Left to right: Playwright Vern Thiessen, composers Anton Lipovetsky and Ben Elliott and novelist Terry Fallis, whose The Best Laid Plans will see its musical première at York Theatre on Sept. 19. (photo from terryfallis.com)
It’s going to be a busy fall for author Terry Fallis. Already working on his sixth novel, his fifth is due in bookstores this October. And his first novel – which saw a CBC television adaptation in 2014 – will have its première as a musical at Vancouver’s York Theatre Sept. 19-Oct. 3.
For anyone who has dreams of being a successful author, Fallis is a beacon of hope. While the best laid plans of mice and men may often go awry, or “gang aft a-gley,” as wrote Scottish poet Robert Burns, Fallis’ rise in publishing is a tale about the good places to which awry can lead you. Many in the industry point to the internet as the main cause of publishing’s demise, yet that’s where Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans (McLelland and Stewart Ltd., 2007) – and his novelist career – got started.
A public relations professional, Fallis and a colleague created a podcast in 2006 called Inside PR. It occurred to him, he said in a phone interview from his office in Toronto, that, “in this emerging world of social media, where we are our own program managers … I would try that in the publishing world. When I couldn’t find anyone to take an interest in my first novel – I didn’t even get rejection letters, I was greeted with a deafening silence, perhaps because I’d written a satirical novel of Canadian politics – I decided to try and build an audience for it on my own. That’s when I decided to podcast the whole thing for free and give it away on iTunes and on my blog, just as a way to gather some kind of a following and to see whether or not I had written a novel because I honestly didn’t know whether I’d written a novel, so I was looking for objective feedback from anybody I could interest in listening to it.”
McLelland and Stewart Ltd. have since published every one of Fallis’ novels, all bestsellers, critically acclaimed and award nominees or winners. He remains loyal, he said, “to the podcast listeners and blog readers who were there right at the very beginning, who gave me that feedback and were encouraging. Without that support, it’s an open question of whether or not I would have self-published the novel. And, if I hadn’t self-published the novel, none of the rest of these wonderful things would have happened.”
In his continued appreciation, Fallis still shares content for free and listens to what people think of it. “Now, generally the book is finished by the time I podcast it,” he said, “so, to be clear, when I’m looking for feedback, it’s not so much that I want advice on how to change the novel, it’s more that I think it’s important for authors to be accessible to their readers. When the reader’s interested, you can actually have a contact, and I find that an important part of being a writer.”
Fallis said he loves both the “isolated solitude that comes when you’re in writing mode” and also gets “a charge out of traveling around and meeting readers and talking about the books, and talking to other writers. And I teach as well,” he added, “at the University of Toronto, in the writing program, and I like all of that stuff and I feel lucky that I happen to have both sides of that working for me.”
With more people reading these days than ever before, Fallis has hope in the publishing industry’s future. Acknowledging that people are “finding their content in many more places than were available 20 years ago,” he said, “I think this new world opens up a whole bunch of opportunities for writers and for publisher alike, and the ones who are surviving have embraced that which is new…. So, I think there are real opportunities, and writers can get their work in front of more eyes than ever before, even if they’re not published. There are websites and apps available, and communities online that will welcome new writers, and it’s sometimes a route to traditional publishing as, in a way, it was for me.”
When Touchstone Theatre’s Katrina Dunn contacted him and his agent about the possibility of adapting The Best Laid Plans into a musical, Fallis said, “We were really quite impressed with Katrina and Touchstone and Patrick Street Productions and what they had done in the past, and their vision for the musical, so it seemed like the right way to go – and we’ve been thrilled ever since.”
While he has yet to see the show, he has heard a few of the songs and read a portion of the script. Last fall, at the Vancouver Writers Festival, Fallis participated in a session with Dunn, playwright Vern Thiessen, composers Anton Lipovetksy (a member of the Jewish community) and Ben Elliott and director Peter Jorgensen of Patrick Street Productions. “They had a singer as well, and Anton and Ben both sing,” said Fallis. “And, for the first time ever, while I’m sitting on stage in front of this packed hall, I was hearing the songs for the first time, at least a few of them, and that was strange. I was very conscious of – people are watching you now as you’re reacting to the song, make sure that you’re polite, and I loved the songs, there was no need to be concerned, they were terrific. It was a great experience, and quite surreal to hear someone singing about characters I had created and carted around in my brainpan for so many years.”
While many of Fallis’ characters do indeed face challenges that arise from plans gone wrong, his novels are humor-filled and uplifting. He said that he is, by nature, an optimistic person.
“I think I see the world through relatively clear eyes,” he said, “but, I figure, if we have some choice in the matter, of crying or trying to find the thin, little sliver of goodwill somewhere in the story, I will go there. I don’t usually have much trouble finding humor in it. I grew up in a family where humor was just a daily staple.
“I think there’s a certain engineer’s logic in how I think about things, as well,” added Fallis, who got a degree in engineering before being lured into politics, where he worked in various capacities before entering the PR world, eventually co-founding Thornley Fallis. “If something happens and it can’t be changed, and we have no control over it, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering why it happened. You just move on, and I try not to dwell on it.”
Fallis credits growing up with an identical twin for helping form this positive attitude. He also has a younger sister – “We all get along wonderfully,” he said, “It’s rather an idyllic little family” – but “having someone you’re exactly the same age as and [who is] exactly like you, there is always someone to goof around with … having a twin brother to trigger that at every moment of every day was part of that, for sure.”
As is his innate curiosity. “I’m fascinated by so many things,” he said. When he was interested in something as a boy, he “would read every book around” on it and his mother would say, “’Terry’s on one of his kicks’ … you can’t imagine how many things I was interested in for short bursts of time, and I’ve maintained an interest in most of them, but not with the same intensity. The library became my friend and I find it stimulating and fulfilling.”
Curiosity is something, he said, that he and his wife have encouraged in their sons, now 23 and 20, who will be joining them on the trip to Vancouver for the première. “Curiosity is a wonderful gift,” said Fallis, “and I feel sorry for those who don’t have it in the same amount that I do.”
Now in the midst of plotting out his next book, which is going to be about twins – though the protagonist “doesn’t know he’s an identical twin until some ways into the book” – Fallis explained his creative process. Describing himself as “a heavy outliner,” he said, “The last thing I ever do is write the manuscript, and that’s right at the tail end of the process. The last four months I spend writing the manuscript, the previous year I spend thinking about it, mapping out the story, plotting it, developing the characters, and then doing a chapter by chapter outline. That’s the engineer in me – I need a blueprint for my novel before I can build it.”
For tickets and more information about The Best Laid Plans: A Musical, visit tickets.thecultch.com or call 604-251-1363.