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Life Arts

Getting the Inside Scoop from Robert Rotenberg, Author of "Old City Hall"

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My g uest today is author and Toronto-based criminal lawyer Robert Rotenberg. Welcome to OpEdNews, Bobby. I just finished Old City Hall , your legal thriller, and I didn't want to put it down. While this is your first published novel, you've actually been writing for a really long time. A particular typewriter figured prominently in your youth. Can you tell our readers how it propelled you down the path that ultimately led to this book?

When I was seven, my oldest brother Lawrence had his Bar Mitzvah. It was a big fun event. I remember this stream of very grown-up presents appearing at our doorstep, and the one that caught my eyes was a portable typewriter in a beige leather case. It had a neat little handle and a zipper that made a click-clicking sound when I snuck into his room to open it up, stare at it and fiddle with the keys.

I was fortunate to have two dynamic older brothers, Lawrence - nee Larry - now a tax lawyer and gelato maker, and David, the 'creative one' in the family who my parents always worried about. So I'll brag - he's probably the best acting teacher in North America, runs his own studio now after years of being a professor, has worked all over the world, and I almost forgot, has written six tremendous novels, murder mysteries set in Shanghai and a great sprawling novel named Shanghai. So please stop reading this, and go and order all his books. Then, tell him that his little brother told you to do it.

What my brothers and parents, especially our mother, really gave us was a love of books, and even more, a love of story. Real thought into people, their lives, where they came from and where they are going.

Lately, I've tried to pinpoint when it was that I started to want to tell stories. I have a distinct memory of being in grade three and the teacher showing us a picture of a little lost cat on a hill with a city in the background. We were told to 'compose' a story and I wrote something that had the line "beyond the city's lair." The teacher came up to me and said: "Bobby, what do you mean, beyond the city's liar? A city doesn't lie." And I said, "No, I meant lair. Like an animal's lair." Now this sure sounds precocious, and, trust me, I wasn't a nerdy kid walking home reading a book. Nor one who tried to show off to adults. I just felt the words really fit. The moment for me was the look in her eyes, that recognition I saw. That through these funny things, letters and words, I'd made her see the picture in a whole new way.

I kept my eye on that typewriter. And secretly learned to roll a sheet of paper into it. (I remember the first time I typed without paper on it and the ink came up on black roll and I was sure I'd ruined it). How to unbend the ribbon when it doubled over. Eventually, David ended up with the typewriter for a while, until I finally laid claim to it. No one seemed to understand how magical it was.

I carried that typewriter with me for decades. I wrote my first poems, haikus, short stories and eventually film scripts on it. When I was nineteen, I almost lost my right arm after falling through glass, and taught myself type with my left hand only. Used it for my first creative writing class in my last year of high school (and recently took my old teacher out for dinner and thanked her). At university, I struggled with self-correcting paper and white-out to get my essays out. And my short stories.

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I lugged my typewriter with me to London when I went to graduate school. To Paris when I worked on an English-language magazine named Passion, The Magazine of Paris. The light beige leather took on that darkened, dirty look of sweat and age. The handle cracked, and I repaired it with black hockey tape.

Somewhere along the line some evil person invented computers, then laptops. And somewhere long the line, in maybe my twentieth or thirtieth move, the typewriter didn't make the cut.

I spent so many years using cheap, used laptops (all I could afford without selling one of my kids), which were always breaking down just at the worst time - for example the time I was alone at our little cottage in the woods for three days to write.

One magical day, I finally got my first novel Old City Hall, published. At last, I could afford a laptop that works. But I still miss that old portable typewriter, my silent, steady friend on this strange, solo journey for so many years.

When I first read that you were both an attorney and a writer, I admit that I visualized a corporate lawyer who's grown fat and is now dabbling in the arts. I couldn't have been more off-base. At least at the beginning, you were a reluctant practitioner of the law. Is that a fair assessment?

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Cue up the song: 'I Fought The Law and The Law Won.'

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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