Quill and Quire

Will Ferguson (2005)

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Author Profiles

Will Ferguson’s cross-country checkup

It should have been the high point of Will Ferguson’s writing career. In late 2002, his novel Happiness™ had taken off in the U.K., thanks in part to solid reviews and an aggressive marketing and publicity effort from Canongate, his U.K. publisher. Sales of the book’s international rights were beginning to flood in, surpassing even the most optimistic expectations. His non-fiction books, especially Why I Hate Canadians, continued to sell well with Douglas & McIntyre, the Vancouver press that first brought Ferguson to a wide audience.

But all was not well. Carolyn Swayze, Ferguson’s agent, says that Penguin Canada, the Canadian publisher of Ferguson’s novel, never showed much enthusiasm for Happiness™, which was even more noticeable when compared with the positive reaction of the U.K. publisher. In February 2000, Penguin had commissioned Ferguson to write a Canadian travel book aimed at families. The proposed book – with the working title Are We There Yet? – would take the author on a cross-country trip. Ferguson signed on and also offered them the already-written novel. Penguin bought the Canadian rights and released the novel, in spring 2001, as Generica.

The reviews were, to say the least, mixed. Ferguson contends that Canadians just didn’t get his satirical take on the self-help industry and, to a lesser extent, publishing. “I think the reviews were a reflection of the confusion in Canada between parody and satire. And Happiness™ was not parody,” he says. “Some of the reviews and comments reveal the confusion.”

In early 2003, Ferguson was still under contract with Penguin to write Are We There Yet? Now, Ferguson says it’s a book that he wasn’t very interested in writing. The country is too big and the population too spread out to sustain a coast-to-coast travel narrative; he found the conceit too constraining. Penguin granted Ferguson a number of extensions on the project, and, in the meantime, the house underwent a considerable amount of internal upheaval. Longtime publisher Cynthia Good left in spring 2003. In May of that year, Michael Schellenberg, Ferguson’s editor, left for a senior editor post at Knopf Canada. “Will had no relationship with any person there. There hadn’t been a transition, or a handing over of him as an author,” Swayze says. Ferguson remembers it even more starkly: “I really fell through the cracks,” he says. “I wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen.” (For the record, Penguin editorial director Diane Turbide disagrees. “I don’t think anyone was uncommitted to Will or the book, which we had ourselves commissioned,” she says.)

In fall 2003, Ferguson bought out his contract with Penguin, which had begun campaigning more actively to keep him in the fold, and promptly signed a deal with Schellenberg at Knopf. The book that began as Are We There Yet? will be released, in a completely different form, by Knopf this fall. Instead of a coast-to-coast road trip, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is a travel narrative with stops in a number of Canadian “outposts.” Some of these outposts, such as Ferguson’s original hometown of Fort Vermilion, Alberta, are more out there than others, like Victoria or St. John’s.

Knopf has high hopes for the book, and justifiably so if they can tap into the author’s already large audience, even though some chapters are much-expanded versions of articles that had previously appeared in Maclean’s or other publications. Ferguson, for his part, is only encouraging the expectations. “This is about as good as I can write at this point in my career,” he says. “I have no alibi. I can’t say, ‘I was rushed. Oh, if I only had another year to work on it.’” That wasn’t always true of his earlier work.

For Ferguson, 39, the move to Knopf and the release of this new, more mature book is the latest chapter in a career that, were it one of his books, might be called “How To Be a Successful Canadian Writer Without Ever Having a Proper Book Launch.”

Ferguson’s decision to become a writer was inspired by a well-worn aphorism. “Someone had said to me: ‘Find something you love to do and get somebody to pay you to do it,’” Ferguson says. With time running out on a post-graduate teaching stint in Japan, Ferguson wanted to combine his love of travelling and his need to earn a living. “The obvious answer was to be a travel writer,” he says. Somewhat miraculously, he secured a contract almost immediately to write a travel guidebook to Japan, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan. Ferguson hoped that book would lead to a comfortable career writing travel articles for magazines or newspapers.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide didn’t come out until spring 1998. By that time he had already scored his first major success in Canada with the 1997 publication of Why I Hate Canadians. That book was inspired by the events of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty – and it was a long way from writing travel guidebooks. Ferguson had moved home from Japan and was living in Prince Edward Island, selling tours to Japanese tourists. He sent Why I Hate Canadians to Stoddart Publishing, who he says took a long look at it before passing. He then sent it to a number of other publishers and agents. Swayze was immediately interested, and Douglas & McIntyre was the eventual winner of her bidding war.

Why I Hate Canadians has sold more than 75,000 copies since it was released in September 1997. It was, at least in business terms, an auspicious debut, which was fortuitous for Ferguson, who by then was 100% committed to making it as a writer: “I had no fallback plan.” So Ferguson kept turning out books at what appeared to be a prodigious pace. His first two books were followed by: I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim, a memoir, culled largely from diary entries, of Ferguson’s time in Katimavik, the ill-fated Trudeau-era Peace Corps-style group; Hokkaido Highway Blues, a travel narrative in Japan; Bastards & Boneheads, a popular Canadian history title; and Canadian History for Dummies, which, because of all the research, was the book Ferguson says was the hardest to write.

And that only brings us up to 2001. It’s no wonder, then, that in an interview with Q&Q that year, Ferguson wondered aloud why other authors weren’t able to produce more than they did. Those comments, which he says still get thrown back at him, were not meant to be malicious, but stemmed from genuine curiosity. “I had never met authors until I was published because I wasn’t an English major or a creative writing major. And after school I moved to Japan. I wasn’t part of a writing community,” he says.

Despite the sales successes and regular appearances in mainstream publications like Maclean’s and The Globe and Mail, Ferguson’s something of an outsider to the Toronto-centric Canadian publishing world. He lives in Calgary now, with his wife and two children. And while he still may not have intimate knowledge of the office politics at his publisher’s Toronto headquarters, Ferguson is comfortable with where he is in his career, maybe for the first time. That is largely due to the two books he released in 2001, How to Be a Canadian and Happiness™, which turned out to be major successes in very different ways.

How to Be a Canadian, published by D&M, was a more conventional boon for Ferguson. Co-written with his brother Ian, it has sold more than 160,000 copies. Happiness™ didn’t take off immediately in Canada, but it has since changed Ferguson’s life. The book has been sold to publishers in 31 different markets around the world and has been published in 24 languages. “Those books gave me the luxury of time…. It was great. I was finally able to be out of the woods, in a sense,” Ferguson says. “When you’re supporting yourself as a writer, which is how I support my family, you’re always looking ahead. Even when you have a success, you’re always looking ahead. There’s a constant pressure.” Freed from these constraints, Ferguson was able to spend the better part of three years doing the travelling, research, and writing for Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw.

His relationship with Schellenberg was a deciding factor in his move to Knopf. Schellenberg, the editor of Miriam Toews’s hit novel A Complicated Kindness, first worked with Ferguson on Happiness™. The author says Schellenberg championed the novel at Penguin Canada, and he compares the editor to a “less manic” version of legendary Canongate publisher Jamie Byng. “[Schellenberg’s] got a very good sense of judgment. He doesn’t bring a lot of preconceptions to what works. He doesn’t bring his own agenda to what should be published. He really looks at things fresh and when he finds something, his enthusiasm is just relentless,” Ferguson says.

Modest almost to a fault, Schellenberg deflects all praise back to Ferguson, who he says pushed himself more than he had in the past with this book. “I think his writing just keeps getting better.”

One of the most difficult decisions the two faced was how much of Ferguson’s personal history to include. It’s those passages that make this new book a minor departure for Ferguson. The book still contains swaths of his broad humour, reminiscent of the safe yet pointed political and social comedy of comparable populist Canadian humorists like Rick Mercer and the Royal Canadian Air Farce, but Ferguson also delves into his own past. To a point. In most of the chapters, a family member is physically present on the trips, whether it’s one of his brothers travelling with him or his son camping with him. But the underlying theme is Ferguson’s relationship with his father, who left the family when Ferguson was still very young. Amid the smart-alecky tone that often seeps through his prose, these passages stand out. It would be surprising if many readers don’t come away from the book wishing this had been explored further.

Ferguson, however, disputes the notion that he should have made this a bigger part of the book. “You don’t want to beat people over the head with it. They buy a book called Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw. It’s a travel narrative. They’re not buying my biography. And you have to be careful. My editors really enjoyed editing that section, but you have to keep in mind, what is this book about? And this isn’t a memoir about my father. You can’t bait and switch. At the same time, my father was very restless and he moved around a lot for different projects. That informs my relationship with my sons, so I wanted that in there, but that’s not the central theme. It was very intentional of me. I thought it balanced out well.”

It sounds a little like the sort of self-help hokum that might have come in for a solid ribbing in Happiness™, but Ferguson is all about balance these days. One of the reasons Ferguson is confident and content with Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is that he thinks the travel narrative suits his writing style. “I’m able to blend everything that I enjoy – history, observation, detail about areas that make them unique,” Ferguson says. “You get a lot more leeway in travel narratives.”

After updating Canadian History for Dummies this fall, his plan, always subject to change if the past is any indicator, is to write a travel narrative set in Japan, scheduled for a fall 2005 release with Knopf Canada. Ferguson spent some time in Japan this summer visiting his wife’s family. It was mostly a vacation, but he did some minimal research, “for tax purposes,” he says. Then he wants to write another novel. (Ferguson says he has a weird, quirky idea for his next novel, but he wouldn’t elaborate much beyond that.)

The publicity tour for Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is long – 14 cities over the course of a month – like most of his past campaigns, but Ferguson insisted on a break so he could be home with his children for Hallowe’en. He was even willing to succumb – sort of – to his publisher’s longstanding desire to have a book launch. Despite all the books he’s released, Ferguson has never had a proper launch. “No one’s ever explained to me why you need to have a book launch. If you like to have cocktails, it’s fine,” he says. This year, he agreed – if it could be in Moose Jaw. The scheduling didn’t work out for the start of the tour in mid-October, but Knopf has planned a launch for Moose Jaw in November, cocktails and all.