Robert J. Wiersema – Interview

First off, let’s look at who Rob Wiersema is. You’ve been described 
as a writer, journalist and bookseller. You’re also married and a 
father. How do you balance all these roles?

Not all that well, depending on the day, to be perfectly honest.
The fact is, my job at the bookstore is full time. Writing is a 
full-time job (to say nothing of the on-going mental detachment from 
the “real” world which seems to plague me fairly often). And the 
amount of reviewing I do is pretty much a full-time job. As a result, 
”balance” doesn’t really enter into it, and things end up sacrificed. 
One of the main things I’ve sacrificed is sleep. I get up at about 
3.30 every morning to write, and get to bed around 11, so… the math 
is actually pretty brutal. I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and 
he actually prescribed me 2 nights of 9 hours sleep each per week, 
and at least two naps of more than 3 hours duration per week. I 
haven’t filled that prescription as yet… maybe once the new book 
is done. The level of busyness has actually been pretty hard on my family 
life. I miss out on a lot of stuff with Xander, my son, being locked 
in my writing studio for the bulk of most weekends. I try to make up 
for it, though — we toured as a family through the Pacific Northwest 
for Before I Wake, which was a terrific time (family-wise, at least). 
And we went on a cruise and to Europe for three weeks this spring, 
which was lovely. I comfort myself with the awareness that he’s watching me, and 
gaining life lessons from what I’m going through. When I was growing 
up, dreams were too-big things that were unachievable for most mere 
mortals. My dream of writing was, as a result, seemingly out of 
reach. I’m hoping that Xander, in seeing what I do on a daily basis, 
and knowing what has happened with my dreams, learns that dreams CAN 
and DO come true, but that they don’t come free — there’s always a 
price to be paid.

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Your first novel “Before I Wake”, published in 2006, received 
positive reviews and a fair bit of acclaim. You’ve been involved in 
the book trade a long time. Did you expect this kind of response?

I didn’t expect it at ALL. As a reviewer, and as a bookseller 
especially, I’m very familiar with what gets published and what gets 
well-received, especially in this country. All the old 
CanLit/Can-Publishing cliches are rooted, at least partially, in 
fact. And Before I Wake conforms to none of those cliches. Plus, 
it’s a book that’s hard to pigeonhole, genre-wise. It’s a book that 
has an unorthodox narrative structure, with the multiple voices. 
It’s a book that straddles a lot of lines. When I wrote it, I had no 
notion that it would even be publishable. And once it was in the 
publication process, I had no hope that it would have any kind of 
success. I was thankful that I had a large family, as I really 
believed that they would be the only ones buying copies, the only 
ones reading it. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

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This was your first published novel but you had been writing for a 
long time. Was it the first novel you’d written or do you have other 
manuscripts tucked away?

There are four or five “first novels” kicking around in various 
drawers and on 5 1/4 inch floppy disks. Most of them are there for 
eternity, though there is one that I’m thinking of revisiting at some 
point in the future — starting with the premise and building it from 
scratch. The writing is terrible, but the idea is too good to walk 
away from. I think.

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You were very up front in a number of interviews that you took a 
calculated approach to getting this first novel published. Getting 
your name known through reviewing, meeting editors and publishers so 
that when you sent out that first manuscript people would know who 
you were. Was there much reaction to those statements from other 
writers? Did people see you as too calculating or just working smart?

Ah ha! Somebody other than me has been googling me! Part of that WAS calculated, part of that was just a function of reality.

The reality part: as the event coordinator at Bolen Books, I make an 
annual pilgrimage to Toronto for BookExpo (the annual trade 
show/gathering of the publishing tribes), and as a result I’ve gotten 
to know a lot of people in the trade. Not with any nefarious plan to 
get published, but just as a function of the business. Well, that 
and the nefarious plan to cadge free drinks — publishing types are 
always good for a free drink or two.

Distinct from that, though, I did, semi-consciously at first, then 
with more deliberateness, set out to be noticed as a writer. Every 
young writer does. Every young writer has to. If you write 
non-fiction, maybe you get your name out there by writing journalism, 
or becoming known in your particular field. As a fiction writer, 
they typical path is the get some short stories published in the 
literary quarterlies, making your name known through those credits, 
so when a novel or collection is being submitted there’s some 
awareness there. This is a process that’s been going on for 
generations — it’s like the farm team system in hockey and baseball.

The type of writing that I do, however, isn’t the sort of stuff that 
finds a home in the literary quarterlies. And around the same time I 
finished the first draft of Before I Wake, I was starting with 
reviewing. And it occurred to me that with the literary quarterlies 
being unavailable to me, this would be the way that I had to get my 
writing noticed. So I made a point of reviewing a lot, and reviewing 
well, knowing that the pieces were being read by others in the 
industry. I My copping to this (which, again, is the same thing writers have been 
doing for generations, just not usually with reviewing) met with 
considerable disdain from some fellow writers, who assumed that if I 
was writing reviews with an awareness that I had an audience in the 
publishing community, then I MUST have been pandering to those 
publishing types, writing puff pieces and the like. Which is 
fundamentally NOT the case — I stand by my reviews, positive and 
negative. I calls em like I sees em, and if that means that I go on 
the record as saying that a certain CanLit figure pulled her punches 
in her latest book, I don’t hesitate (though she did manage to 
bad-mouth — without naming names, naturally — the length and 
breadth of her ensuing book tour). If it means I review books from 
even my own publisher negatively, well, so be it. I And I have reviewed books from Random House negatively, both before 
they were my publisher and after I signed the contract. I stand by 
those reviews. Robert J. WiersemaPeriod. 

But, sadly, some people couldn’t wrap themselves around what I felt 
was a fairly clear matter of integrity and continued to look down 
their noses on my publication. So be it.

The fact is this: unless you’re a celebrity, a book doesn’t get 
published because you know someone to say hello to them. And a book 
doesn’t get published because you might have reviewed other books 
from that publisher. Brass tacks: a book gets published because a 
publisher sees merit in it, and thinks it might sell. Period.

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Would you recommend the same route to aspiring writers?

It takes a certain mindset to be able to review. You have to have a 
certain fighting spirit, and a willingness to piss people off. You 
also have to have the opposite: a willingness to praise when you feel 
a book deserves it. And you have to have the fortitude to stand by 
your opinions, no matter what happens.

An example: there was a novel published a few years ago which I 
thought was fundamentally flawed, and I said as much in my review. 
The book went on to become a bestseller, and to win prizes in its 
category. Do I think I was wrong? Nope. I stand by my well-argued 
and supported position. Though I’ve just about managed to get over 
my fear that the writer is going to punch me in the head.

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What is the latest update on “Before I Wake” now? (Sales, What 
countries has it been published in etc)

Let’s see, it’s been sold into ten or twelve countries, the German 
and Greek editions came out in July, along with the US paperback. 
Poland, Israel and China are coming this fall, I think…

Sales in Canada have been very good, and the book keeps trucking 
along. It’s too early to tell how it will do overall in the US — 
the hardcover performed fine. And it’s done gangbusters in paperback 
in the UK over the past few months. Gangbusters.

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You signed a two novel deal. What is the status of the second book?

I’m finishing it even as we speak. It should be delivered on time to 
Random House in September. I think we’re looking at a fall 2009 pub 
date.

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Where and when do you write? Do you have a personal space /office or 
are you scribbling away between book stacks before the bookstore 
opens?

One of the smartest things I did for my career was to start renting 
an office last spring (2007). It’s actually a 2 bedroom basement 
suite on the same block as my house. I get up every morning at 3.30, 
and I physically GO to work — I get dressed, I leave the house, and 
I go to the work space. It’s a valuable psychological tool, to 
separate work from home — if at all possible, I highly recommend it.

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When that book is finished, what’s next? Any thoughts of writing in 
other genres, say non-fiction (since you’re written a lot of 
journalism)?

After that book, the next one. A collection of short stories this 
time, perhaps — I wrote quite a lot in the fallow time around the 
publication of Before I Wake. But I’ve also got a couple of novels 
percolating in the the cerebellum, so we’ll see.

I don’t see a non-fiction book in my near future — I think it might 
be laziness, but I’m not big on research. And I like conversations 
where I get to make up both sides — it’s easier that way.

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You have done a great deal of book reviewing, for quite a number of 
publications. Those reviews, as would be expected, are not always 
positive. You also host a great number of writers through the book 
readings you arrange at Bolen Books. Is that ever a problem? Have 
you ever had to introduce a writer whose book you’ve been less than 
kind to?

Oh, it’s been a problem, that’s for sure. It’s made for some 
uncomfortable evenings. Those two authors I mentioned previously? I 
hosted both of them shortly after the respective reviews ran — to 
say that there was tension would be vastly understating the case.

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You’ve seen a lot of writers come through on book tours and heard the 
stories, good and bad. Any great stories out of your tours for 
”Before I Wake”?

Well, certainly none fit for a family-friendly operation like this!

 Nah. To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a whole lot unique or out 
of the ordinary as far as book tours go. I had some fabulous events, 
including a couple on the Gulf Islands (at Galiano Island Books and 
at Phoenix on Bowen) that were great reminders of the value of small, 
closely knit communities. The book’s launch in Victoria was one of 
the highlights of my life — I just wish it wouldn’t have passed in 
such a blur. And the event I did with Pages in Toronto, an 
audio-visual presentation about the music that shapes my process and 
my work, was unbelievable. As was the follow-up reaction, which 
included a blogger referring to me as something along the lines of 
”the rock-star of CanLit”. That makes me smile… I always wanted to 
play guitar.

One thing that touring did remind me of, though, was the strangeness 
of this country. I went out in late September, leaving Victoria on 
Sunday morning. The Saturday afternoon, we were out playing 
miniature golf in shorts and t-shirts, with temperatures in the 
mid-20s. The next day in Edmonton? Minus 3 with the windchill. Two 
days later in Toronto? Almost 30 degrees. How do you pack for that?

The US tour of the Pacific Northwest was a bit of different 
experience. The audience attendance wasn’t quite what we had hoped, 
and as we were driving across the plains, from Spokane to Oregon, I 
realized I was doing what every fledgling rock star (see, there it 
is again!) does: I was paying my dues. That made it easier to 
swallow. As did a great off-night on the water in Cannon Beach, and 
a great event in Bellingham.

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Now that you’ve got a published novel behind you, do you get many 
requests for book cover blurbs from other writers?

I’ve had a couple of requests, and if I’ve got the time, I’m happy to 
do it. It seems strange to me to be in a position where my 
imprinteur might be construed as a hallmark of quality, but every bit 
helps…

The thing is, if given a choice, I’d prefer to review a book than to 
blurb it. If I’m in a position to blurb it favourably, I think 
there’s probably more value, in terms of attention and public 
profile, to a positive review.

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Who are you reading right now?

Let’s see, what have I read recently. The new Paul Auster (Man in 
the Dark), which is a very strong book, very human. The new Rawi 
Hage (Cockroach), which is a tour de force, and certainly pays out on 
the promise he showed with DeNiro’s Game. The new Tim Winton 
(Breath) is fabulous. And probably the best book I’ve read recently 
is Andrew Davidson’s debut, The Gargoyle. This is one of those rare 
books that actually delivers on the hype, and on the news of 
multi-million dollar advances.

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Any writers you hope to host for readings during the upcoming fall book season?

That’d be telling, wouldn’t it?

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Finally, if you could get any writer for a reading at the bookstore, 
who would it be?

You know, I’ve been doing this for a decade now. I’ve had a lot of 
’visiting author’ dreams come true. Hosting Neil Gaiman a couple of 
times (if you ever get a chance to go for dinner with Neil, you 
should — the man knows his sushi). Hosting Timothy Findley for what 
turned out to be his last book-tour event. Introducing Salman 
Rushdie was such an overwhelming experience that I actually had to 
stop and savour the moment.

 Having said all that, though, I would love to host Stephen King. And 
getting the opportunity to welcome John Irving would be a dream come 
true — The World According to Garp made me a writer, and I’d love 
the opportunity to thank him in person.

You can find out more about Rob at his website.


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