A ‘secret passion’ uncovered

Rick Mofina stole an hour each morning before work to complete his first crime novel. Now, he’s penning his fourth. Christine Roger talks to a literary success story.

His mother died a few weeks before his first novel hit the paperback stands throughout North America. She would never know the elder of her two sons would become a crime novelist. Nor would she know his first novel, If Angels Fall, would be nominated for the 2001 Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award, or that his second novel, Cold Fear, would be the 13th best-selling paperback in Canada in the summer of 2001.

Rick Mofina kept his “secret passion” for writing hidden from everyone except his wife and two children. He harboured his secret for a decade, rising early to create characters that he would later hear his readers discuss as if they truly existed. He wrote for an hour every morning before going to the Calgary Herald where he worked as a crime reporter. It wasn’t until he knew he would be published that he told friends and colleagues about his secret.

I met Rick Mofina, 44, at Coles Books in Place d’Orleans on Nov. 13. He wore a t-shirt underneath a blue corduroy shirt, sweat pants and running shoes. He held a dark leather briefcase in which he carried pages of his current manuscript. He sat at a display table on which were neatly placed copies of If Angels Fall and Cold Fear. His brown eyes peered at me through his square, dark-rimmed glasses that rested slightly down his nose. Under the store’s lights, silver streaks of hair spoke of a maturing man, of a maturing author.

Mofina was hired at the Calgary Herald as a summer student in 1987 after studying journalism and English literature at Carleton University. Originally from Belleville, he soon found himself in unfamiliar territory hanging out with homicide detectives and frequenting prison cells and crime scenes. “There are parts of the Prairies that are spectacular, majestic and haunting,” says Mofina his eyes lighting up. “I fell in love with the place for that atmosphere.”

Sheldon Alberts has known Mofina since 1987 when they worked together at the Herald.

“He was a police reporter for a long time,” says Alberts. “He was a mentor to a lot of people who started at the Herald,” adds Alberts, now a reporter in the Ottawa bureau of the National Post “He’s completely generous with his time.”

While Mofina roamed the Prairies, he collected details he would use in If Angels Fall. As a crime writer, he drew on his experience as a crime reporter to create a fictional world. “It’s good to write about what you know,” says Mofina, who knows first-hand about homicide investigations. “In the real world of crime reporting, justice isn’t always served.” In the fictional world, Mofina can take readers to places they’ve never been, then offer them a “happy ending.” “It’s an intensely intimate process,” he says.

“To the memory of my mother,” reads the dedication in Cold Fear. Mofina’s parents, who spoke Polish at home, weren’t well-read. His mother was born in Canada to a Polish-Russian mother and Romanian father. The Mofinas on his father’s side migrated from Italy to Poland several centuries ago.

“My dad’s never read the books. My dad’s not a big book reader.” His father, Walter Mofina, immigrated from Poland after the Second World War. It’s no coincidence that one of the main characters has a Polish name, Sydowski. “I used my dad’s bio loosely and came up with a Polish name for the main cop because there’s a lot of good Polish detectives,” says Mofina, who writes out of his home in Orleans.

Mofina, a national reporter for Southam News for the last two years, says he feels fortunate to be working as a journalist. “You’re covering history as it unfolds every day,” he says.

“You’re offering the first renderings of what your government is doing as objectively as possible. I feel honoured and privileged to be part of it,” he says with conviction. “Writing fiction is a totally different world. And I feel privileged and lucky to be able to do that.”

A young woman stopped to chat with Mofina about his novels. He told her that they have continuing characters. Two main characters in If Angels Fall play a supporting role in Cold Fear. She asked him whether he was a Canadian author. The first novel is set in Montana near Alberta; the second, in San Francisco.

Book in hand, she watched Mofina diligently spell out the name she dictated in his reporter’s notebook. He then signed the book with flowing, blue letters.

Mofina’s publisher, Kensington Publishing, suggested American settings for the mass-market paperbacks. In Cold Fear, however, Mofina brings in the Mounties to help the Rangers when a child gets lost in the wilderness.

“There are significant Canadian elements (in the third novel) that weave themselves in naturally,” says Mofina visibly pleased with his small victory. These will include scenes in Toronto, Ottawa and the Rockies, west of Calgary.

“He’s as good as some of the top Americans,” says Linda Wiken, owner of Prime Crime Books on Bank Street, who has known Mofina since she organized his first book launch at the National Library almost two years ago.

“It shows that he’s a journalist because he uses his words sparingly.” Wiken felt that he rushed the ending with his first novel. “He’s maturing as he’s writing,” says Wiken who also read his second novel. “He started at a good level,” she added. “It didn’t read like a first novel.”

Alberts had a different perspective on both novels. “There are elements of good crime reporters in terms of their storytelling instincts.”

Alberts reflected on the discipline that’s required of his friend and colleague. “He’s got his nose to the grindstone, and you don’t ever see it show in terms of added stress levels.”

It wasn’t until Mofina left high school that he began to read the classics such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. “It’s a superb psychological crime novel.”

He listed three American authors that have a direct influence on his writing: Hemingway, for his clarity and simplicity; James M Cain, a detective fiction writer; and Elmore Leonard, a mystery-suspense writer. His training in news writing, he says, is reflected in his writing style.

“I do most of my writing in the wee hours. I try to get up between five and six and put in an hour,” says Mofina.

“You want to keep the embers going to make sure you have enough heat to start it (fire) up the next day.” Mofina regrets that he has little time for reading now that he’s writing a book a year.

His third book, Blood of Others, will be released next summer. He’s currently working on his fourth novel, scheduled for 2003. “It would be nice to have one out every six months rather than one every year.”

There may come a time when he will want to dedicate more time to writing, he says. “My family’s very accommodating and understanding,” says Mofina who balances family life with reporting and writing. “I’m quite lucky.”

The self-effacing Mofina quietly took his cellphone out of his shirt pocket, looked at it and told me without alarm the store would be closing soon.

I hadn’t noticed the time. I had spent the past three hours talking to him about literature, about journalism, about life.

I got home that night in Hull and thought about my own writing.