A Conversation With Writer Richard Scarsbrook

Photo credit: richardscarsbrook.com

Richard Scarsbrook is a renowned Canadian writer who has won numerous awards for his eight books. He lives right here in Toronto, where he teaches Creative Writing at George Brown College and the Humber School for Writers. Last week, I wrote a book review of Scarsbrook’s newest book, Rockets Versus Gravity, which will be available in stores on September 24th. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Scarsbrook soon after, in order to gain insight into the writer himself, as well as his upcoming release.

Chantelle Lee: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Richard Scarsbrook: I think I was in Grade 6 when I knew for sure that I wanted to be an author. I had a great homeroom teacher who would give us these open-ended writing prompts, which I really liked. I was never really into “topics”, because if the topic didn’t interest me, I couldn’t write anything good, since I wasn’t invested in the story. Anyway, one day we were given a “topic” instead of a prompt; our teacher simply wrote “Hurricane Hazel” on the board. None of us knew what Hurricane Hazel was, since we grew up in southwestern Ontario, where there are tornadoes but not hurricanes, but someone looked it up and discovered that Hurricane Hazel hit Toronto in 1954, which was a long time before any of us were born, and a long way from our little hamlet of Ruthven, Ontario. So I wasn’t invested in writing about it, and so while all of the other kids were dutifully writing about what it might have been like to live in a big city when a hurricane hit, I decided that I would write a story about a backroad drag race instead.

In the story, I had this guy driving a ‘69 Mustang with a 428 Super Cobra Jet Engine, one of the fastest cars ever built (and still my dream car, so many years later). Anyway, another guy pulls up beside the Mustang in a ‘76 Chevette, one of the most underpowered cars ever built. The guy in the Mustang can’t believe it when the guy in the Chevette rolls down the window and challenges him to a drag race. So the guy in the Mustang sighs, “Okay, if you want. But I only race for ownership papers.” The light turns green and the Chevette just takes off like a rocket, it’s gone. By the time guy in the Mustang catches up at the next stop sign, it’s over; he’s lost his awesome Mustang to this guy in the crappy Chevette, and he wonders, “How is this possible? And the guy in the Chevette opens the hood of his car and reveals a V-12 Rolls Merlin from a Hawker Hurricane fighter plane wedged in under the hood. A classic “Don’t judge a book by its cover” story, I suppose.

At this point you may be asking, “Okay, what does any of this this have to do with Hurricane Hazel?” Well, the Chevette had the engine from the Hawker Hurricane, and in the last line of the story, we discover that its owner has painted a nickname for the car on its fender: “Hurricane Hazel”.

I wasn’t sure how my teacher would react to the story, because I had sidestepped the topic and wrote the story that I wanted to write, instead of what I was supposed to write. It turned out that my teacher loved it, and even let me read the story to the class, who also really liked it. And I’ll be honest about it, I enjoyed creating a story that was different, then sharing the story with my peers… and I really liked it when people responded positively! And that was what got me started down the long road to becoming a “professional” author, I guess; it’s one of the few professions where you can break the rules, and you might actually be rewarded for it.

CL: Where do you get your inspiration? How do you come up with story ideas?
RS: I think that when you decide to become a writer, a new program switches on inside your brain. It runs in the background, like a virus scanner on a computer, and as you go about living your life, this phantom program is constantly scanning for “story-worthy” ideas, characters, situations, and other sweet details, and when the scanner detects something particularly good, it sounds an alarm, and you either drop everything and start writing, or you try to store the detail on your hard drive for later, for when you need it. If you use your own life as a filter to catch the best parts of what you see, what you hear, what you feel and what you think, as fuel for your art, you will never run out of ideas.

CL: Do you plan your stories out before you write them, or just start writing and see where it goes?
RS: I don’t tend to create written outlines beforehand (although some excellent writers do this), but I don’t just make it up as I go along, either (and there are also many great writers who do it this way, too). I am somewhere in the middle of this spectrum – at the very least, I want to understand who my characters are and what they want before I drop them into a story, and I also like to have some idea about how things are going to end before I begin writing – I like to know what target I’m aiming for before I fire the arrow, so to speak. But I also enjoy discovering some of the details of the story as I’m creating it, rather than programming it all out in advance. There is some fun in that.

CL: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
RS: Step One – Read frequently, widely, deeply, and enthusiastically. Step Two – The common denominators of great writing are thought and feeling. Whenever you have a great idea and/or a strong feeling, drop everything and write the first draft (unless you’re captaining a cruise ship, or performing open-heart surgery, or something like that – in these cases, drop everything and write as soon as you can). Step Three – Once you’ve purged that first draft with all of the passion and fury in your soul, take a break from it. Return later, and revise it, over and over and over again, until you’ve cleared away all the dust and rubble, and your original idea/feeling shines through in all of its original glory. Step Four – Send the work out! Let it live on its own now. Nobody will ever think and/or feel anything because of your writing if you don’t share it with them. Step Five – Go back to Step One and repeat. If you do it often enough and sincerely enough, and if you are disciplined and persistent, eventually you will transform yourself from a writer into an author.

CL: Which novel are you most proud of? Which one was your favourite to write?
RS: That’s like asking a parent which of their eight children is their favourite!

The easy answer is that my most recent book is always my favourite; I think that Rockets Versus Gravity is my best book so far, and it should be. Every new work should be a step forward, should be something new and different and – hopefully – something better than whatever came before it. That creative evolution – that striving to move forward, to do something better than the last time – is what pushes most of us forward through life, I think.

Still, I love all of my children for different reasons. My first two books, Cheeseburger Subversive and Featherless Bipeds are still probably the funniest things I’ve written.

I’m still very fond of the stories in Destiny’s Telescope, enough so that I’ve recently returned to it, transforming one of the stories, “Black Taxi” into a feature-length screenplay, and then turning that screenplay into a longer novella.

My single favourite character in any of my books is probably Philip Skyler in The Monkeyface Chronicles, and that book likely has the most elaborate plot that I’ve managed to pull together so far – and it also pleases me that almost no reader ever sees the twist ending coming!

The characters I created for The Indifference League are among my favourites also, with all of their too-human flaws and idiosyncrasies and self-absorption. It was also a lot of fun to hear which character my friends and students thought was “me” (the answer: none of them completely, and perhaps all of them partially). And that book has one of the three best endings I’ve written, I think.

The most fun I ever had writing a book was Nothing Man and The Purple Zero; that story came to me in one big, exciting rush, and I had a blast racing along through the plot with the story’s three fake superheroes. I also really enjoyed writing the beautiful, clumsy first love between Bill and Elizabeth.

My most personal book is my first poetry collection Six Weeks; you can read it and figure out why.

In the end, though, I hope that all of those things that I feel I did well in my other books have culminated in Rockets Versus Gravity, and I will try to go another step further with the books that follow it.

CL: I know you just finished your newest book, Rockets Versus Gravity, but are you working on any other stories right now, or do you have something in mind for your next book? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
RS: A new book of my poetry will be published in Spring 2017. It’s called Apocalypse One Hundred, and it consists of a hundred pages of poems that are composed using exactly one hundred words each. These poems are much different than the ones in Six Weeks, darker, more political. I’m very excited about it! I am also about 200 pages into writing a new novel called The Troupers, which is about a four-generation family of stage and screen entertainers, and how the young Trouper Quintuplets try to live up to their family’s past.

CL: In your author’s note for Rockets Versus Gravity, you mention that these stories started off as individual short stories. Why did you decide to connect them all into one novel?
RS: As I began assembling the original stories into a collection, I noticed several natural overlaps between the characters and the themes in the stories, and I started asking myself questions like, “What if The Queen (the homeless woman in one plotline) were to physically interact with Brandy and Tiffany Foley (the ‘ladies who lunch’ from another plotline)?’ Whenever I rewrote and amplified one of these connections, another connection would appear, and soon I saw connections between all of the characters in all of the plotlines. I mentioned earlier that I enjoy discovering things about my characters as I write their stories, and Rockets Versus Gravity is certainly the best example of this so far. Also, I have to give some credit here to Shannon Whibbs, my editor at Dundurn. Once I had made all of the connections that I thought could be made in the story, she basically said, “Make even MORE connections! And make the existing connections STRONGER!” And so I did, and the book is what it is now because of Shannon, So, thanks Shannon!

CL: Why did you name the book Rockets Versus Gravity? What does the title mean in the context of the story?
RS: Stan – the first main character to appear in the book, and the person whose lost rings symbolically connect everyone else – loves rocketry and space exploration, and wishes that he could have been an astronaut instead of a lumberjack. And that longing to soar, to break free from the confines of gravity, is shared by all of the characters in the book, in one way or another. But the title also contains a bigger idea about the characters that populate the book: some rockets break free and soar into space, some crash and destroy themselves, and some hit other people and places and destroy them. And every character in the book – like just about every human being that has ever existed – does one, or two, or all of these things in the short span of their lifetime.

CL: How did you come up with the ring motif in Rockets Versus Gravity?
RS: I originally wrote the inciting chapter of the novel as a stand-alone story about a physically tough lumberjack named Stan, who is trapped in a psychologically abusive relationship that he doesn’t have the courage to leave. That Stan keeps “losing” his wedding ring, well… Sigmund Freud would have a lot to say about that. So when I began seeing and subsequently amplifying all of the connections between the different characters and their stories in the book, it occurred to me that Stan’s “lost” rings would be nice physical symbols to use during various connections and transitions in the book.

CL: What does the ring in Rockets Versus Gravity symbolize for each of the characters?
RS: SPOILER ALERT! Nah, I’m just kidding. This was something that I was hoping readers would enjoy figuring out for themselves, but since you were clever enough to ask, I’ll tell you. Each time that one of the rings changes hands, the way that it travels from character to character means something. Taken rings represent greed and selfishness (which create negative connections), and given rings represent love and selflessness (which create positive connections). Rings that are lost or left behind represent impending despair of disaster. Found or reclaimed rings represent hope and potential. Now it feels like I just created the Cliff’s Notes for my own book!

CL: I noticed that in Rockets Versus Gravity, a lot of your characters are underdogs or outcasts, and then I realized that you’ve written about underdogs/outcasts before, in many of your other novels (like The Monkeyface Chronicles). Why is that? Why do you like to write about society’s outsiders?
RS: Most of us have been outsiders or underdogs or outcasts at some point in our lives. Human life is all about trying to break free from the forces that hold us back, to climb higher, to do better. To paraphrase that old expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”; I’m drawn to characters that are straddling that line between self-improvement and self-destruction, probably because it’s a line that almost all of us have stood upon at one time or another.

CL: What was the most difficult part of writing Rockets Versus Gravity? Conversely, what was the most enjoyable or rewarding part of writing this novel?
RS: Searching for, discovering, and then amplifying all of the ways that the characters and stories could (and now are!) connected to each other was both the most challenging and ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing Rockets Versus Gravity.

CL: Is there a message or over-arching idea that you hope your readers get out of this Rockets Versus Gravity? If so, what is it?
RS: We are all connected, often in ways we cannot (or will not) see. Selfishness and greed can turn these connections into struggle and conflict. But love can do the opposite.