J.R.R. Tolkien had Bree, Esgaroth, and the Shire in Middle Earth; Kurt Vonnegut had Ilium, New York; Stephen King has Derry and Castlerock, Maine; and John Grisham has Clanton, Mississippi.
My friends, I give you Ferguston, Ontario.
One of the great many perks of being a fiction writer, I’ve discovered, is worldbuilding (yes, it’s one word), otherwise known as playing god.
From the very beginning, even while the story was still gestating, I knew I wanted to set my novel in a northern Ontario town. I have some personal history there: I know the landscape, the people, the politics. But because my town was going to be a distinctly nasty place, with more than its share of anger, violence, intolerance, and economic stagnation, I knew I couldn’t use an actual existing community that anyone could find with a quick Google search. It also needed to be relatively small because I wanted the distinct character and colour of a modest northern hamlet — the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else’s business — but large enough that the action of the story could be easily contained within its borders. Finally, I wanted to give it the distinctly francophone flavour that I grew up with.
Thus was born Ferguston, Ontario (population 10,070), vaguely located somewhere in the northeast part of the province, on the eastern edge of Lake LeClair (… don’t bother Googling that one either). The novel includes a few hints and landmarks: it’s within an hour and a half drive from Sudbury (in which direction isn’t revealed); there’s passing mention of Nipissing and New Liskeard; and there are plenty of French surnames and place names. That’s all I’ll say. If you’re familiar with that part of Ontario, you’ll know its topography: a sparsely populated, rugged territory of lakes and mixed forest and Precambrian rock. Four-lane highways are virtually non-existent, and Internet and cell phone service (especially in 2006, when the story takes place) is intermittent at best.
(You might want to turn around, folks…)
While this may describe any number of towns and villages in the north, Ferguston is “special”, in the way a paranoid sociopath is “special”. Ferguston is northern Ontario’s drunk uncle. Justin (my narrator) describes it to his friend Billie this way: “There are worse places, I guess, but if this isn’t the armpit of the province, it’s in the same area code.“
Being situated in a natural depression, stuff has a tendency to roll, slide, or slither down into Ferguston, and not much of it is good: damaged people and creatures of all kinds, sketchy businesses, obsolete furniture and machinery, arcane belief systems, faint hopes, bloated ambitions, and unrealistic expectations. Most never find their way out again. A lot more nastiness is born and festers there, mutating into unrecognizable forms, content to lie in wait under the ooze for an unsuspecting victim to drift too close.
There is a signature soundtrack to northern Ontario: it includes the lonely call of trains, the pealing of church bells, the manic cry of loons, the caw of crows, and the whir of small engines. In Ferguston, you’d have to add the wail of police and ambulance sirens.
Ferguston is not a happy place. There’s a subtle, insidious ugliness that lives there, like a bad smell only less distinct. It’s in the air, like the particles of soot that used to float around during the coal age. After a while, residents begin to wear it on their bodies without noticing: there’s a heaviness in the way they walk, a shortness of temper, an inherent suspicion of others (neighbours and outsiders alike), a habit of criticizing and complaining about everything, and a resignation to mediocrity. In Ferguston, people snip and snap at one another, nice things get trashed, and broken things stay broken.
I’ve often thought that if Ferguston were to have an official logo, it would be an upraised middle finger.
Stop me if you’ve heard this…
Two long-running jokes about Ferguston that are particularly revealing:
1) On the paradox of having a remarkably stable population despite a notorious teen pregnancy problem: every time a young girl gets pregnant, some young guy leaves town.
2) On the inability of local law enforcement to solve crimes: everyone has the same DNA and there are no dental records.