Arts & Culture

Spirit of place: Author Terry Fallis on Ottawa as a novel backdrop

It’s always a thrill to crack open a book and find places you know reflected in the pages. When this happens, it makes me feel as if I’m a player in the story unfolding before me. And so it was with Terry Fallises’ sixth novel, One Brother Shy, the story of a man searching for a missing brother that rocketed to the top of the Canadian bestseller lists this summer, taking readers on a tour of Ottawa along the way.

At a time when many publishers will say that to set a book outside one of the major global cities is to limit the reading audience, Fallis bucks trends. Ottawa is the setting for four of his books; the first two, political satires The Best Laid Plans and The High Road, couldn’t be set anywhere other than Ottawa. But why would he choose to set another one here?

“I think it’s generally unwise to let commercial publishing considerations dictate decisions about the story,” says Fallis. “For any novel to feel real and true, I think the writer’s first allegiance must be to the story and the characters, regardless of the setting. If the characters and story are powerful and compelling and the writing is strong, it shouldn’t really matter whether it’s set in Paris, France, or Paris, Ontario. (Although I love Paris, France.)”

Fallises’ descriptions of Ottawa are detailed. Residents of Sandy Hill and surrounding neighbourhoods will recognize their landmarks immediately.

“I knew there was going to be an international side to this story that included echoes of the Cold War, foreign capitals, and embassies, so Ottawa seemed like the logical city in which to set the novel. The close proximity of the Russian Embassy and the Cordon Bleu cooking school certainly helped too,” says the award-winning author, who now calls Toronto home. “I think little details of the neighbourhoods, including the names of streets and parks, bring more authenticity and realism to the story and help bring it to life for the reader. It’s easier for the readers to put themselves in the story if they know what street they’re on and what they’re seeing around them.”

In an article for The Guardian, British writer Philip Hensher, winner of the Ondaatje Prize for his book Scenes From Early Life, agrees. “Often, when I think of a novel I love, it is not the plot that comes to mind or even, sometimes, the characters, but the setting. … the spirit of place in a novel is not just an inert backdrop or a straightforward illustrator of emotions; it is part of the humanity at the centre of the endeavour.”
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One Brother Shy is out now, published by McClelland & Stewart. Terry Fallis will be in Ottawa: Monday, October 23, noon, giving the luncheon address at the Women in Nuclear conference; later that evening, 8:30 p.m., he’ll make an appearance at the Ottawa Writers Festival fall edition