How Robert Hough got to be where he is today

Robert Hough grew up in the then-outer fringes of Mississauga, a bedroom community just west of Toronto. His father was a chemist (he made penicillin for Canada Packers) and his mother was a nurse on a psychiatric ward (at dinner, she entertained her family with stories of the patients in her ward, one of whom once hijacked a TTC bus while wearing a hospital gown). It thus came as little surprise when, 21 years after his birth, Hough found myself doing a thesis at Queen’s University in psycho-pharmacology – he injected adult male Wistar rats with liquid valium, and then taught them to memorize a pathway through a radial-arm maze. Though Hough remains a little foggy as to why he did this, he does seem to remember that it had something to do with the effects of tranquilizers on spatial memory. He is sure of one thing, however: he vowed that if he never saw the inside of a research laboratory again it’d be too soon. So. 1985. School over and done with. Degree in hand. What on earth to do? Robert Hough got a job as a media estimator for Baker & Lovick, a no-longer-existing ad agency in downtown Toronto, for which he was paid the exorbitant salary of $10,000 per annum. Seven months later he left.

This was a blessing: at Queen’s, Hough had written a satiric column for one of the school papers, and his departure from the world of advertising forced him to find out whether he could ever get someone to pay him to write. While collecting miniscule unemployment cheques, he wrote his first articles from a crappy, bathroom-less apartment that he shared with an upholsterer from London, England.

Most of these articles were done for free; one publication, a lefty arts paper called NOW, gave Hough $150 to write a predictably withering article about disappearing farm land. Depressed and impoverished — Hough recalls price-checking vinegar bottles at a discount grocery store in Kensington Market, and then picking the one that was nine cents less — he took a job as a fact-checker with a décor magazine called Ontario Living.

Hough’s job was to phone up article subjects and ask them such probing questions as, “would you describe the wood trim in your study as … you know … sassy red?” Ontario Living folded within the year. Again, it was deserved. Yet with a few industry contacts now under his belt, Robert Hough started writing articles for consumer magazines that actually paid contributors. For the next dozen years, he played the freelance writer’s game, a game requiring hustle, pluck and, most of all, the determination of a fool. He didn’t so much read newspapers, as comb them for magazine ideas. Every conversation at every party was monitored for possible article topics. Every time Robert Hough left his apartment — if he had anything resembling a “beat,” it was the strange goings-on in the city of Toronto — he did so with the hopes of tripping over something worth writing about. This existence was about as calming as it sounds, so in 1999 Hough began researching an idea for a novel about a long-forgotten Ringling Brothers’ tiger trainer.

The rest, as they say, might one day be history …