News and Interviews

The In Character interview, with Terri Favro

Terri Favro

Debbie Reynolds Biondi, the protagonist of Terri Favro's Sputnik's Children (ECW Press), is the author of a beloved comic series. But lately, with her fanbase and her own inspiration waning, things just haven't been the same. There's only one thing left to do: finally reveal the origin story of her comic hero, Sputnik Chick.

It seems like a straight forward solution, until we learn that Sputnik Chick isn't fictional - she's based on Debbie's own experiences in an alternate reality. Or is she? Given Debbie's martini and pill habits, it's unclear just where her wild tales begin and end -- making for a fresh, smart, page-turning novel from CBC Literary Prize finalist Favro. 

We're thrilled to welcome Debbie to Open Book to talk about Debbie as part of our In Character interview series. Terri tells us about the dangers of using real people's names for characters, shares her tips for writing great dialogue, and discusses what she and Debbie have in common. 

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Terri Favro:

Debbie Reynolds Biondi is the creator of an underground comic book, Sputnik Chick, Girl With No Past. I’d describe her as world weary, self-medicating, imaginative, and restless. She is an astronaut into her own past and future. A drifter, not a settler. Because her life spans many years of transitions, especially technological and political ones, she turns into a type of astronaut in time – especially because she believes that she’s lived in two different time continuums.


Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?


I have no control over the people that turn up in my fictional world. None whatsoever. They wander into my office, sit down, make themselves comfortable, and start badgering me. It’s not until I’m in the process of shaping and rewriting the book that I start to take some measure of control but they fight for independence the whole way. I’ve had characters refuse to die. I’ve had characters insist on getting into bed with the wrong person. My characters manage to get themselves into far more interesting situations than I could ever plan out for them. I just scamper along behind them and take notes.


How do you choose names for your characters?


I have bad habit of using real people’s names, which has come back to bite me. In Sputnik’s Children, Debbie’s friend Bum Bum is named after a real kid whose family ran an illegal gambling operation, something people who knew the “real” Bum Bum have directly asked me about. I also try to choose names that reflect a particular generation’s naming conventions: ‘Debbie’ is an everywoman’s name for women born in the mid-1950s, mirroring the popularity of Debbie Reynolds as a movie star. I grew up in a predominantly Eastern and Southern European community, so complicated last names with lots of ‘z’s and multisyllabic names with lots of vowels were normal. I try to observe that in my naming conventions for characters because that’s the reality of the world: just because a person is named ‘Donato’ or ‘Biondi’ or ‘Kowalchuck’ doesn’t mean their ethnicity is central to the story, but I prefer to cast a diverse naming net. I’ve also stolen interesting names from cemetery headstones.


What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?


Don’t overwrite. It’s easy to lean too hard on dialogue to carry the narrative: a chapter made up entirely of dialogue is hard to do well. And it’s usually not that satisfying for a reader: it starts to feel too much like reading a script. Instead, break up dialogue with description of place, for example, or describe what the characters are doing, rather than just what they are saying. Another tip would be to try to make people sound distinctly themselves. You need to consider age, class, gender, life experience, and personality. Don’t stereotype characters by picking up dialogue from characters on TV: listen to real people speaking. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of having older women, for example, sound like a grandmother in a sitcom but people don’t suddenly lapse into playing the role of “Grandma #1” when they reach a certain age. They tend to speak the way they did when they were younger.


Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?


Like Debbie, I was born in the mid-fifties, almost exactly a year to the day before the launch of Sputnik. I grew up in a place similar to the alt-reality town of Shipman’s Corners (an old name for St. Catharines), in a small vineyard, with a father who liked to sit on the roof of the house and an Italian Nonna who had lived in New York for many years and was nicknamed for her dog. Also I attempted to enroll myself in Norman Rockwell’s Famous Artist’s Art School, a correspondence course that advertised itself in comic books. Unlike Debbie, I wasn’t successful in convincing my parents to enroll me. Also unlike Debbie, I’m happily married, with kids, and a house, all the stuff Debbie can’t have because of her “girl with no past” status. But I share Debbie’s imaginative restlessness, which is reflected is the gonzo nature of the stories I write.


Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?


As a child, I loved Lucy Pevensie in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and also Suzuki Beane, the littlest beatnik, from a 1962 book of the same name (written by Sandra Scoppettone, illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh who would go on to write Harriet the Spy). Suzuki Beane was the first book I remember owning and I desperately wanted to be like her: the child of Greenwich Village beatniks. I love so many of Louise Erdrich’s character, it’s hard to narrow the list, but it would include Mary and Celestine in The Beet Queen and Father Damien, a Catholic priest who is actually a woman living as a man, in The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse. Sarah Waters writes characters brilliantly: I especially loved Nan King, the plucky cross-crossing protagonist of Tipping The Velvet.


What are you working on now?


I have a few projects on the go: a graphic novel called Providence about a true unsolved murder in 1930s Toronto which I’m working on in collaboration with my husband, artist Ron Edding; a steampunk novel called United Kingdom of America, based on a short story published in Exile’s anthology Clockwork Canada last year; and I’m just finishing Generation Robot, a non-fiction book about human-robot relationships, inspired my father’s home-built robots in the 1970s. That one will be out early in 2018.


Growing up in the Niagara region during the Cold War, Terri Favro was told, "If they drop the bomb, we’ll be the first to go." Today she is a CBC Literary Prize finalist; author of the award-winning novella, The Proxy Bride; and co-creator of the Bella comic book series. Terri lives in Toronto, Ontario, and blogs at

Buy the Book

Sputnik's Children

A literary, genre-bending novel full of heart

Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.

Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.

Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best. A time-bending novel that delves into the origin story of the Girl with No Past, Sputnik’s Children explores what it was like to come of age in the Atomic Age.