Books·Magic 8

Why being a lawyer makes Robert Rotenberg a better writer — and being a writer makes him a better lawyer

The Toronto author's new book is called Heart of the City.
Robert Rotenberg is a crime writer and criminal lawyer in Toronto. His books include Old City Hall, The Guilty Plea, Stray Bullets, Stranglehold and Heart of the City. (Simon & Schuster)

In Heart of the City, Robert Rotenberg's latest thriller, an infamous Toronto developer is found dead at the site of his highly contentious new project. The discovery thrusts former homicide detective Ari Greene back into the chaotic world he'd left for fatherhood and peace of mind.

Rotenberg, a criminal lawyer and bestselling crime writer, takes CBC Books' Magic 8 Q&A, fielding questions about his two complementary careers and writing quirks.

1. Ian Brown asks, "What was the lowest point in the writing of your latest project?  And the highest?"

The lowest point was when I realized that I had to cut about 25,000 words, a quarter of the book. I think it was one of the best chapters I've ever written and it is now resting peacefully in a virtual drawer. Probably forever.

Highest: When I pressed "send."

2. Jane Urquhart asks, "What would you do if someone offered to adapt your latest book for musical comedy (with an emphasis on the word 'comedy')?"

I always ask people who read my books: "Did you laugh, did you cry, did the pages turn?" Then I say: "The most important question is — did you laugh?" I love to make my readers laugh and it is tough. As a criminal lawyer, I try to find some humour in the situations my clients find themselves in, with one exception: murder trials. And since my books are murder mysteries, my reaction would be: make the TV show first.

3. Erin Bow asks, "Do you love your villains?"

I'm not great at writing nasty villains. It drives my "New York" agent crazy. "I can't help it," I explained to her one day. "I'm a middle child and I'm Canadian." She paused. "Well then," she said at last. "It's hopeless."

4. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "If you discovered a terrible secret about someone that you knew would make for an exceptional story, would you make use of it? Would you tweak it to protect the person's identity if you knew that weakened the story?"

When I'm not writing, I'm a criminal lawyer. That means almost every day people tell me secrets they've never told anyone else. They are all protected by solicitor-client confidentiality. So my lips are sealed. I take this very seriously. That's why I don't write nonfiction. 

5. C.C. Humphreys asks, "Most writers have other jobs. How does your 'other job' affect the actual writing?"

Being a criminal lawyer gives me a front row seat to not only the law and policing, but to core human emotions. I like to say that being a lawyer makes me a better writer and that being a writer makes me a better lawyer.

6. Linwood Barclay asks, "Does writing get easier the more you do it, or more difficult because you don't want to repeat yourself?"

It's funny that this question is from Linwood. I met him after my first novel was out. At the time I was struggling mightily with number two. "Do me a favour," I said to Linwood, a lovely, generous and funny man, "tell me this gets easier." He looked me straight in the eye and said, "No." And he was right. 

7. Jillian Tamaki asks, "What do you wish was different about your workspace and how do you adapt?"

I had a perfect workspace. My law office is comfortable and quiet. I have a desk and a standing desk and music. And I almost never write there. Instead I transit between different coffee shops for different moods (my favourite shop has a standing ledge looking out a south window), restaurants where I go at off hours, my kitchen table and various couches. When I'm real stuck (don't tell anyone), I write in the outer reaches of the subway in the middle of the day. Go figure.

8. Durga Chew-Bose asks, "What is one of your own, real-life experiences of a plot twist?"

Spending 10 years writing my first novel and then getting it published.