canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Robert Hough

Robert Hough began his career as a magazine writer, mostly for Toronto Life and Saturday Night. Born in Toronto in 1963, Robert Hough knew he wanted to become a writer back in high school before turning to books. 

Hough’s first book was originally intended to be a biography of Mabel Stark, a promiscuous and ribald 1920s lion tamer for Ringling Brothers Circus. Due to a general lack of documentation on Stark, Hough decided to write a novel instead. 

Published to rave reviews in 2001, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Trillium Book Award and was sold into the US, the UK and at least twelve other countries. It is currently in development for a major motion picture starring Kate Winslet in the role of Stark. Hough’s latest novel is The Culprits

Hough discusses the writing process, his family and outrageous satires in this TDR exclusive…

Interview  by Nathaniel G. Moore

(October 2007)


What would you say was the biggest difference between the first draft of the Culprits and the final product?

The sound of the writing. It finally kicked in halfway through the second draft.

How important is it that your books reflect a current issue or contemporary moral dilemma?

Only so much as you really do need that if you're going to write satire, which is essentially what The Culprits is.

For The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark you said you became "a sort of circus aficionado," how did the writing of The Culprits change you or what did you to get the book complete, research wise, or getting into the right mindset?

-- went to Saint Petersburg, and basically hung out in tenements and immigrant markets
-- talked to a lot of Russians in Toronto
-- read as much about post-communist Russia as I could

and then, as they say you should do, I forgot it all and started writing ...

The cover is quite striking, both in design and colour. How do you feel about the cover? Does it represent a singular image to you? Was there a few different versions?

I think the cover's great. The style is called "samizat", which describes the little, mimeographed pamphlets that people made during the communist era; these pamphlets came to have their own look, very Bauhaus meets cut-and-paste, and that's what the cover is reflecting.

You said in another interview you acquired the services of a Russian tour guide. When did you decide you had to go to Russia to finish the book, or was that the
plan all along?

Oh no, you HAVE to go to the place you're writing about. For me, it was a matter of locations scouting: in a day or two I found Apraxin Dvor, and the bleak outlaying suburbs, and I knew that these two places would be the spots for the Russian half of the book.

Are you looking forward to IFOA (International Festival of Authors)?

Yes. I've been doing a humour slide show on Chechen War Atrocities. The folks they just love it.

What is your approach to starting work on a large piece of writing?

step 1) research for a year
step 2) write
step 3) hand the damn thing in and hope for the best

Where do you write? How often, what is your schedule like?

At home, from 8:30 to 12:00, Monday to Friday. 

Do you think in the wake of James Frey that the categorical distinction is necessary more than ever between fiction and memoir?

No comment; never read the book and I know nothing about memoir writing except to say this: Augusten Burroughs, with his book Dry, did exactly what Frey did, except he added the tiniest of disclosures, hidden in the publishing details, that said that, although a memoir, this book invents some characters, and invents some events, and collapses a whole lot of action (some of which is fictional) into a much smaller time frame. It strikes me that Frey did the same thing, and got hung out to dry because he didn't put in that tiny, tiny disclosure. Odd, No?

What is your favourite meal? Type of wine? Favourite film you've seen in the last year? Favourite book?

French food. I'm very fond of the Rhone's these days, though have been buying mostly
Niagara because Al Gore told us to. Little Children (by a country mile). Right now I'm rereading Tin Drum because one reviewer compared my narrative style to Gunther Grass. It's totally, totally brilliant that book ... I love huge, clamouring, witty, outrageous satires that take the whole world as their pallet.

What is it like being a writer with a family, finding time to write, etc., how do you incorporate both lives into your routine?

Easily. My problem is getting too excited and overwriting. Left to my own devices, I'd write all day every day, but whenever I do this I tend to collapse, and develop a whole slew of emotional and physical problems. For me, the discipline involves only writing in the mornings, five days a week. As for my family, that's one of the things I've liked about being a writer most: I'm always at home. I have breakfast, lunch and dinner with my wife and two daughters, and they're by far the most charming people I know

What inspired or triggered you into developing The Culprits into a novel?

Weirdly, I'd been researching a different third novel, on a completely different topic, and was getting nowhere. I was just walking down the street when a voice in my head gave me the fully formed premise of The Culprits: A lonely Canadian inadvertently funds a Chechen terrorist attack via his Russian Internet bride. At first I didn't like the idea because it sounded so John le Carre, and I'm not a big fan of spy novels. But then the voice said: Oh, and by the way, it's a black comedy. That I liked.






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