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Tim Fallis

Terry Fallis on his engineering-based approach to writing novelsMarch 7, 2019

Author Terry Fallis talks about No Relation, his engineering­-inspired approach to writing and his love of hovercrafts.

Canadian author Terry Fallis was recently recognized with the Leacock Medal for Humour for his latest book, No Relation. The celebrated novelist of such works as The Best Laid Plans, for which he also earned a Leacock Medal, took some time in early May to answer questions from his alma mater, McMaster University. Fallis earned a Bachelor of Engineering degree from McMaster in 1983.

Q : What was the inspiration for your novel No Relation?

TF: I t was quite early in my career as a public affairs communications consultant and I had a client meeting in a downtown Toronto law office and the lawyer stood up to introduce himself and said ‘Hi, my name is Brian Mulroney.’ And it was 1988 so of course it wasn’t the Brian Mulroney you’re thinking of because he was prime minister at the time. This was just another guy named Brian Mulroney. I just remember thinking what must this poor guy’s life be like. He can’t go to a neighbourhood BBQ or his son’s hockey game or a client meeting without his name eliciting all sorts of seemingly clever responses from whomever he’s talking to. I must have just stowed that idea away in my brain for the ensuing 25 years or so and it just sort of emerged as a theme in this novel.

Q: Engineers are known for methodological thinking but not always artistry. Did you have an interest in the English language during your time as a McMaster Engineering student?

TF: I think I was actually an engineer before I even went to McMaster just by the way my mind seems to work. It is kind of methodological in its approach to problem­-solving and I wonder whether I learned that during my time at McMaster Engineering, but I think it was actually there already. Even though I have not practiced a day of engineering in my life, I have the degree and I bring an engineer’s sort of mentality to almost everything that I do from analyzing challenges that my clients are confronting to how you write a novel. How would an engineer go about writing a novel? I do it the way you might expect an engineer to write a novel. Engineers don’t build bridges without blueprints. I don’t write a novel without a blueprint. So I do a lot of planning and mapping of the story, plotting out of the story, and then I do a full chapter by chapter outline. So I know everything about the novel before I actually write the first word of the manuscript.

Q: What skill set did you gain from having an engineering degree versus other degrees?

TF: It really engenders not just a methodological approach to problem­-solving that I think can be applied in almost any arena. It’s a process, it’s an algorithm, more than anything else. Secondly, I think it also engenders a discipline that can really be helpful again in almost anything that you do and certainly when writing novels, particularly when you’re working still. So many people who want to write a novel or promised they’re going to write a novel and then never do because I think that they may not have the sense of discipline that’s required and engineering is very good at engendering that sense of discipline because if you don’t have discipline in engineering you won’t be graduating from engineering. So I thank my lucky stars that I was in engineering because I’m not sure I ever would have written a novel if I didn’t have that sense of ‘put your a­­ in the chair and write’ because it has to get done. That’s what I remember feeling during my time at McMaster. If I didn’t do this fluid mechanics assignment right then that night it was not going to get done because it was due the next day and I had four other assignments due the following day. You just have to do it or if you don’t, you won’t be there.


Q: I want to ask you about your fascination with hovercrafts. Where does this interest come from?

TF: I’ve always been fascinated with things that fly: Planes, helicopters, gliders, space rockets. I’m a big space buff which is why it features so prominently in my third novel (U p and Down) . When our hang­ gliders failed, largely because they weren’t remotely airworthy, we were still interested in flying, this classmate and I decided we would fly a little closer to the ground. I had actually flown on a hovercraft at Expo 67’ and remembered the experience; the sense of lifting off the ground and then moving forward. I just thought it was an interesting and simple form of transportation. Much simpler than an automobile that has so many different moving parts. A hovercraft has two moving parts or one if you have an integrated system, which is, not to geek out on you to much, but in the novel T he Best Laid Plans t he hovercraft I describe in excruciating detail is a single engine hovercraft where the single engine provides the lift and the thrust. I designed that when I should have been paying attention in my applied math class at McMaster. It’s never been built but I hope one day that it might be. We just became fascinated with these hovercrafts and how they work and that you’re actually flying even though you’re only eight, 10 inches a foot off the ground. So we learned all we could about it.

Q: We’re approaching convocation. As someone who has had a varied career from you background in engineering to your work in public relations and political strategy to writing novels, what advice would you pass on to graduates?

TF: I think in hindsight my advice is, even though I have never formally practised engineering in the professional sense, I have not a moment’s regret about doing engineering and graduating with a degree because I think it prepares you for almost anything you do in life. When you’re immersed in engineering you don’t have that feeling at all. You don’t have the perspective. But I’ve come to believe that very strongly that I wouldn’t be the person I am and

probably done the things that I’ve done were it not for that formative experience of studying engineering at McMaster and finishing it for that matter. I think I knew by the time I was in third year that I wasn’t going to be a practicing engineer. My interest in politics had overtaken my interest in engineering, though I’m still fascinated by both, but I think I had the good sense to carry on and finish it and I’ve never regretted that. I think it’s a great degree to have that will equip grads to do all sorts of different things whether it’s engineering related or not. I think the advice is don’t feel as if you are limited by having an engineering degree. I think in fact your horizons are much broader because that’s the degree you have. 

- This interview haas been edited for length