Billie Livingston on her novel One Good Hustle

First aired on North by Northwest (1/12/12)

Vancouver writer Billie Livingston's latest book, One Good Hustle, is the story of Sammie, a teenager whose parents are both con artists. The novel has the ring of authenticity, perhaps because the author's own father was a bit of a rounder himself who left the family when she was just a child. The book made the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist this year and has been widely praised by reviewers.

OneGoodHustle-166.jpgWhen asked about the genesis of One Good Hustle, Livingston told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay, "I had a phone call from my father about seven or eight years ago. I hadn't heard from him in about a dozen years. And he was a con artist. And he asked if we could get together for lunch. He was in town. I was a bit cranky about it but I said okay." When they met, he asked if she'd seen the movie Rounders, which is about con artists. He suggested that he could tell her some stories about his exploits, and she could write about them. He related various hustles he'd been involved in, but then changed his mind. He asked to be dropped off at his hotel, and she never saw him again.

Livingston draws a distinction between herself and the book's main character. "Sammie is part of the cons. I was never personally involved," she said, although in some ways there are similarities. "There's certainly some of me in Sammie. I did take off from home when I was 16, so I know how [dealing with social services] all works."

Although the novel is close to her own experiences Livingston chose to make the book fiction rather than a memoir. "If you just go through the reality, it doesn't quite have all the elements you might need in order to tell a larger truth," she said, adding that she's fascinated with "people who live a wilder kind of existence than I necessarily would have. As frustrating as my father was, there's still a part of him that's fascinating to me." Writing the book was "a way to talk about that kind of man, and kind of imagine a self for him that I never quite got to see in my own father."

As far as storytelling is concerned, Livingston is always alert to the possibilities that her surroundings offer. "I love a good story," she said. "If you didn't listen well enough during the day to have a story to tell the family when you come home, then you must have had your eyes closed, that's my theory."

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