Q & A with Gail Picco, author of What the Enemy Thinks

Writing has beenSandy Tam Photography-Gail01 3 a large part of your work for many years–direct mail copy, cases for support and so on, writing that’s been used to raise millions of dollars.  You also write a regular blog, yourworkinggirl.com. Why did you decide to write a novel?

The writing I do for work is very much work. Direct mail and marketing copy, for example, is empirically measured for its effectiveness in raising money, which means it has to be extraordinarily precise. Cases for support allow you to a bit more room to maneuver, but they still have a job to do besides captivate. And the blog is commentary. It’s non-fiction, based mostly on serious fact. Sometimes I write about baseball or F1 racing for fun. But a novel … well … a novel, to me, that’s like diving into the deep end of a swimming pool–thrilling and scary.

Most people think about bake sales and walk-a-thons when they think of charity. But the picture you paint in your book is that it’s a bit of a cut-throat business. 

At root, the book is about a woman with huge responsibilities who is faced with worst kind of betrayal and what she does to cope, so in that respect, the theme is universal. But the book is set in the charity business. And charity is a huge business. That’s the reality of it. The nonprofit sector is the third largest employment sector in Canada after retail and manufacturing. In the U.S., it’s the second largest employment sector.  Within that, there are many stories to tell, not the least of which is who makes money and the nature of our collective response to suffering.

What the Enemy Thinks contains some pretty convincing scenes of substance abuse. Did you do any particular kind of research for that?

I think I fall into the category of people who have been around a time or two. And anyone who has been in my line of work for any length of time at all doesn’t have to look very far to see how people are affected by substance abuse. It’s ubiquitous. At one end of the spectrum, you have a lot of highly functioning people who can continue to pay for their drug of choice whether it’s fine wine, cocaine or Percocet. At the other end of the spectrum, you have strung out people on the street bumming for their next hit of crack. It’s a short walk to the other side. The walk back, however, that’s an entirely different thing.

There are a lot of references to popular music in your novel. Did you think this necessary to tell the story?

I guess I could have told the story without those references, maybe, and it would still have made sense, but for me music has almost always come first. A lot of the direct mail letters I’ve written were preceded by a Springsteen song or two. When the Sony Walkman was put on the market I was overjoyed. I could now have the soundtrack I thought my life deserved! To me music is as essential as breathing or sleeping and there’s not much in the world that music won’t make better. So, for me, the music excerpts in the book add a sense of place and time.

We are introduced to a lot of compelling characters in What the Enemy Thinks You Have. Are they based on anyone you know?

I think the characters are based on everyone I know! There are bits and pieces I’ve drawn from people I grew up with, worked with, hung out with and am related to. They are hugely composite. The exception is the character of Samantha Reed, Beck Carnell’s best friend who becomes very ill. The medical aspect of that storyline is actually based on the experience of a good friend of mine.

The scenes set in Newfoundland are some of the most evocative in the book. Did you draw these from your own upbringing and family?

The presence of Newfoundland throughout the book is very much related to my own feelings about the place and how landscape forms identity. There’s one scene towards the end of the book where Beck is back in Newfoundland taking in her surroundings and thinking she could just dissolve back into the moss, dirt and trees from whence she came. Newfoundland feels like that to me. I feel like I am an extension of the physical place. And being one of many Newfoundlanders who moved away to find work, I hold in my heart an intensely romanticized ideal of the place. But any way you look at it, it’s got a lot of love and a lot of heart. For me, it’s a magical place really, where things happen in ways you don’t necessarily see anyplace else.