Terri Favro is the author of three novels: Sputnik’s Children (a Globe100, Quill & Quire Book of the Year and CBC Books Top 10 book for 2017, shortlisted for the Sunburst Award and longlisted for 2020 CBC Canada Reads), Once Upon A Time in West Toronto, and The Proxy Bride (winner of the Quattro-Ken Klonsky Novella Award) . Her popular science book, Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact and Speculation, received a starred review on BookList, the review site of the American Library Association. A CBC Literary Prize for Creative Non-fiction finalist and winner of the Accenti Magazine Award, Terri’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Terri also collaborates on graphic novels. Her latest novel, The Sisters Sputnik is forthcoming in 2021.
Miramichi Reader: Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
I was born and brought up in the Niagara region of southern Ontario, in a working class, semi-rural, semi-industrial area called “Grantham Township” – it’s gone now, disappeared into the north end of St. Catharines, about a thirty minute drive from the border and walking distance to the Lake Ontario mouth of the Welland Ship Canal. I’m the youngest daughter of Italian immigrants –– my folks came as young kids in the 1920s and met as children in Canada. Both my grandfathers had to flee Italy during the rise of Mussolini in the 1920s for political reasons. My maternal grandmother, Nonna Rosa, had spent her teenage years in New York, living with her brother’s family –– restaurant people. Nonna absolutely adored New York, and spoke with a pronounced New York Italian accent (think Frank Sinatra’s Hoboken accent)–– but ended up back in Italy when her sister-in-law died of Spanish flu in 1919. (I won’t tell this tragic story here, but I have written about it and also acted as a on-screen storyteller in a documentary about Italian-Canadian emigration through Ellis Island.) That pandemic hung over my family like a cloud for three generations.
I grew up in a neighbourhood entirely made up of immigrants – mostly Eastern European and Italian –– as well as Black families whose ancestors had come to Canada via the Underground Railroad with help from Harriet Tubman, who lived in St. Catharines for a time. The area was a mix of farms and light industry; meat packers and metalworking shops stood cheek by jowl with cramped houses, fruit orchards, small farms, backyard chicken coops and illegal gambling joints. We were considered ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ –– we were mostly notable for our invisibility in the polite Upper Canada culture of the Niagara area and also for being considered the dangerous part of town. (Anyone who has read my novella “The Proxy Bride” will be familiar with my childhood neighbourhood of the 1960s and 1970s.) I grew up in a two-acre vineyard, next to my grandparents, who tended and sold the grapes to winemakers and juice manufacturers. My Dad was an electrician by trade, and an amateur inventor by inclination. We had lots of visits from the fire department and telephone company when I was a kid – Dad was always cutting through a power line or setting something on fire.
I was an avid reader and writer from childhood, and worked for the daily newspaper in St. Catharines in high school as a ‘collegiate reporter’. I almost went to journalism school, but at the last minute, switched to an English major – I realized I was more of a book lover than a newshound. I did my BA in English at McMaster University in Hamilton, then headed to Toronto. The only accommodation I could afford was a cockroach-infested old Victorian house on Robert Street near College, living with a gang of graduate students, mostly scientists and medical researchers, who are still some of my best friends to this day. (The Robert Street house turns up in my novel “Once Upon A Time In West Toronto”.) I held down a string of jobs, including as a writer for a research project on labour standards at McMaster and as a temp secretary for the Russian department, an office assistant for the Writers’ Union of Canada, and a seller of chocolate death masks at the King Tut Exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I also freelanced writing articles for arts magazines in Hamilton and Toronto. I finally managed to land a “real job” with a magazine publisher (Maclean Hunter) as a copywriter in the circulation department, which led to me being hired by an ad agency when I was still in my early twenties. It was exciting work, still very “Mad Men”-esque in the 1980s – plenty of boozing, smoking and sexism. But exciting, especially for someone who wanted to be paid to write. I ended up working on a lot of early tech products (as described in “Generation Robot”)…the first PCs, laptops, cellphones and telecom systems for big business. I also worked on some notable flops, like the IBM PCJr (which I saw at a computer museum at York University while interviewing an engineering prof for the book).
Eventually, I decided to try freelancing so I could pursue my own writing, as well as writing copy. And I’ve never stopped. I’ve also done feature writing for magazines and CBC Radio. Oh and I’ve written three novels and a pop-science book –- “Generation Robot” –– along the way. And basically – that’s been my life! Writing by day and night. I still write advertising copy (and what is now known as “content”) for a range of large and small clients. I’ve won almost 20 advertising awards in my career, as recently as two years ago. In advertising years, I’m about 500 years old but I am still a ‘writer for hire’ and have worked for some agencies and private clients for over twenty years.
Along the way I married an artist and educator from Montreal, Ron Edding; we’ve spent most of our married lives in Toronto, with a seven-year stint in Timmins, in northern Ontario, where Ron taught high school. We have two sons, Jake and Joey, now grown, and we live a creative life together in Toronto’s vibrant Danforth neighbourhood. Ron and I collaborate on graphic novels based on my childhood in immigrant Niagara – they’re called the Bella comics and are published by Grey Borders Books in Niagara Falls.
MR: Now that you have given us your autobiography(!), please tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
Becoming a writer has never felt like a choice – I come from a very strong oral storytelling tradition. My Favro grandfather had a vast storehouse of dark, sexy Italian fairytales in his repertoire, which I heard repeatedly, probably from the day I was born. And everyone else in the family – my parents, grandparent, uncles, siblings, the cousins in the U.S. and Italy – were all wonderful, entertaining and funny storytellers. We could sit around a table for hours with a few bottles of homemade wine and just talk. Storytelling was a highly valued skill…actually, a survival skill for my paternal grandfather. He came from a very snowy area of the Italian Alps in Piemonte (near the spooky medieval abbey where Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” is set, near the pass where Hannibal marched his elephants through the Alps) and they were regularly snowed in for weeks at a time with the livestock in high mountain passes. Storytelling was how you kept yourself and your friends sane! It was a like building a house or making wine…something you needed to be able to do to survive. A craft, as well as an art – maybe that’s why I have always worked in both the craft and the art of writing.
As a child, I loved fantasy –– C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” books and Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” were favourites –– and I devoured comic books, especially in the D.C. universe (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman). I was also a huge fan of MAD Magazine and used to write my own parodies of the newspaper “household tips” columns and standard stuff like TV Guide…I was always overjoyed when my funny stuff made my older sisters and brother laugh.
I eventually graduated to reading a lot of what is now called ‘hard’ science fiction, especially Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. The original “Star Trek” TV show had a major influence on what I wanted to read and write. I received a lot of encouragement through high school and won an Honourable Mention in the Permanent Student Writing Contest in grade 13, which was a national competition adjudicated by Margaret Laurence. In university, one prof in particular, Dr. James King, strongly encouraged my creative writing and read some of my work –– years later, he kindly wrote a cover ‘blurb’ for my first novel! I won the McMaster Medal for the Creative and Performing Arts because of my fiction writing at university.
But after graduating, I found it very hard to find any publishers for my short stories. My writing came out of a first-generation Canadian coming-of-age experience that was largely ignored by CanLit at that time (the early 1980s) – it was considered “ethnic writing”. I’ve heard other Italian-Canadian writers describe having the same experience. I came out of a community that didn’t really have a voice, and it took a long time for me to find my voice and my readers as a creative writer. I was over fifty by the time my first book, “The Proxy Bride”, was published. So, I’m making up for lost time now.
MR: Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
Yes, and I’ve mentioned it here… “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. Also Jorge Amado’s “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”, as well as books about mythology (Greek, Roman and Norse) . I really love long, complex epic novels, especially ones that interconnect with other books written by the same author. I love books that mix realism with magic realism, where ghost, demons and other spirits are seamlessly woven into so-called ‘real life’. The novels of Ojibway-American author Louise Erdrich would be an example… her books are such a lush mixture of social realism, magic realism, humour, tragedy and fantastically awesome writing, and the same characters weave in and out of her books – a particular favourite is “The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse’. I’ve also revisited Emily St John Mandel’s dystopic masterpiece “Station Eleven” multiple times. And I love the work of Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore –– her book on Wonder Woman is an all time favourite of mine. But probably the book I open most often is “1001 Comics To Read Before You Die”, an anthology of the history of comic strips and comic books by Paul Gravelle. If I were stuck on a desert island, 1001 Comics could get me through!
MR: Let’s talk about your book, Generation Robot. I loved it, for as a fellow “late Boomer” I lived through the advent of the computer age, cut my teeth on DOS, then Windows, and have left a lot of tech behind, like flip phones, rotary dials, VHS and so on. What compelled you to write a book centred on robots specifically?
My father worked with the first factory robot, UNIMATE, in the late 1960s. His employer, TRW, built auto parts in St. Catharines but they were a big part of the ‘military-industrial complex’ in the U.S. –– the American parent company helped build the first lunar lander and American ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles). So, eventually some of that innovation reached the factory where Dad worked in St. Catharines. I don’t think the engineering department knew who to put in charge of the robot, but my Dad was the perfect choice – he was already the go-to guy when things went wrong (and a lot went wrong with UNIMATE in those early days). He’d be called day or night to come into the plant and solve problems –– a “machine whisperer” –– and if we were lucky, we might be allowed to throw a coat over our PJs and go with him!
The UNIMATE experience inspired Dad to build his own robots at home. The neighbourhood kids were vastly entertained by his self-mowing lawnmower. This was in 1970… Dad was ahead of his time! He’d come home from work for lunch every day (a very Italian habit) and tell me what “Robby” had been up to…he was in love with the machine and his excitement was infectious. By the time I left home for university he was planning to rip out and automate the family kitchen (Mom stopped him). He was kind of a mechanical genius. So my inspiration came from all those meals, with him spinning stories about Robby…then trying to build “Robbies” for our family.
That was the direct inspiration. A few years ago I started wondering where UNIMATE had come from, how it had ended up in St. Catharines in an ‘old school’ factory – and the story is actually quite fascinating and involves a cocktail party in New York and an appearance by the robot on Johnny Carson!
I was also inspired by writers like Bill Bryson and Mary Roach who have both written highly entertaining, well researched, accessible and humorous books on science – I’m thinking of Bryson’s “A Brief History of Almost Everything” and Roach’s “Bonk”, “Gulp” and “Packing For Mars”, among others. It struck me that we don’t see those types of popular science books written by non-scientists in Canada very often, and I really love them. I find tech and industrial history very interesting but it’s something that’s not often written about. Most of us probably don’t even remember the first time we sent an email or used a cell phone…even if we remember the moon landing! Ultimately, the Internet turned out to be the bigger ‘moon shot’, in terms of its impact on day to day life.
MR: What has been the response to the book?
Really great. The reviews and media were very good for the original edition (which was published by the New York publisher, Skyhorse, in hardcover and as an audiobook and e-book). They asked me do some updates and brought out a paperback edition in early March 2020 – just before the lockdown!
I’ve done a number of talks on robots at libraries here in Toronto, in Niagara and a very special one at “robot central” –the MIT Press in Boston. That was exciting …there was an older gentleman who had worked with UNIMATE in the 1970s, read the book and came to MIT specifically to ask me what had happened to that original robot. I loved talking to him. There were also a number of AI and robotics specialists in the audience…it was a thrill.
MR: You mention a lot of pop culture movies (Aliens, Blade Runner, Terminator) throughout Generation Robot. Conspicuous by its absence is the Will Smith movie I, Robot. Can you comment?
I’m not a fan of the Will Smith “I, Robot” – it doesn’t really capture the spirit of Asimov’s stories (although I bought a new copy of the book and he’s on the cover). It’s important to remember that Asimov wrote the stories in “I,Robot” for pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s: the book came out in 1950, as a collection of his early work. And it spans a long period of time dealing with a lot of questions that we’re struggling with now, such as the “Uncanny Valley” effect, which causes us to feel queasy when confronted with a robot that is almost, but not quite, humanoid. The Will Smith movie borrowed some of Asimov’s themes and ideas, but it’s actually closer to a novel he wrote in the 1950s called “Caves of Steel”, which was a buddy story about a human detective who hates robots, who is paired up with a robot to investigate a murder. I think there are better robot movies out there…I’m especially fond of “Ex Machina” and “Moon”, but going back in time, it’s worth checking out “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and that camp classic “Forbidden Planet”. Oh, and also “Silent Runnings”.
MR: GenRob went to print before the Covid-19 breakout. How could robots assist humans in the age of pandemics?
The roboticists I interviewed liked to say they were working on robots to do the three Ds: “dangerous, dull, dirty” work. I’ll add one more “D” to that list – “disease-prone”. Cleaning robots are already being used in some airports and I think we’re going to see a lot more automation in areas where humans are put at risk of catching the virus. Since the introduction of the Roomba vacuum, the robot as cleaner has become popular in homes, and now that’s expanded to large institutions (hospitals, schools) as well as transit systems. Bathrooms are a particular pain point when businesses ask employees to come to work again: I suspect we will see some form of automation used to disinfect them between uses, although it might not be a robot moving around the space, but an automated UV light bath or some other form of automated disinfection after each use. (I have been in “robot bathrooms” in Toronto on the waterfront that use such a system.) I also suspect we will see more innovation in ways that robots could provide a level of protection for first responders who are most at risk of contracting the virus. Although I don’t think robots have the dexterity to do something like a Covid 19 swab test or an intubation, they could be used (for example) for something as simple as a temperature check .I also suspect we might see more robot-cashiers come into use, as well as in warehouse settings –– again, high risk areas.
I’ll be interested to see if any roboticists figure out how to make cramped elevators safer. In the book, I explain that elevators are an interesting early example of how people respond to technology that appears to “think” – in the fifties, when human elevator operators were replaced with pushbutton models, it freaked people out – how did the elevator know when they had reached a certain floor? There were people so frightened of automated elevators sixty years ago that they always took the stairs! Today we don’t think of the fact that riding in an elevator is essentially riding inside a robot: now, we need some way for that robot to protect its riders from infecting one another. I don’t know what the solution is but I suspect that one is coming.
Robotics have been making inroads in farm work for some years, but I don’t think we will see them ‘take over’ from the migrant workers who plant, pick, and cultivate on so many Canadian farms now: tender fruit, for example, probably isn’t something a robot harvester could safely handle. But I could be wrong. I would like to see someone figure out a way to provide those workers with an extra level of protection: the numbers of works from Mexico who have died after contracting COVID-19 in Canada is horrible. In the book, I talk about the idea of robots and humans working together as ‘centaurs’ – for workers on farms, in manufacturing plants, warehouses and stores, my hope is that robots could be used as assistant and/or protectors for human workers. Many of these jobs require a level of physical dexterity, vision and decision-making beyond the limits of robotics right now, but my hope is that these machines could be used as worker-helpers, rather than workers themselves.
There are legitimate concerns about robotics taking away jobs –– that has been a reality since the 1970s, for sure –– but the flip side is that some jobs could be made safer, without full-on replacement. (My father was excited about UNIMATE, in part, because he’d seen quite a few factory workers electrocuted, decapitated and blinded on the job.) I talk a little more fully about that in the book. But in this era of COVID-19 I think we’re seeing that jobs we never considered high-risk can become extremely dangerous in the face of a new virus that spread through close human contact. Robots are definitely going to be part of the solution.
I think that other AI-driven systems will also become part of the “distance working” reality we see happening now with platforms like Zoom. There is a technology available now that essentially sends a hologram of a human to another location, so that they can be “present” in a place without really being there…and the individual whose hologram is projected is also able to see and hear what is going on in the room.
In “Generation Robot”, I talk about telepresence robots ––developed right here in Toronto –– that are a simple, affordable way for someone to be present in an office, to move around and speak independently using a robot as their proxy. I think this would be a brilliant way to not only go to meetings, but to visit art galleries, attend a concert, watch a parade, go to a friend’s house…you name it. If I had to pick one robot I’d love to have myself right now, it would be a telepresence. They basically look like a laptop on a Segway – the human user controls where the robot body goes and what they see and do, using the laptop interface. It’s actually a pretty simple concept and a way to truly use robotics to become a “centaur”. And unlike Zoom, it gives you ‘agency’ – you can go where you want, when you want.
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be?
Wow, I love this question. I think I’d like to write about the women of the music scene on Toronto’s Queen Street West in the early 1980s, when I first arrived in the city…Jane Siberry, Holly Cole, Parachute Club, and Maja Bannerman (who is now a friend), among others. I’d love to do a Canadian version of the American biography “Girls Like Us” (which focused on the intersecting careers and lives of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King). I think a biography that explores a place and time, through the lens of these performers, could be a lot of fun to research and write.
MR: What are you working on now?
I’m preparing to work with my editor at ECW Books on the final edits for “The Sisters Sputnik”, which is a sequel to my speculative fiction novel “Sputnik’s Children”, coming out in 2021. Ron and I are finishing work on a graphic novel, “Cold City”, which is based in part on a real life unsolved murder in Depression-era Toronto. I’m also fifty pages into a new novel “United Kingdom of America”, which is alternative history in which the United Kingdom refuses to give up control of the American colonies. It’s based on a steampunk short story I had published in 2015 anthology called “Clockwork Canada” –– the book will play with history, but also with technology…specifically the history of electricity and early silent film-making.
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Before COVID I was a serious gym rat! I still spend part of each day either on a spin bike, outdoor bike, or walking…doesn’t look like I”ll be back to a real gym anytime soon. Otherwise I love to spend time with friends and family, drinking wine and telling stories. That social time is harder to enjoy now unless outside! And exercise has moved into the basement. And I read, read, read, read, read! There are so many great books out now that I could probably spend most days just reading and thinking about books, both fiction and non-fiction. The stack keeps getting higher and I’m so impressed by the work being written and published now. Thank god CanLit is waking up to more and more diverse voices.
MR: Finally, tell us a fun fact about yourself!
I pride myself on shaking a mean martini, as well as a few other cocktails. I always have Sinatra playing while I bartend – strictly from the Columbia years and his work with Count Baisie and Juan Antonio Joabim (the Brazilian composer of “Girl From Ipanema”). Nothing later than 1962, when Sinatra was in his prime. (In fact, Sinatra is a character in “The Sisters Sputnik”!)