Published July 2010
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How James Wood and Dostoevsky inspired TV funny man Ken Finkleman's first fiction foray
When I sit down to interview Ken Finkleman about his new novel, Noah’s Turn (HarperCollins Canada), the first thing he tells me is that he won’t be writing another one. “I haven’t had a vast amount of experience in my life and I don’t have much of an imagination, so I kind of write what I know,” he says. “And after you write a certain amount, you’ve said it all.”
But the sixty-something veteran television writer – best known for scripting, directing, and starring in the 1990s CBC comedy The Newsroom – isn’t planning on shuffling off into retirement. In his very next breath, he tells me he’s just completed writing 13 episodes of a new TV show, Good Dog, which will appear on The Movie Network and Movie Central next year. In fact, Finkleman is so immersed in Good Dog – he’ll also be directing and starring in it – that he has trouble devoting his attention to Noah’s Turn again. When I ask him when he began writing it, he can barely recall. A little reflection brings him around to early 2009, a time he describes as a period of rest, career-wise. “I wasn’t doing anything,” he tells me. “I was just lying on the couch, skiing a lot, drinking a lot, reading, sleeping.”
It was the “reading” part of all that inactivity that inspired him to start writing a book. After picking up James Wood’s How Fiction Works, he got interested in the novel writing process, and later, when he was halfway through Crime and Punishment, something clicked. “The two … came together in my head,” he says. Thus was born Noah’s Turn, a modern-day version of the Dostoevsky classic set in the upper-class artsy circles of an unnamed Canadian city.
But the true seed of the book goes back about 25 years, to when Finkleman was working as a writer-for-hire in Hollywood. Though he was making wads of cash scripting the likes of Grease 2, Airplane II: The Sequel, and Who’s That Girl, he was in a rut. “The only interesting thing about Hollywood is the money,” he says now. One day over dinner, his malaise inspired him to imagine a fanciful – if macabre – way of drastically changing his life. “I looked down at [my] steak knife … and I thought, ‘If I pick this knife up and stab the person sitting across from me in the heart and kill him, it would definitely change my life. It wouldn’t necessarily change for the better, but it would absolutely turn my life upside down.’”
Finkleman kept the scenario in his head for years, and finally used it as the inspiration for the novel’s protagonist, Noah Douglas, an unemployed television writer and wannabe novelist who becomes increasingly jealous of a friend with more literary power and influence. The plot takes off when Finkleman puts a machete into Noah’s hands.
Though Noah’s Turn is a slim 230 pages, Finkleman manages to cover quite a lot of philosophical ground. At various points, the novel forces readers to contemplate how the powerful can commit violence without legal consequence, the trouble with being an intellectual in a capitalist culture, and the fine line that separates normality from psychopathy.
According to Finkleman, the scenes after the murder were particularly enjoyable to write. “I put myself in that situation…. I thought very hard on how I would react and what I would do.” When asked if readers might flinch from such a potentially unlikeable protagonist, Finkleman says that he, at least, finds this type of character the most compelling. “To me, it’s the only thing that’s fun [to write]. You get to examine your id.”
On that note, Finkleman checks the time and realizes he should be getting home; the shooting of Good Dog begins in a week and he still needs to put the final touches on one of the scripts. If the show – about a May–December romance based partially on his own life – is a success, it’ll likely occupy his time for the foreseeable future. But if it doesn’t fly, and if another period of career downtime ensues, don’t count out another attempt at prose. Despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s clear the man still has a lot to say.