In Conversation With Will Ferguson

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International best-selling author (and proud Canadian), Will Ferguson is a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humor, and in 2012 he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel 419. Zoomer’s Deputy Editor and fellow author Kim Izzo sat down with Ferguson when he was in Toronto promoting his latest travel memoir, Road Trip Rwanda.

Kim Izzo: How has life changed for you since winning the Giller?

Will Ferguson: It’s been amazing. I think more than anything, it gave me more leverage with my publisher. Winning the Giller allows you to say, hey, I want to write a funny book about Rwanda, and they can’t really say no. So I think you get one free pass. Your next project, you can do anything, and they sort of have to agree to it.

KI: Any other ways it changed your life, though, as a writer?

WF: Honestly, winning the Giller takes pressure off. I’ll tell you why. Not in terms of sales or profile, which is wonderful, but in terms of confidence. You think, okay, I can do this. And it sounds funny to say this. I’ve been writing for 18 years, but you always have those seeds of doubt. And so, it’s a great affirmation. You think to yourself, I can do this.

KI: Some of your readers and those in the publishing world would wonder that after winning the Giller why go to non-fiction? Why not a new novel?

WF: It’s counter-intuitive, but I think following a novel with a novel is actually not a good strategy. I like to go between travel and fiction, back and forth. I find writing two novels in a row would be exhausting, doing two travel projects, which take up so much preliminary work, would be exhausting. I like to go back and forth between travel and fiction because I believe, with absolutely no scientific evidence, that they use different parts of your brain (He’s laughing as he says this). So it’s like you exercise one half your brain, and then you exercise the other half, because they’re such, they’re such different creatures.

KI: It’s like talking to an actor about stage versus film.

WF: Actually, yeah. It’s very much like the difference between stage acting and film acting. You’re right. And I would say that travel writing is the film and novel is the stage, if I had to.

KI: You talked earlier about writing a funny book about Rwanda. What made you want to write a funny book on Rwanda, and how is that even possible?

WF: I’d written a book on Northern Ireland, and people had told me you can’t write humour in Northern Ireland, but of course, these countries that are bruised and tragic, people are still trying to live their lives. They’re falling in love. They’re falling out of love. They’re worrying about their kids. They’re worrying about their jobs and their education. Life does go on, even if you’re wounded. And I wanted to visit the country as it really is today. You do a disservice to people if you freeze them in time, and you say Rwanda is the genocide. Northern Ireland is the IRA.

So I wanted to see that, and I know any time you put two friends, two guys, in a truck and send them over down the road, it will be fun. And I went with a friend of mine from Rwanda, Jean-Claude, who is a fun guy to travel with. So I knew from the start it was going to be a fun trip, and it was. It was more poignant than I expected, but there were still elements of humour and good cheer.

KI: What surprised you most on your trip that you weren’t expecting about Rwanda?

WF: I think the beauty of it. I’d done my research. I knew the country was stable. I knew it was safe.

KI: Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone.

WF: I knew it was secure. I knew it was an autocratic government. I knew all the statistics but I didn’t know the human face of it – I was surprised at how welcoming and warm the people were and how beautiful the country is. In all my prep, I hadn’t thought about the beauty of the country. I was just thinking about the genocide, the statistics, the improvements, but it’s physically a very attractive country. Very lush. I was there in the dry season and it was lush, and they were telling me, oh, you should come back after the rainy season. It’s wonderful. I had to go in the dry season because otherwise the gorilla trails are nothing but gumbo, but yeah, it’s a very lush country. It’s right in the heart of Africa, and although it’s on the equator, it’s high enough up that it’s temperate. The temperature rarely goes higher than 30 degrees.

KI: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

WF: It’s very simple. I want them to want to go to Rwanda. So ideally, you should read this book and think, what a complex, sad, beautiful, funny, welcoming place. I want to go there. And whether you go to Rwanda or not, I would like you to want to go there. And I think more than anything, I just wanted to show a country with real people dealing with a tragedy that we can’t imagine and somehow moving forward. And it’s a lesson in resilience. I think in Rwanda, you can see the very worst that humans are capable of, and the very best, and I think the whole human experience is there in Rwanda.

KI: Let’s talk about your writing process, you are a very prolific author. Do you write every day, and how long a day, each day?

WF: I work every day, and that’s not the same thing as writing every day – though I try, try and make it a habit. So some days it’s reading. Some days it’s going for a long walk and thinking through something. Some days it’s editing. So I can’t say I write every day because I can only actually write for about an hour or two hours before I get exhausted.

KI: There’s a lot of research that goes into your books, fiction and travel, how does that process work?

WF: I do the basic research before I travel, but some of the research you do after you come back because, for example, I didn’t know the rich history of the Rwandan kings till I got there. We went to the Royal Palace. I’m like, what? I didn’t know this history. So that history I discovered there. So some of it you discover on your travels. And I went home and then looked it up and read about it. So I did the basic research, but as I said, I didn’t realize, my research was very limited because I was looking at statistics and history, and I wasn’t prepared for the landscape and the people, that I wasn’t prepared for, and other things that you learn as you’re there.

For example, the story [in the book] of the students who refused to identify themselves as Tutsi or Hutu, I didn’t know that story. We were travelling and Jean-Claude said, you know, we should to visit Nyange school, and he told me the story, and I was like, let’s go. So we went there, and we went to the classroom. There are still bullet holes in the wall, and they’re still using the classroom because they need the classroom.

So that, to me, is probably, for myself, the most powerful story in the whole book because it shows that the cycle of violence has been broken. It’s hard, but there’s a generation that doesn’t think that way, and the older generation still does, often. I would not have found that story, unless I went to Rwanda. So you have to go there.

KI: But isn’t that the exciting part about doing a book like this? You uncover things you would know unless you went, right? But you don’t consider yourself a journalist, do you?

WF: I don’t think of myself as a journalist because I don’t like interviewing the mayor, and to me, that’s the dividing line. If you’re a journalist, you have to interview the bloody mayor (he laughs) – I used to write a travel column for Maclean’s. I’ve written travel books about Japan and Ireland. And when I worked for Maclean’s, I tried to be more of a journalist and I realized, I’m interviewing the mayor again, and the mayor will tell you, what’s the best thing about his town? “It’s the people.” And I got so tired of that answer that I was waiting for one mayor to say, “You know what? This town is great, but the people suck.” So I’m just a traveller who writes.

KI: The book is so nuanced between humour and the horror that it’s completely beautifully written. Like, you don’t think and go, oh that’s inappropriate. There’s never that moment, I mean, like, oh, I’m laughing and I shouldn’t be, or I’m smiling and I shouldn’t be, and the next moment I’m crying. How do you balance that?

WF: It’s easy on one level, and it’s difficult. The easy part is that the humour came out of the situation, and the tragedy came out of the situation, and they didn’t mix. There was never a moment where I was in a tragic site finding humour in it. So in that way, it was straightforward. Like, when I tried to get Jean-Claude to drink beer, repeatedly or when we walked to find the source of the Nile and it was a puddle, that’s funny. When we go to the genocide sites, it’s tragic. There was no conflict with that balance for me. The hard part was structuring it.