The John Foden interview

Magenta is a harrowing journey into war-torn Sarajevo, and into the blackest reaches of the human condition. The novel follows a journalist, Silva, as she and her team make their way deep into a city under siege, in order to recover the body of Thierry, an award-winning filmmaker who has been killed there. But the postmodern odyssey that follows is beyond anything Silva could have expected, as she must make her way through a world in which good and evil lose their meaning, where survival is the only remaining value, and where there is always greater terror lurking around the next corner of the dark and broken labyrinth that a once-great city has become. Even if Silva herself survives the city, the abyss she has stared into will have stared back into her – and changed everything.
John Payton Foden is a Toronto-based writer. For the past 30-years, he’s been paying the bills and keeping the lights on by wearing a suit and tie as a consultant lobbyist. With expertise in city government, he has managed campaigns related to some of the most volatile public policy files of his generation, including municipal amalgamation, property tax reform, race relations and employment equity, two Olympic Games campaigns, waste incineration, urban redevelopment, and renewable energy infrastructure. His articles have appeared in many publications, ranging from trade magazines to daily newspapers, such as the National Post and The Globe and Mail. He has also provided issues commentary for broadcast media, including the CBC, CTV, Global, and Rogers, as well as local and national radio.

What drew you to write about this subject?

I’ve learned a few things about where good ideas come from. I can tell you that they never come from one place. For me, they come from every direction of the universe all at once and you have to carefully pick and choose the ones that work. As for Magenta, the first iteration came from two dreams on two consecutive nights – two perfectly coherent narratives, the second picking up right where the first ended. Needless to say, I jotted down a few notes – about 12 pages. However, almost nothing from those notes survived the first draft. At the time, I felt trapped in a job and was reading about the war every day in the newspaper, so I suppose my brain was trying to reconcile a few conflicting emotions. I don’t have any special connection to the Balkans, so I like to think that the universe came calling that night. The second thread relates directly to my novel, Vagabonds, which is a nice piece of work about cities and the relationships that bind us together in communities and neighbourhoods, with a baseball stadium serving as the prevailing metaphor. Early on, I received two responses in the same week from two different agents. One said, “I don’t care much for the story, but I love the writing style.” Of course, the other said, “I love the story, but I hate the writing style.” Then she took out the dagger, adding “It’s not edgy enough.” But “edgy” would have been entirely inappropriate for that story. So, as I started Magenta, I thought, “You want edgy? I’ll make you edgy!” If there is a third component to this, then there’s a massive dose of personal, real-life experience poured into the narrative.

What type of books do you enjoy reading?

I have about 3,000 books in my office, and a librarian would probably sort them into at least 100 categories, which is to say that I read widely. I’ve read (and re-read) all the books of a few authors, such as Paul Auster, Ron Carlson, Jim Crace, J.M. Coetzee, E.L. Doctorow, Graham Greene, William Kennedy, Gabriel Marquez, and Cormac McCarthy, and also the non-fiction work of Steven Johnson, Adam Grant, and Daniel Kahneman. I’ve read most of the books written by Italo Calvino, David Foster Wallace, Louis de Bernières, Ann Patchett, and Nadine Gordimer. I enjoy the work of Edward P. Jones, James McBride, and Colson Whitehead. I read a lot of history, economics, and sociology but have little interest in memoirs. Ironically, for someone who has worked in politics for years, I don’t care much for that kind of writing – too political and ideological. I also haven’t spent much time with genre fiction: I wonder if there’s a truth to be found in a formula.

What research did you delve into for Magenta?

My first cut of Magenta involved minimal research because I focused primarily on what I wanted for the narrative. I spent many weeks developing the storyline so I knew where I was headed. This allowed me to write in a sort of stream of consciousness. I tried to focus on how a human being (any human being) would respond to the unfolding events. I try to get more definitive about the characters and context during my second draft, though I’m not trying to write too literally. Of course, I referred to published literature but spent far more time on a deep dive into boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings – the stories of a city at war written by journalists on the ground in that dangerous place. I only leaned on the internet as the narrative place names, timelines, cultural specifics, routes and destinations, historical characters, etc.)

When did you realize you had a novel here?

I knew I had a novel the instant the story came to me. From my earliest assessment, the entire narrative rolled out quite naturally. There was much more than a beginning and end; there was a sufficiently robust middle ground that could be filled with remarkable and memorable characters. Think about it. Magenta takes place in a real-time, phantasmagoric world consumed by recidivist bloodletting, so there’s that. There’s a psychotic tyrant in Paris; a wise old woman living in a car; an Ivy-league educated warlord bent on peace; an insane shepherd thriving on chaos; a naked monk conflicted in a world of violence; a celebrity newscaster with ulterior motives; and a kind-hearted stranger who sacrifices what little she owns to save the life of our protagonist. Though Silva is an experienced combat journalist and is able to escape a city under siege, once on the outside she’s soon lost and out of her element in a capricious world of surreal violence.
A colleague is assassinated by a sniper. Her crew is abducted but there is no discussion of ransom, and escape proves impossible. She witnesses the slaughter of a family of eight. Another colleague is left to drown in a swimming pool while terrorists look on. Her captor is killed and replaced by an even more violent man. After she survives his terrible physical assault, a holy man offers respite by committing a venial sin; an overworked nurse eases her suffering; a child-like lunatic offers shelter. By then the threats that frighten her come from so-called friends and allies. A good Samaritan is not what he seems, even after he organizes her return to the besieged city, where she might feel safe again. From the get-go, the reader is dropped into a bizarre, out-of-control insurgency – a broken state already burning and bleeding in a murderous maelstrom of slaughter, where armed militias roam the countryside, where stranglehold of tribalism has broken any semblance of honour, where genuine kindness is answered with a punch in the face, where acts of love must submit to the fist of terror. Like the protagonist, the reader will ask, How did it come to this? – only to realize that the surreal – manifest most distinctly as magenta-coloured blood – has become so ubiquitous that the things that once made sense – justice, hope, truth, belief, family, community, civilization – seem eternally lost just when they are needed most. As Silva journeys deeper into Magenta’s horrific world – voluntarily at first, later in chains – she realizes that there is no way out, no road back to normalcy, no reconciliation of any kind, and neither shelter nor absolution for anyone caught in the collapse of civil society. She learns that salvation may be impossible in the absence of reasonable justice. That’s a lot to work with, so I knew right away that Magenta had great potential.

How has your experience as a consultant lobbyist informed your writing?

For the most part, lobbying is a misunderstood occupation. I’ve spent much of my professional career working on issues related to cities, urban renewal, and community development. A few of the things that I’ve learned from my years in city halls and around government decision-making.

  • That when an important decision needs to be made, there are usually only one or two people at the tip of the spear. On critical public and social issues, government officials carry a heavy burden and few people can handle the responsibility, not to mention the criticism.
  • That what you think is happening and what’s really happening are two entirely different things, and the gap is enormous, far wider and deeper than most people realize.
  • That there’s nothing special about politicians. They just happen to raise their hand at the right time.
  • That “leaders” will tell you that “leadership” is a calling, but leadership is nearly always a coincidence.
  • That for most politicians it’s the best job they’ll ever have, while some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet are professional bureaucrats.
  • That you make people accountable by keeping them transparent to their peer group, not to the electorate.
  • That we don’t spend nearly enough time considering the strongest force in the universe: the law of unintended consequences.

Magenta (Crowsnest Books, 2021) addresses many of these issues in the context of a broken civil society facing extreme levels of violence and hatred. Magenta demonstrates that hatred is the most insidious form of politics, that there is a precise calculus to cruelty and violence, that the real threats to civilization almost certainly come from within. It reminds the reader that no one sleeps peaceably when people with power allow rough men to do violence for their own ends.

Who was the most challenging character to invent?

Of course, Silva presented a unique challenge because I was sensitive to the risks of writing a story with a female protagonist. The tougher technical challenge wasn’t inventing characters but keeping the bad guys separate and distinct without resorting to stereotypes or clichés. They’re all terrible men who unabashedly and unselfconsciously take the reader into their world of violence, rape, murder, and torture. Nevertheless, I want the reader to understand the thoughtful Drago, hate the psychotic Zlatan, and be mystified by the uber-political Jacovic. Truth be told, one of the most difficult decisions was to let Thierry go, as I liked him a lot. But at the end of the day, Stefan may have been the most challenging because he exists on multiple layers. He’s a character and narrator; a friend and colleague; a local and an outsider; a guardian and a coward; a doormat and a hero. At times he is poignantly empathetic and at other times embarrassingly pathetic.

Many readers will never see first-hand how bad war-torn Sarajevo actually is. How important is it that people get out of their comfort zones, do you think?

I would argue that almost any problem can be solved by getting people out of their comfort zone. This is where unique challenges are met. It’s where we’re supposed to be in this so-called “innovation economy.” But most people are quite uncomfortable with change and disruption. Worse, rather than embracing the unknown and moving toward what’s new or unfamiliar or uncomfortable, we create myths that justify the status quo. We use religion to keep our existential crisis at bay, which is reasonable enough, but how meaningful can it be when you can pick and choose your god-like personalizing a pair of running shoes. Marriage is another institutional myth that puts us in a certain club that makes us feel loved and secure, just like the rest of our contemporaries. And the eternal commitment works, until it doesn’t – just look at divorce rates. Then there’s the truth, which these days is also highly personalized and malleable; everyone seems to have their own. And while civil society keeps the lesser angels of our nature in check, the framework is frighteningly fragile and highly combustible, as is demonstrated by the events in Magenta, where Silva struggles because these myths have been scrubbed away and she must try to survive in a post-modern world lacking any discernible measure of fairness or humility. Magenta speaks to a truth that lingers and haunts because it tells us too much about how our collective innocence is threatened – because it tells us about who we are and about how any one of us can turn to hatred and violence.

What is your writing routine like? Perhaps, if there isn’t a routine, explain how you put together a good writing day.

I’ve heard writers say that the key to success is putting in 2,000 words before lunch, but that doesn’t work for me. Instead, I spend weeks on a detailed narrative timeline, so I know roughly where I’m headed. I break it up into chunks. Then I set goals: I’ll finish all the elements of my draft of chapter one by the end of the next week, or I’ll complete a draft of the first three chapters by the end of the month. In no version of the world does the number of words define the story; in fact, it’s probably a distraction to clear thinking and clean writing. There have been days when I’ve spent the entire afternoon on a two-sentence paragraph. But a really good writing day happens when the universe comes calling with a little bit of magic in the form of a perfect line of dialogue, or a unique and exceptional scene that will define the story. Sometimes the universe drops in with a gift in the form of validation. For instance, I wrote about the Hotel Europa months before discovering that there is a Hotel Europe located pretty much on the exact spot I described (though the real hotel is much nicer than the place I depicted). I also discovered months after writing the scene that there is a monastery almost exactly where I located St. Gregory on the Mount. Then there are the days that don’t involve much writing because the story comes to me in real-time. For example, there’s an incident at a subway entrance in Paris that happened pretty much as described; there’s a scene in the bar at the Hotel Lutetia that is a dramatized version of a confrontation with a dictator that almost nearly happened; the wrecking yard is actually just south of Sophia, Bulgaria; the stadium is based on “The Point” in Johnstown, Pennsylvania; the tavern is really in northern Greece, just outside Meteoron (it’s actually called The Oasis, which is a whole other beautiful story about how the universe comes calling!) but I went with a sign I had seen hundreds of miles north outside a shack near Thessaloniki; and the hamlet with the crazy man lies along the Mohawk River just east of Syracuse, New York. I guess my point is that the story is out there if you’re open to all of those different data points in the universe. So, that’s a good writing day. It doesn’t happen every day but often enough to risk everything and keep me coming back.