Terri Favro is producing some of the most exciting writing in Canada today. Her work masterfully pushes the boundaries of genre to provide such a satisfying ride for all readers who are ready to enjoy the journey. She’s the author of three novels: Sputnik’s Children (ECW), Once Upon A Time in West Toronto (Inanna), and The Proxy Bride, winner of the Ken Klonsky-Quattro Books Novella Award. She also collaborates on the Bella graphic novel series, published by Grey Borders. So buckle your seatbelt, grab one of her books, and hang on!
Where did you get the idea for your novel, Sputnik’s Children?
Three times in my life, I thought I was about to be killed by nuclear bombs. The first time was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which started on my sixth birthday. I remember the church parking lot next door to our house jammed with cars, even though it wasn’t Sunday, because people were flocking to church to pray. My older sister said she wasn’t going to bother studying for a big exam because what was the point if we were all going to die anyway? I really did think we were goners.
The second time was in grade 10, in 1972, when Nixon launched the nuclear test at Amchitka Island in the Aleutians: Greenpeace was founded over this incident. As part of a consciousness raising exercise, the student council and principal of my high school in St. Catharines broke into the announcements one morning a few days after the test detonation, and announced that dead radioactive birds had washed up on the coast of Siberia and the Soviet Union had launched ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) at first-strike targets in North America which of course included Niagara Fall hydro station, only about twenty miles away from us. The principal announced started listing the emergency busses we were all supposed to take home so we could die with our families. This went on for about five minutes until they told us it wasn’t real: they just wanted us to experience what it would feel like to be in a nuclear war. That was genuinely scary (and can you imagine what would happen to a school council that tried to do that today?) Different era.
The third time was April 20, 1986 at about 2 a.m. on my wedding night. Seriously. My husband Ron and I were staying in a small inn on the Niagara River in the historic village of Queenston, below Queenston Heights Park where we’d had our reception. There had been a lot of geopolitical tension that month because President Reagan had bombed Libya, killing one of Omar Kaddafi’s sons, and no one really knew whether the Libyans “had the bomb” – it was in the news a lot. Anyway, that night, Ron and I are lying in bed and all of a sudden an air raid siren goes off. It was unbelievably loud. Because the whole Niagara area was a first strike target, I’d been raised to believe that if they dropped the bomb, we’d be the first to go. Muscle memory from all my childhood air raid drills kicked in: I jumped out of bed and started yelling at Ron to get dressed so we could drive out of the area. Ron looked out the window and observed that no one else in the town seemed to be reacting. The next morning we found out that the air raid siren had gone off in Lewiston, New York, to summon the volunteer fire department. While we were on our honeymoon in Cape Breton, we heard the sirens used there for the same purpose! Ironically, on our flight home, I picked up a newspaper on the plane and the headline was about the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.
Needless to say, I wrote about all this. The resulting essay, “Snapshots of a Cold War Childhood”, was a series of memories about growing up in the shadow of the bomb, which I anchored to different years by using the type of camera that my father would have been using at the time. The flip side of the long play record of the cold war was the space race, which seemed to promise that if the bomb was dropped, we’d be able to go live on the moon. The piece was published by the U.K. literary journal, The Red Line, in 2013.
In the fall of that year, I had a little bit of money from being shortlisted for a CBC literary prize in creative non-fiction, which Ron and I used to rent an RV and go for a hiking trip at Lake Superior Provincial Park. I decided on that trip to turn my cold war piece into a full-length book. At first, I was planning to write it as a non-fiction book, but it struck me that it would be more interesting to do it as fiction so that I could draw on all the metaphors and myths that grew out of the cold war period – from sci-fi books and shows, to superhero comic books. And so Sputnik’s Children was born.
How would you describe this novel? Is it dystopic, sci-fi, magic realism? Or does it even matter what kind of writing label it gets?
I would describe it as a cross-genre book: literary fiction meets science fiction. I don’t mean to imply that science fiction can’t be literary, but Sputnik’s Children doesn’t easily fall into the genre sci-fi category. It has dystopian elements too. I think the territory it inhabits is the same one as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels, like Oryx and Crake.
Was it difficult to describe the Atomic Age to people who have never grown up without the Internet?
I think that millennials are familiar with many of the tropes and metaphors of the Atomic Age from shows like Futurama and many, many Hollywood movies. Not to mention to the Internet itself! Bomb shelters, air raids, mushroom clouds – I think this have all become a part of pop culture, so I don’t think a young adult would be confused by them, anymore than a child of the TV age (e.g., me) was puzzled by the stories about the two world wars.
What was your writing process like? Did you write your novel daily?
As I mentioned earlier, I started the novel while I was on a hiking trip. We had an RV so I brought along my laptop, and I’d work for a couple of hours, then we’d hike. (This shows up in one chapter of the novel, too.) I often do quite a lot of writing while travelling or staying in hotels (shades of the main character in Sputnik’s Children!)
Because my day job is as a freelance copywriter, mostly for ad agencies, I don’t have a regular work routine although I do work out of a home office. My process depends on the day: some days I had lots of time to work on the book, so I might be putting in five or six hours of writing time on it; other days I might be fitting in a half hour here, a half hour there, around copy revisions. I tend to avoid getting too stuck in a particular writing routine: I write as often as possible, wherever I happen to be. But once I’ve started a project I’m pretty obsessive so I’m always working on it in my head – I do a lot of rewriting while on my bike!
What was the hardest part of writing this novel?
Keeping the parallel timelines straight! My characters jump around in time quite a lot, so trying to keep their ages straight took a lot of back checking, and the eagle-eyed proofreader still found things to fix.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
I really love writing about bad guys, so Debbie’s encounters with Larry “the Shark” Kowalchuck were fun to write. There were also sections that come very close to memoir, such as when Debbie enrolls herself in the Famous Artists Art School from an ad on the back of a comic book. I actually did that, and the rep showed up at our house for a sales call. Unlike Debbie’s father, mine wouldn’t sign me up.
I’d also say the last third of the novel, which builds toward a series of dramatic and unexpected events in outer space, were very satisfying to write. I was able to stretch my imagination in ways that I haven’t done before. I spent quite a bit of time reading astronauts’ memoirs about what it was like to walk in space.
Have you ever travelled through time?
I do it all the time, every time I look back at old journals, or photo albums, or things I wrote ten years ago. In that sense, I think we all time-travel.
Do you read comics? And if so, can you recommend any?
As a young person, I read tons of superhero comics, especially DC. I loved Superman, Batman, and Justice League of America. I’ve gone back to reading the reboot of the Wonder Woman series recently: as is probably obvious in the novel, I’m very interested in her as a character.
In terms of graphic novels, I think the Love and Rockets series by the Hernandez Brothers is wonderful. I also love the Essex County books by Jeff Lemire. And if you haven’t already read the masterpiece From Hell or the Maus graphic novels… it’s time.
And I might also recommend the Bella comics that I write with my husband and creative partner Ron Edding for Gray Border Books. We’ll have a new 150-page full-length graphic novel coming out in the next few months called Bella and the Facer Street Gang. I’m extremely proud of it. I won’t give away the story but it does have links to my grandfather’s experiences as an Italian soldier on the Austrian front in World War One.
Does your Italian background play any role in your writing or writing process?
I think my background as the child of Italian immigrants, growing up in a neighbourhood of mixed ethnicities, in a working class town on the U.S.-Canada border, has had a huge impact on the stories I’ve developed. My characters often have a similar background to me (as Debbie does, in this novel). I benefited from a very strong oral storytelling tradition in my family, particularly from my father’s father, who had a storehouse of fairytales and folktales from the Italian alpine region of Piemonte, not far from where Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose is set. Nonno’s stories were always very dark, scary tales of being lost in the woods and there were monsters aplenty. I think that a lot of the books I enjoy reading, and the stories I tell, have a bit of sense of danger and darkness in them. But there was always a lot of humour in the family stories I grew up hearing, so my writing does veer into what might be called dark humour.
If Sputnik’s Children becomes a film, who should play Debbie and why?
This is a tough one because Debbie ages from a child of twelve to a woman in her fifties in this book. We see her as a teenager and a young adult too. But I think the actor who keeps coming to mind for me is Ellen Page, who has this plucky, funny, quirky side that is very much Debbie. Ellen is 30 years old, according to her IMDB profile but looks younger, so she could be Debbie in her mid-20s in the last third of the book.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Be patient and persistent. Stories can take time to develop into their final shape and can require a lot of revision and rethinking. Keep writing all the time, but don’t rush the final result. And do keep sending work out no matter how many times you get rejected. Rejection is a given for any writer –– well, most of us anyway!
Also, one of the toughest things for a writer is to decide what to write about. You probably won’t want to write about being a writer all the time. Having a lot of different life experiences, whether through a day job (which trust me, you’ll need,) or travel or sports or other experiences can give you a rich pool of material.
Can you tell us about how the cool cover of Sputnik’s Children was created? Did you design it or have any say?
Thanks for this question. I love the cover too! Did you notice that the stars in outer space actually twinkle? I have my publisher ECW Press and the cover designer David Gee to thank. I did make some very broad suggestions about what could appear on the cover and David ran with them. This was one of a whole series of cover ideas he came up with and not the only one I liked. I think it was the best choice.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the early stages of a novel, tentatively called United Kingdom of America, that is a fleshed out version of a short story I wrote for a steampunk anthology. All I will say is that it features an Italian-Canadian version of Laura Secord and that Wallis Simpson makes an appearance.
I’m also in the final stages of a non-fiction book that I’m writing for a publisher in the U.S. about my generation’s relationship with robots, both fictional and real. It’s called Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact and Speculation. It should be out early in 2018.
Also, my partner/husband Ron and I are working on a graphic novel based on an unsolved murder in 1930s Toronto, which will be called Providence.