Western Reads winner comes to London

By Karmen Dowling
April 27, 2006

First-time novelist Robert McGill will discuss his book The Mysteries at the Wolf Performance Hall on May 9. Photo credit: Todd Jackson
As an undergraduate student at Queen's University, Robert McGill would often come to London for cross-country competitions, but next month he will be coming to London after taking first place in Western Reads! for his novel The Mysteries.
The 30-year-old looks forward to returning to read from and discuss his first novel.

"The most exciting part is an audience that has read quite a lot of contemporary Canadian fiction over the past few months," says McGill. "That's obviously the great success of Western Reads - it's got people reading not just one book but several and they are talking about them and debating them."
McGill's novel was one of five Canadian books that local celebrity readers, Western faculty, students, alumni and the public discussed and debated during the third edition of Western Reads. The other books included Rush Home Road, The Navigator of New York, All That Matters and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.

Western student Sandy Clark and London Public Library Programming Coordinator Delilah Deane Cummings championed McGill's book at the final debate, and in the end it garnered almost half of the votes from the Western and London communities.

In The Mysteries, McGill has created a multi-layered, engaging novel set in a small Ontario community where a woman's disappearance unlocks dark secrets. The story is told by multiple characters.

"When I wrote the book I had various different audiences in mind and I wanted to write for each of them," says McGill. "One group was high school students in my hometown of Wiarton - I imagined them reading the book and for me their response would be the litmus tests of how well the book succeeded, because I was writing about a small town maybe not dissimilar to the one they were experiencing."

He was also writing for his grandmother.

"There were lots of good things I wanted to deal with in the novel, there were political issues, particular characters, particular ideas of growing up in a small place and about the nature of community - but I knew whatever I wrote it had to have a good story in it or else grandma wasn't going to get to the end."

He says she likes it - so he believes he succeeded.

McGill is completing a doctorate in Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, after a masters at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He is a graduate of the University of East Anglia creative writing course in Britain.

While in England, McGill started writing The Mysteries.

"This book was about coming to understand the place where I'd grown up better, not by writing about it but by creating a fictional equivalent at a time when I was far away from home and having to explain where I came from in completely new way that I'd never done before.

"I read a lot of small town fiction that was generally about a young person growing up in a small place and how they are very eager to get out of that place, I wanted to write a more democratic book, that looked at all the variety of people one finds, all the diversity one finds in a small town, along with the many different attitudes people have towards living there."

McGill notes every character had a part of himself in her or him.

"There are some pretty strange people in this fictional town, but I thought if I were to succeed in representing them, each of them would have to have something that I could identify with, some sympathetic aspect that would make them come alive for me and on the page."

While the book was not biographical, he has heard from people who see some relation to certain characters.

However, for McGill the real pull was towards the landscape - coming back to the Niagara escarpment and Georgian Bay and living there in his imagination.

McGill is beginning a second novel. When he finished The Mysteries, he thought he would never write a book again with so many characters creating technical problems to overcome. But those problems are fertile ground for McGill.

"They generate interesting solutions that make for interesting stories. So when I finish the second novel I'll probably say the same thing again - I'm never going to write a novel like that again. But then I'll go on and try to find other interesting challenges to meet and further those kinds of books."

He is keeping details about the book top secret, except that it is set in Ontario.

Writing novels may seem like an unlikely career for McGill who growing up thought he might be a physical education teacher, like both his parents.

"In high school I thought of myself as an athlete first and everything else second," says McGill. "There was the temptation to follow in their (his parents) footsteps and become a phys-ed teacher and then I realized I can always do sports on the side and that if I was going to be doing something all day everyday as a vocation as well as an avocation it would probably be reading and writing, so I chose English literature instead."

And it paid off, the young author now lives in Toronto with his partner, enjoying his writing, his daily runs, and his trips back home.

Western Reads

What: Robert McGill discusses his first novel, Western Reads winner The Mysteries
Where: Wolf Performance Hall, May 9, 7:30 p.m.
Details: Tickets, $5 at The Book Store at Western, 661-3520; Books Plus, 661-4091; Outreach Services, Central Library or 661-5120. Copies for sale, author signing follows event.
Proceeds benefit R.E.A.D. programs at London Public Library which uses volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring for children described as reluctant readers.
Sponsors: Western's Alumni Relations, The Book Store at Western and London Public Library.


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