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Jin Lee

Big Ideas: Engineering as a Foundation for AnythingMay 16, 2018

Merging creativity and technical process to author success.

For Terry Fallis, engineering has never been a career. But it’s always been the lens through which he’s viewed the world.

That may sound odd, given that he’s spent the last 35 years as a political staffer, a public relations expert and an award-winning novelist. But combining creativity and inspiration with a structured process has paid off for the 1983 Mac engineering graduate.

“I have a very disciplined, methodological approach to problem solving -- the framework I learned studying engineering – and that has been with me in everything that I do,” Fallis says.

Truth is, all indications suggest Fallis was born an engineer. At 12, he and a buddy built and even attempted to fly three full-sized hang gliders. When none of them proved airworthy, he moved on to designing and building a hovercraft.

But when he arrived at McMaster in 1978, his love of flying machines was left behind in the face of student politics.

Thanks to immersion in the McMaster Student Union, which he eventually served as president – a job he describes as “a life-changing experience” – Fallis spent six years earning his four year engineering degree. And when he graduated, he opted for a career in the political realm.

After working as a political staffer for Liberal governments in Ottawa, then Queen’s Park, Fallis moved into public relations consulting. In 1995, he co-founded Thorney Fallis, and now describes himself as a PR guy by day and novelist by night.

Not too surprisingly, his first novel The Best Laid Plans, took a humorous and satirical swipe at the world of politics. Along with praise from plenty of real-life politicians, the 2008 book won the annual CBC Radio Canada Reads competition and earned the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

A string of five more novels (The High Road, Up and Down, No Relation, Poles Apartand One Brother Shy), and another Stephen Leacock Medal followed his first story, with Fallis currently constructing a seventh book.

Construction may not be entirely the right word. But his method for building a book is far closer to putting together a factory-built prefab home than sculpting a sand castle. In fact, Fallis says he writes novels in exactly the way you would expect from an engineer.

First he plans, outlines and maps the story, chapter to chapter. A typical book takes him 18 months to write, but he spends the first 14 months detailing the story in a 60 to 90 page outline.

“Engineers don’t build bridges without a blueprint, and I don’t write a novel without a blueprint,” he says.

“I don’t like uncertainty as a writer and I won’t write the manuscript until I know everything. If I don’t know what’s going to happen in chapter 7, I can’t even contemplate writing chapter 2.”

The process may seem mechanical or overly methodical to some people, Fallis admits, but he’s says discovering how he writes best was a lucky boon that has helped keep his books flowing through the years. And just as engineers value clarity, specificity and concrete answers, good writing features those same traits, he adds.

“I knew by the time I was in third year that I probably wouldn’t be a practicing engineer, but of course by that time, I was bloody well going to finish it.

“And I’ve never had a moment’s regret having engineering as my academic experience and degree. I am who I am today -- partly at least, if not largely – because of my engineering education.”

Having built success through his ability to draw on both the technical and creative sides of his brain, Fallis says he’s happy to see engineering schools beginning to embrace creativity.

“I’m amazed and thrilled that they are now teaching engineering in the context of the broader world,” he says. “Engineers have to exist in the world, and the challenges they can help address aren’t always solved through mechanistic calculations. They often need more than that. And I think creativity, and sometimes even artistry, are helpful in resolving some of those issues.”

Encouraging creativity doesn’t mean compromising rigour but rather, allowing people to bring their inventiveness and imagination to the context of their engineering work, Fallis argues.