Everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good read but I have to admit, there’s something extra rewarding about reading a book that has a connection to your hometown, be it based in, by a local author or published there.

The publishing game in Calgary is getting bigger and better each year and Freehand Books is one of the companies at the forefront. In preparation for next week’s Freehand Fall Bash at Pages on Kensington (1135 Kensington Road NW) I chatted with both authors who will be in attendance, Ian Colford and Barry Grills. The Bash is this Tuesday, November 20 at 7pm with the readings getting going at 7:30pm and is free for all you book lovers to attend.

In yesterday’s Part I, I featured Every Wolf’s Howl by Barry Grills (the article can be found here). Next up is the dark, epic and haunting story The Crimes of Hector Tomás, Ian Colford’s first novel.

THE CRIMES OF HECTOR TOMAS: Ian Colford’s first novel is a dark tale about disappearance and deception that takes place in an unnamed South American country. The story starts by introducing the Tomás family, father Enrique and son Hector, and the secrets that have the power to destroy everything. As the tempo builds the country is ravaged by a brutal political regime, families are torn apart and Hector is arrested for terrorism – a crime he did not commit.
Photo by Tina Usmiani, courtesy of Freehand Books

The Crimes of Hector Tomás is an epic novel and more than once I had to put it down to give my mind a break. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great read but the subject matter is hard to digest at times and the sheer length of the book makes it a challenge. But it’s well worth it. The story is rich and wonderfully told. The whole book is filled with intrigue and the story makes you want to continue page after page. It’s the dark nature of the story that makes it hard to handle and isn’t for the faint of heart.

The story is purposely vague in its details like being set in an unnamed South American country. Here you meet Enrique Tomás, a man with his share of secrets. When Enrique’s son Hector and friend Nadia uncover proof of his father’s dark transgressions, everything begins to unfurl. In light of the secret, Hector feels angry and jealous. He ends up assaulting his father’s lover and is exiled to the countryside where he is later accused of terrorism – a crime he did not commit. Hector is horrifically tortured while in custody. Increasing military unrest rocks the unnamed country and all the while justice becomes nothing more than a dream.

Ian’s writing is very formal and even throughout the most disturbing scenes he never falters. His words are amazingly well chosen and you have to respect him for keeping it together given the subject matter.

Ian and I exchanged emails earlier this week and he was wonderful enough to share where his inspiration came from and how he wrote such a dark story.

The one word I keep hearing describing The Crimes of Hector Tomás is epic and I tend to agree. Did you have that as a goal when writing?

I can’t say that I set out to writing something on an epic scale. I suspected that the story was going to be complex and composed of many parts. But when I started writing, all I wanted was to create interesting characters whose story would engage the reader. Then it grew and expanded as it evolved and as I got deeper into the story. A few characters took on roles that were more prominent than I had intended. Events that occur in the early chapters suddenly seemed to have ramifications later on in the novel in a way that hadn’t been part of my original design. At some point I began to see that I was writing a big novel, and that the story was richer and far more dense and intricate than I had intended. Once I decided to follow where it seemed to be leading, the challenge became to keep a grip on all the threads and make sure nothing was left dangling at the end.

What was your inspiration behind the tale?

I’ve been interested in the history of South America for years. It’s tragic and messy for sure, but endlessly fascinating, and when I was considering the novel I wanted to write, I thought perhaps I could use that as the backdrop. The story I had in mind was one about ordinary people who get sucked into the political and social turmoil going on around them and end up having to fight for their lives. These are innocent people with no agenda, no wish other than to find a way to survive. I wanted to depict the suffering and anguish they’re forced to endure when stable systems of justice and government fail. Here in Canada we hear about these struggles and see reports on the news. But we rarely see how individuals suffer and die when all the safety nets have disappeared and they’re left to fend for themselves. Think of what’s going on in Syria right now. There are millions of individual stories that will never be told. I wanted to tell a few of these stories.

I had to stop a few times while reading and walk away simply because of how intense it gets at times. Did you feel that way writing it?

The writing of this book was done over an eight-year period (2002-2010). During those years I spent plenty of time away from the novel. I took a hiatus during 2003-2004 and wrote the entire story collection that became my first book – Evidence. At other times though, I immersed myself in it for weeks and even months. But I know exactly what you mean. Some of those scenes were very difficult to get through, but I pushed myself to do it in a sustained fashion because I knew that if I backed off I’d never be able to find my way into it again, not as deeply. Certainly the intensity would be lost. There’s no question that after I’d completed one of those scenes I had to take a break. But I think writing this book taught me something important. I learned that the story will make demands and that the imagination can’t shy away. The writer might be alarmed or sickened by what he’s writing, but the story comes first. If you’re serious about what you’re doing you’ll follow through.

A lot of the background is vague, like the country they’re in is left unnamed and the context behind the fear theme is never revealed. Why did you go this route and how do you think it changes the story?

The vagueness is deliberate. I didn’t want to pin myself down to a particular geography or time period because I would then be constrained by those parameters. Once you set your story in this town or that city, you are obliged to get street names right and know what building is on what corner. When you set your story in 1962, you have to know what technology existed and what didn’t, brand names of products, what was popular at the time, the names of persons holding positions of power, etc. So part of my decision to embrace the vagueness you refer to was practical. I didn’t want to be distracted by mundane details while I was trying to construct the world in which the story would take place. Authenticity was not what I was after. I’m not writing historical fiction. The same goes for the context of the action. I didn’t want to get into specifics about exactly how the military took power and the names of generals. I didn’t want to give the reader a more complete perspective on the situation than any single character would have. I want the reader to share the uncertainty that the characters experience, to not know what’s waiting around the next corner, to feel that fear in their gut. Limiting the narrative perspective heightens the mystery and the tension. That’s what I was after.

Did you find yourself doing a lot of research in preparation? How did you get yourself in to the mindset to write this chilling novel?

I did some research, mostly around the psychology of torture and South American politics, but I avoided doing too much because, again, I was concerned the facts would muzzle my imagination.  When it comes to writing fiction—the kind of fiction I write anyway—too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I embarked on this project with a rudimentary knowledge of how torture works and what it does to people, both victims and perpetrators. I had a hazy understanding of what life would be like under a paranoid totalitarian military regime. I knew a few things about South American culture. From those sketchy beginnings, I ploughed ahead and wrote this book, trusting that my imagination would keep me on a more or less reliable path to the truths about human nature that I was trying to unearth. The important thing for me is character. No amount of research was going to help me create Hector and his trusting innocence, or Enrique in all his conceited eccentricity, or Nadia and the reckless naivety that is her undoing, or the sequence of events that carry them toward their own particular fates. When I think back to the actual writing, and returning again and again to a manuscript that held so much pain, the way I managed it was through the characters. Many of them suffer horribly. But I wanted the suffering to be noble and meaningful. I wanted to do right by them and tell their stories convincingly, without sentiment and cheap fanfare. None of my characters are exceptional. None of them have superpowers. They are simple people caught under horrendous circumstances who are just trying to get by. That’s what kept me going.

Ian Colford is a fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His stories, reviews, and commentary have appeared in Canadian literary publications from coast to coast and in journals published online. From 1995 to 1998 he was editor of the literary journal Pottersfield Portfolio, and from 1994 to 2000 served on the executive board of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. He has completed residencies at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers and Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Evidence, his first collection of short fiction, was published in 2008 by Porcupine’s Quill, and won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award; Evidence was also shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, and the ReLit Award.
– Author bio courtesy of Freehand Books

So there you have it. Two great books published right here in Calgary.

If you want to know more, grab your book bag and head down to Pages on Kensington this Tuesday night, you’ll be in for Calgary published literary treat. But if you can’t make it, pick up a copy of at least one of these titles and support excellent Canadian literature in our own back yard.

And a little birdie whispered something extra special just ahead of the Bash – rumour has it Freehand Books will be publishing works from at least two Calgary authors in 2013. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see the details. I don’t know about you, but I’m all tingly in anticipation. Maybe they’ll be an announcement Tuesday night. Fingers crossed.