In Conversation With Will Ferguson
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.
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: 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: 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.