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Giles Blunt reflects on Cardinal series and career as an author

'It is one of the easier forms in which to generate suspense and people just love that feeling of needing to read another page. I love that feeling myself and that’s why I wanted to write the best detective novel that I could, and I really didn’t expect that I would be writing more than just one'

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Writing is hard. Doing it for a living in Canada is an uphill battle that won’t necessarily cover the bills according to Giles Blunt.

“It’s close to impossible to make a living as a novelist; very few people in Canada manage to do it. Unless you’re a journalist, or writing for TV or teaching, you’re really going to be in dire straits,” says the author who grew up in North Bay.  

Blunt says its why most authors are hopeful that their work will end up being transferred to a different medium.

“Every novelist wants people to know their work and some of the stuff that gets transferred ends up being really really good. Think of a movie like Silence of the Lambs, which is a fabulous movie from a great book. People dream of that kind of success, or they dream of what kind of happened to me which is they land a contract for six episodes per book that runs on TV for a few years, and then it's fantastic to see really great TV actors bring their characters to life.”

Blunt witnessed that when his novel “Forty Words For Sorrow” was turned into the show “Cardinal” on CTV. The novel had won the Crime Writer's Association Silver Dagger Award in 2001 and Blunt says there was a lot of interest over the years in converting the story from the pages to the screen.

“I turned them down because nobody approached me that had made at least one movie that I admired,” Blunt says.  

“And then once I had six books written, CTV got interested and that was back in 2013 I believe. There were a lot of delays and in the process of it we had discussed that there were going to be six episodes per book and that’s the way new television is done.”

Blunt says there were some television series on the air at that point which he had hoped Cardinal would emulate, “the really terrific series that were coming out of Sweden and England at the time like Broadchurch and The Killing and older series like Prime Suspect.”

“But we had extreme differences in opinion on how the plots should go because my view was that we were endeavouring to adapt the books, whereas CTV were thinking about making a TV show with my characters. So we parted ways and that was extremely painful because of big plots and storylines and characters that you develop over the years, and we’re talking about 10 years worth of work here, you know them better than anyone else and to have other people mess with them, it's pretty painful. However, that’s what the contract allows them to do and, that being said, I was happy with a lot of aspects of the TV show.”   

But not every author gets that opportunity to see their vision come to life.

“It’s a very lucky and tiny minority who can live off their name being attached to just a novel. Most of us are hoping for a movie deal,” says Blunt.

“Let's face it, motion pictures and especially with streaming television, is where people are getting their stories from. People have always had stories in their heads, you go back to the Middle Ages and hear tales of chivalry and knights in shining amour and stories about monsters and the lives of the saints. Now it's stories about cops and serial killers, doctors and their patients, lawyers and their clients and that’s what people think of when they think of stories.”

While Blunt’s detective mystery series has given him a lot of attention, he says he never sought out to be known as a “crime writer.”  

“I started out writing other kinds of things, but I got a job writing for a television crime show and I had to read a lot of crime books for that, and that’s kind of what got me into that genre. I wrote a number of episodes for a show called Night Heat and another one called Diamonds and while I didn’t stay with those shows for very long, I kept reading crime novels,” he says. 

“I had published one novel that is more along the lines of a psychological suspense (Cold Eye) and then I decided to write a detective novel and it wasn’t so much that I wanted to write about a crime series, it’s that was what got publishers most excited. They not only wanted just that first book but they wanted two. That was the first contract that I had signed and then after they got two they wanted four, and so I became known more as a crime writer.”  

It’s a genre that also excites and comforts the public says Blunt.

“People often say that crime writers have such a dark imagination, but crime is actually a comforting form of fiction. 99.9% of the time the bad guys lose. And right now, we know from current events that the bad guys are winning all the time and quite frankly people don’t want to read about them in their fictional stories, they have news papers and the Internet for that art form. I think if people are reading just before they go to bed, they like to feel that the world is ok and crime fiction gives them that sense.”  

“The other thing crime fiction has going for it, is actually what makes up all great fiction, and that it has suspense,” he continues.

“It is one of the easier forms in which to generate suspense and people just love that feeling of needing to read another page. I love that feeling myself and that’s why I wanted to write the best detective novel that I could, and I really didn’t expect that I would be writing more than just one.”  

As mentioned, Blunt also wrote for several television crime genres but says his heart truly lies in telling stories through writing books.

“I enjoy writing novels much more because you can tell someone pretty much exactly what you’re thinking when you put it onto that page. As for a script, everyone has it looking differently in their minds and it’s more like a schematic form and basically, once a producer gets their hands on it, its open season and it’s not yours anymore and that’s just a whole different ball game,” he says.

“I know quite a few people who really love writing for tv and love being in the writing room and tossing out story ideas to each other and having a lot of laughs along the way and then they each go off and finish their parts of the script they’ve been assigned. But for the most part, you’re writing other people’s characters and a story that’s been developed by committee and so it loses that personal touch.”  

But he also suggests that selling people on reading a book versus watching a series or a movie has become much more difficult over the last few decades

“The life span of a book as we know them today has shrunk dramatically, certainly over the past 20 years, but even in the last five with the death of newspapers. The Toronto Star has just one page for books now and they’ll take a major novelist like Andrew Pyper and he gets one paragraph when he puts out a new book. It’s disgraceful, not to the writer or journalist or to The Star itself, I certainly understand their predicament, but it's just disgraceful as a culture that we’re letting a major cultural resource go wanting like this. Whereas on TV, it's everywhere. You couldn’t walk down the street without seeing a poster for the Cardinal TV series, and authors would be over the moon if they could get a poster anywhere with the cover of their book on it,” says Blunt.  

“I’ve been lucky with advertising in the past but fewer and fewer authors get it. If you go on to the Toronto subway, you’ll notice that there are never any book advertisements there. So right now, you write a story, and boom, it's gone unless it becomes a movie or a series and it enters people’s consciousness. I think that there’s just been a dramatic change across western society that, really, began with television and then expanded with computers and the Internet where it has affected people’s attention spans. I know that it has affected me personally as well, I do a lot less reading for pleasure now because I spend so much time reading stuff I have to read for research purposes.”  

But that research certainly paid off when building the world in which John Cardinal would live in. When Blunt had made up his mind that he was going to try his hand and making that detective novel he says the only question was, “where do I set it.”  

“I was thinking about New York, where I had lived for 20 years but I thought New York has been done to death. I thought about maybe in London, England where I also had lived for a while and then also Ottawa and Toronto had crossed my mind, however, I had been going back to North Bay every Christmas essentially and I thought about setting it there and that’s what got me started with the John Cardinal series.”

In the series John Cardinal is a detective working for the Algonquin Bay Police Department, which is a city thinly veiled as North Bay. So with the book set in his hometown, the series was shot in the Gateway City as well, and Blunt says he’s very proud of his work and thrilled that people in North Bay have embraced his novels.

“People in North Bay may not think it's such a big deal, but it’s particularly heartening to have people in your home town really like your work,” he says.

“If I was a different type of writer I could very easily have people in my hometown hate my work, if you’re Phillip Roth or something and you’re telling the truth about large portions of the population you can get yourself in trouble socially. I’ve never had that problem, fortunately, and every time I’m back in North Bay everyone is just so friendly. The books store Gullivers, which is sadly gone now, did a lot to promote my books, as did the library and even the high schools too.”

In fact, it’s the high school audience that should keep Blunt’s works within the public consciousness for years to come.

“They are often teaching my books, which is great for me, I’m not really sure what it says about public education,” he says with a laugh.

“But it’s great for me because you create a new generation of readers. The best of all is getting emails from former students who say my books are the first ones they ever read for pleasure and not because they were told they had to read them for class. I actually just recently got an email from an English teacher in North Bay who says that he has been teaching Forty Words for Sorrow for 15 years and he says it's still a pleasure to see their faces when they read the first page or page and a half and they realize they are reading about North Bay. They just think WOW and their face lights up and it just draws them in.”

If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at [email protected].   

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Matt Sookram

About the Author: Matt Sookram

Matthew Sookram is a Canadore College graduate. He has lived and worked in North Bay since 2009 covering different beats; everything from City Council to North Bay Battalion.
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