Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

My Strange Tendencies

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My Strange Tendencies

We all have our habits. Some good, some bad, and some that could land us in a padded room at the local insane asylum.

As a writer, I have certain unconscious tendencies that sometimes end up on the page. Some of these are okay, like my tendency to give my characters mental health problems. Readers seem to find insanity interesting, and characters at odds with themselves provide the work with a sort of built-in narrative tension.

Other tendencies aren't so great. I tend to make my characters lazy, which makes it hard to get them to do anything. This is bad, since characters actually doing things is what drives a plot. I also tend to make my characters jerks, and have to put in a conscious effort at times to make them more likeable. I try not to think about whether that makes me a jerk or not.

Some of my tendencies are just weird. For example, every time I need to write a doctor, I always want to make him or her a smoker. Apparently this is a thing. Dr. Cottle, the famous smoking doctor of the TV series Battlestar Galactica, constantly has a cigarette pinched between his lips. In Impac-Dublin Prize winner Gerbrand Bakker's most recent novel, The Detour, there is a doctor who smokes in his office while examining patients. In Poison Shy, there's a scene in which Brandon desperately needs medical attention, and in the first draft, when Brandon bursts into his local walk-in clinic, I had the doctor blowing smoke rings at his desk next to an ashtray overflowing with butts. I think this tendency stems from the false belief that I'm being clever and ironic by having a medical practitioner smoke, but in reality, 'The Smoking Doctor' has become a common character trope, perhaps even a cliché.

Another tendency I had -- and this one is without question a cliché -- was to make Poison Shy's detective character, Basil Darvish, an alcoholic. Thankfully, I recognized the impending disaster early enough to make it not so. Let's face it: the alcoholic detective motif is so overdone at this point that it should be made illegal. (Sorry, Jo Nesbo.)

I became aware of what could be my strangest writing tendency only a few days ago. There is a scene in Poison Shy in which Melanie confesses some terrible things to Brandon while they're eating breakfast. Nothing ridiculous or cliché about that. Then, about one-hundred pages into my new project, my two main characters are in the middle of a huge greasy breakfast, and suddenly, when I was writing dialogue, I found that one of them started confessing a major transgression. I was actually quite proud of the scene -- until I was re-reading Poison Shy to prepare for an interview, and discovered that 'The Breakfast Table Confessional' is an aggressive tendency of mine that requires vigilant monitoring. Who knew?

Other minor tendencies I have are to write psycho girlfriends, perverted geniuses, and mysterious loners, all of which could slip into cliché territory if I don't take care to freshen them up in other ways. Habits of mine that I do appreciate are the tendency to write scenes in which characters go to the bathroom, eat disgusting food, get sick, vomit, fart, belch, and make terrible, life-altering mistakes. These are the things that, happily and sadly, make us human, and are therefore worthy of characterization.

In terms of my own personal life, I have a bad tendency to vanish from parties and events without saying goodbye to anyone. I'm going to try to work on that, and I certainly won't do that here.

So, thanks Open Book! It has been a pleasure. So long.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Stacey Madden

Stacey Madden holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. He lives in Toronto. Poison Shy (ECW Press) is his first novel.

Go to Stacey Madden’s Author Page