The Story Behind My First Book

In 2016, I published my first novel, THE ROAD AHEAD. I never had ambitions to be an author like many of my writing friends. I didn’t have a fine arts or literary background, but I did enjoy reading. So, the book release came as a surprise to all of my friends.

When it all started

Back in 2012, I left full-time employment with the Ontario government to work part-time as a consultant. I did policy work for the government, specializing in auto insurance regulation, and that was what my consulting practice concentrated on. I considered consulting as temporary until I decided what my next career would be. My friend Kathy was also looking for another career move, and we met on numerous occasions to see if there were any synergies.

I remember sitting over lunch on a spring afternoon in 2014 bouncing around ideas when Kathy said, “I don’t see you go into business. I see you as a writer.”

“I’m not a writer. I don’t know the first thing about how to write a novel.”

“I’ve read the reports you’ve written. You’re an excellent writer.”

I didn’t outright reject the suggestion, but I didn’t jump at it either. But the seed had been planted. Over the coming weeks and months, I thought about it a lot. I’ve always been known as someone who likes to take on big challenges. This fell into the basket of stuff I don’t think I can do but would love to try. I was going to write a novel.

What do I write about?

I knew right away that whatever the book was going to be about, it would be funny. I couldn’t see myself writing about anything serious. But what would the story be about? I quickly decided that a first book should be something I know about. It would be enough of a challenge without having to learn about WW II espionage or oil rigging. So, I quickly decided that a political satire was the genre of my first novel. I enjoyed political satires and felt I could pull this off.

So I began generating ideas. The protagonist would be an inappropriate and somewhat bumbling politician. At first, I was going to write a story about building an unnecessary highway that went nowhere. But then I decided to just write about what I know – auto insurance.

Now that I had an idea what I would write about, I determined my next step was to learn something about writing novels. It’s not anything like writing a report on how catastrophically injured accident victims should be compensated under a no-fault system. I took an introductory course on novel writing at the University of Toronto with author Michelle Berry. Then I took another course on comedy writing with Terry Fallis. The second course went a long way toward building my confidence.

It was six months into the writing process before I even mentioned to anyone that I was working on a novel. Like many novice writers, I didn’t believe I would ever finish.

First draft blues

Back then, I had not networked with other writers and still knew little about publishing. That is one reason why I am always willing to help a new writer. I’ve been there!

When I had a finished a draft novel, I needed to figure out what my next steps would be. I decided it would be a good idea to find out if what I wrote was any good. I reached out to Michelle Berry, and she recommended a former student who was doing editing to supplement her writing. A few weeks later, she returned my manuscript with much criticism and very little positive to say about my manuscript. There was too much description and not nearly enough narrative. This has always been an issue for me as a former technical writer. I could research a topic to death. The editor also didn’t get the humour. But what got me in the dumps was that she felt some scenes in the manuscript didn’t appear believable. All of those scenes were based on events that actually happened.

I wasn’t sure what I should do. Should I abandon the book? Was the manuscript even fixable? I finally concluded that the editor and I were not a good match. That’s an important learning opportunity. Not every editor is the same and feedback can vary. I fixed the structural issues because those were things she knew well. I decided I knew about how the story should unfold and what was funny.

I edited the manuscript and found beta readers among former students from the course I had taken. Overtime, the manuscript that at one time almost ended in the trash, took shape and received positive feedback. On September 20, 2016, which was also my birthday, I released the book and hosted a launch party for my friends at a downtown Toronto bookstore.

How much of the story is based on true events?

I admit events inspired me during my days in the government and from the news because they were funny. Sometimes, I borrowed or adapted things into scenes. They would fit nicely into a political satire. I made up other scenes up.

For example, I worked with a political staffer for several years who was ambitious but not exactly an intellect. She became a Member of Parliament in Ottawa and even a Cabinet Minister. She also ran into some adverse publicity because of poor judgement and arrogance. One time, she threw a tantrum after being asked to remove her boots for security scrutiny. They barred her from boarding the flight. Another time she was attending an event at her home riding and a scrum of reporters was waiting for her to ask questions about previous controversies. She promised the reporters she would answer their questions after the event. But she slipped out a backdoor and ran to her limo. A reporter caught it on film, and it landed on YouTube.

Another time, I attended a committee meeting where Doug Ford, Sr. was a member. He asked an embarrassing question that stuck in my head for 20 years. That question (and the response) is in my book. There was a Cabinet Minister in the early 1990s who was forced to resign when the newspapers reported he was having a non-sexual affair with a woman. He was single at the time, and the reason for the resignation was that he hired this woman to work in his office. I thought that was an odd story and worked it into the book. Other meetings and legislative debates helped me develop my story.

Who did you base the characters in the book?

The novel came out during the 2016 presidential election and, not surprisingly, most people assumed I had based the main character on Donald Trump. I began writing the book before Trump announced he was running for office. In fact, when he formally announced his candidacy outside the Trump Tower in New York in June 2015, I had already completed a first draft.

No one in the book is based on any real person. The main character, Rick Tompkins, is a composite of many personalities I came across in government. There are types in politics and I observed all types, including those who were full of themselves, abusive to staff, lazy, rude, and even inappropriate. Some were in politics because they believed in public service and others were in it to further their careers afer leaving politics. I worked for rightist, leftist, and centrist governments and they weren’t much different.

I should mention that the politician previously mentioned is not a character in the books. I just adapted some of her antics and used them for Rick. Many people have asked whether I am Jerry Switzer. The answer is no. But while writing the book, I would sometimes ask myself, if I was Jerry, how would I react?

The main character says a lot of inappropriate stuff. I was concerned about offending readers. So, I included in Rick’s staff, women, people of colour, gays and religious minorites. Anytime he said something offensive, one of the staff spoke out. I did not want readers to get the impression that the author shares those same views.

After thoughts

Soon after I released THE ROAD AHEAD, I was coming up with ideas for changing the story. I don’t know if other authors go through this process, but it happens to me following the publication of each of my books. If I’m not careful, I can fall into a trap where I never stop editing a manuscript. But looking back, this story would look much different.

I didn’t consider publishing a single novel truly makes you an author. I needed to write a second novel. At first, I toyed with the idea of a sequel, in which Rick Tompkins takes a run at becoming the mayor of Brampton. I finally decided I wanted to write something entirely different. This is what led me to write LOVED MARS HATED THE FOOD.

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