Robert Hough has been published to rave reviews in fifteen territories around the world. He is the author of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Vintage Canada, 2002), shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book and the Trillium Book Award; The Stowaway (Vintage Canada, 2004), one of the Boston Globe’s top ten fiction titles of 2004; The Culprits (Vintage Canada, 2008); Dr. Brinkley’s Tower (House of Anansi, 2012), shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for fiction and longlisted for the Giller Prize; The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan (House of Anansi, 2015), a finalist for the Trillium Book Award; and Diego’s Crossing (Annick Press, 2015), shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award. Hough lives in Toronto, ON.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, was a hit! It sold all over the world, and Sam Mendes bought the film rights, with his wife Kate Winslet slated to play Mabel. I figure this is the reason I’m still writing twenty years later – I’m like a gambler who wins his first time out. When that happens, you’re almost sure to become addicted.
The Marriage of Rose Camilleri, meanwhile, is my seventh novel. Yet it’s the first since The Final Confession of Mabel Stark to be voiced by a female narrator. What does this mean? Mmmmm ... I’m not sure, actually. Maybe I finally decided that if it worked once, it can work again.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Before becoming a novelist, I was a full-time magazine journalist for a dozen years or so. The thing is, I never had that much interest in current events, which, it turns out, is a liability for reporters.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I’m not one of those writers who does a lot of thinking, or make a lot of notes, or writes down ideas for scenes and tapes them to his office walls. Unfortunately, I can’t really come up with anything unless my fingers are moving. So I do lots of drafts. Lots and lots of drafts.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I don’t really read many short stories – the occasional one in The New Yorker and that’s about it. Oh no, I’m a novel guy, and that’s what I’m gunning for from the word go.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
It’s a bit of a moot question, since the vast majority of event organizers have figured out that people stay away in droves from readings. What people do like, however, is hearing writers talk. So most of the live gigs involve talking to an audience for twenty minutes about whatever you want to talk about. (Most writers blab away about the new book, with a bit of their process thrown in for good measure.) I get very nervous before hand, but as soon as I get my first laugh I really do enjoy addressing an audience.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I was about to leave this question blank when it occurred to me that I do have this little trick. While it’s true that you have to understand your protagonist’s motivation, I think it really helps if you divide that chore into two: at a certain point, I try to understand what my character wants, and what my character subconsciously wants. And I gotta say: if those two desires are the same, then you have yourself a pretty dull character.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
If by a ‘writer’ you mean ‘novelist’ well ... I hate to say it but I don’t think we hold a lot of sway, these days. A case in point: often, at parties or social events, I’ll be asked what I do for a living. When I answer that I’m a novelist, the follow-up question, more often than not, is: “Really? So do you write fiction or non-fiction?” However, if you’re referring to TV writers, it’s the show runners who really have a grip on the world’s imagination. Think of Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), David Chase (Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), or Alec Berg (Silicon Valley and Barry): they’re as influential as film directors were in the 70s.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I welcome the point in which I’m assigned an editor, as it means I don’t have to work alone, any longer, in my lonely little writer’s abyss. I’d say that working with an editor is only difficult when the editor is an idiot, which has never happened with me on a book. But back in my magazine days, it did happen a few times, and I tell you -- when it does you just don’t want to get out of bed.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Early on, an editor read a failed, quasi-autobiographical first novel of mine and said, “If you can’t describe your novel in a single sentence, then you haven’t found your story.” And you know what? It’s true. With The Marriage of Rose Camilleri, that sentence is the following: “An exuberant Maltese woman learns to love her ex-criminal husband during a turbulent, 23-year marriage.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (adult fiction to young adult fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Mmmmm ... I wrote one young adult novel, but only because a publisher approached me with a commissioned idea, and I was like, “wait a minute ... whoa ... hold the phone .... you’ll give me money before I start writing?”
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
There’s something quite self-flagellating about novel writing. I work every morning, and I don’t let myself leave my office until I’ve written a thousand words. I write a lot more than that if I’m having a good day, but on those terrible days, when the ideas just aren’t coming, I still don’t let myself quit until I have a thousand words. Why? There’s so much writing to do with novels – all of those drafts and false starts -- that if you only write when the muse is with you then you will never finish.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I appeal to my pig-headed nature. Even when blocked, I force out those thousand words. Even if I go weeks without writing anything worthwhile, I keep typing. And then, one day, it comes back ....
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
A good question! Despite how I answered question #12, it just occurred to me that, when confronted by a large writing question or obstacle, I’ll go down to the Art Gallery of Ontario and look around. I don’t know why, but something about looking at all those paintings helps me see around corners.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In no particular order, these are my five favourite novels, based solely on the number of times I’ve read them:
The question is: have these novels influenced me? All of these writers are a lot more talented than I am, and I’m smart enough to realize that I could never pull off what they pull off, so I don’t even try. So I feel like they haven’t influenced me, though on some level maybe they must have, right?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
You mean as a writer? I’d like to write a really great horror novel. But in general? I’d like to see a live volcano.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’ve never not been a writer. I have a good imagination, but not good enough to imagine what else I could’ve been.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I was ten, I started writing a detective novel. I can still remember the title: “A Pipeline to Diamonds.” I finished about a page and a half, and then I went outside to play road hockey. I remember being good in net.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
During the lock-down, I discovered three great novels: Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim, Wittgenstein Jr. by Lars Iyer, and London Fields by Martin Amis. My favourite covid film, meanwhile, wasn’t a film at all; it was a scabrously funny television series entitled The Great, which chronicles Catherine the Great’s efforts to rid the Russian court of savagery, idiocy and bad government. The chances that show takes with its humour....
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel in which one of the characters is the anarchist Emma Goldman. I’m far along, actually, as the publication of The Marriage of Rose Camilleri was delayed by about a year due to a combination of covid and supply chain disruptions. I’m pleased with it. No, really, I am.