From CBC Canada Writes:
Below, Arthur Ellis Award finalist Lee Lamothe on the grim facts that inspired his latest novel, Presto Variations—and an excerpt from the book that breaks all the rules of fiction. 

Putting the opening scene together for Presto Variations was simplicity itself. Several years ago, wearing my journalist hat, I researched, from cradle to grave, the paths of illegal Chinese migrants to North America. Boatloads of migrants—called 'pig trains' in the trade—had arrived in western Canada and the U.S. Horror stories abounded: the rapes and murders, the ships that left the East and simply… vanished, presumably to the bottom of the sea, all hands aboard. Whether in Eastern China or Bangkok or Seattle or Vancouver, it was one of those situations—rare for me who generally finds my life boring—where I knew I was living in the exciting middle of an unfolding story, that the details were too horrific, and in some cases heroic, to go unused. The research project had been for a book on the illegal migrant trade; when the book deal fell apart, I shelved the details and waited for a novel. In Presto Variations the hard details are fact; they just needed a story to wrap around them. Even the tiny details I’d vacuumed up in my research got recycled: the girl with the yellow knapsack, the price tag on the dinghy, the fingernails embedded in the walls, the lawyers’ telephone numbers written indelibly on their forearms.

The toughest part of writing Presto was breaking the 'rules' of fiction: to not open with the weather, to not open with block of copy containing no dialogue, and to have my series characters essentially superfluous to the tale.

The Prelude of Presto Variations

It was perfect. It was cold. There was no moon. There were no lovers in parked cars rocking the springs, no stinky homeless camped along the river, tented in scraps of cloth, cardboard boxes, and shopping carts.

The rocks on the river’s edge were crusted with ice and pockets of snow. Football-sized chunks periodically broke away from the rocks and swirled away in the currents. There was a small beach of pebbles littered with tin cans, soda bottles, cigarette packages, and condoms.
America, on the other side, was close, maybe two hundred yards. The lights above a parking lot near a warehouse seemed to beckon.

It was wider, the river, at the pebble beach, but this was the preferred site because it was between two elbows, views from east and west were blocked by the curves. Upriver the span bridge was out of sight except for the very top of its suspension. Downriver, around the bend, was a boats’ landing with a long pier. Only the very tip of the pier was visible.

Between the elbows of the river there were several currents of varying strengths and angles, foaming a little in laces of white where they clashed with each other and battled it out. One of currents was a noticeably bright green, even without a moon; fluorescent effluent from the chemical mill up river on the American side.

The schizo wind was moody, stiff at times, placid at others.

You couldn’t do anything about wind or currents or homeless folks or banging lovers but you could calculate the moonlight and hour.

The pig train huddled on the Canadian shoreline. It consisted of one older man who never spoke, two women of middle age, and a female child. The girl belonged to no one. She was on her way to meet an older brother who’d gone to America ten years earlier, crossing this river at this time of year. The girl had never seen her brother.

One of the women, who spoke with a harsh Fujianese accent, took care of the girl, making sure her cheap Canada Goose knockoff was zipped to her throat, that she kept her toque on and down over her ears. She had ensured that the girl got enough food on the boat trip from China to Vancouver and the truck trip from Vancouver to Toronto and wasn’t molested by the transporters.

The pig train had been brought to the pebble beach along the top of the Great Lakes in an unmarked, windowless van. They were accustomed to the lack of windows, of view, of context, of place. They’d been among hundreds in the ships’ holds for weeks, on one boat from eastern China to southern Thailand and another, the mothership, from southern Thailand across the open ocean to an island off Vancouver. Small fast boats met the mothership at sea and the migrants scrambled down webbing into the care of screaming boatmen who rode the heaving waves like deranged surfers. The speedboats took them to a rocky point where they were off-loaded, identified, counted, and divided into groups of fifteen. The telephone numbers of immigration lawyers were written on their forearms.

Each group was crammed into a cube truck and taken down on a long drive to Vancouver, where they were warehoused in a Chinatown hotel until several pig trains were merged and re-organized by destination and then they were all loaded into transport trucks. Some trucks went south, crossing at Bellingham; others went east.

The pig train on the bank of the river had been driven non-stop across the country. They lived in the dark on donuts that constipated them and tea that made them urinate too often.

They were nervous. Tales had been told of shipping containers being opened by the authorities and the occupants found dead, suffocated by neglect, their fingernails in the walls and doors. Tales of migrants mistaking their urine bottles for their water bottles. Tales of rape and murder.

But the lucky made it to this bank of this river at this time of night in this season. Hope doesn’t cook the rice. It requires effort.

Their jockey, the man who shepherded them from Toronto to the river, had silently held his palm up, Wait, and left them on the riverbank while he drove three athletic young men to the span bridge where they believed they could crawl across undetected on the struts under the roadway.

The pig train waited now for Mr. Presto.


© 2019 Lee Lamothe. All rights reserved.