Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Canadian, meh...?

NONE SO BLIND, the tenth book in my Inspector Green series, has been out for six weeks now, and a couple of recent reviews, reader comments, and newspaper articles have got me thinking about the issue of setting and preconceptions. What sorts of locales are considered exotic and interesting? Which settings do people want to read about, and which will they give a pass? Does setting discourage a reader from even trying a book? And what part do misconceptions and stereotypes play in that choice?

Canadian authors wrestle with these questions all the time when deciding whether to set their books in Canada. Canada has the reputation of being cold, snowy, and dull, Canadians of being earnest, polite, but boring relatives one doesn't want to sit next to. When authors propose a Canadian setting, US publishing marketers run screaming from the room. I know of one Canadian author who was persuaded to change his setting from Montreal to Buffalo. Nothing against Buffalo, but... seriously?

The attitude seems to be that no one wants to read about Canada, that nothing exciting could possibly happen in Canada, certainly not a juicy murder worth reading about. It's true that in real life, we have a depressingly low murder rate – statistics just released indicate that it is 1.44 per 100,000 (compared to 6 per 100,000 in the US, for example). Ottawa, a city of one million, has just had its sixth homicide of the year. However, what we lack in quantity, we make up for in originality. From a brief perusal of recent murders,iIt can't be said that Canadians have no imagination.

And some Canadian settings are more exotic and appealing than others. Set your book in Newfoundland, where they talk funny and make you kiss a cod, or in the wilderness of the north under threat from a grizzly, and people rush to buy it. Three Pines lives in its own enchanted, parallel  universe. But most Canadian cities and towns are not considered exciting enough to be worth a visit, even by an armchair traveller. Or so we're told, by publishers and agents in the know.

Writing about Canada, and telling our own stories about our homes, is a choice many of us make nonetheless. I don't write about Canada because I think it's good for us, like broccoli, but because I believe Canada has lots of interesting stories to tell and places to visit. It may be gentler and subtler than its neighbour to the south, but it is a multi-coloured fabric rich in layers and textures. It doesn't deserve its reputation for being the place where nothing happens. And no place exemplifies this more than Ottawa.

The Inspector Green series is set in Ottawa, which is not only the capital city of Canada but also an intriguing, complex, multi-layered metropolis in its own right. As a child psychologist who consulted to the city's school board, I travelled its length and breadth and knew its neighbourhoods and its secret corners very well. Yet  I constantly ran up against people who thought the city was nothing but government grey suits and sidewalks that rolled up at 5 p.m. Bo-r-ing!

Ottawa hasn't actually been boring in forty years, about the same length of time that Toronto hasn't been boring. I've lived in both places, and I grew up in Montreal, which set the bar for excitement pretty high. But contemporary Ottawa has a dynamic, interesting life outside of, and indeed in spite of, the mandarins on The Hill. It has a physically spectacular setting criss-crossed by five rivers, a canal, a man-made lake in the centre, natural wooded parks, escarpments, cliffs, and ravines. It has a jumbled mix of heritage streets and magnificent architecture like the Parliament buildings, the Art Gallery, the disney-esque Chateau Laurier, and numerous museums old and new.

It is a city of neighbourhoods, each with its unique style, ranging from exclusive Rockcliffe with its stone mansions, shaded drives, and diplomatic licence plates, to adjacent Vanier, where working-class immigrant families pack into little clapboard homes alongside crack houses and tattoo parlours and rent-by-the-hour rooms. Ottawa has biker gangs and private schools, a chaotic blend of colours, languages and food thanks to a rich infusion of immigrants from every corner of the world. It has music festivals all summer long, skating on the canal, festivals of lights at Christmas, a million tulips in gardens all over the city during the Tulip Festival. And yet a twenty-minute drive into the Gatineau Hills opens up a world of lakes, beaches, hiking trails, and some of the best cross-country ski trails on the continent.

So this blog is a bit of a rant in defence of one of Canada's least appreciated, most underestimated cities. Don't judge the city by the eleven-oclock news. Ottawa did not cut services or increase taxes. It's a place worth writing about, one that has provided me with endless possibilities for murder. Just like many other places in Canada.

So pick up a Canadian crime book and give us a try.


Patricia Filteau said...

Yeh, Ottawa sense of place to set the intrigue and play it out. Oh and did you mention five yacht clubs in the middle of the city separated by tumbling rapids and waterfalls; a nation's capital sitting on non treaty native lands that also allow galleries, theatres and museums to occupy sacred lands and rival the best in the world. Oh yeh, then there is professional football, hockey, baseball and media who retire to our Senate – that sober house of second opinion not to mention the bravado of world class rowing, swimming and every other sport known to human kind alongside, inside and outside many universities and colleges that populate a high tech, innovative sector to fuel a fabulous medical scene … the eclectic, weird and wonderful who have lived here for generations to mingle with a human landscape hailing from all over the world. … and last but not least our law and order is maintained and corrupted by City police, RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, Sûreté du Quebec, National Defence police and some sort of Parliament Hill security that just figured out may be it should be coordinated. Some how it all works rather brilliantly to offer up a sense of place where exotic and often rather sophisticated crimes take place played out by everyone from waste management sites to Ministers of the Crown. … Ah … did I mention our literary landscape where writers and celebration of writing is a year long explosion of thought and entertainment. Makes Edinburgh sound a bit boring don’t you think? Carry on Fradkin! More crime set in and around Ottawa.

Donis Casey said...

I want to read about Canada. To me Canada is ever so exotic. If you want to write about a place that people think is unexciting, try writing about Oklahoma.

Victoria Reeve said...

I'm a huge fan of the Inspector Green series. My preference is for novels set in Canada. The country is so vast, so varied, and parts are so inaccessible that a good read is the closest most of us are likely to get to much of it. As for Ottawa, even with my personal bias removed from the equation (I've chosen to live here most of my life), it is a truly beautiful and varied city. We do have an under-belly though, and, for a crime writer, Ottawa is perfectly positioned to be a hot-bed of crime. The presence of the sometimes-sleazy politicians, the DCs and their embassies, the high-tech sector, the bikers, the universities and the research departments (both governmental and educational) provide more than enough fodder for nefarious espionage and murder plots. The jarring juxtapositioning of a crime with the beautiful landscape and daily life of Ottawa (it seems so ordinary on the surface, but we know better) adds yet another layer of atmosphere, an element of disquiet. Keep them coming Barbara (please).

Barbara Fradkin said...

LOL, Donis. A good writer should make any place interesting, because a compelling story is about people. I figure if readers gobble up the dour landscape of Iceland and Sweden and Norway, why not Canada?

Eileen Goudge said...

I lived in B.C. in my youth. I remember it being wild and beautiful, as dramatic as the landscape.