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Richard Scrimger

I met RICHARD SCRIMGER a couple of years ago, when he read to students at my sons’ elementary school in The Beach area of Toronto. As the school’s volunteer arts coordinator, I had invited him to give a reading and speak to the kids about what it’s like to be a writer.

Richard is one of the funniest people you could hope to meet, and therefore an entertaining, though let me say not easy, person to interview. The conversation is here, there and everywhere, quips finding their targets like heat-seeking missiles—sparks emanating from my pen as it tears up the page trying to keep pace with him.

He’s not the easiest person to research, either, because his published interviews are rife with replies like this one, to the question “What is the best thing about being an author?”

“… playing God and wearing my pyjamas all day.”

Or this one, to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?”

“My ideas comes from a sealed tin that I open with a slotted key—only the key keeps snapping just as I’m about to get the lid off.”

After our interview, which was a whole lot more elucidating, I sent him a follow-up e-mail that ended “How do you do all the things you do? Are you sure you’re just one person?”

Richard replied: “I drink gallons of coffee. And I can process lots of data at once—a natural multi-tasker. Why, right now I am arranging my itinerary for an upcoming B.C. trip, playing a game of Solitaire, working on Chapter 4 of the new novel, and doing pushups … 25, 26, 27 … And talking to you. And paying a ticket online (not surprisingly, a speeding ticket).”

I wasn’t surprised at all.

* * *

Author Richard Scrimger wants to connect with—well, everybody. And he does so with humour, whether in writing, or from the stage, or, as in this case, in a telephone interview. “It’s instinctive.” He laughs. I am the universal donor.”

For the author of eleven books of young-adult fiction, as well as three adult novels including one work based on real life, Still Life with Children, cracking jokes is as natural as—his word—sweating. “It’s like when you’re running—sweat pops out naturally. You can’t control it.”

That comedic sensibility has propelled his success. The Nose from Jupiter, which won the Mr. Christie’s Award, hit a number of top-ten lists, and won honours in Canada and the United States, is an engaging young-adult novel about Norbert, the extraterrestrial who lives in the nose of thirteen-year-old Alan Dingwell. Norbert’s “voice” encourages Alan to do things that “boring old Alan” wouldn’t normally do.

Richard points out, however, that while the novel started out as a light, fluffy comedy, it “wrote itself dark.” He once compared the idea for a novel to a ball of plasticine, which he then shapes.

“As a writer, you want to get to two places at once,” he says. “You want readers to laugh, and to think.”

Richard calls Still Life with Children (1997), his second book, “the closest thing to memoir that I’ve written.” But he goes on to say that there’s a little of himself in every one of his books. A friend of his once commented that Richard was a combination of Norbert the alien, from The Nose from Jupiter, and the elderly, dying woman, Rose, from his adult novel Mystical Rose (2001). Richard agrees.

“Who are we kidding. They all come from me. … You end up being all your characters.”

One of those characters—Richard the someday writer—was born in Montreal and raised in Toronto. As a student, he confesses, he was a combination of “nerd and class clown.” He earned good marks and so his teachers tended to let him get away with antics in the classroom. In general, things came too easily to him during those years, he says, and made him lazy.

But when he was just nine years old, humour and its power was brought home to him in a defining moment. Richard stepped up to defend a friend at school from a “small bully.” “I said, ‘You can’t do this to my friend.’ He hit me six times, I hit him once, he hit me six more times—he came up to my chest—and I hit him once more. Then I dropped my fists, looked at him, and said, ‘This isn’t going at all the way I thought it would.’” Richard saw a little smile creep over the bully’s face. “The bully and I ended up bonding over that one moment.”

At the University of Toronto, he started out studying History, thinking he might become a lawyer, but when he realized how much he enjoyed his English courses, he switched streams. After graduating in 1979, Richard spent a year waiting tables in Europe. It was then that he began writing, working through his twenties on a novel that he says “no one wanted to read.” One of his regrets is that he didn’t start writing earlier and get that novel out of the way. “Now I know,” he says, “the first novel is going to stink. Write it and throw it away, or put it in a drawer and start the second novel.”

In the early 1990s, with two unfinished novels in his desk drawer, he began to write Crosstown, about a homeless man’s search for redemption. Richard was employed at the time at a downtown Toronto restaurant, and at night walked home past street people, whose plight started him thinking: How would someone end up like this? The novel evolved from there, and was completed in just six months.

Did Richard have an image, then, of the kind of writer he wanted to be? “I didn’t think about it very hard. In Crosstown, I wrote about the character; it’s a very character-driven story.”

In 1995, Richard enrolled in an intensive one-week program offered by the Humber School for Writers. The program didn’t teach him to write, he says, but did bring him into contact with other writers. At first he believed that he should be working, like so many of them, on a “complicated, deep and ironic novel.” When the program’s Reading Night came around, however, he realized that if he wanted to connect with the audience, he’d have to change tack. He read aloud a rollicking piece he’d written about shopping with his four kids.

“In comic parlance,” he says, looking back, “I killed.”

Author Wayson Choy was at the reading, and told him afterwards, “You—you’re going places.” The program coordinator, Joe Kertes, said to Richard, “You are a funny guy,” and suggested he submit the piece to the Globe and Mail, which subsequently published it and a couple of others.

Then came The Call. HarperCollins Canada wanted to know: Did he have more? Enough to fill a book? Richard told them he did—but it was a little white lie. Suddenly the stay-at-home dad (his wife was the breadwinner and often away) with four rambunctious kids—Sam and Thea, twins age 6, Imogen, age 4, and Ed, age 2—had his work cut out for him. An order for forty anecdotes and a deadline.

And as luck would have it, soon after the watershed Humber reading, Richard received a phone call from an agent who liked Crosstown. All this happened, he says, within three weeks.

With less time than ever to write—he admits that ironically, in his twenties, when he had more time, he excelled at procrastinating—he began to focus. His goal? Three to four good pages a day. After being run ragged by the kids all day, he would sit at his desk and write from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. For every serious writer, he says, something’s got to give; in his case, it was sleep.

The hilarious literary result was Still Life with Children, which Richard says is still “my favourite book.” The collection of stories follows the day-to-day adventures of dad and the four children as they tumble through the seasons, fall to summer. Richard started out thinking of the Still Life stories as journalism, but they soon evolved into a blend of fact and fiction. The embellishment, he says, is “the lie that disguises the truth” of that period of his life. “That was me as a dad. It was as fun as that, and as stupid as that.”

Even over the telephone, one hears the affection in his voice when he speaks, as he often does, about his children: “Having kids … made everything better.”

The book’s opening sets the scene:

Call me Dad. I’m a regular hail-fellow-well-met, kingdom-for-a-horse kind of guy with four small children who light up my life but nevertheless manage to occupy a fair amount of my— Not now, honey, Daddy’s busy, and could you please take that out of your mouth … if you see what I mean. Thea and Sam are the oldest. They’re twins, almost seven years they’ve been together and they have yet to agree on anything except that bedtime comes too early and dessert too late. Imogen is four, something between a princess and a dervish, and Ed is two, something between a nine-volt battery and an Act of God. My wife goes under her own name. I stay home with the children while she dashes all over the continent, but don’t be fooled by frequent-flyer points, I’m a real traveller—expand my horizons without leaving the neighborhood, punch a hole in the envelope every time someone has a dentist’s appointment, live the adventure in my own kitchen.”

“Most of [the stories] happened, but I don’t know that any of them happened exactly word for word,” admits Richard. He suspects the same is true in most published memoir.

“Ask me where my characters come from,” he says, “and I’ll answer that they are people I know and they are me and where the one leaves off and the other starts in the mix I couldn’t say.”

Yet it wasn’t until years later that he recognized something of himself in Mitch, the down-and-out protagonist in Crosstown. While writing the novel, Richard, then his mid-thirties, thought, “This is so not me.” As he revamped the novel recently, though, he realized, “This guy was me. Passive, saying goodbye to lots of things, full of regret …”

Richard quotes author Patrick O’Brian, saying, “Nothing betrays a man like his book.”

Crosstown went on to be shortlisted for the 1997 City of Toronto Book Award, and HarperCollins published Still Life with Children. Richard, meanwhile, continued to write humorous pieces about parenting for publications such as Today’s Parent. But his path as writer was about to take another turn.

A family friend, well-known children’s author Claire McKay, asked him to submit something for a collection she was putting together, Laughs. The story Richard wrote was about an alien named Norbert. An editor from Tundra Books liked the overall concept but raised a few issues, so Richard did a rewrite, eventually producing the short story “Introducing Norbert.”

Richard then decided to put his faith in his characters, and he was rewarded. His next novel, The Nose from Jupiter, based on Norbert, became a hit with young readers. And that was just the beginning. He has since written eleven more books for children, several of which have earned honours, as well as Mystical Rose for adults.

Richard has an intriguing theory: that the motivation for most writing comes down to two things, therapy or fantasy. If therapy, the writer is treating the page like a shrink; if fantasy, the writer is creating an alternative self in order to escape aspects of his or her own life.

Which camp does Richard fall into? It’s hard to pin him down on that. He sounds too happy to be a member of either one. “The more I think about it, the more I realize that whether I’m writing for children or adults, I am talking to my audience…. If I’m having a good time, my readers or audience are going to have a good time.”

Deep down inside everyone there’s a fourteen-year-old, he says, “but some people keep him locked in the basement.” Richard’s inner fourteen-year-old has clearly escaped out a window and is kicking up his heels.

Yet writing presents challenges, he admits. It is like “being God and shovelling a long walk. You are the creative energy behind your world. Your characters are your world. You shovel that long walk one square at a time.”

As well as shovelling that walk—which includes the novels as well as occasional newspaper or magazine pieces—Richard raises his two sons and two daughters, now teenagers (“I’m single, and I’m a parent, but I’m not a single parent,” he says. “My ex and I are both deeply interested in our kids’ lives.”), travels the country on book tours, visits schools to talk to children about storytelling, and is a mentor with Humber School for Writers creative writing correspondence course. He’s soon to take on the role of acting artistic director.I enjoy connecting with my ‘mentos’ (as I call them) in the same way I connect with the audiences who come to see my presentations. I get a charge out of helping them.”

He notes that there’s an odd perspective among writers. As soon as they start writing, they’re aiming to produce a bestseller. “When you first start practising piano, people don’t immediately ask when you’re going to play Carnegie Hall.”

Richard always tells his students, “I’m not here to make you good, only you can make you good. I can only make you better. Sometimes the best writing just has to come out of the writer. Like—in his words—“a pimple.”

Richard’s first advice to students is to read, a lot. He himself reads widely, everything from mysteries to nineteenth-century literature (he loves Dickens), to science fiction. Interestingly, he doesn’t often seek out humour, though he enjoys James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse and (the early) Dave Barry. What’s perhaps more telling is what he loved as a child and was equally taken by when he read it to his own children—the children’s book that he admits he wishes he’d written—the entertaining stories about Winnie-the-Pooh.

The author pays attention to pacing, assessing whether his story is moving along fast enough, or too fast, and whether he needs to add some description or throw in some dialogue, or have the dialogue take place over a longer period. “I’m also very aware of the pace from scene to scene,” he has said. “Often when I’m blocked, it’s because I’m taking too much time on a segue. I’m much better off using a director’s terminology to ‘cut.’ So, if I’m blocked, I just say, ‘Go to the next scene. Forget this. You’re done.’”

Another of Richard’s passions—perhaps no surprise—is community theatre, “because the talent is deeper than you think, and because the people do it all for love. No one phones in a performance. The guy singing his heart out will go back to being a cop the next day. Or a teacher. Or a writer. No, it ain’t Broadway, but it’s fun. I’m a lousy actor but I’m pretty good at being me.”

So far, being “him” seems to be working well for Richard Scrimger, who released a new children’s book, Into the Ravine, in September 2007, and who, between book tours, mentoring and paying the odd speeding ticket, is hard at work on another novel tentatively titled Zomboy. It’s about (isn’t it obvious?) zombies.

Would he ever consider writing a sequel to Still Life with Children—say, Still Life with Teenagers? Probably not, laughs Richard, though he goes on to wax poetic (and with anecdotes) about the value that his growing children bring to his life. “Deep down, my biggest interest is story, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to go very far without lying.”

Richard has the following advice for aspiring writers:

• Read a lot.
• Write regularly. “Do it every day. There are lots of days when you don’t feel like it—do it anyway.”
• Start small.
• Contrary to what you’ve heard, don’t write about what you know. Write what you like to read.
• Good writing is sometimes fast writing—forget Flaubert. You want it to be substantial but you want it to move smoothly.
• Thinks of a house’s crossbeams. The crossbeams of writing are Picture and Reason. Give the reader an image, and then explain the why behind it.
• The best comedy is played straight. Don’t wink at the camera. Play it deadpan and let the audience get it.
• If you run into a writer’s block, step away from your computer. Jog, take a bath, eat a sandwich, nap … then attack it from another place.
• There is no substitute for the hard work of writing.
• Don’t worry too much about being published. You’ve got to have some fun. Write for you.

For more about Richard Scrimger, visit his website here. (His intro is one of my favourites ever.) To read an excerpt from Still Life with Children, click here.

Copyright 2007 Allyson Latta.
“. . . the more personal you get in a story, the harder it is to stay honest. Here I think I pulled it off, but at a price: I had to reveal things I'm not proud of to get at something bigger than me.”– Sean Rowe, of "An Insider's Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine: Dining In"