25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with B. Glen Rotchin

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Glen Rotchin

B. Glen Rotchin tells Open Book why writing a novel is like driving at night, why humour matters and how life can imitate art in the most uncanny ways. His second novel, Halbman Steals Home (Dundurn), will be released on February 5th.

Pick up a copy of Halbman Steals Home and you'll receive the digital edition of B. Glen Rotchin's chapbook Salesmanship: Three Stories as a free bonus! All you have to do is answer this skill-testing question: Name the Rabbi who officiates at the wedding of Mort's son Jacob. Email your answer to [email protected] and good luck!

Open Book:

Tell us about your book Halbman Steals Home.

B. Glen Rotchin:

Halbman Steals Home tells the story of Mort Halbman, a divorced, curmudgeonly, semi-retired Montreal garment manufacturer who’s trying to salvage what he can from a life that has both figuratively and literally gone up in flames. Literally in the sense that the dream house he built in the late 1960s in the exclusive suburb of Hampstead and lost to his ex-wife in their divorce settlement has burned down under mysterious circumstances. Mort feels compelled to continuously re-visit the ruin of his former home, and in the process becomes a suspect in an arson investigation. This compulsion to return, to confront what he has lost, derives from Mort’s need to repossess memories, to reconnect with what truly matters personally and to reconcile with his past mistakes.

I know it sounds deadly serious, but it’s actually funny. I mean what’s funnier than a cranky old Jewish businessman trying to understand the errors of his ways? I’ll tell you what’s funnier: the way he tries to fix them.


Halbman Steals Home combines subjects that one might not expect to find in the same place: baseball, Judaism, arson, same-sex marriage, Canadian book reviewing…What was your inspiration for some of these twists and turns, and did you know where you'd be going when you started writing?


I’m not the type of writer who plots out a story in advance. E.L Doctorow’s description of writing fiction seems apt to me. He said it’s like driving at night, you only see as far as your headlights show, but in the end you arrive at your destination.

I always start with setting. In this case the Town of Hampstead, where I grew up, which is akin to the Toronto enclave of Forest Hill, only odder. It was founded by Montreal’s Protestant Anglophone banker class almost a century ago, but is now something like 90 percent Jewish. It was modeled after London’s famed Hampstead Heath, with street names like Belsize, Downshire, and Glenmore, plopped down in the heart of Quebec in the middle of the second largest French-speaking city in the world. Richler had Saint-Urbain, I have Hampstead.

All the elements of the story that you mention are really extensions of the setting, the warp and woof of the fabric of life I grew up with in the 1970s and 1980s (the Expos, the Jewish community) as well as socio-political contexts (the same-sex marriage issue) that always play a major role in Quebec. On a more personal level, the home I’m writing about in the novel is based on the house I grew up in which was in fact built by my father, and did actually burn down under odd circumstances. Stranger still, was that it happened after I started writing the novel. Life imitates art.


What is your opinion on the role of humour in a novel?


Humour is essential in a novel, just as it’s essential in life. Humour speaks to the core awareness that our lives are fundamentally absurd, that we are flawed and yet strive for perfection, that our understanding is limited and yet are driven to understand, that we espouse certainty even as everything is uncertain. There is a well-known Yiddish saying, mensch tracht un Got lacht, meaning, man plans and God laughs. Laughing is as close to the truth as we can get.


Halbman Steals Home is your second novel. How did the experience of writing it compare to the writing of The Rent Collector (Véhicule, 2006)?


Although many of the concerns were the same, the experience of writing the two novels was completely different. I began The Rent Collector without knowing I had embarked on writing a novel. I never really felt that I had a firm handle on what I was doing and questioned it every step of the way. So, I focused more on the nuts and bolts of the process, the minutiae, choosing each word, arranging them into sentences and coherent paragraphs, and then I went deeper into the layers and allusions they contained. The result, I think, is a novel preoccupied with craft, which is fine because it suits the subject matter. But it also ends up being dense, tasty but heavy on the cream and maybe a touch fattening.

With Halbman I was after lighter, more delicate pastry. My main concern was storytelling flow, a more fluid, supple and natural read, but one that does not skimp on texture and depth of meaning. I’m hoping this story goes down and digests easier but is just as filling.


You maintain the lively blog On Bounced Rent Cheques and Teary-Eyed Excuses. What do you enjoy about being a literary blogger, and how does it contribute to your own writing?


I think blogging has multifaceted benefits. In terms of writing, the blog is like semi-regular training before playing in the big game. Or like rough sketching before working on the big canvas. Sharing interesting links, recommending books, opinionating and occasionally promoting also counteracts the isolation that is the typical writer’s lot. Plus, posting entries, slapping texts up for public view, often has the effect of de-personalizing your thoughts, which can help you work out where you’re at emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Sometimes the blog is the best therapist, and definitely a lot cheaper than a professional.


Describe your average writing day.


I have no "average" writing day. Every day is a different struggle to find pockets of freedom between my full-time job working and my other full-time job raising a family. I have four children, and writing is usually treated like the neglected stepchild.


Who is your favourite Canadian novelist and why?


For the moment, I‘d say Trevor Cole. His novel The Fearsome Particles was one of the best Canadian novels of the past decade. Darkly comic, poignant, crisply-written, timely, understated and profound. He really gets it. I’m looking forward to digging into his most recent novel, Practical Jean.


What are you working on now?


For the most part, catching up on my reading, which is always a necessary prerequisite to writing. Writing-wise, lots of bits and pieces that may someday be stitched together into a garment that can be worn.

B. Glen Rotchin has published fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews. He has won two Canadian Jewish Book Awards for co-editing the poetry anthologies Jerusalem: An Anthology of Jewish Canadian Poetry (1997) and A Rich Garland: Poems for A.M. Klein (2000), while his debut novel, The Rent Collector, was a finalist in 2005 for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Rotchin lives in Montreal. Visit him at his blog.

For more information about Halbman Steals Home please visit the Dundurn website.

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

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