Q & A with Giller winner Will Ferguson

On the history of 419 scams, researching the Niger Delta and what writing ‘a global novel’ means

Photograph by Chris Bolin

Will Ferguson is the winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel 419.

Earlier this month, Maclean’s senior writer and chief book reviewer Brian Bethune talked to Ferguson about the writing of 419(Find all of our coverage here.)

Q: There’s a long history behind 419.

A: I could blame my dad, because like most things in life we can blame our parents, as I know as a parent myself. My dad grew up in the dust bowl of Saskatchewan in the 1930s. He was suspiciously well informed about the inner workings of con games and con artists, something that had never been explained to my satisfaction. So people he talked about, Suitcase Simpson and Henry the Horse, all these guys, who told tales of these guys and I grew up kind of fascinated by it, and he was a teacher by trade but he used to hustle pool of all things, and so that’s where Spanish Fly came from: it was just wanting to have kind of an encyclopaedic story of the full repertoire of cons. So that was something I’d always wanted to write, I always wanted to write the story of the education of a con man, and then in researching just cons in general I came on 419.

Q: I was really struck by the way this scam goes back to Elizabethan times.

A: Yeah, it goes back to them. And who knows, I mean the basic principle of advanced fee fraud is as old as time, but the manifestation of “I need small money to rescue big money”, yeah, you can trace that to the Spanish Armada. The letters were of course not e-mail but hand-and-ink.

Q: You call it a tax on hope, but surely it’s, partially at least, a tax on greed?

A: Yes, hope is just a positive manifestation of greed, though, isn’t it? Greed is a type of hope, right? If you drew a Venn diagram you’d put greed inside hope. There’s all types of hope, right? What the 419 scams brilliantly do is they add both, they promise money and you’re going to rescue someone who’s in trouble, so you get two… and that’s actually what the Spanish prisoner does, too. The brilliance of the Spanish prisoner and the 419 is that it’s not just straight-up “you’re going to get rich” but you’re going to get rich and in your mind you’re going to be able to justify it as you helped somebody. So with the Spanish prisoner you’re helping the daughter of an English nobleman, for example; in 419 you’re often helping the daughter or son or widow of a dead diplomat/general /priest/king trying to get his money out of a corrupt country. So that’s the brilliance in the psychology of it is that you’re… it appeals to both your greed and you get to justify it that you’re doing something good.

Q: Those are so entwined in us. Always in the fairy-tale, when you kill the monster, you also get the princess.

A: Exactly. That’s a very good point, actually. You get the gold and the treasure. You don’t read about the guy who slays a dragon and leaves, walks away, right? He gets the treasure or he gets the princess. It’s the same principle, so we’re dealing with something very deep in the human psyche.

Q: I actually got a letter, a Nigerian scam letter, in the mail with a stamp, something that took effort and a little initial outlay – 70 cents or so. Are they addressing people who they don’t think have Internet access?

A: 419 is actually set around 2002, 2002/2003, which is when the Niger Delta really erupted and it was a transition period. The book is slightly historical in that it was a moment in history, and especially in the evolution of the 419. But it’s when the scammers shifted tactics. You still get those mass bombings, but more and more they go and they read your Facebook, they compile a profile of who you are, and then they send you a note saying, “I am a birdwatcher myself…” “As a fan of Happy Days…” “As a Civil War re-enactor myself…” so now they’re able to much target you and especially get names of your friends and your children, so you may get, for example, an email from your son saying, “Dad, I’m in trouble, send money.” It’s becoming easier and easier to really zero in on certain people.

Q: It’s the centering on you that’s hard for them, and with precise targeting it’s a lot easier.

A: Often they do it from school, “I knew you in school.” People don’t like to admit it, right? It’s funny, because we like to believe we live in this interconnected, borderless world, but in fact we’re just as much alienated by the Internet as we are interconnected, and 419 is really a symptom of that, I think. And the character Laura, she’s basically a hermit— she lives on-line, she works on-line, her apartment is connected to a mall. Which is a real place, by the way, that’s based on an actual place, where she lives. By all standards she’s an interconnected new citizen of the world, and in fact she’s the most alienated and isolated person in the whole book. She’s totally isolated even from her father, she doesn’t even have that connection anymore, and he just lives down the hill. I intentionally put him really close, so she could walk down any time, if she wanted.

Q: Also putting her in the mall makes her a perfect picture of consumerism—she’s got everything these people want on the other side of the ocean.

A: Yeah, and also to me it was how multiculturalism is often manifested in Canada, which is as a food court, right? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re always talking about which cuisine they’re going to eat, like they always speak about countries like Greek or Italian, maybe we’ll have Thai, maybe we’ll have… but you realize it’s all Taco Bell and Manchu Wok and Opa, you know, that’s what they’re eating.

Q: Right. At the very end she can’t choose between of those menus at all.

A: She’s been shaken up by the whole process. It was funny because originally I thought—my instincts are usually toward the lighter—“Wouldn’t it be funny if there really was this poor Nigerian diplomat and nobody will take his money.” I thought, “That would be funny.”

Q: That would be.

A: But it fizzled out, there wasn’t enough of a story there. Maybe a short story, I don’t really write short stories. So then I thought, “Well, what if you went there to get the money back?” and originally the father lost everything, but that didn’t seem like enough. So I killed him, and once I killed him that really changed the story. Once I pushed him off the edge of the cliff and rolled him down the hill and killed him, I thought, “Okay, this story’s really taken a dark turn…”

Q: You can’t just laugh at him.

A: No, you can’t. And also I really wanted to emphasize that for him it really was about saving this girl, saving this imaginary girl from this hopeless future – that’s the phrase they keep using, this hopeless future – and Laura succeeds, unintentionally, where her father failed. So I wanted to make him a little bit more sympathetic than just some greedy guy. The 419 scammers like to imagine that it’s rich millionaires they’re robbing but Laura’s father is almost a perfect case study of a classic victim. They’re usually people who aren’t very tech-savvy, often retired. The reason seniors are almost self-selecting, is they come from a more trusting time, their generation; they tend to be more polite, they don’t hang up on people or delete or not respond to someone’s invitation; they’re often sitting on savings, they own their own homes; they’re a little bit lonely and they like the attention and the company. So it’s kind of a perfect target, and that’s the sad thing.

Q: You must have done an awful lot of research about Nigeria. Did you go there?

A: I couldn’t. That’s the beauty of fiction. I desperately wanted to go to the Niger Delta, but you read up on it and I can count two books there, both by flak-jacket journalists, you know, guys who go in with armed guards. I’m a travel writer but I’m not a…

Q: Crazy travel writer.

A: Yeah, I’m not an action hero. Any time I need to wear a flak jacket that’s, to me, that’s God saying, “Go around, go around,” so I don’t tend to go to those places. So I wanted to go, but it’s kind of like going to Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it’s like saying, “I’m going to go write a novel about that,” and that’s the beauty of fiction is that you can travel there in your own mind. So no, I did not go there. I remember meeting Dennis Bock. I lived in Japan for five years, and Bock wrote The Ash Garden, which is beautiful, and when I met him at an event or a festival or something, the first thing I asked him was, “Where did you live in Japan? Where were you?” and he said, “Oh, I’ve never been to Japan.” He certainly fooled me. But I didn’t resent it, I quite admired it, actually. It wasn’t cheating, because it’s fiction. If you’re writing a travel book and you haven’t been there, that would be cheating.

Q: If you write a novel about Cleopatra no one expects you to time travel.

A: Exactly.

Q: I wanted to ask you about what the Giller jury had to say: something entirely new, the global novel. What did you think of that? Did you think you were writing a global novel? Do you understand what they meant?

A: I think— I may be wrong, I may be reading it into them —is that the novel tried to tell each story equally deeply, with an equal empathy. I could have told that story from the Nigerian point of view and it could have been a rich greedy white guy who shows up, or I could have told it entirely from Laura’s point of view, the North American goes off to the exotic heart of darkness. But what I wanted to do was to tell both stories equally on their own terms.

Q: Yeah, it evens out, the heroes and villains and evils thereof.

A: That’s what I wanted to do. And even Ironsi-Egobia, I mean, for the story to work he has to be terrifying, but I hope he’s terrifying in a way that you kind of understand, that people go, “Yeah, I can see where he’s coming from.” I mean, you can kind of understand him. That’s a convoluted way to get back at what you’re asking. I think maybe that’s what the jury was talking: the global novel is pulled from both sides of mirror.

Q: So where’s your curiosity taking you now? What are you working on?

A: Rwanda. I don’t like to jinx myself but a friend of mine is from Rwanda. I’ve known him for years, and he survived the genocide – most of his family didn’t – and I’ve known him for years, and we keep talking about taking a trip to Rwanda, so we are. We’re going to rent a big-ass SUV and we’re going to do a road trip to Rwanda, so that’s our… But I don’t like to jinx, I don’t like to get ahead of myself, but yeah, the title is Road Trip Rwanda, which I think is a great title. Because the idea is it’s not going to be a book about the genocide. The genocide will be there, but it’s more like how I did Beyond Belfast, which is you go to a tragic place with a tragic history and see how people have to make their day-to-day life, and how are they handling it, and where does the humour and…

Q: Not a novel, then.

A: No, no. I try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. I think it uses different parts of your brain.


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