February 1, 2012

An interview with David Rotenberg, author of "The Placebo Effect"

I had the opportunity to read an advance review copy of David Rotenberg's latest novel, The Placebo Effect, in preparation for this blog tour (thanks to Annaliese at Simon & Schuster Canada for setting it up). My review of the thriller just went up on the blog yesterday, so be sure to check that out if you're interested in my opinion on the book. There are also a number of other reviews and guest spots along David's blog tour I encourage you to check out, too.

For now, here's a quick blurb about what the book is about, followed by interview with David. Enjoy!

Decker Roberts has the dangerous gift of detecting the truth (synaesthesia). But when his carefully compartmentalized life starts to fall apart he has to go on the run and figure out why he’s being targeted. There’s also a government agency hunting him down who seems to know everything about him and other people of “his kind.” How will Decker find out which truth was endangering his life? Who betrayed him and revealed all his secrets? Decker needs to find answers quickly, before knowing the truth turns from a gift into a deadly curse.

Gef: With your experience as an acting teacher, that facet of Decker Roberts' backstory seems easy enough to source. But what about the synesthesia? Where did that come from?

David: I’ve always written about people with special abilities, the five Zhong Fong novels are about a man with exceptional talent in a world where special talents are not honored. When I directed the first Canadian play in the People’s Republic of China the first thing the Artistic Director of that theatre said to me was, “You must remember that you can always be replace”-a fine hello, how was your flight!

Synesthesia simply gives an access to the ‘other.’ There is a lot of material on synesthesia; some of the most interesting is actually the documentary on Mr. Tammet and his extraordinary abilities. There is also a gentleman called the human camera, you can find YouTube stuff on both, and BBC documentaries. As well Mr. Tammet has an interesting book.
Rainman was based loosely on the man who Mr. Tammet thought of as his spiritual father-he passed away a few years back.

Gef: Considering how the majority of your previous novels are set in China (the Zhong Fong series), was writing a novel set--at least in part--in Canada a homecoming of sorts?

David: Yes. But writing about Toronto is difficult. I was born and raised here but I left for 15 years. When I returned it was a much better place than when I left, but still hard to write about. Over 50% of the people in the GTA weren’t born in Canada. We, in Toronto, are creating Toronto as it goes. That makes it hard for a writer since in a very real sense there is no there yet, it’s coming, it’s growing, but it’s not there. That’s both exciting and exasperating. Hence, I have written about only really one small part of Toronto, The Junction, where I have lived for 22 years.

Gef: If you had a form of synesthesia similar to Decker's, would you be inclined to think of it as an endowment or an affliction?

David: If you get a gift you'll always have to pay something for it. My Russian grandfather was forever announcing "free is the most expensive."

Gef: Personally, I have what I consider a healthy distrust of pharmaceutical corporations, especially when those American ads reel off the litany of astounding side effects. In your research, how was your confidence bolstered or shaken towards such companies?

David: I did a ton of investigation into the pharma industry for a previous idea that never came to fruition. It let me to a healthy skepticism of the entire thing, but, and let’s be honest here, when I have a headache I reach for the ibuprofen in a second and am duly grateful for its healing effects.

The plot about placebos is not really a jab at the pharma business; it has more to do with the unrelenting pursuit of cash. I mean, how many cigars can you smoke at one time? What can a bar possibly do to make a martini worth $22? Nothing.

I’ve dealt with a lot of people who have way more money than brains, and haven’t a clue what to do with it. I have, though, also dealt with people who realize that money only really buys you one thing-freedom…and the ability to help others. There are such gracious folks, honest.

Gef: Who is better at taking instructions: actors or fictional characters? Did you find your characters did what you wanted from them, or did any of them surprise you as you wrote the book?

David: Good actors make directors, “dance with them, never on them.” It’s a phrase that comes from the dance world. Good actors are independent creatures who have a healthy disrespect for both text and directors, especially directors who think they know everything. Characters sit in your brain pan, and twiddle, sometimes to no end, sometimes to things you’d never think of in a thousand year.

I'd like to offer a big thanks to David Rotenberg and the folks at Simon & Schuster Canada, and encourage readers to check out David's website (http://www.davidrotenberg.com/) and follow the blog tour on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/The-Placebo-Effect-Book-One-of-The-Junction-Chronicles/260452804000778).

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