Ten Questions, with C.B. Forrest

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Ten Questions, with C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest talks to Open Book about writerly perseverence, his ideal writing environment, his research secrets and his latest novel, Slow Recoil (RendezVous Crime), which launches this fall.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, Slow Recoil.

C.B. Forrest:

Slow Recoil is the second in a planned trilogy of novels featuring retired Toronto Police detective Charlie McKelvey. The first novel, The Weight of Stones, dealt with McKelvey’s handling of his son’s murder, his grief and quest for revenge. Slow Recoil takes McKelvey into the first year of his retirement from the force. It examines the ripple effect of war, juxtaposing the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 — the start of a new era of warfare — against the lingering effects of the Balkan conflict from the 1990s. The mass murder of 8,000 people at Srebrenica is the starting point for the novel.

OB:

What was your first publication?

CBF:

I had a short story published in a now-defunct literary journal. Sadly, most smaller literary journals end up with that tagline: "now defunct". It felt great to see my story in print after trying for so many years. The editors praised my style and gave me encouragement at a time when I needed it. I can’t remember what the story was called, just that it was about a boy trying to figure out a girl. You know, something really original.

OB:

In 2001, your novella titled Coming To was adapted to the stage and showcased at The Factory Theatre during Toronto’s SummerWorks festival. Tell us about that experience.

CBF:

The director Greg Poulin and producer Pauline Braithwaite did a fantastic job adapting a very insular story. It’s set in a motel room and features flashbacks. It was surreal to sit in the audience and watch my story being acted out, hearing my lines of dialogue come to life. But the best moment of all came when the show ended and I went to the washroom and heard two guys discussing the play. They were very complimentary. To this day that remains one of the best moments I have ever experienced as a writer.

OB:

Describe your writing process.

CBF:

I think about my stories a long time before I actually sit down to write them. It’s like I’m watching a movie in my head. I might spend three or four months with the characters and story line turning and turning, so that when I finally sit down to write, it comes out quite fluidly. I draw inspiration from the people around me, conversations, news stories, and before I know it the story has an engine of its own.

OB:

What is your ideal writing environment?

CBF:

My ideal and my actual are worlds apart. I love the idea of a study overlooking a body of water, a fire crackling in the corner, a Meerschaum pipe stuck in my face, a servant with an exotic name bringing gin and tonic and a cheese tray at four o‘clock every day. The truth is, I have a busy career and a busy "real" life, so I‘ve learned to write where and when I can. I’ve written standing up, on my knees, in hotels, on planes, trains and, quite often, on cocktail napkins.

OB:

Do you spend much time revising your work?

CBF:

I definitely spend much more time editing and refining and fiddling than I do drafting or actually getting the story down on paper. My journalism background enforces an efficiency of language. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to move the story forward in some way. You have to be ruthless and honest with yourself, willing to toss away dozens of pages or entire chapters — especially that pretentious, flowery stuff you think is pure genius.

OB:

Tell us about your research process and what kind of research goes into writing a mystery novel.

CBF:

As a journalist I was provided the opportunity to sit in courtrooms and cover criminal trials, to see the workings of the justice system up close. I interviewed an inmate at a federal prison and a few ex-convicts which helped me understand motivations, language, the whole cultural and societal system of prison life. For The Weight of Stones, I also did extensive readings on the Quebec biker wars. I probably read a half dozen books on the Balkan conflict before I started writing Slow Recoil. For a mystery or crime novel, it helps to speak with a few cops — preferably not while they’re writing you a ticket or handing you a summons.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

CBF:

I always have a few books on the go. I just finished Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, and Killshot by Elmore Leonard sits on the night table. I’m also re-reading David Gilmour’s Back on Tuesday. It’s a shame Gilmour says he’s done with novels. He’s one of the few writers who can make me wet my pants laughing and then make me cry, all in the same paragraph. I think he was just hitting his stride with A Perfect Night to Go to China.

OB:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

CBF:

In those darkest moments try to remember why you‘re doing it in the first place. Nobody asked you to spend hours and years locked away from society writing a story that very likely may never see the light of day. You’ve got to believe in the mission, in the process. What if that next story or that next novel is the one that resonates with people? That’s what I always thought when I ripped open an envelope with yet another rejection slip inside. Hemingway said, “we’re all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master.” You’ve got to be all in, no excuses, no compromises. Get used to asking people questions like, “So what is this Dancing With The Stars, anyway?”

OB:

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

CBF:

I’m starting to draft the third and final novel featuring Charlie McKelvey. It’s taking shape now, and it’s going to really surprise people — both the story and some of the literary techniques. I’m also putting down the plot and character notes for a new series based on a character from the McKelvey novels. I’ve got a screenplay idea that drives me absolutely bonkers. I can see the whole thing, it’s just a matter of getting it right. You have so little room for error in a screenplay. Every second counts.


C. B. Forrest was born and raised in the historical village of Richmond, just outside of Ottawa. After studying journalism, he worked as a reporter for the Sudbury Star and Northern Life. He studied under the author and poet B. W. Powe as a student at the Humber School for Writers. In 2001 an unpublished novella titled Coming To was adapted to the stage and showcased at The Factory Theatre during Toronto’s SummerWorks festival.

Slow Recoil is the follow-up to his debut novel, The Weight of Stones (2009), which was published by RendezVous Crime and shortlisted for Best First Novel at the Arthur Ellis Awards in 2010. He lives in Ottawa with his wife and daughter.

Visit his website at www.cbforrest.com.

For more information about Slow Recoil please visit the RendezVous Crime website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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