Date: September 23, 2006
Source: The Toronto Star

Business writer praised for fictionalizing

Trevor Cole parlays journalism career into novels

By Judy Stoffman

Too long a time spent juggling facts seems to cripple the imaginative part of the brain. Perhaps that is why few journalists have made a successful leap from newspapers and magazines into fiction.

Yet Trevor Cole, who spent 23 years as a journalist, 15 of them at the Globe and Mail, has managed the transition with aplomb. Published two years ago, his first novel Norman Bray, In the Performance of his Life, gave us one of the most vivid and unforgettable characters in recent fiction — the narcissistic actor of the title, based on Cole's own father — and was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award and a Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Cole's adroitly plotted second novel, The Fearsome Particles, has just been published by McClelland and Stewart ($33), evidence that Cole is an ongoing contributor to Canadian letters who is worth watching.

"Once you know you have it in you, you want to do it again," says Cole, who now lives in Hamilton, over a recent lunch in Toronto. "The Governor General's nomination was a validation for me, because the initial reaction had been: `A business journalist trying his hand at fiction?'" Before leaving the Globe, he had been a writer for its Report On Business magazine.

The Fearsome Particles is the story of an average Canadian family — businessman Dad, a decorator Mom, their 19-year-old son who drops out of university to test himself, a cat named Rumsfeld — who are knocked off balance by tragic events on the other side of the world. The son Kyle, who has been studying chemistry, signs on as civilian support staff to handle water purification at a military camp in Afghanistan, and is shipped home three months before his contract is up, guilt- ridden and damaged by events he cannot speak of.

Little by little, Kyle's story seeps out, keeping the reader glued to the page.

The ripped-from-the-headlines quality of the story has already attracted movie interest; an option to film the story has been bought by Jon Slan of Slanted Wheel Productions.

Cole was born in Toronto but lived in many places as his father's acting career developed, then foundered.

Magazine journalism has taught him techniques, he says, that are useful in fiction. "Because I was writing long pieces for ROB, I had to learn how to drag people through the story, how to apply everything in the story toward a goal."

He has avoided creative writing courses. "I just did it," he says. "I'm very project-oriented. I don't keep a journal — I don't write to see what feels good. The writers I read are Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Carey, Philip Roth for their narrative drive. Each of them is willing to entertain comedy and tragedy in the same story. I try to do that."

Journalism has also supplied him with a well-stocked pantry of information. Vicky, mother of the damaged Kyle, fluffs multi-million-dollar houses for sale so that they become a sort of stage set for living the perfect life, while her own life spins out of control.

The glossy realtor Avis, whom Vicky works for, "never said fluffing, she always said staging; she accepted that even very wealthy buyers lacked a certain imagination when it came to looking at a collection of empty rooms," Cole writes.

The description springs from a magazine article about how high-end real estate is sold, which he wrote in November 2004, titled "Rich People Will Buy Hugely Expensive Houses Even If They Hate Them."

Similarly, the descriptions of a Canadian military base and the language and behaviour of the soldiers there was gleaned from an assignment about civilian contractors that took him to Bosnia during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

"I went to live among soldiers for a couple of weeks on assignment for a little defence magazine — this was in late 2003 — to feel the atmosphere, what it was like to go out on patrol, or to hang out in the junior officers' mess. I had this suspicious and incomplete view of the military before that," he recalls. "I took the assignment for the book and while I was there, a soldier committed suicide, and everything was shut down. You don't expect that. It gave me a sense of the vulnerability of these kids."

Cole intended to send the fictional Kyle to Bosnia, but shifted the locale to Afghanistan when the Canadian military moved its resources to that harsh land as part of its NATO commitment.

While working for the Globe, Cole met Krista Foss, the paper's health reporter, to whom Particles is dedicated. He wooed her by showing her his first, unpublished manuscript.

"It was a bleak tragedy, a fable, with talking birds," he says. "Every writer should have a manuscript in a drawer. You have to try things out, otherwise you are not stretching."

Foss encouraged him to continue writing fiction and he left the Globe in 2002, when she was reassigned to Winnipeg.

"We were living in Winnipeg for 15 months, having left our friends and families, having just gotten married, and the environment was hard; in summer it was mosquitoes and winter was a kind of hell. But I could pour myself into Norman Bray there."

He was worried that the title character, the failed actor with the monstrous ego, would wound his father.

"I didn't want to hurt him. When I was growing up, I helped him run his lines, I prompted him. There was always a lot of language in our house."

He need not have worried. "When my father was angry or hurt he could make a scene but my dad reacted exactly as my wife said he would: she said he'd be flattered. He was quite pleased that he'd inspired a book. Which is exactly how a narcissist would react."

The performances of Cole's father's life had been as Rochester in the musical version of Jane Eyre and as Dr. Jack in Johnny Belinda — roles he performed with gusto at theatres across the country and on CBC television. In his latter years, the parts dried up and his family became his audience. He died last year of lung cancer, which had spread to his brain.

In the new book, Cole says he based the character of Gerald, Kyle's father, partly on himself: "He is the product of an unpredictable childhood."

The central theme of his life, the novelist admits, is "overcoming fear. My father was a great talent as a singer and actor but he wouldn't audition because he feared rejection. I've had to push myself through fear (of failure). I had a well-paying job at the Globe, where I could have worked for 30 years, safe in a cocoon. I kept telling myself, I will not be my father."