Can you tell us how you became a writer?
When I was about five, I announced rather imperiously to one of my sisters that anyone could write a book: it was easy. She left the room and returned a few minutes later with what we used to call a five-cent scribbler. She handed me a pencil.
“Then write one,” she said. And so I began: I would open with a storm…
Little Johnny Fenton came in out of the pouring rain. He put away his rubber boots and hung his rubber coat on the hook behind the door…
“How’s the book coming along?” my sister asked after a while. When I showed her what I had written, she collapsed in hysterical laughter.
“Who do you know,” she asked, “who ever put his things away?”
That was my first clue about how tough it was to be a writer.
What inspired you to write this particular novel? Is there a story about the writing of this book that begs to be told?
I really believe that The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie had its genesis in my grandfather’s running away to sea. He was just a little boy, no more than nine, perhaps. When he finally returned home years later, a grown man, his family didn’t recognize him. In later years, he would serve with the British Army in Afghanistan and South Africa, and in the Canadian Army in World War I.
He suffered terribly from arthritis, and spent his last seventeen years in a bed in the front parlour, where he loved to spin tales about his life and draw sketches of sailing ships.
His sons, my uncles, were all wonderful storytellers, too, and I learned a lot from them. My grandparents’ house overflowed with English books and magazines: Conan Doyle, Country Life, The Illustrated London News, Lilliput, and so forth. One of the first books my grandmother gave me to read was Dorothy L. Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon, one of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. (Another book she gave me, when I was about the same age my grandfather was when he ran away to sea, was The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, so you can see that I had an astonishingly eclectic upbringing!)
I was hooked on England: I simply devoured books on English history, English geography, English humour. When I spent a year in bed at the age of six, one of my uncles plied me with bound copies of Chums annuals: full of public school stories, dirt-track racing, adventures in the wilds of Africa — and Canada!
In my mind, I began to create my own private England; not, perhaps as it was in reality, but as it should have been. I didn’t actually set foot on English soil until I was sixty-nine, when The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie won the Debut Dagger Award, and I flew to London to accept it.
When I began recognizing from the train the names of towns and villages my grandparents had talked about, I realized that it had been exactly a hundred years since they had left England to make a new life in Canada.
What is it that you’re exploring in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie?
Youthful idealism and the tightrope of loneliness walked by a precocious child: a bottomless bright pit on the one hand and an equally bottomless black pit of conformity on the other. I’m also very interested in the Camelot in which some children live at the age of eleven: a place where anything — anything! — is possible. But as is the case with so many Camelots, so many of these are lost.
Who is your favourite character in the novel, and why?
Like it or not, the characters in any novel are aspects of the author. When we write about a killer, his actions are those of the killer in us. All of our characters are hand puppets, fragments of our personalities, and we’re the puppeteers.
I would have to say that I’ve grown very fond of Flavia, even though she wakes me up at four in the morning by running down the staircase in my mind yelling, “Come on — let’s get to work!” She sometimes forgets that she’s nearly sixty years younger than I am, and that she lives on Greenwich Mean Time. I like Dogger, too. He has his own way of getting on from day to day, and doesn’t like me to impose my ideas upon him. He constantly surprises me.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie?
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is primarily meant to be an entertainment for people who might be growing weary of violence in the media, and to make them feel good. It’s the kind of detective novel I’d like to stumble across myself, so I suppose you could say I wrote it for myself: a 1950s village, a church with its own encrypted saint, a forgetful vicar, a crumbling country house, a Victorian chemistry laboratory, wicked sisters, an absent father, and poisons galore. I wouldn’t read it too deeply, but if it strikes a happy note with some readers, I’d be thrilled to know. There are always people who don’t “get it,” which is sad, in a way.
Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your work?
I was once interviewed by Peter Gzowski at a time when some of his crew were outside the studio, in frightful weather, walking the picket lines. Peter was so worried about them that he was constantly dashing to the windows to give them thumbs-ups. He wasn’t really focused on the interview, and it’s probably the only time I've ever known of him being less than perfect. Peter had a huge heart.
I’ve also done an interview with Arthur Black, who was utterly astonishing. He had not only read the book, but thought about it. His questions were brilliant — you felt as if you’d gone twelve rounds with a world champion heavyweight.
What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
“May we mail the cheque, or would you like it now?”
Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your own work?
Not a review or a profile, but a classroom reading. I had published a story in The Canadian Children’s Annual called “Let the Cobbler Stick to His Last.” In it, an apprentice cobbler named Crispin called down lightning to preserve himself from robbers, but the bolt from above accidentally killed a nearby cow. I thought this rather an amusing touch. As I read the story aloud to the class, a little girl jumped up — she couldn’t have been much more than about seven.
“God would never allow that to happen,” she said, angrily. “You just put that part in to be funny. You can’t kill animals to be funny. When you create a creature, you have to be responsible for it.”
Down all the years, I don’t think I’ve ever had so valuable a lesson about writing. And I’ve tried to keep to her teaching.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (no one has ever done weather so beautifully), T.H. White, Charles Dickens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato. More recently, Anne Szumigalski, Brenda Riches, David Carpenter, Don Kerr, Marie Elyse St. George, Lois Simmie, and Patrick Lane, all of whom were beacons of skill when I was in my most formative stage as a writer.
If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I have worked, at various times, as a soda jerk, a manhandler of milk cans, a radio studio technician/announcer, an electronic engineer in television broadcasting, and a motion-picture projectionist. As a projectionist, I had the unforgettable experience of working in some of Canada’s classic motion-picture palaces before they were demolished. I’ve written a book about some of the strange things that happened to me. It’s also a history of the movies as seen from the projection booth, but it hasn’t yet been published.
I would love to be an archaeologist excavating Roman and Mediaeval London.
I took up classical guitar when I was about forty because I thought it would the most difficult thing imaginable — and it was. Other passions are cats, Mozart, Robert Casadesus, and people with remarkable personal stories to tell.
If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
As a writer, one is always tempted to say the King James Version of the Bible, or the Book of Common Prayer. Barring that, I think I’d have to say T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I must have lost a couple of dozen copies by pressing them upon friends who never give them back. Oh, and The Canterbury Tales, in its original English — and the complete works of Shakespeare. And The Nine Tailors.