Terry Fallis's novel The Best Laid Plans won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and was the Canada Reads 2011 winner.
The Best Laid Plans took a thoroughly modern route towards becoming a bestseller, by beginning as a podcast. Can you describe the genesis of the book and also of the story itself?
While the story is not completely autobiographical, I did work in politics for several years in the 1980s. I concocted the story and tried to use my own experience on Parliament Hill to, I hope, give it an air of authenticity. I wanted to try to write a funny novel because that’s usually what I like to read. But I’ve always considered it satire rather than comedy. Comedy makes you laugh. Satire also makes you laugh, but if it’s working well, it ought to make you think, too.
After I finished the manuscript, I sent off dozens and dozens of query letters, plot synopses, and sample chapters to agents and publishers across the country. I then sat back and waited for the feeding frenzy to ensue on my blockbuster debut novel. Yeah, right. The deafening silence from the publishing world over the next year left me a little discouraged but not particularly surprised. I had no idea whether I’d written anything worthy of anyone’s time. I didn’t receive a single rejection letter. So I podcast the entire novel chapter by chapter and put it up on the Internet and iTunes for free as a way to build an audience. Much to my amazement, it generated thousands of very supportive listeners in Canada and around the world. Then I self-published the novel (horrors!) and I began living the glamorous high life of the self-published novelist. Yeah, right. What changed everything was somehow winning the Leacock Medal in 2008. It was the shock of my life. Within a week I signed with McClelland & Stewart. Don’t even get me started on the miracle of winning Canada Reads. Despite how CBC has positioned it, is it the “most essential Canadian novel of the decade?” Of course not. Is it the luckiest novel of the decade? I think it’s definitely in the running for that title.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
Well, when the self-published version came out in September 2007, my family and friends all thought it was wonderful. Both bookstores that were stocking it reported that sales were “brisk,” most likely to my family and friends.
What made you think to set a comic novel in Parliament?
Having worked on Parliament Hill, I’ve developed some rather strong views on how we practice politics in this country. But rather than writing a rage-filled non-fiction polemic, I thought I’d cloak my opinions in a funny story with characters the reader might come to remember. While it is supposed to be an amusing read, there are very serious issues that underlie the fun. I thought humour might be an effective way to shine a light on some of the shortcomings of our politics.
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
I lugged the story around in my brainpan for a couple of years until it seemed ready to tell. Then, it took me about two months of weekends to outline the story and another eight months of weekends to write it.
Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?
I’ve been influenced by a variety of favourite writers including John Irving, Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Paul Quarrington, Donald Jack and even Stephen Fry. But I wouldn’t suggest for an instant that my writing is, in any way, fit to be whispered in the same sentence with theirs.
Did anyone get upset about what you had written? Did any parliamentarians let you know that you’d got it right?
No crank calls yet, but I’m waiting. Several politicians have read the novel and have offered very encouraging reviews. Many have lamented just how true to life it is. I’m not sure whether to be pleased by that or not.
How has the publication of The Best Laid Plans changed your life? Are you devoting more time to writing now?
This novel has utterly changed my life as a writer. I’m working hard not to let it change me too much. I’m still working full-time and will be for the foreseeable future. Much of my time outside of the office is spent on the road at festivals and readings. One of the true blessings of all of this is the opportunity to meet and get to know many of the writers I’ve enjoyed and revered over the years. It’s been wonderful. I’m writing novel #3 now on weekends, just as I did the previous two. So far, so good.
What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?
I don’t think we have enough political fiction in Canada, whether it’s satire or other forms. I’m not sure why we don’t have a grand tradition of political fiction but I’d love to see more of it. Democracy is important. I think it’s a worthy topic for literature.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favourite book and why?
There are many great books on the list. I’d have to go with my friend John Duffy’s book, Fights of Our Lives.
Your subsequent novel was The High Road where we follow the antics of Angus McLintock and Daniel Addison as they return for another race. What’s next for Terry Fallis? Will there be a third book?
I’m working on a third novel right now, but it’s not in the Angus/Daniel canon. (Did I really use the word ‘canon’? Kidding.) It will be, I hope, another comic novel but it paints on a broader canvass than Canadian politics. It should be out in the fall of 2012 provided I can meet the looming deadline.
A burnt-out political aide quits just before an election — but is forced to run a hopeless campaign on the way out. He makes a deal with a crusty old Scot, Angus McLintock — an engineering professor who will do anything, anything, to avoid teaching English to engineers — to let his name stand in the election. No need to campaign, certain to lose, and so on. Then a great scandal blows away his opponent, and to their horror, Angus is elected. He decides to see what good an honest MP who doesn’t care about being re-elected can do in Parliament. The results are hilarious — and with chess, a hovercraft, and the love of a good woman thrown in, this very funny book has something for everyone.