25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Money Talks

With Deryn Collier, Paula Daly, Gloria Ferris, Cecil Foster, Adrianne Harun, Harry Karlinsky, Kate Pullinger, Ray Robertson and Allan Stratton.

This month in Fiction Craft, we ask writers: What role does money play in your fiction?

Like sex, money is one of those odd things that everyone thinks quite a lot about yet no one talks very much about. In the world of books and publishing, talking about money is positively frowned upon, as though the art of creating fiction should somehow exist in a privileged, hot-house environment sequestered from the stuff of daily concerns. This, of course, is utter nonsense. But I?ve often found that -- to the detriment of the art -- this bizarre perspective filters its way into the writing itself, where characters have no more need or desire for money than they do other of life?s more base essentials. (When, for example, was the last time a character in a novel had a good wank or took a crap?)

Money is part of the very fabric of daily life. In my novel Snakes & Ladders, this truth came to a head when the pursuit of money by opportunistic adults conflicted with the innocent desires of two children. In the story, the adults want to cut down a giant oak tree and pave over the field it stands on to install a go-cart track. The kids want to defend the oak, which is home to their tree fort. The novel was actually inspired, in part, by what I saw as the degradation the Canadian bookselling/publishing/writing industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s by business types bent on maximizing profit at the cost of culture through the creation of parasitic big-box bookstores and online discounting. Call me idealistic if you will, but I worked in the industry during the period and saw it systematically gutted by these people, some of whom are still at it today. For my novel, their actions served as the model for predatory greed. Set it in conflict with innocence, greed became the force that sent the novel?s scenario spiraling, eventually out of everyone?s control.

Now let?s see what some other writers had to say when pressed to talk about money.

 

Deryn Collier is the author of the novels Open Secret and Confined Space. She lives in Nelson, BC.

People kill for love or money. At least, that?s what the detective stories always tell us. Money matters to people, and by extension, how characters handle money matters to writers.

Our job is to evoke emotion, and money catapults us right to the crux of many situations. Remember the clenching feeling you got in your gut when you had to choose between buying groceries and paying the power bill? That time your friend asked you to be her bridesmaid but you couldn?t afford the dress, let alone the airfare? Face it: your friendship hasn?t really been the same since. Or the time you loaned your brother money for school? That felt good, right? But then he dropped out, like he always does and never paid it back. And Mom said he might be drinking again?

How a character deals with money is a shortcut to their very essence. As a writer, it?s your Google map to their soul. Stuck on a scene? Put money into the equation. Give one character more, and one less. Take some away. Dangle some. Promise some, and then don?t deliver. What happens?

If my protagonist, Bern Fortin, didn?t need to supplement his meager army pension, he would never have taken the job of coroner for a small town in the mountains. But we soon find out he has a debt to pay that has nothing to do with money?

His frugal neighbour would never go out for a latte ? they cost four bucks! Unless of course, someone else is paying?

And the office manager who only ever wears flat shoes? How did she pay for those five pairs of Christian Louboutin heels hiding in her basement closet? And what happens when her husband finds them?

Guaranteed tension.

 

Paula Daly is the author of the novels Keep Your Friends Close and Just What Kind of Mother Are You. She lives in Umbria, UK.

It plays a huge role.

I'm very aware of every character's relationship with money. I would say, for me, it's as important as love or integrity. You can get under a character's skin very quickly if you know how they behave around wealth. Do they want it? Do they envy their friends who have it? Have they happened upon it easily, and so are therefore envied by their friends?

In my first book the protagonist had no money at all, and she felt less than, subservient even, to the people around her that did. This theme of Lisa not feeling good enough ran through the whole story and impacted on the plot enormously.

In my second book the protagonist is rich. But she is so focused on keeping everything running perfectly that she is locked in a prison of her own making. This makes her vulnerable to attack from a friend - whose very motivation is, of course, money.

The book I'm working on now features a protagonist who is a financial disaster. She is in so much debt she doesn't know which way is up. The premise of this book is Indecent Proposal with life and death stakes. So again, the lack of money is at the heart of the plot.

I write thrillers so I'm always on the lookout for strong motivations for my villains. Generally it boils down to this: people do bad things because of love, power, or money. And because I write thrillers for women, and women are not so consumed with the need for power, that leaves me with love and money. Luckily people are complicated so I can come at these themes from lots of different angles (I hope).

 

Gloria Ferris is the author of the novels Corpse Flower and Cheat the Hangman. She lives in Guelph, ON

The fact is, money is a universal motivator. We all need a modest amount to survive; we need more to thrive; and we need a lot to live the dream. In fiction, money ? the lack of, the pursuit of, the enjoyment of ? creates wonderful opportunities for plot- and character-driven stories.

I didn?t consciously plan it, but money plays an important role in my latest mystery, Corpse Flower. The state of Bliss Moonbeam Cornwall?s finances kick-starts the plot and follows it to the end. Bliss once lived the good life. She helped her lawyer husband run his successful practice, and she spent her spare time at the country club, playing tennis or golfing.

Without warning, the ?Weasel? trades up for an older, politically-connected woman. Blindsided, Bliss finds herself standing on the front steps of her former residence, two suitcases at her feet, and the keys to an old beater in her hand.

Thus begins Bliss?s journey back to financial stability. Her shock turns to anger, and the anger to a quest for restitution ? and revenge. She moves to a trailer park, works four part-time, minimum-wage jobs ? and realizes after two years that these methods will never get her another day in court. She is barely subsisting. She needs one big payday and, without hesitation, takes a walk on the wild side to get it.

Bliss says about herself, ?I?m cut off my nose to spite my face stubborn?. She has options. She can leave small town Lockport and move to Toronto where she is guaranteed a good job. Nope. Keeping her focus on her target, she ignores her neighbours? drug dealing and a couple of murders that take place too close to home. She refuses to acknowledge the pot plants growing everywhere she steps. The bikers next door ? who cares? The new police chief may be crooked too, but no matter. Perhaps a smidge of blackmail will shake the Weasel loose from her money? Bliss keeps her head down and plows through. Eye on the prize.

Bliss?s desperate and dangerous efforts to regain financial security determine her actions throughout the story. Does she triumph? Ah, that is the question, isn?t it?

Money. If we don?t have it, we want it. If we had it once, we want it again. If we have it already, we?ll do anything to keep it. The subject is an endless source of inspiration for writers.

 

Cecil Foster is the author of the novels Independence, Slammin? Tar, Sleep on Beloved and No Man in the House. He lives in Toronto, ON.

How often do we hear that money is the root of all evil? Or is it the source of all good things? Well might it not also be a root of fiction as well, especially if we are imaginatively reconstructing ideas about the modern human condition. For with capitalism so pervasively a factor in our lives money?either its presence and or, indeed, absence?can symbolically represent so much as we try to depict relationships between our characters.

In my recently published novel Independence I have a scene in which a Grandmother is talking to her grandson and telling him that of late his mother who is overseas does not even send her a tra-la to help take care of him. Tra-la is a Barbadian term that has multiple meanings, one of which is money, but it also connotes some residual of goodwill and good intentions that way outweigh any monetary value. But tra-la may also symbolize something not of much consequence, such as the loose change in our pockets that we might readily give away to charity or as a tip.

The tra-la is also a sign of respect. In this case it is a signal of hope for both the grandmother and grandson when the postman arrives with a letter from overseas containing what others would call more formally remittances. So by calling the remittance a tra-la the grandmother is also sarcastically indicating that the mother is now appearing to be so irresponsible and neglectful of her dues and duties that she would not even condescend to contribute what amounts to pin money to help take care of her son. Or it could mean the opposite, that even though money might be tight with her she still manages to squeeze out a widow?s mite as a partial payment on all she owes.

Inside the letter would be the cheque or postal order that reassure that the letter writer and the receivers of the gift inside the letter are still in strong personal relationship with one another. They would be sharing in the ups and downs of life even though life might be treating them differently based on the locations in which now they find themselves. And most of all it would be a signal to them all that they still share one another?s successes and failures too. So in this case the absence of the tra-la speaks volumes.

The question then becomes how can these characters transcend this absence?this seeming lack of hope and the diminishing verification that despite great distances this grandmother, mother and son still share the same world, the same dreams for the future?that they are still a family?

Many of the relationships in Independence are about how a people rally together and fight to remain strong in the face of diverse difficulties of which the economic is one. It is also the story of the relations between boys and girls who will become independent men and women. Money, regardless of how it is named, helps to shape these relationships and to keep the dreams alive. Such then is the power of something as inconsequential?or is it as valuable?as a tra-la.

 

Adrianne Harun is the author of the novel A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain and the short-fiction collection The King of Limbo. She lives in Port Townsend, WA.

Money, like sex, can act as a jet within a story, pushing characters into that necessary trouble that elevates a situation into a story. Money in fiction often arrives pulsing with desire or need or heartbreaking want, inherently clamoring for a solution that?s likely doomed from the start. At the same time, it can be an occluding flaw, one that won?t permit a character to see clearly or even attempt do the right thing. This mix ? desire coupled with blindness -- is almost Shakespearean, isn?t it? What a boon money can be to a story!

I think it?s crucial to know how characters pay their rent or mortgage, how they manage to get on in the material world, what work and money mean to them. Characters can?t exist in a vacuum, set apart from the world. Otherwise, they run the risk of being flat, mere ciphers concocted by the writer to fill a story niche, and whatever emotional arc the story engenders will likely feel more applied than organic ? in other words, it won?t feel true. A character may not be his or her occupation, but his or her reasons for working that job, spending that way, taking that particular risk, well, all this says quite a lot about the character, doesn?t it? And when, as it is wont to do, the character?s life hits a snag, the relationship to work and money often surfaces to complicate, direct, and add depth to the action.

In my own fiction, money frequently plays the role of an antagonist. Like Midas, many of the characters in my first collection of stories discover that too much money signals tragedy, that a pursuit of wealth is also an emotional and psychic investment often doomed from the start, or that their success relies upon the failures of others.. Money separates and divides; it pushes characters into treacherous emotional territories. ?Lukudi,? the first story in my first story collection, The King of Limbo, takes its title from a Nigerian word, loosely translated as ?wealthmagic,? which simply means that great wealth comes at the expense of others. One of the main characters in that story, a fragile daughter of great privilege, has been all but abandoned by her wealthy parents, left alone on an estate in the dubious care of equally wealthy, equally thoughtless guardians, with disturbing consequences. In another story, ?An Inland Sea,? sudden, unexplained money luck in a fishing town only inspires more greed, while the instigating event in ?The Eighth Sleeper of Ephesus? is a developer?s plan to take over a cherished beach. I must have internalized the role of money as antagonist, because in my novel, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, it?s a flat given that a quest for money resides on the side of demons. And yet? even there, in the most goodhearted of characters, that yearning arrives, bringing with it a familiar rationale and propelling the story into dangerous territory.

 

Harry Karlinsky is the author of the novels The Stonehenge Letters and The Evolution of Inanimate Objects. He lives in Vancouver, BC.

This is character-driven and can vary dramatically. In my current novel The Stonehenge Letters, the framing device is a disgruntled psychiatrist?s determined efforts to learn why his hero ? Sigmund Freud ? failed to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. (Point of fact - Freud was nominated for the Nobel Prize thirty-times and yet failed to win.) Along the way, the psychiatrist learns of a secret lucrative competition reserved exclusively for Nobel Laureates, and no less than one designed to solve the mystery of Stonehenge. Be warned that The Stonehenge Letters blurs fact and fiction. For example, the reader of The Stonehenge Letters learns that, for Albert Einstein, money is a means of assuaging guilt.

Even prior to winning his Nobel Prize in Physics, Einstein stipulated in his divorce contract that the Nobel Prize money he knew he would one day win would be held in trust for his two young sons. (Point of fact - this may or may not be true). For a blackmailed and financially desperate Marie Curie, however, money is the motivating factor that drives her efforts to solve when Stonehenge was constructed and therefore hopefully win the secret competition. (Point of fact - this may or may not be true). And although I do not address the following detail in The Stonehenge Letters, I could have: Freud professed indifference to the fame associated with the Nobel Prize. He did, however, acknowledge that the significant remuneration associated with the prize was appealing. This is not surprising. Freud?s clinical practice (i.e., patients who could afford to pay) was small and, in his words to a colleague, ?I have come to know the helplessness of poverty and continually fear it?. In Freud?s life, the role that that money played was the equivalent of a euphoria-inducing drug ? cocaine or laughing gas in his day, any number of recreational drugs in ours. If that perception was good enough for Freud, it?s good enough for me ? at least in fiction.

 

Kate Pullinger is the author of numerous novels, including Landing Gear, The Mistress of Nothing, A Little Stranger and Weird Sister. She lives in London, UK.

Like most writers, I?m obsessed with money.

I work in a university creative writing department that is packed to the gunnels with prize-winning novelists, short story writers, and poets. The members of our faculty have won so many prizes that our students have started winning them as well. But we have one colleague, a mild-mannered English Literature scholar, who stunned us all last year when it was announced that a) all this time we thought she was writing about Samuel Richardson she was secretly writing a novel, and b) she had sold this novel, and its sequel, around the world, for that much-fabled sum of money: a high six-figure sum.

A high six-figure sum.

That?s in pounds sterling, not Canadian dollars, so it?s a high six-figure sum multiplied by the current exchange rate which, in fact, puts it into the mid seven-figure sum range.

Yes.

And yet, she continues to come to work. She continues to teach; she continues to go to meetings; she continues to answer our email enquiries about acronym-heavy university goings-on, in my case the AHRC SWW DTP, otherwise known as BGP2. My colleagues and I look at her, and we look at each other, and we find it hard not to ask her the following questions: where is the champagne? Where are the Louboutins? Why aren?t you lording it over us, because if I were you, I would be lording it over everyone.

So, that?s me and money in real life.

But when it comes to me and money in fiction, that?s another story.

Like most writers, I?m obsessed with money.

In my 2009 novel, The Mistress of Nothing, the whole reason there?s a story at all is down to money. Sally worked as a maid because in 1860s England there weren?t a lot of employment options for girls and most of us were in domestic service, if we were lucky. Sally and her mistress, Lady Duff Gordon, went to live in Egypt because the air was dry and thus good for my Lady?s sickly lungs but, more importantly, you could live in Egypt for next to no money. The Duff Gordons were posher than posh, but they didn?t have any money.

In my new novel, Landing Gear, once again the whole reason there?s a story at all is down to money. Yacub didn?t stow away in the landing gear of an airplane that was flying from Karachi to London because it seemed like a good idea at the time. He left his family; he risked his life; he did this extraordinarily brave and foolhardy thing because he wanted a better life for himself, for the sister he left behind. At the end of the day, the simplest and most difficult way to have a better life is to have more money. And yet, for the family Yacub arrives in, Harriet and Michael and Jack, one of their problems, one of the reasons that they wake up in the morning feeling like dead souls, is because they have too much money.

So, the answer to the question posed to me today ? ?What role does money play in your fiction?? - is this: protagonist, antagonist, deus ex machina.

 

Ray Robertson is the author of numerous novels including I Was There the Night He Died, David, What Happened Later and Moody Food. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Someone once complained that the problem with most novels is that they?re all written after five p.m. and on weekends. Meaning, there?s very little mention of one of the main things human beings concern themselves with: working and making money. There are two reasons for this, I think. The first is, if a novelist is in any way successful (that is, makes their living mostly by writing novels), they?re likely fairly clueless about any job but writing novels (especially as their career progresses). Also, it?s easier to get your characters into interesting situations when they?re not burdened by having to go to work every day.

But novels that slight the often-boring and less than dramatically compelling world of work and money-making and bill-paying are ignoring one of the basic realities of human existence. Even writing about successfully avoiding work (a basic fantasy of human existence) is preferable to conveniently avoiding the topic all together. As T.S. Eliot famously wrote, "Money talks, bullshit walks." Or maybe that was my Uncle Donny.

 

Allan Stratton is the author of numerous works of fiction including The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish, Chanda's Secrets, Borderline and The Phoenix Lottery. He lives in Toronto, ON.

As a social satirist, money figures prominently in my work. There?s nothing like it to expose hypocrisy, greed and all the other human frailties that are the comic writer?s stock in trade. Especially today, an age of bread-and-circus celebrity culture and income disparity, so like that of the Dirty Thirties, the time frame of The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish.

Money drives every character in the novel, except its heroine Mary Mabel, a feisty Candide in a world of sharks. Every plot line, too. There are the travelling evangelists, Brothers Percy and Floyd, who draw paying customers by preaching on sin in a carnival tent that housed a double murder suicide. There?s the young Hearst reporter, K.O Doyle, driven to feed the resurrection tale to please his employer, while blackmailing its authors to raise money for his ailing mother. There?s the Bolshevik hoboes who plan a kidnapping at Radio City Music Hall to raise money for the gospel according to Marx. And there?s the real life hucksters W.R. Hearst, J. Edgar Hoover and Jack Warner who peddle myths through media for financial and political glory.

Above all, there?s Mary Mabel?s nemesis, Miss Horatia Alive Bentwhistle, who runs London, Ontario?s Bentwhistle Academy for Young Ladies (aka rich juvenile delinquents). Her social station is the direct result of a family Ponzi scheme. (Think a small-town Bernie Madoff .) When her school is burned to the ground by a disgruntled English teacher, she hightails it to Hollywood to defraud high-rollers by pawning herself off as a British baroness: this in a world where truth is marketed in strips of celluloid, and fortunes are made by sleight of hand.

Money. Like Gollum?s ?precious?, its lure both informs and transforms the rogues gallery that populates The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish -- and in ways only a wink away from the world in which we live today.

 

---

Shaun Smith is a novelist and an award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in numerous national publications including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC.ca and Quill & Quire. In 2013, his book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs was published by Tightrope Books. In 2009, his novel Snakes & Ladders was published by Dundurn. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

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