Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crime begins to pay

Author's knowledge of the city's seedy underbelly gives his fiction a kick

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A psychologist might diagnose him with attention-deficit disorder.

But Winnipeg author Michael Van Rooy says he is juggling four part-time jobs and five manuscripts, not to mention a wife and three children, just to keep life interesting.

"My father has given this advice to all my wives," says Van Rooy (pronounced Roo-ey), who has just been named the City of Winnipeg's "arts ambassador" for literature for the 2010 Cultural Capital program.

"Don't let him get bored."

Van Rooy puts this sentiment in the mouth of his protagonist on the second page of his third crime thriller, A Criminal to Remember, which his Winnipeg publisher, Turnstone Press, launched Wednesday night at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

A semi-reformed ex-convict who prowls the mean streets of Winnipeg's North End, Monty Haaviko debuted in 2005 in An Ordinary Decent Criminal, Van Rooy's first published book. He returned in the 2008 followup, Your Friendly Neighbhourhood Criminal.

"I've had a colourful past, but Monty is not me," says Van Rooy, a huge and handsome man with an intense manner. "He's a composite of hundreds of bad guys I've known."

We'll get to the colourful past in a bit. First, let's talk about Van Rooy's exciting present.

His first two Criminal thrillers, dark, graphic and funny, sold last fall to Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press, which is publishing them under its mystery imprint, Minotaur. ODC is slated for release, in hardcover no less, Aug. 3; YFNC will come out in 2011.

"It's been a long time since I've come across such a strong voice and such a compelling anti-hero," says Peter Wolverton, Thomas Dunne's Manhattan-based associate publisher and executive editor.

"One of the coolest parts of the book are the asides that we get from Monty on how criminals -- and I mean successful criminals -- work. It's like getting trade secrets. And it is so deftly handled."

Turnstone has contracted Van Rooy to write a fourth Haaviko thriller, tentatively titled The League of Extraordinary Criminals.

The first, by the way, was shortlisted earlier this month for the Winnipeg Foundation's annual On the Same Page promotion. A film version of ODC, co-produced by Winnipeg's Farpoint Films, is also in the works.

Its director, screenwriter and co-producer, Roman Buchok, has received a letter of intent from a distributor, which greatly improves the chance of a green light.

"It's a classic prodigal-son story," says Buchok, who has been an assistant director on numerous national TV productions.

"Monty is a bad guy who tries to do good but is stumped at every turn."

Van Rooy was born in Kamloops, B.C., but landed in Winnipeg in time for kindergarten. Between his parents, both teachers, he has Dutch, Scottish, English, Norwegian and American blood. He says he always wanted to be a writer.

"I did my first stories at five," says Van Rooy, who has an older sister, Alison, a policy analyst in Ottawa. "I was 15 when I won my first writing contest."

After graduating from Sisler High School, he studied history at the University of Manitoba and moonlighted as a blackjack dealer in one of the province's early casinos.

This put him in the vicinity of some disreputable characters. At age 21 he was found guilty of two charges of armed robbery.

"I didn't do it," he insists, despite some caginess about this chapter in his life. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He spent nearly two years as a guest of the criminal justice system, doing time in Stony Mountain and Rockwood Institution before receiving parole.

But the experience, which he recommends to no one, haunted him for more than a decade after and obviously informs his writing even now.

"Who will hire you?" he says. "You can't be bonded. Nobody trusts you."

At six-foot-six and 290 pounds, he worked as a bouncer and a bartender, then a bar manager and restaurant manager. In the early 2000s he managed the McNally Robinson Booksellers' Prairie Ink Cafés. And he wrote novels on the side.

In 2000, he sent his first version of ODC to Turnstone, which had launched its crime imprint, Ravenstone, in 1998. Todd Besant, then managing editor, was blown away by its dynamite opening -- all three books begin with killer set pieces -- and its compelling voice and lead character, which carried through to the end.

"Michael likes to joke that I made him do 11 rewrites," says Besant, who now manages the University of Winnipeg's Virtuosi Concert Series. "Actually, it was only seven."

The veteran Turnstone editor and writer Wayne Tefs, who helped him shape the manuscript, asked him early on how he knew so much about the mechanics of criminal life.

"He smiled at me wryly," Tefs recalls. "Then he said something about the Internet being good for research."

Van Rooy is indeed a big fan of research and books in general. As we speak, he holds down administrative jobs with the Thin Air Winnipeg writers festival, the Winnipeg Writers Collective and the Canadian Mennonite University writing school. He also teaches fiction writing to teens in an Arts and Cultural Industries program. Winning the arts ambassador gig forced him to resign his freelance gig writing the Free Press's publishing news column, Paperchase.

"He's the kindest, most gentle man," says his friend Tara Clark, a Health Canada employee. "But he has the most devious and frightening imagination."

Van Rooy and his wife Laura Neufeld (who is merely spouse No. 2, despite his earlier hyperbole) live in Fort Rouge with their kids, aged 12-20.

Between paying jobs, he types away at any of several projects, including a documentary script on military history, a children's book called Hamster Under the Fridge and a novel, One Man Running, aimed specifically at the U.S. market.

"I like books where something happens," says Van Rooy, who estimates he sleeps five hours a night.

"I like conflict and plot development and character activity."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2010 D1

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