Welcome back for the second half of my interview with Toronto-based author, Robert Rotenberg. S o, you've actually been writing Old City Hall since 1999. Did you write, rewrite, and rewrite some more? And, despite your friend Doug's advice, it doesn't sound like you gave up your law practice to write full-time. So, how have you juggled all the disparate pieces of your life?
It's 4:58 a.m. An appropriate time to answer this.
Five in the morning has been my friend for more years than I can remember. I'm here in my usual position on the corner of the downstairs couch, my feet up on the ottoman, a blanket around my shoulders and my little dog Fudge in position by my side. On a good day - when I manage to avoid getting the newspaper from the front porch and looking at the sports section - I can get in about two hours before the kids are up. It takes me about half an hour to make a fruit smoothie for breakfast, make their lunches and make my wife her coffee. (Guys hate me for that).
Writing is like exercise. You have to keep at it. Every day. So I have a daily writing strategy. Say I'm not in court, but have a few client interviews. Then, I leave a two-hour gap - never at lunch time. There's a little sushi place near my office with nice little booths and plugs in case my battery is low. And they leave me alone. I'll duck in there at two o'clock. Or I'm going to do a guilty plea in a very busy court, I'll be sure to print out a few chapters to edit, and bring at least two red pens. Then there's always the backed-up courts. I've got hundreds of hours of writing and editing done sitting in the back row of courts - never, ever when I'm with a client for a trial, but there are so many appearances for other court matters that take much too long. Always, always bring homework. Unless I'm in a big trial (last murder trial I did, I didn't write for four months) I can almost always carve out an hour or two during the day.
At night, with three kids, there's almost always some type of kid's program. Great stuff. I have written in: skating rinks (watching with one eye both hockey and figure skating), public pools for swim classes, tennis bubbles, dance classes. Best of all, now that they're older, my kids do things like hip hop classes, acting classes, climbing classes, where I drop them off and head to the closest coffee shop.
The point is, most days I can get in two or three hours, more if I'm lucky. But the more important point is rule number one: never write at a cost to my family or my clients. In fact, the thing I'm proudest about is the lessons that it's taught my children. That every morning when they come downstairs, there's dad on the sofa, typing away, and the moment he sees them, the laptop goes off. They see that nothing comes easy. That it's work. But that they're more important.
And of course, now that they are getting older, they see an opportunity in all this. Last year my oldest son Peter, living the full teenager rock-and-roll life, discovered a band he loved. "Hey dad," Mr. Charming said to me one day, his green eyes twinkling. "How do you feel about taking me and Dave and Dene to a Wintersleep concert?" Upon moderate cross-examination I learned the following facts: the concert was in Hamilton, about an hour away. It started at eleven o'clock and would end 'about' two (read: three, if you're lucky). Before I could protest, he said: "Dad, you'll love it. You can write for four hours!"
So...if you ever happen to be in Hamilton, Ontario from eleven p.m. to four in the morning, drop me a line. I can tell you the following: there's a nice Starbucks up on the hill, with a plug, where you can write until midnight. Then, there's a good coffee shop downtown, slightly trendy with comfortable chairs, that's open until one. From one until three, you are stuck in a Tim Horton's, a chain that is usually not bad. This one's a bit seedy, but the lighting's good.
Looks like I answered your question backwards. Yes I wrote, and re-wrote Old City Hall for years. I believe in re-writing. Editing. Cutting. Cleaning the language. When the book finally came out, it was great to hear it as a book on tape. (Here's another hint: driving, avoid the radio and yakking away to your friend on your cell phone headset. Listen to books on tape, or better, speak to your fictional friends. I've worked out some of my best dialogue while driving, talking away to myself. Now, at least with everyone else on headsets, I don't look quite so crazy.) After a few chapters of listening to the book, I found myself hearing little flaws. Damn, I didn't need that adverb. Cut that adjective. Oh no, two paragraphs in a row start with "he." Before the trade paperback was released by Picador, I combed through the manuscript and made more than a hundred little changes.
There's no point in doing this, unless you do it as well as you possibly can.
So, I guess what you're saying is that you love it but it's a lot of hard work. Were you satisfied with the finished product this time around? And what did you like best about Old City Hall ?
Okay, here's a story for those of you who don't believe in editing. Or as I like to say, 'location, location, location' is to real estate what 'cut, cut, cut' is to writing.
The original manuscript for Old City Hall was 143,253 words, but who's counting? I cut forty thousand words out of the book. Sixteen chapters. Probably about two years' worth of work. And this was after I'd sold the novel in nine languages. It's called having a tough, good editor, and knowing how to listen. And it made it a much better book.
I remember there was a point when I got the galleys and I sat down and read the whole book from top to bottom, as if I'd never seen it before. And I thought, "Yes, this is the book I wanted."