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True crime inspiration behind thriller writer’s work

Grant McKenzie tackles Canadian paperback market
Switch Grant McKenzie 1
Writer and Monday Magazine editor Grant McKenzie shows off the new paperback version (front) of his novel Switch

A fan of mystery novelist Grant McKenzie’s books once told him she was so wrapped up in his first novel, Switch, that when she sat down to the toilet, she forgot to lift up the lid.

“You can’t get a much better compliment than that,” he said.

Although the 48-year-old Monday Magazine editor’s first book release in Canada happened last year – Switch was released in regular paperback this week – McKenzie’s interest in realistic, thrilling “whodunits” was sparked a long time ago, while reporting on crime.

During a stint on the ‘dead-body’ beat at the Calgary Sun, his first job out of high school, he became stuck on the ‘what-ifs’ and emotional aspects of crimes when he could only report the facts.

Writing fiction let him have his characters react to a situation and tell the bigger story.

“You always felt kind of powerless, because as a reporter, all you were doing was telling the news,” he said. “In fiction, you can step beyond that.”

He also met several colourful people such as undercover cops and “old-time” journalists who helped populate his stories.

At age 26, he took time away from his job at the Calgary Herald to write his first book, which he never managed to publish. Twenty years and five manuscripts later, he landed a deal for Switch with Random House in the U.K.

Every time he’s pitched the book, he had to find something new to hook the publisher. The Random House deal only came because an assistant fell in love with it.

Switch was published in trade paperback form in Canada in 2010, a year later than in the U.K. and Germany.

“It’s a tough game to learn,” McKenzie said of the industry.

He is trying to break into the U.S. market, where he said there is more of an appetite for “mainstream” fiction than in Canada.

He intentionally targeted a wide audience when he developed his characters, ordinary people that readers have told him they can easily relate to.

“In Canada, we tend to want to be so different from the U.S. that we tend to ignore the big general population that likes to read American-type fiction.”

A native of Scotland, McKenzie has always craved life in places that are close to the water. One of his two published novels, as well as a third that his agent is currently pitching, take place in Portland, Ore. He plans to build his own fictional world in the city, which has a series of ominous underground tunnels, for successive books.

Missing or murdered family members, a common theme in his novels, also comes from his experience as a father, he said, and the worst-case scenarios that run through his head when worrying about his daughter.

“I try to make (the characters) as real as possible,” he said. “You pour a lot of your own emotion, your own happiness … into your characters so they become fully rounded.”

McKenzie will be available for a special book signing and launch, 3 p.m. Saturday (July 9) at Munro’s Books, 1108 Government St.