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Q&A: Peggy Blair


In the run-up to this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize gala on October 30, we'll be posting Q&As with the longlisted authors to gain insight into their work and find out what books they admire. We kick off our series with a bonus: an interview with this year's Readers' Choice winner, Peggy Blair.

Q: What inspired you to write The Beggar's Opera?

A: I had just left a 30-year legal career in aboriginal law and human rights and was trying to decide what to do next. My daughter came home from McGill that Easter and said, "Well, you can't just sit around, Mom. You have to do something."

I think I was as surprised as she was when the words -- "I'll write a novel" -- came out of my mouth. Once I decided to set the story in Cuba, the book pretty much wrote itself.

Q: What would you say is at the core of your book?

A: I was struck by the extreme poverty and devastating shortages when I was in Havana. It's easy for tourists to forget that there's been a trade embargo in place for more than 50 years. As a former criminal lawyer and prosecutor, I wondered how the police could investigate crimes when they lacked basic supplies like film, toner, fuel, even pencils. At its heart, I think the book is a story about survival: how people somehow adapt to the challenges life throws at them.

Q: If your book was being made into a movie, who would be your dream director?

A: David Fincher, the brilliant director who directed the thriller Seven, would be incredible, but because of the embargo, it would be impossible to have an American director film on location.

Cuban director Alejandro Brugués released the very first Cuban horror film, Juan of the Dead, this year. Like the British satire, Shaun of the Dead, it's fresh, funny and subversive. (For example, the zombies roaming around Havana are at first described by the government as American dissidents.) Having a Cuban director, Cuban actors and the support of the Castro government (which Brugués somehow achieved) would be amazing.

Q: Which book on the Giller longlist would you like to see take home the prize?

A: I would be very happy to see Will Ferguson's 419 win for two reasons. First, he's another Penguin Canada author. Second, his book has been marketed as a mystery/thriller. I'd love to see the Giller Prize jury finally break through the genre ceiling. I think great writing is great writing, period.

Q: Which other Readers' Choice finalists are you most interested in reading or have read?

A: They're all on my reading list now! I know Missy Marston -- we sat on a panel together at a local bookstore this summer. The Love Monster is as charming and quirky as she is. I really enjoyed Tanis Rideout's Above All Things, and I can't wait to read Daughters Who Walk This Path: Yejide Kilanko is another Penguin author.  But honestly, all the books look fantastic.

Q: Where is the absolute best place for you to write?

A: I have a cottage north of Kingston [Ont.]. It's a spectacular place to write without any interruptions: no phone, no Internet, no TV. I can be astonishingly productive there, and if I need a break, I can go for a swim or just sit on the deck with a glass of wine and watch the loons. It's one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It keeps me grounded.

Q: Is there a specific subject matter, event, or location close to your heart that you'd love to write a story about in the future?

A: I think that one of the more interesting characters in The Beggar's Opera is the pathologist, Hector Apiro. Apiro suffers from -- or more accurately, lives with -- achondroplasia, or dwarfism.

I want to send him to Kunming in Southern China. There are over a hundred dwarfs who have built a village there to escape bullying and discrimination. They call it "The Kingdom of Short People" and it's become a major tourist attraction. They dress in crazy costumes like butterflies and live in little houses shaped like mushrooms. They've created their own world, with their own police force and fire brigade. I can't wait to see what Apiro thinks of it.

Q: What book has moved or affected you most in the past year?

A: Probably Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. I've been reading him for decades -- the man is 76 but keeps getting better. There's a one-line reference in that story to a vacant landscape as reminiscent of a painting by Adolph Hitler. (Hitler was apparently never able to paint people, only buildings.)

The body of knowledge a writer has to have to toss away a little nugget like that is incredible. It made me realize that I couldn't have started writing any earlier in my life; I simply wasn't ready.

Q: What is one insight into the craft of writing you have now that you wish you knew when you were younger?

A: It has to be persistence. It's hard enough to write a book: most manuscripts never get finished. But it's even harder to get published. I went through countless rejections before The Beggar's Opera was shortlisted for the 2010 U.K. Debut Dagger. You have to keep plugging away. The only way to guarantee failure is to quit.


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