Terry Fallis says writing fiction that's geared for laughs isn't as easy as you'd think

The Canada Reads-winning author of The Best Laid Plans talks about writing Operation Angus, a novel that continues to follow the adventures of Angus McLintock. The 2023 edition of the great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30.

The 2023 edition of the great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30

Terry Fallis is the author of several humorous novels. (Tim Fallis)

Back in 2002, a radio program dedicated to uplifting and highlighting Canadian literature launched. Coined a "literary Survivor," Canada Reads has artists, celebrities and prominent Canadians debate books in order to determine which title will be crowned the one book the whole country should read.

The 2023 edition of Canada Reads will take place March 27-30.

The year 2023 marks the 22nd edition of Canada Reads.

Canada Reads premiered in 2002. The first winning book was In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, which was defended by musician Steven Page. In 2021, CBC Books put together a retrospective to look back at the show's biggest moments and its impact on Canadian literature.

LISTEN | Canada Reads celebrates 20 years:

We're celebrating the great Canadian book debate's 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them.

For Terry Fallis, writing humorous fiction is a state of mind. The Canadian author of several comedic novels has won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour twice — for his debut novel The Best Laid Plans and No Relation — and has been a finalist numerous times. 

The Best Laid Plans won Canada Reads 2011, defended by Ali Velshi, and was adapted into a six-part miniseries for CBC-TV. His other books include Poles ApartThe High RoadUp and Down and One Brother Shy

A follow-up to the comedic novels The Best Laid Plans and The High Road is Operation Angus, a novel that continues to follow the adventures of Angus McLintock, a politician who accidentally became a Member of Parliament, won re-election and is now the junior global affairs minister. After his Chief of Staff Daniel Addison receives a cryptic late-night text and goes to a secret meeting at a pub, the two of them are thrown into a race against the clock to save the Russian president.

Fallis spoke to CBC Books about writing Operation Angus, winning Canada Reads and what goes into writing a novel that aims to make readers laugh.

Terry, your novel The Best Laid Plans won Canada Reads in 2011. Do you remember what it was like getting the call that your book had been selected?

It was a call in my office one night. I don't even remember who called. I was in such a daze when it happened. It was an extraordinary thrill because Canada Reads is a very big deal, particularly for a writer who had a second book that had just come out. But to have The Best Laid Plans recognized even as one of the candidates, it was a great thrill and an honour just to be nominated. 

How did you feel having the novel being debated and in competition with other Canadian books?

I was totally fine with it. It's a show that sheds light on new Canadian books — or even established Canadian books for that matter — and takes a look under the hood. You get to know these books and their writers get a bit more profile and promotion and sell some more books. 

Frankly, every book that's on Canada Reads has already passed some kind of a standard. They're already winners to be on that list.

I'm fine if the competition helps to do that. It is a sacrifice worth making. Frankly, every book that's on Canada Reads has already passed some kind of a standard. They're already winners to be on that list. 

What's the importance of Canada Reads and award nominations for you as a writer?

Being on Canada Reads and also getting award nominations absolutely adds validation for a writer. For someone who was just starting out when I wrote The Best Laid Plans, it was my first novel, the first thing of any length I had ever written. And to somehow win the Leacock Medal and then to win Canada Reads for my first novel, that was astonishing validation! Most writers live with self doubt and I think I have more than my fair share of that when I'm writing. Even now, with my eighth novel out, I always wonder whether I'll be able to do it again.

When did you decide that you wanted to be a novelist?

I think there are a few writers who can pinpoint the date, time and place when they became a writer, even if it was only in their own mind. But I can certainly pinpoint it: it was April 30th, 2008, at about 12:54:17! And that was when my then self-published novel, The Best Laid Plans — self-published because I could not find anyone interested in it — won the Leacock Medal. That really made me feel like maybe I was on the right track. Even though I had no illusions about my ability to become a full-time writer — because there are very few writers in this country who can do it full time — I knew that I was going to be writing for the rest of my days.

The Best Laid Plans

9 years ago
Duration 5:37
A new TV series is debuting on CBC Television - that's based a on a hit novel. The Best Laid Plans takes a humourous look at federal politics. And the Toronto-based author has first hand experience. Terry Fallis is a long-time political strategist. I had a chance to speak to him about the series and what inspires his work.

How important have books and reading been for you?

I was mainly a nonfiction reader until my mid-20s when I went on a fiction binge that I have not yet finished. There were some writers and novels that really had an impact on me. I would say Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler were very strong influences. And John Irving, I think, would have the greatest influence on my writing. He taught me, through his novels, the power of juxtaposing humour and pathos, sometimes rubbing them right up against one another on the page, which makes for a very meaningful ride for the reader. I thought John Irving was a master storyteller. 

I would say Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler were very strong influences.

Even writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — I continue to revel in his Sherlock Holmes stories, probably 40 years after I discovered them. It is the storytelling and his wonderful sentences that I'm really attracted to. 

What's Operation Angus all about?

It's been 11 years since Angus appeared in one of my novels. He was a major character in my first two novels, The Best Laid Plans and The High Road. In a way, he's back by popular demand. I had no plans to write another novel about Angus and Daniel and the rest of the gang. But having given now over a 1,000 book talks since 2008, somebody had the endurance to count them up on my website, out of every single one of those talks somebody would ask me if Angus was coming back. And I thought, why fight it? So I decided to write another one with Angus and the gang. 

I wanted to be a little bit different. So it's not just purely a political satire the way the first two were. I consider this to be more of a comic thriller. There's a bit of espionage, spies, secrets and tradecraft. And Angus and Daniel, for reasons that will become clear when you read the novel, have to thwart an assassination attempt on the life of the Russian president. It's all unfolding in Ottawa on a brief stopover to meet the Prime Minister. There is some politics. There are some political shenanigans. There are lots of scenes on Parliament Hill and in the House of Commons. But it's more about this adventure as Angus and Daniel, try to stop an assassination on Canadian soil, which would be an international incident of unprecedented dimension.

What's the key to writing humour in a novel like Operation Angus?

Humour is very subjective — it's the most subjective sense that we have. So when you write a novel that you hope will be funny, you can almost rest assured that not everybody will find it funny — you just hope that some people find it funny! If you were going to write a romance novel or a mystery novel, you know how to do that, and people react much the same way to them, to various degrees. But you write a humour novel and some people will find it the funniest thing they've ever read. Some people will find it not funny at all. So it is a challenge. So I hope that my sense of humour seems to coincide with that of enough readers to make it worthwhile. But it is difficult. 

Humour is very subjective — it's the most subjective sense that we have.

I think even with the funniest lines in this book, I don't actually laugh when I write them. I just think I know when it's funny or when I've made it as funny as I think it could be. Sometimes that means dialling it back a little bit as less is more. And believe me, I have often gone too far and not restrained myself. So I'm learning as I go to dial it back a little bit and let the primacy of storytelling rule the day. 

What's the magic of writing characters like Angus?

I think people are the most fascinating creatures we have on the planet. When you take somebody you think you know well and then you have them confront the situation they've never faced before — and that many human beings have faced before — it's fun to try and predict how they're going to react and still be true to their character traits. 

So there are plenty of scenes in this novel where we've never seen Angus and Daniel doing some of the things they have to do together. And they're not doing it by choice! They're reacting in a situation, relying on instincts and their own personalities and working together to do that. It's a fish out of water story, which is what The Best Laid Plans was in the first place. 

Take a crusty old Scottish engineering professor and I dropped him on the floor of the House of Commons. Now I'm taking that same engineering professor and his sidekick and dropping him in the middle of some international intrigue — where the stakes are quite high and seeing how they respond. So it was a lot of fun to do that. It was like slipping on a comfortable old sweater, but I hadn't worn it for 11 years.

Terry Fallis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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