The Rest Is Silence

Author Scott Fotheringham is a former research scientist in New York and holds a PhD from Cornell University in molecular genetics and a BSc from the University of Guelph. He left Manhattan to live in the country. After a sojourn near Halifax, he now lives and writes near Ottawa. His first novel, The Rest is Silence, is an engaging and enlightening story of a man who withdraws from the world to the backwoods of Nova Scotia.

What inspired you to tell this story?
I began writing as a means of understanding my grief; grief about loved ones disappearing from the world, grief about loss of home, and grief about the state of the natural world. But the writing had become tedious and I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted to write something fun. I had the idea of genetically engineered bacteria eating plastic, and what that would mean to the world, so I began to write a thriller. It was fun. The CIA, FBI, and animal rights activists all made appearances. Soon enough, all my old writing filtered back into the book and the thriller parts of it were toned down.

Where did the protagonists come from?
The two main people in this story were born out of that grief, that mystery about how the world works. Benny, the scientist in New York, just can’t understand why it is that, when we are born, we are given everything we need to survive only to have the world start the inexorable process of tearing us apart, either gradually, bit by bit, or all at once. The narrator, on his land in Nova Scotia, walks through his days having come from a world that confused him. He tries to escape to a monk-like life to make sense of the world falling apart.

How much of you is in him?
All of it, and none at all. The line between autobiography and fiction is blurry and, I believe, the distinction is unnecessary. We love to categorize everything. Of course this helps us navigate the world and communicate with each other, but it also means that once we’ve named something we think we know it and can stop thinking. I don’t think it matter how much of me is in this book.

Did the work come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
I worked hard at it for years. I often despaired that I was doing something I wasn’t prepared to do and that, if I had been smarter or more skilled, I would have avoided. I envy hearing about authors who plot out their novels and then write them from beginning to end. Trollope was often in my mind, with his thousand words a day, methodically moving from the first page to the last. Instead, I chose to loop the story back on itself in ways that made my task difficult. I made a spider’s web of the plot and many times got tangled in it. My fault. It went through at least four rounds of substantial edits with my editor, Bethany Gibson, before it made sense. I marvel at her patience and perseverance.

What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
What ended up being most challenging was wanting to be done, knowing that I wasn’t, and getting a package back from my editor suggesting yet more global changes. I thought it was going to be challenging to let go of characters or whole sections I was attached to. Fortunately, I found that remarkably easy. Bethany would suggest getting rid of a character or focusing on certain topics and discarding others. She showed me how less becomes more.

What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
Working out the plot details. Making a large change (e.g., removing a character) and having to figure out how to rework the whole story so it still made sense. It was maddening at times, but I’d go for a long walk and ideas would come to me.

What did you learn during the process?
That writing a novel can take a long time, that having an editor is essential, and that sharing it with trusted readers is necessary. I learned a neat trick from Sarah Selecky that I think works well. In dialogue, she said, never have one person answer a question directly. I also learned somewhere that, if you’re going to use things that happened to you, the characters can be disguised by changing their gender. This has two advantages. First, your family and friends won’t be as ready to identify characters in your book. Second, it provides me with distance from them, and my memories, allowing the characters to come to life and make their own choices.

How did you feel when the book was completed?
Something like relief. Finally, I’m done with that.

What has the response been like so far from critics and family?
The reviews so far have been great. The best thing is hearing from my family that they like it. I have reconnected with high school friends who I haven’t spoken to in decades who picked up the book and let me know what they thought. The ones who have contacted me like it. There may be others out there who are being polite by not telling me they read it, and didn’t like it!

Has there been any discussion about bringing the book to the big screen?
I’ve been approached by someone about that but nothing material. I can’t see how it could be done, but then I’m not (yet) a screenwriter.

What's next on your creative agenda?
I have lots of ideas for projects I want to pursue. I have an abiding interest in biological invasions and what our reactions to them say about our place in the world. I’m also intrigued and troubled by watching my daughter grow up. It niggles at me and these questions are the fuel that feeds fiction . . . or non-fiction.

What made you want to be a writer?
I’m introverted. I can’t draw very well. I don’t take good photographs. I think a lot. I need a way to explore the questions that eat away at me.

What makes a good book?
A good story. Good characters. Style. Humour mixed with pathos. Compassion for characters. Honesty.

What are your thoughts on Canadian literature today?
I am excited by the quantity of high-quality fiction in Canada. For a small country we sure do produce a lot of amazing writers. When my book was published in April and I finally had some time to read again, I decided I’d focus on Canadian novels. It’s been wonderful, reading books like Lynn Coady’s “The Antagonist” and Patrick deWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers”. It’s a humbling experience, one that pushes me to keep trying.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read. Do what you love and take risks. Find a community of writers for mutual support. In Nova Scotia we are lucky to have the NS Writers’ Federation. They were a huge help to me. Get feedback from people you know read a lot and, hopefully, write. Find a mentor. Don’t give up.