Alumni Spotlight: Todd Babiak

What Are We Doing This For?

Photo supplied

Photo supplied

From a very young age, all of Todd Babiak’s teachers and mentors have encouraged him to write—except one. Every Monday in Grade 6, Babiak would write short stories along with his classmates, and the teacher would take them all in to review. One day, she brought Babiak’s parents in to talk about what their son had been writing, and, as he explains it, “before they even sat down…she started crying and said she was haunted by me and that my stories kept her up at night and she was worried about me and that I either had to go see a psychiatrist or move to another class, because she couldn’t have me in class anymore.”

His parents, obviously concerned, took the story home to see what had frightened the teacher so much. But instead of crying out in terror, his parents laughed as they read it. The story begins with Babiak’s family gathering at their cabin near Skeleton Lake. “Billy Smith the hockey player has escaped from a mental institution after hitting Gretzky too many times,” recounts Babiak. “And he starts murdering my family—gruesomely murdering them. He starts eating them after he kills them—each person was killed in a different way specific to their personality. And the hero, Todd, saves them, punches him in the stomach, and then he saves all the family members and they dance over his corpse.” His parents loved the story so much, they photocopied it and shared it with the rest of the family, who got as big a kick out of it.

Since that moment, Babiak has enjoyed writing stories, but the path to becoming a published writer wasn’t clear to him. At the University of Alberta he majored in Political Science and minored in English. “But I did exactly thirty credits of [my major],” says Babiak. “I had a very, very broad BA, and I did as many things as I could do.”

He was set on going to law school and began asking his favourite professors for letters of recommendation. In a Nonfiction Creative Writing class, his professor Ted Bishop had written only one comment on one of his essays: “You are a writer.” When Babiak asked him for a reference letter, Bishop said, “I don’t think you should be a lawyer. Why don’t you go to a graduate school in Creative Writing and be a writer?” Knowing he’d always wanted to write a book someday and that he may be haunted by his decision if he became a lawyer and couldn’t find time to write, Babiak took Bishop’s advice. Babiak admits, “If it wasn’t for Ted, for sure I’d be a lawyer.” 

He moved to Montreal to earn his Master’s in English Literate at Concordia University. Since then, he’s written several best-selling books, including The Garneau Block, from which this magazine got its name. In the novel, neighbours on a block near the University of Alberta band together to save their neighbourhood from being annexed by the university. To do so, they decide they will build a museum in the shape of a glass buffalo head, and ask the citizens of Edmonton to bring their objects of “mythic power”—anything with a significant story to it—to be stored in the museum. It’s a humourous book, filled with many quirky characters that could only live in Edmonton. These characteristics are common across most of Babiak’s books as he notes one question he always asks is, “What makes a community unique?”

In his other books, the theme of violence comes up a lot, particularly in his most recent ones, the political thriller Come Barbarians and its sequel Son of France. The change in tone in his books—from humour to serious crime—was spurred by what he was reading at the time. “I was reading a lot of John le Carré and more sophisticated European thrillers, and I’m interested in politics too. So I was able to put politics and fatherhood and crime novels and France all together in a book.” The process of writing these fast-paced books has changed how he writes. He explains, “I’d probably have way less patience for scenes that did not turn…for clever dialogue for the sake of dialogue, cuteness for the sake of cuteness. Does this advance the story or not?”

On top of writing popular books, Babiak also runs his own business: Story Engine. “We’re more of a core strategy company,” he explains. “We create a master story for the organization: why they exist in the first place, which involves a lot of research and interviews. So we bring in journalism and we bring in the skills you gain as a fiction writer. We develop this master story and we develop tactics to make it come to life in a very consistent way.” Babiak and his company bring a Liberal Arts way of thinking back into business. “It fits,” he says. “It never feels weird—it’s not like we’re banging drums or playing with crayons.”

Babiak encourages emerging writers to be curious and put themselves out there. Volunteering is one way to do so. “You start to meet people who are outside of your normal sphere,” he says, “and, if you’re bold, you can ask them for a coffee or for a drink and just suck up years of experience and success and failure.” And no matter whether you take on a full-time job or pursue writing as a career, try to carve out time in the morning to write. As Babiak says, “I’m filled with chaos at the end of the day, and in the morning when it’s quite, I can really focus. I’m sure my best thinking happens in the early morning and I get to give it to myself.”

Why does Babiak believe we write? “I’m interested in helping businesses find meaning and individuals find meaning,” says Babiak. “I think meaning is what I’m seeking, more than a mass audience. Not to say I’m not a total whore and I don’t absolutely want millions of people to read my stuff, and I don’t someday want to write that book that everyone reads… [But] I want to move people. What are we doing this for? We want to move people—I really think that’s what we want to do.”

—Matthew Stepanic