25th Trillium Award

On Publishing, with Peggy Blair

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Photo Credit: Alan Dean Photography

Ottawa-based author Peggy Blair spoke to Open Book about her fated meeting with crime writer Ian Rankin and her debut novel The Beggar's Opera (Penguin Canada).

By Ashliegh Gehl

Before author Peggy Blair got the gumption to write The Beggar’s Opera, she spent several years working through the residential school claims process, listening to stories about native children being sexually abused.

“I was a little burned out from hearing all of these stories,” she said.

After being a lawyer for about 30 years, Peggy decided to leave her job. And in the spring of 2009, when she was unemployed and had time to burn, she tackled a completely different vocation – novel writing.

When Peggy’s daughter came home from McGill University that Easter, Peggy spilled the beans about her newfound ambition to write a mystery.

“She gave me that eye roll that only a 22 or 23 year old can. Like, yeah right, mom! What are you really going to do?” she said.

Sitting in Peggy’s sunroom, they playfully tossed around plot ideas and settled on Cuba – a country they visited in 2006.

A little less than a year and half after Peggy first mouthed her decision to write, literary agent Peter Robinson picked up The Beggar’s Opera in August, 2010.

Her journey down the yellow brick road to landing a literary agent wasn’t easy; it was pitted with more than 150 rejection letters.

“It stings less after the first 100 or so times that you’ve been turned down,” she said. “You stop taking it personally.”

Peggy’s story from rejection to acceptance begins when she submitted her book for the Debut Dagger – an award in the United Kingdom. An award she was shortlisted for – but didn’t win.

On her last night in England, she went to the bar and treated herself to a glass of wine. Crime writer Ian Rankin walked in and Peggy, bent on keeping a promise she made to take photographs for the Crime Writers of Canada, thought it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Their two-minute conversation ended with Ian suggesting she contact Peter, his agent. And so she did.

“I got this message to call Peter urgently in England,” she said. “And my first thought, was he had talked to Ian Rankin and Ian Rankin has told him I’m a stalker. He doesn’t know who I am. I had that moment of panic.”

That wasn’t the case, far from it. And as a result of their partnership, The Beggar’s Opera was published by Penguin Canada in February, 2012.

The book takes place in Old Havana where Peggy illuminates the underbelly of the city by focusing on beggars, prostitutes and corruption.

“Obviously I’m writing about a country that I didn’t grow up in,” she said. “I don’t have an insider’s knowledge, but I was trying to tell an insider’s story. So I had to do a lot research.”

With a day timer on one side and a giant street map of Havana on the other, Peggy surrounded herself with articles ranging from pathology to food.

With The Beggar’s Opera in bookstores, Peggy has two more books in the queue. The King’s Indian is her second book and it has been through its first round of editorial revisions. It’s set to print in 2013. Peggy wrote the third book, tentatively titled Hungry Ghosts, last year.

“I didn’t have this burning desire to be a writer,” she said. “It was something where, I had a period of downtime. I got interested in what I was doing. And most things I do, I try to give 110 percent to. So I wanted to stick with it and make sure I had tried every avenue before I walked away from it. And I was pretty close to that point, for sure, when the shortlist happened.”

For Peggy, her perseverance paid off.

She's currently shortlisted for a CBC Bookie Award. The polls close March 31, 2023 and the winners will be revealed on April 5, 2012.

Ashliegh Gehl is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.

She has written for the Montreal Gazette, Quill & Quire, OurKingston.ca, Northumberland Today and The Intelligencer newspapers.

Between countless cups of oolong tea, Ashliegh has been busy working on two books. Visit her website for more information.

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