Fenton & White Interview Jerome J. Bourgault

Author Jerome J. Bourgault talks about his creative path to writing novels
(Photo Credit Megan Vincent)

F&W: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. The people we interview for this blog often have multiple threads that make up their creative work. Tell us a little bit about how you started creatively, and where that has led you.

JB: I started late. I’d always had some modest creative abilities as a kid, but I was never trained in them until much, much later, and in some cases not at all. I’m from a family of doctors and engineers; trying to make a life in the arts was never even a consideration. I didn’t go to art school until I was in my 30s, and I’d never stepped on stage until I was 40. I got into graphic design after I’d been doing contract communications work for the Federal Government, and I saw that we were farming out design jobs for stuff I wanted to do myself but lacked the training to create on my own. So, I enrolled at the (then) OCA — now OCAD — and learned art and design basics.

Fast forward 6 years. I was working as a designer and copywriter in North Bay and I heard on the local CBC station that a community theatre company was holding auditions. Again, it was something I’d long suspected I could do — and do well — but I’m an introvert by nature, plus I didn’t know the first thing about theatre. But I gave it a shot, got a part, and was hooked.

I moved back to Ottawa, and theatre became a vital part of my life for the next 10 years; but again, I was never trained at it in a formal sense.

And as for writing, I knew I could put sentences together pretty well, but telling a captivating story with compelling characters is a whole other matter. I doubt that I ever would have taken that step if it hadn’t been for my partner, Liza, who urged me to give it a try. I’m eternally indebted to her.

F&W: You’ve worked in both English and French. When you act, or write, or design, do you find your creative process happens in one language more than the other or does it depend on the type of work you’re doing?

JB: Being a bilingual francophone in Toronto has its advantages, but the work I do in French isn’t so much on the creative side; it’s stuff I do to pay the bills. To work in any language you have to think in that language, and to do that you have to “live” in that language and it’s hard to live in French in Toronto. My written French has become pretty rusty, certainly not polished enough — to my liking anyway — to consider writing fiction, and opportunities in French-language theatre are scarce.

F&W: Tell us a bit about your first book, The Perpetual Now. What inspired you to write the book?

JB: If The Perpetual Now had parents, they would be Carl Sagan’s Contact and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. Sagan’s central character, Ellie Arroway, has always resonated with me: a person of science, a staunch skeptic and critical thinker — qualities that run deep in my own DNA — who is faced with something extraordinary. The little Prince, meanwhile, is an enchanting creature, a blend of untouchable innocence and profound wisdom. My mind kept coming back to the idea of an encounter between characters such as these: a young, introverted skeptic and an extraordinary entity taking the form of a human child.

F&W: We’ve both read the book, and it’s hard to pin down in terms of genre. The closest description might be a crossover between science fiction, mystery, as well as a coming of age story in a small town. When you were creating the story did you know what the tone of the book would be, or did it evolve as you wrote?

JB: During the initial, call it the ‘gestational’ period of the novel — before anything was actually written down — the story had a much more whimsical tone. Exchanges between the two main characters were extremely innocent, replete with “Why is the sky blue?”-kind of reflections. Had the novel been published in those early days, it would have been a children’s book, lavishly illustrated in watercolours and pastels.

But, as it turns out, I’m not that kind of writer. My voice, I discovered, was something more akin to David Mitchell with a healthy dollop of Stephen King. I still loved the idea of a fantastic encounter with an otherworldly being, but I knew it had to be rooted in reality and presented in a context that felt familiar. The narrative was then set in rural northern Ontario, a place I know well, and the novel took on a much darker, grittier tone. And of course, I’ve learned as an author that it’s the characters who tell you, or rather show you, where the story is going to go and what’s important to them. You just have to listen and follow along.

F&W: Do you have a specific approach to your writing? Do you write every day, or do you write large amounts in longer writing sessions?

JB: I should be writing every day! I should be writing non-stop: essays and short stories and micro fiction. But I guess I’m not that kind of writer either. I like big projects, stuff I can sink my teeth into and become obsessed over for weeks and months and years.

Once I’ve committed myself to a work, I must spend 99% of my time just circling it, thinking about plot, characters, setting, etc. Eventually it pours out in healthy instalments, especially when I have a clear view of the plot. That was the case with my second novel: it was finished within a year. And if I’m not moving the story forward, I’m reviewing and editing, reviewing and editing, constantly, and that usually jogs something new so I can continue.

F&W: And do you have to be in a specific place when you write, or are there any other things that help your process, such as particular snack foods, or a particular type of room to write in?

JB: A lot of men have “man-caves”, basement refuges full of electronic gadgets and high-priced toys. I have a basement full of books and my film library. The light is dim and the atmosphere is cozy: all that’s missing is a fireplace. It’s my preferred spot, but I’m adaptable. When I need to get out of the house, I frequent the neighbourhood Starbucks and mooch off their wifi; I can be productive there for a few hours at a stretch, but it gets noisy. Our local library is also good, but there’s no coffee.

F&W: The Perpetual Now has received a lot of critical attention including the Best Indie Book Award in the Science Fiction category and the book was a finalist and shortlisted for a number of other prizes. What does that mean to you and to the book? Does this recognition help perhaps create interest in other versions such as a movie of the book?

JB: Well, obviously it’s flattering to receive recognition from people who aren’t, say, “mandated” to like my work, i.e. family and friends; all the more so because it was my debut novel. The BIBA in particular was nice because the novel won in a category for which it wasn’t even submitted. And you get physical tokens like a trophy, or a certificate, or stickers for the book, that kind of thing, which are good for the ego, but I don’t want to make too much of them. While contests and awards do give the work a certain credibility and maybe a bit of added attention, you need to make an awful lot of noise to catch the interests of the big guys with the money and influence to make things happen, and the landscape is really crowded.

F&W: What other projects are you working on now?

JB: My second novel is actually finished, and has been simmering on the back-burner for a few months now. It’s called Day of Epiphany and it’s set against the backdrop of Québec’s Grande Noirceur (Great Darkness) of the 1950s. During this time, some 22,000 orphans were deliberately misclassified as mentally ill in order to qualify for federal subsidies earmarked for psychiatric hospitals, which — along with orphanages — were run by religious orders. Socially invisible and with no rights under the law, these children were subjected to all manner of experimental treatments and unspeakable levels of abuse.

Day of Epiphany is a work of historical fiction, and while it’s set in the same universe as The Perpetual Now, it’s a very different kind of novel. The word I’m using to describe it is “uncompromising.” It’s not for the feint of heart. I’ll be shopping it around very soon.

F&W: Where can people find out more about your work and how to acquire your books?

JB: The best place to start is my website: https://jeromejbourgault.com. There’s a lot there, including links to Amazon, Indigo and Barnes & Noble. I also have a personal blog (jeromebourgault.com); I haven’t kept it up as much lately but it does a good job of recounting my journey. There’s also a Facebook page under The Perpetual Now, an entry on Goodreads, and an instagram page at  jerome.bourgault.71.

F&W: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Can’t wait to read your next book, and wishing you much continued success with The Perpetual Now.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s