News / Toronto

Art imitates life: Author bases character on Rob Ford

Author Robert Rotenberg was in the business of turning Toronto into fiction before Toronto become stranger than fiction.

Now that the scandal hanging over Toronto's mayor is making worldwide headlines, our city has become something like a real-life detective novel you’d enjoy reading but consider too noir and rife with convenient plot twists to ring true, Rotenberg seems a bit prescient.

“When people say you can’t write this stuff, I say why don’t you read my books,” he said Wednesday. “But that’s why it’s getting headlines all over the world. It’s a such an extreme situation and that’s why it’s so fascinating.”

Rotenberg is a criminal defence lawyer who has written four detective novels, all set in Toronto. His most recent, Stranglehold, features a character with a dark side, who runs for mayor on a platform of direct communication with taxpayers, eradicating graffiti and coaching underprivileged suburban high school kids' football.

It was published May 7, about a week before the crack video scandal broke.

“I used to joke this whole thing was a Simon & Schuster publicity stunt,” he said.

Rotenberg said he wrote Rob Ford-like character Hap Charlton, partly based on what he saw in Ford.

“Part of me has been thinking, this is exactly what I thought was going to happen,” said Rotenberg. “Anyone who seriously doubted there was a video was fooling themselves. Half the city was in denial. But even before that, there were so many signs of (Ford’s) reckless behaviour.”

Rotenberg sees Ford as someone who’s in too deep, great as a councillor who raised a worthwhile fuss over city spending and dealt with constituents’ potholes, but lacking some skills required in a mayor.

“Novels are about people who get in over their head and have to climb their way out,” he said.

One of the compelling parts of Ford’s real life is his relationship with his brother Doug.

“I’ve been saying from the beginning I think this is a little brother, big brother story,” said Rotenberg. “It’s a younger brother wanting to impress his older brother.”

When Ford said Tuesday the hardest part of the revealing he’d smoked crack was telling his brother, it struck Rotenberg as odd, given that Ford is the mayor and has a wife and kids.

“As a writer, they’re great characters. We all want characters who are flawed and they’re something larger than life,” he added.

But Ford’s story isn’t fiction and Rotenberg has real concerns about Ford’s apparent inability to stop his dangerous behaviour. In real life, like in fiction, when people get in trouble with the law their hidden secrets tend to become public and that can be the hardest thing for them to deal with, he said.

“I suspect there are lot more twists and turns in this story yet to come,” he said.

Rotenberg will be doing a reading at the Toronto Reference Library Thursday at 7 p.m.

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