Today David Cole continues his Cool Canadian Crime interviews. Today: Anthony Bidulka
Previously, David interviewed Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Thomas Rendell Curran, Gail Bowen, Garry Ryan. and RJ Harlick. This group of authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. More to come.
Anthony Bidulka enjoyed time well-spent and misspent in academia, accounting, footwear, food services and farming. In 1999 he left a decade long career as a Chartered Accountant to pursue writing. Like his protagonist, Russell Quant, Anthony lives in a small city on the Canadian prairie. A great believer in community involvement, he has sat on many boards and committees in Saskatchewan, and is also active in the International Association of Crime Writers and Crime Writers of Canada.
DC: Can you give us a little biography?
AB: Some people who know me today might be surprised to learn I began life as a country boy. I grew up on a grain & cattle farm on the wide-open, wind-swept Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest town six miles away with maybe two-hundred people living in it. After high school I did everything from selling shoes to teaching school, bartending, and working in a uranium mine. I eventually ended a decade-long career with the audit and accounting firm of Ernst & Young when I decided to risk it all, throw caution to the wind, and try my hand at a new career: professional writer.
DC: Do your background and upbringing play any part in the development of your themes and characters? If so, what part?
AB: My protagonist, Russell Quant, was a farm boy who now lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He risked a promising career as a police constable to chase a dream and become a prairie private eye. Perhaps similar to the experience of attempting a writing career in Saskatchewan, the prospects of a gumshoe in a Canadian city of under 250,000 are not readily obvious or spectacular.
As far as characters, I am often inspired by people I meet on a daily basis. The most obvious example of this is the character of Russell’s mother, Kay Quant (nee Wistonchuk). She was drawn from a collection of women—including my own mother (only in part, mom!)—I knew as a child growing up in Prud’homme, Saskatchewan. She was intended to be one of those characters who are more about what they tell us about the main protagonist rather than about themselves being integral to the story. I had only meant for her character to appear once, but she ended up being—and still is today—one of the most asked about and favourite characters amongst my readers.
DC: When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer, and how did you break this distressing news to your family?
AB: I have always known I wanted to be a writer. Since I was old enough to know that pen went with paper, I was jotting down little stories (often with illustrations). In my case, I think it wasn’t so much my breaking the news to my family, but more finding the courage to break the news to myself. I was deep into a career as a senior audit manager, and I found myself asking myself: Is this it? Am I happy? How much do I have in savings? A partner at the firm I was with who promised my job back if I ever wanted it. So, armed with that knowledge, I took the plunge.
DC: Who do you write for? Do you have any notion of an audience "out there" while you are constructing a book?
AB: As the series has progressed, I’ve of course become more and more aware that there are actually people out there who are reading these books and care about what happens to the characters. Even given all that, I try not to write for anyone. I’ve come to believe that if I start to write to please a certain person, or group of people, or whatever, then the writing becomes less honest. Less what it was meant to be. Less than its potential.
And there have been other strong suggestions made. People want Russell to get a serious long-term love interest. Some people want the books to have more sex. Or less sex. More humor. Less humor. I want my audience to be satisfied. But a series of books is like a grand voyage, it’s like a life shared with the reader in 300-page increments. It begins with choosing—or not—to read the series in the first place.
DC: Go back to the days that you spent writing what would become your first published novel. Did you think it was good? Did you think it would be published? In daydreaming moments, did you cast the movie?
AB: I was writing Amuse Bouche, my first published novel and first in the Russell Quant mystery series, until my real book—a thriller I’d recently submitted to countless agents and publishers—was discovered and propelled me to unthinkable fame and success. So, no, I did not, at first, think Amuse Bouche would be the book I would publish. As it turned out, my prairie gay detective novel quickly got attention, whilst my thriller was lost in the piles of never-to-be-reads.
DC: When you first came up with Russell Quant, you probably had no idea the series would be published, and that you would go on to write many more books featuring the character. Had you known, is there anything about him you would have made different right from the start? If so, what and why?
AB: Contrary to some of my colleagues who wish their protagonist was younger, I wish Russell Quant was a little older. At the beginning of the series, Russell is in his early thirties, and now, six books later he’s closing in on forty. I find the development of his character, especially as a single, gay male living in a small prairie city to be more and more interesting, and in some ways challenging, the older he gets. Other than that, I sometimes wonder whether I should have given him more obvious flaws or personal challenges. But like any one of us, Russell has his own little foibles and quirks – some of which I’m just discovering myself. In the end, he is who he is supposed to be. I love that many reviewers comment on his wit and his likeability, two things that I think keep readers wanting to spend time with him.
DC: There is a strong sense of place in your books, predominately your hero’s little-known home town city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, as well as the various exotic locales he travels to throughout the series. Can you tell us a little about how you go about absorbing and recreating these places?
AB: Saskatoon has become another character in my series. And like any character that is unique or virtually unknown to many readers, it has built in mystery. Most of my readers, even Canadian readers, have never been to Saskatoon. Many have never even heard of it. What a wonderful thing to be able to introduce people to somewhere new. I take the responsibility seriously. When plotting, once I know the story, and how much of it will take place in Saskatoon, I will often head out with a camera and scout the city for just the right spots to place my action. In doing so, I’ve found curious little corners that even I didn’t know existed (and I’ve lived her for decades.)
When it comes to writing about the exotic locations, I rely on my own personal travels. With only one exception, everywhere Russell has been, I have been. While traveling, I will sometimes hear a voice that tells me: this is a good place for Russell. So I pay a little more attention, maybe jot down a thing or two of particular interest.
When it comes time to recreate the place on the page, I research the cold hard facts, but for the important stuff, the stuff that really places the reader on that city street, in that pub, airport or desert, I rely on my senses, or rather the memory of my senses: how did it smell, what flowers grew in the pots, was there a breeze or was it a wind, were there animal sounds, how did the food taste.
DC: Seems to me the eternal question when it comes to series fiction is how do you keep it fresh and interesting. Do you care to answer that and perhaps enlighten me?
AB: I think this is important, not only to keep readers interested and involved and curious about what comes next, but to do the same for you as the writer. I know there is the argument with series novels that formula sells. Readers want to know that when they’re settling in with your book, it is a bit like comfort food. They don’t want their vanilla ice cream to suddenly be filled with chunks of chocolate. If that’s what they wanted, that’s what they would have purchased in the first place. I can appreciate that. But I think there is a balance that can be achieved. One that provides the expected, but with just enough of the unexpected to keep the experience fresh yet comfortable.
One of the ways I try to do this is to convince myself that even when I’m not writing about these characters, they are still having lives. So when it comes time to plot out a new book, perhaps a year has gone by, and I ask myself for each character: what has happened to them over the past twelve months. This has turned into personal life stories that include deaths, births, illnesses, break-ups and new relationships. Sometimes I work these into the plot, other times they are mentioned only through passing reference. My hope is that when you read a Russell Quant book, it becomes like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen for a while.
Another method I use to keep things fresh is to give each book a slightly different focus in terms of ambiance and style. I want people to have no doubt they are reading a Russell Quant book, the same kind of book they’ve come to enjoy, but maybe with a subtle skew in perspective. For instance, whereas Tapas on the Ramblas is more humorous, Stain of the Berry is spookier, Sundowner Ubuntu is the most like a thriller, whereas Aloha, Candy Hearts is the most romantic of the bunch.
DC: I read an interview with Jakob Dylan once, where he said that originality is overrated. What he meant was that he was happy to create within the tradition of music he sees himself a part of. Do you see yourself working within a tradition or genre, or combining elements from more than one? How important is it to you to break new ground?
AB: Mystery is such a rich and diverse genre, with all these wonderful sub-genres populated by some of the most intriguing characters, living the most fantastic plotlines. Although the basic idea behind each of my plots may be rooted in traditional mystery—blackmail, murder, abandonment—that’s where the similarity ends. I often joke that my protagonist, Russell Quant, is the first and perhaps only half-Ukrainian, half-Irish, gay, Canadian, prairie, ex-farmboy, ex-cop, world-traveling private eye being written about today anywhere. Breaking ground? I don’t know about that. But I certainly hope I’m loosening it up a bit.
DC: Okay, you wake up regular time, you have a full work day in front of you. Just you and the pages. On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you about this? Would you rather be doing something else?
AB: Can I say eleven?
Every day I wake up feeling fortunate and blessed and eternally grateful for what I get to do every day. I didn’t get here easily, nor by the shortest route, but now that I’m here, I know it is where I was meant to be. I am now more me, than I ever have been.
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