1. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
It came to me while I was working for the B.C. government.
I didn’t start in government until I was in my late 40s. It was a second career for me.
I’d been a newspaper reporter and editor in small towns around B.C. before that. So I’d interviewed mayors and MLAs and cabinet ministers and MPs through the years, and reported on countless political stories.
But when I joined the provincial government I quickly found out that I knew nothing about how government actually worked. It was like I had been dropped into a foreign country and didn’t speak the language. I thought that if it was foreign to me, then it would probably be foreign to lots of other people. In fact, in the book one of the characters – Beth – has lived her whole life in Victoria and doesn’t know anything about how government works. I’d say that’s true of most people who haven’t actually worked in government.
I was also fortunate to have access to many parts of the legislature that are off limits to the public – the Premier’s offices in the West Annex, the Speaker’s Corridor, the Press Gallery. So I thought it would be fun to pull back the curtain and let my readers see those parts of the legislature.
As well, as I took on higher-level positions in government I gained access to the inner workings that most people also never see. Things like cabinet meetings and minister briefings. I saw first hand how government creates policy, drafts legislation, responds to scandals — the whole range of things that government has to deal with, sometimes literally minute-by-minute.
I thought I might be able to use it all to help tell an interesting story.
2. What was the inspiration for your main character, Malcolm Bidwell?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted the story to be about a young person just out of university. While working in government I ran into situations where I was faced with some tough decisions. Some required me to take an ethical stand. I was fortunate because I had a strong ethical framework to guide me. I was also in my late 40s and 50s so I was able to draw on a lot of life experience. Lessons I had learned from my many mistakes.
But a lot of political staff – both in the governing party and the opposition – are fresh out of university. They don’t have a lot of life experience, so some haven’t had time to set their moral compass or to develop a strong moral framework.
To make it even more difficult, they’re in an environment that is extremely partisan and adversarial. I don’t know of any other workplace where the executive team (the government) sits twice a day and is grilled (Question Period) by a group of resident critics (the opposition) who want to take their jobs. And it’s all done in front of the province’s major media who then pass judgment on the performance of the executive team.
That sort of workplace has a lot of pressure. I thought it would make interesting reading to put someone fresh out of university, pretty much in their first fulltime job, in that environment and see what happens. That’s how I came up with Malcolm.
Malcolm is at his core a good person, but the circumstances he finds himself in are extremely challenging and he doesn’t always respond well.
3. We really get to know Victoria in your book. Is that fiction or can we actually visit places like James Bay Coffee?
Yes, you can have a coffee at James Bay Coffee and Books. It’s on Menzies Street, a few blocks south of the legislature. And it looks just like I describe it.
Everything in the book about Victoria is accurate – the Greater Victoria Public Library, the Orchard House apartments, the horse carriages, The Bird Cages Confectionary. The descriptions of the legislature are also authentic – from the Italian marble in the rotunda, to the spiral staircase that joins the upstairs and downstairs in the West Annex where the premier’s staff are located.
And the positions are all real: the premier, the speaker of the house, the premier’s staff, the press gallery, the communications staff. But the people in those positions are fictional. I know some readers will be looking to see if they can match some of the characters with real people, and I hate to disappoint anyone, but the characters are all made up.
4. Are any of the incidents based on things that happened to you?
Of course I used my experiences to inform my writing. For instance, I saw political jockeying and infighting – both between parties and within parties. So I tried to show that in the book. I also experienced first hand how government works – things like Estimates, House Proceedings, Question Period. So I used that in the book.
And I worked closely with the press gallery, so I used those experiences to inform the scenes with the gallery – things like being in the hallways before and after Question Period.
The crow incident is also drawn from real life. Every spring signs go up on the legislative grounds warning about nesting crows attacking people. Some government staffers walk around with large umbrellas to protect themselves. I used that as the basis for the section where the premier is attacked by a crow and then attacks the crow and kills it. But I never actually saw a crow attack a premier – or anyone else for that matter.
5. The book is very funny. Is that how government really is?
Yes. Politics itself can be very funny. Sometimes it’s just the circumstances and sometimes it’s because politicians can have inflated views of themselves. We used to have a white board in our office where we wrote down a word or phrase whenever a really funny incident happened. The board was full most of the time.
6. Can you give an example?
Sure. There was the time we were arranging an event for the premier to showcase the province’s growing tech industry. We wanted something that would be good for TV. Something active. So we suggested we go to an electronic games developer who was doing really well and have the premier play one of their video games. The premier’s staff asked us: “Will he win?”
We looked at each other and said: “Well probably not. He’s never played it.” “Then it’s out,” they said. “It’s out?” we asked. “Yes, the premier can’t lose.” We tried to argue that people would understand if the premier didn’t win. But they wouldn’t budge. So the premier never did it.
Of course, I understand they were worried about the premier’s image. Everyone remembers the famous photo of Robert Stanfield fumbling a football. It was the defining moment of his political career.
But we thought the potential downside was outweighed by the appeal to a younger demographic and the fact it would show the premier playing video games and having fun. It would help people relate to him.
So we went back to our office and wrote “Will he win?” on the whiteboard and laughed about it.
7. You say the novel uses literary allusions, references and archetypes. In what way?
Well, the title itself refers to Yeats’ poem The Second Coming where he writes about the “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. For Malcolm it is not a return to Bethlehem but to innocence after his experiences in government. There are other literary elements. The novel is loosely hung on the framework of the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King. I’ll leave it for readers to find out for themselves how. And I have some fun with one of the characters in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which itself references the Fisher King.