On Writing

Special Guest Writer Richard Scarsbrook! Author of ‘The Troupers’

Richard Scarsbrook’s newest novel, The Troupers (Cormorant Books)

I met Richard Scarsbrook through BookFest Windsor many moons ago. He was a guest speaker for the youth writing contest winners at their award event. We connected before the event so I could get to know him a bit and introduce him to the kids, nervous and excited, sitting in the theatre. From the beginning, Richard was enthusiastic, authentic and passionate – he continues to be!

In 2017, he was a guest author on this very blog for his then newly released book, Apocalypse One Hundred. Scarsbrook is a prolific writer, his works spanning genres. Poetry, plays, screenplays, fiction (short and novels!) – he lives and breathes words. He has served as Writer in Residence for the Toronto District School Board, and the Orangeville, Richmond Hill, and Toronto Public Libraries. He also teaches creative writing at George Brown College and The Humber School for Writers.

To date, he has published ten books, including the novels The Troupers, The Indifference League, the National Post Bestseller Rockets Versus Gravity, and The Monkeyface Chronicles, which won the 2011 OLA White Pine Award. His short stories and poems have also appeared in The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Descant, Existere, Prairie Fire, and NeWest Review, amongst many others. His first produced screenplay, Royal Blood, was an official selection at many international film festivals, and won Best Short Film at the TIFF-associated Milton Film Festival.

I recently finished reading The Troupers, and so, the following interview questions were born. Richard was kind enough to answer them all! I highly recommend The Troupers – it is entertaining in a moving way that stirs up your insides. It’s fascination with and dedication to the Silver Screen is commendable, so anyone who loves old movies will love this story. The characters are real and sad and hopeful, and Richard’s clever wit dips into the dark in a way still makes room for the light.

VS: One of the things I really appreciate about The Troupers (Cormorant Books) is its Canadian soul, if you will. I love that its location is the iconic and world-wonder ‘Niagara Falls’. Tell us how you came to choose this location as the base for the story. 

RS: The setting for The Troupers evolved significantly as I was revising the story. Initially, I set the story in Faireville, the fictional small town that is the setting (or at least one of them) in most of my other novels, and originally the Trouper family’s theatre was a regional gem something like Victoria Hall in Petrolia, Ontario. However, as the story evolved, it became apparent that a more “entertainment-centric” location would serve the evolution of the characters and their stories better, and the circus-like atmosphere of Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls seemed like an ideal location for the fictional Trouper-Royale Orpheum-Galaxie Theatre.

I liked the contrast between the pretentious faux-grandeur of John Lionel Trouper’s inherited theatre and its flashy, noisy, carnival surroundings, and I also thought it would be entertaining for the wannabe “Great Director” to be painfully aware of the world-renowned Shaw Festival right up the road in quaint, movie-set-perfect Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Orpheum-Galaxie Theatre and its Clifton Hill location came to represent John Lionel Trouper’s deeply flawed narcissism, his desperate longing for glory and grandeur.

The Orpheum-Galaxie Theatre and its Clifton Hill location came to represent John Lionel Trouper’s deeply flawed narcissism, his desperate longing for glory and grandeur.

VS: There’s a darkness in the The Troupers that at times made me feel uncomfortable – which I don’t mind at all, it’s a feat to be able to do that as a writer! – but layered in the darkness are these brilliant zings of humour.  In tone and language and action, you’ve infused humour to smooth out and allow for breathing space for the reader. Where does this writing skill come from? 

RS: I’ve recognised just recently – after ten books, if you can believe it – that the space between hilarity and heartbreak is where almost all of my stories have chosen to live, and, as a result, walking that tightrope line between humour and pathos, for better or for worse, is the position that I usually find myself writing from.

RS: I’ve recognised just recently – after ten books, if you can believe it – that the space between hilarity and heartbreak is where almost all of my stories have chosen to live, and, as a result, walking that tightrope line between humour and pathos, for better or for worse, is the position that I usually find myself writing from. Finding the drama (or tragedy) inside the comedy, or the comedy inside the drama (or tragedy), has been a principal element in just about every novel, story, or poem that I’ve ever written.

I really appreciate your insightful comment that “there’s a darkness in The Troupers that at times made me feel uncomfortable”, because I think that our natural human response to darkness is discomfort (or fear, or rage, or disbelief, depending on how truly dark the darkness is), and that one of our best natural defense mechanisms against discomfort is laughter. In some situations, we immediately react by laughing; we can extinguish that darkness on the spot by shining the light of humour upon it. In other circumstances, we can eventually laugh; the passage of time can sometimes be the bringer of the light. But there are other times in our lives that we experience the sort of darkness that will always remain dark, and I think it’s important for my fictional people, and their worlds, and their stories, to reflect these varying shades of light and dark.

VS: Golly, you know a lot about films/entertainment pre-1950! From iconic actors to daring directors to film quotes (I too am ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille!) – did you already have a passion for the era of entertainment or did you do a tonne of research (or both?) to make the era of the golden age of film, essentially, its own character in the book? (This is a question about ‘research’…important/necessary/bunk? thoughts?)

RS: I was fortunate to be brought up by parents who loved classic films; every Saturday evening, my dad’s after-dinner refrain was inevitably, “What’s on Elwy?”, referring to Elwy Yost, the host of TV Ontario’s Magic Shadows, and Saturday Night at the Movies. As a result, I saw a lot of classic movies during my formative years. Then I met my partner Danielle, who is a huge fan of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, and other iconic Golden Age actresses, and Danielle had watched a lot of late-night, deep-cut films on Turner Classic Movies that I just had to see, too. Even our four-year-old daughter is as likely to choose to watch The Wizard of Oz or An American in Paris as Paw Patrol, so I’ve always been and continue to be surrounded by classic films.

Although I have seen every film mentioned in The Troupers at one time or another, to get some details right I did re-watch and take notes on several movies that are key to the story, from the early Little Rascals films that influence the Trouper quintuplets during their formative years, to Grand Hotel, after whose stars John Lionel Trouper has been named by his showgirl mother, to especially The Women, which is particularly important to the story’s climactic scene!

VS: How long did it take you to write this book – from that zinging first idea to the final draft headed to proofing? 

RS: I generally finish a new book about every two years – while I’m doing the final edits on one book, I’m usually thinking seriously about how the next one is going to play out – but this one took closer to four years, for a very good reason; the day before the launch party for my last novel, Rockets Versus Gravity, we found out that we were going to have our daughter Vivienne, who was born shortly after the release of my last poetry collection, Apocalypse One Hundred. She is an absolutely fantastic little person, and she delights us every day, so temporarily slowing down a bit to enjoy and participate fully in her formative years was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

VS: Where do your ideas come from? How do you manage them? 

RS: I think when you decide that you’re a writer, or a creator of any kind, a program switches on inside your brain that scans for potential creative ideas while you’re just living your life, and then the ideas that stick, the ones that don’t get automatically deleted from the hard drive after a few days, the ones that whisper and then shout “create me… CREATE ME!!!” in the middle of the night… those are the ideas the you chase after, sometimes for years, until your finally catch up with them. 

…the ones that whisper and then shout “create me… CREATE ME!!!” in the middle of the night… those are the ideas the you chase after, sometimes for years, until your finally catch up with them. 

I had the idea for The Troupers for several years before I started writing it, after watching a documentary about the Dionne Quintuplets and then another about the life of Charlie Chaplin, I think. Similarly, the idea for the book I’m working on right now, The Girl Who Could Not Die, began with an article about the ownership of genetic codes that I read at least five years ago. The story ideas that stay with me the longest are the ones that I eventually catch up with and write.

VS: *Personal question alert!* Are any of the experiences that the Trouper children experienced part of your own history? 

RS: Well, the Trouper quintuplets are controlled with maniacal fervour by their narcissistic father, John Lionel Trouper, who wants to mould them into the Dionne Quintuplets of the Stage, for his own personal directorial glory, while my own parents are decent, unselfish, hard-working, down-to-earth people, who encouraged their children to become whatever we wanted to become… so my experiences in that respect were not much like the Trouper children at all.

However, I suppose I do have one thing in common with the Trouper kids – the stage. There was a phase in my life when I was regularly acting (and occasionally directing) with a very well-run, talent-filled community theatre group, and I’ve witnessed first-hand how the stage lights can bring out the BIGGEST elements of many actors’ natural personalities. For of my friends in this particular group, the personality-amplifying effect of the stage was often impressive and inspiring… but it makes for a better story, I think, when the stage serves to amplify the drama and conflict instead.

VS: This is a very play-ful novel. From the actual plays that take place in the story to the formatting shifts in layout and design, can you talk about the relationship between the story, the characters, the format/space on the page?

RS: That is just the sort of great question I would expect from a poet, because the spacial aspect of the format changes in the story was quite intentional.
FYI for readers that haven’t yet read The Troupers, the scenes that take place onstage are written in playscript format, and those that occur on TV or film are in screenplay format.

FYI for readers that haven’t yet read The Troupers, the scenes that take place onstage are written in playscript format, and those that occur on TV or film are in screenplay format.

I felt that using these stylistic changes visually contributed to the reader’s (and the characters’ own) awareness that they are onstage or in front of a camera, while also stylistically emphasizing and focusing upon the drama or humour within these scenes.

VS: Is there a playwright inside of you? Or a budding filmmaker? 

RS: I have been pushing my way into the screenwriting business for a while now. My first produced screenplay, Royal Blood, was an official selection at many international film festivals, and won Best Short Film at the TIFF-associated Milton Film Festival. I’ve also written a TV series pilot based on my novel The Monkeyface Chronicles, feature film screenplays from The Indifference League and The Girl Who Could Not Die, and I’ll likely get to work soon on transforming The Troupers into a screenplay as well. All any of these projects need now are Executive Producers with the money to make them!

VS: Of all the members of the Trouper family, which one would you want to hang out with, and why? 

RS: If I could get in a fictional time machine and travel back to New York City in 1929, I feel like young Chrysanthemum Trouper (the Trouper Quintuplets’ matriarch grandmother) would be a whole lot of fun to hang out with. I mean, she had just escaped from her parents’ music hall act in London, England, stowed away aboard a ship, and invented a new name for herself to become a dancer at the Ziegfeld Follies… how could she not be fun?

VS: Your chapters have titles…and subtitles. Was this part of your original manuscript or did this formatting choice come later in the process? 

RS: The chapter titles and subtitles are definitely part of the original MS! I like titles a lot, and the effect they can have on the story each chapter tells. A good title sets up a certain expectation in the mind of the reader, which can then be rewarded – or thwarted. A good title can add another dimension to the story.

A good title sets up a certain expectation in the mind of the reader, which can then be rewarded – or thwarted. A good title can add another dimension to the story.

Also, more subtly, perhaps, the title / subtitle for each chapter was meant to reflect the title cards that were often used in silent films.

VS: What is your favourite part of being a writer? 

RS: All of it! I enjoy the writing process itself, from chasing after the original idea that will drive the story, to discovering all the details that will make the characters full, believable human beings, to planning out all of a story’s twists and turns, to revising and editing the story over and over again until it becomes the best version of itself that I can make it.

Then, when all of those things are accomplished, I also enjoy getting out there and helping the book find its readers – doing interviews like this one, reading and talking at festivals and other events, meeting and exchanging ideas with other readers and writers – I love it all.

VS: What advice would NOT give aspiring writers. Lol. I’m being cheeky. You can answer it…or you can elaborate on ‘advice for aspiring writers’. 🙂

RS: Expect immediate fame and fortune! If your literary genius isn’t recognized and heralded immediately and unanimously, you should throw a spectacular public tantrum, burn all of your manuscripts is a furious rage, and then go sulk in a corner, drinking absinthe and mumbling misquotes from Frederich Nietzsche. And don’t forget to post the videos of all of this on your social media channels!

VS: What book(s) are you reading right now?

RS: I just finished reading Terry Fallis’s latest novel, Operation Angus, which was a super fun read like all of Terry’s books are, and Thimbles by Vanessa Shields, a collection of poems that tell a beautiful and heartbreaking story. Also, the evocative Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and the mind-bending Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Next, I’ll be digging into some of this fall’s award-nominated titles. So many great books, so little time!

VS: What film have you watched most recently? 

RS: My first trip back to the theatre in a long time (thanks, COVID) was to see Dune, which was as visually impressive as you would expect from a Denis Villeneuve film. I loved his Blade Runner 2049 and especially Arrival (which was based on the title story from Ted Chaing’s collection, noted above); Villeneuve would be my dream director for a Sci Fi novel/screenplay I’m working on called The Girl Who Could Not Die.

I was also lucky enough to see a Somalian film called The Gravedigger’s Wife in an actual theatre at TIFF this year; although it was a bit strange to see a festival movie in an auditorium at one-quarter capacity, it was a mesmerizing film that I whole-heartedly recommend seeing, and the opportunity to listen to the director and actors talk about making the movie really added to the experience.

Our next movie date will be The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson, which I’m sure we will love. (Wes Anderson would be my dream director for The Troupers, by the way.)


To stay connected with Richard, follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

His website is HERE.

Thank you, Richard! Keep up the amazing work!

One thought on “Special Guest Writer Richard Scarsbrook! Author of ‘The Troupers’

  1. Hey V. Such an interesting article! Looking for a new book…sounds like you would recommend the Troupers?

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

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