hundred thousand copies in the first week. But you really work it. You do a lot of self-promotion. You don't sit at home, even after all these years and all your success. Do you like the traveling and engaging with people?

FALLIS
Yes, I really like that. I like meeting readers and talking about the novels. It's kind of like a reward for the many months spent in isolation writing them.

Terry Fallis, Salt Spring Island Library

INTERVIEWER
That's very un-writerly.

FALLIS
It is, but I had a whole career in the business world where I would often be pitching clients and doing speaking engagements, so I'm reasonably comfortable in front of people provided I'm prepared.

INTERVIEWER
You once said in an interview that writers must confront that public speaking shyness. "Get over it and do it."

FALLIS
There are plenty of wonderful books out there, by writers whose dust I'll never see in the distance if I don't get out there. Their books are so amazing, but after two or three weeks they dip below the waves, never to be seen again. And I think that's because some of these amazing writers just aren't very comfortable getting out there and talking about them. They rely on what I call "spine marketing," that one inch by ten inch book spine facing out from the bookstores' fiction shelves, that's what markets their books. And that's just not enough unless you're Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, or Joseph Boyden. It could be the best book in the world, but with fewer and fewer mainstream media book reviews, often not enough people know about it. So I don't say "no" to very many invitations. I do regional tours, and this is one of them. I think my high water mark was 142 talks on my fourth novel, for "No Relation." And that's everything from book clubs to literary festivals to library talks to community service clubs to seniors' groups. That was an exhausting year but it's how you sell books in this country.

INTERVIEWER
You're really working it.

FALLIS
I'm lucky that I also happen to enjoy that part of the process, so it doesn't feel like work. It's part of our lives as writers. If you want to write another book and get another publishing contract, you've got to get out there and promote the current book.

INTERVIEWER
So, you still do the chapter by chapter podcast, you've been doing that since day one for "The Best Laid Plans."

FALLIS
Yeah, before I even self-published it.

INTERVIEWER
And that doesn't ding sales? Your publisher doesn't mind that you do it?

FALLIS
I think we actually sell more books because we give away the audio version for free. That's the theory. People listen to it, and if they really like it, even if they don't buy a copy for themselves because they've just listened to it, they may buy a copy for their cousin's birthday or parents' anniversary. So we spread the word, people listen to the podcast and then buy the book. Thankfully, McClelland & Stewart has agreed and they've allowed me to give the podcast version away for free.

INTERVIEWER
That's great that McClelland & Stewart is so open.

FALLIS
They're not generally accustomed to giving things away for free. But I hope and think it's coming back to them, and to me in increased book sales.

INTERVIEWER
With "One Brother Shy," the main character Alex is quite sarcastic and edgy in his internal dialogue. Is he some kind of stand in for Canadian passive-aggressiveness, or...

FALLIS
No, I was more thinking that I wanted people to understand there are deeper waters in Alex, and that his responses outwardly don't reflect what he's actually thinking, but rather are a consequence of his trauma ten years earlier. So of course, I probably tweaked the internal dialogue a little more to make that contrast a little greater. And it remains to be seen whether he will ever actually say those things outside his head.

INTERVIEWER
I've listened to the first eight podcast episodes, and Alex's internal dialog is often long and quite hilarious. And then what he really says out loud is short, has a sort of a punchline feel to it. It really illuminates the dimension of his character. But that starts to change. I'm hearing Alex start to use more words when he's talking out loud, right around the time he meets and starts to get to know his brother. The inner and outer worlds are starting to merge.

FALLIS
Correct, and you can see him, as we call it in the novel, becoming "inside out" with certain other characters he's comfortable with.

INTERVIEWER
So how do I know that you're not your identical twin brother Tim?

FALLIS
I did bring my passport!

INTERVIEWER
Is there something about Terry that only Terry would know that Tim wouldn't know?

FALLIS
I doubt it, because we're really close.

INTERVIEWER
Did you ever swap out in school classes or with girls, that kind of thing?

FALLIS
Well, once in awhile, but we were so much alike that people didn't even know, didn't realize, or didn't believe us when we said, "Hey, hey, I'm really Terry not Tim."

INTERVIEWER
And you guys have had a pretty tight relationship your whole life?

FALLIS
Yes, very. And continue to. I talk to him everyday. We live close to one another. We play hockey every week together.

INTERVIEWER
Has he read the book?

FALLIS
Yeah, he did. He liked the book a lot.

INTERVIEWER
Is Tim worked into the character of Alex or Matt, or is it a mix and match of you two, or... ?

FALLIS
No, neither of us really. The only thing that's drawn from our lives is the idea of identical twins. Beyond that, there's really nothing in the story that is connected to me at all. I mean, I've never been bullied. I came from a very happy, two-parent home.

INTERVIEWER
So no real-life public teenage embarrassment that occurred with you or Tim?

FALLIS
No, absolutely not. The trauma in the novel is solely in service of the story. I needed something because I wanted the challenge of writing a narrator who is not just flawed, like the narrators in my other novels, but somewhat damaged and in recovery.

INTERVIEWER
That's a very strong character element, his damage, his social anxiety.

FALLIS
Yes, he's not where he's supposed to be. He hasn't achieved what he should have achieved by now. So, that's part of. I think of it as a funny novel of discovery and recovery.

INTERVIEWER
Most writers, when they start out, think it would be really great to sell some books. In your case, you had this kind of Cinderella story, almost right from the get-go. You're now one of the most popular writers in Canada. How does all that success feel, all the awards and everything?

FALLIS
Good of you to say, but to me it's quite surreal, and I never quite let myself go there. I want to be the same person, now, who wrote that first book that was so successful. I don't want to get my head into a different space, so I don't really pay too much attention to it. And I just make sure I'm the same person now as I was ten years ago when I couldn't find a publisher for "The Best Laid Plans." But of course it's very gratifying, don't get me wrong. It's rewarding and encouraging, and it never gets old when someone comes up and says, "I've read all your books, and I love them all."

INTERVIEWER
What more could you ask for as a writer?

FALLIS
Exactly!

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