RODDY DOYLE AND THE BANFF ELK

I was pleased to see that the lead review in Sunday’s New York Times was a new collection of stories, Life Without Children, by Ireland’s Roddy Doyle. Roddy and I became friends after he toured Canada to promote an earlier book, and visited Calgary and Banff when I was hanging around, a friendly Publisher trying to be a helpful Canadian host. I often did things like this, once stepping in to help an under-manned Calgary Authors Festival event, where I got to introduce three authors, including the remarkable James Houston. He stole the show with his opening line from the stage, “I’m a REALLY old guy! And I’ve had a hell of an interesting life!” (In the general celebration afterwards, one young woman noticed how much fun I was having, as a Publisher. She asked a shrewd question; “How do I get to do what you do?” I hope she made it.)

In one of my books I tell the story of how Roddy’s visit to the Banff Festival coincided with rutting season for the elk who roamed around the Banff Centre for the Arts, where we were all staying. I had been there a few years previously, also at rutting time.

There had been an incident.

Guy Vanderhaeghe, the brilliant novelist from Saskatoon, had come out after breakfast in the cafeteria, to find a male elk blocking the way to his residence up the hill. The elk looked frisky, so Guy, a sensible man, decided to wait until the elk and his harem moved on. Unfortunately, a young woman came out of the cafeteria and headed straight up the hill. Guy, a polite man, not inclined to issue instructions to strangers , suggested that, um, it might be smart to wait until the elk drifted away.

The woman was not impressed. “I will walk wherever I please”, she said, and began to march up the hill.

In Guy’s words, “She ended up behind a tree”. She was now keenly aware that the huge elk’s antlers, and its sharp hooves, were dangerous weapons. As Guy tells it, in order to help he took out a white handkerchief and started to wave it at the elk. Shyly.

Enter Robert Kroetsch, in Banff as a poetry instructor. Surprisingly, his poetic skills gave him the confidence to stride straight at the elk, shooing it away. The trapped woman scuttled off, not pausing to thank Bob Kroetsch or Guy Vanderhaeghe, or his white hankie.

Now, years later, Roddy Doyle was in Banff in the Fall. Rutting time is accompanied by very serious annual warnings about the dangers. Like me Roddy was staying at the Banff Centre, and we made sure that he took the elk warnings seriously. Roddy, a small, neat man (whom I later saw on a visit to Dublin, along with Colm Toibin, whose 2021 novel, The Magician, I warmly recommend) was very surprised by this threat. This was new to him, he explained to his Banff Centre audience, in his North-Dublin accent. He was prepared for most of the hazards facing a touring author, but these had never before included “the danger of being focked by an elk.”

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Claude Aubry’s Agouhanna

Fifty years ago, in Spring 1972, I published a book about a young Indigenous boy, growing up in Canada “just before the coming of the white man”. It was intended to attract young readers, before the age of 12, and, at 79 illustrated pages, sold for $4.50.

Brave days!

And it was a brave book, because young Agouhanna was , as I recall from a phrase we used to promote the book, “the little Indian who was afraid”. He was terrified of the wild forest, its noise and its silences, and as a chief’s son, he was not naturally inclined to pass leadership tests with ease. Yet as a boy who would not eat meat out of respect for other living creatures he was determined to become a man without violence or warfare.

Of course, this was a book written about native life by a white man, which raises questions in our minds today . But it was written in French, a fact that gave me great pride, although I had little to do with the fine translator, Harvey Swados, or the illustrator, Julie Brinckloe. The author was the amazing Claude Aubry.

Claude was a proud Francophone. born in Morin Heights in the Laurentians in 1914. As a country boy he had to walk three kilometres through field and forest to get to school. He was a good scholar, and in due course got his B.A. from the University of Montreal. As a bilingual student with impressive knowledge of English he got his B.L.S. from McGill, and became a major figure in the Library world, eventually becoming the Director of the Ottawa Public Library and of the Eastern Ontario Regional Library System.

And he wrote! Two of his books, The King of the Thousand Islands and The Christmas Wolf, won major Canadian prizes. Meanwhile, besides Agouhanna, with its sympathetic look at another culture, he gave us all the remarkable book The Magic Fiddler and Other Legends of French Canada.

I knew him well. Somehow Claude and I developed such a friendship that distinguished publishing events would find their cocktail parties disturbed by the white-haired Claude and the long-haired Doug, sneaking around other guests, firing imaginary pistols at each other. We were both good at it, as I recall. And he was a delightful man. I’m happy to pay a tribute to him now.

An Interesting Interview with Douglas Gibson

Please see the link below, which reveals a long, and very unusual, interview with people in Edinburgh who run a site dedicated to publishing in Scotland. They conducted a very thorough interview with me, where I talk at some length about my Scottish background, and then my career in Canada.

By the way, Anthony Jenkins and I have just completed a new book, GREAT SCOTS: Major Canadian Author with Links to Scotland…….By Douglas Gibson, illustrated by Anthony Jenkins.

The search is now on for a Publisher to take on these 35 interesting writers, from Sir Alexander MacKenzie all the way through John Galt to John Buchan/Lord Tweedsmuir and Lucy Maud Montgomery and Alistair MacLeod all the way to Alice Munro, and beyond!

Publishing in Canada: Interview with Douglas Gibson

Celebrating Alice Munro’s 90th Birthday

Today’s Not-so Deliberate Mistake. Alice was born, of course, in 1931, not 1921, as I foolishly wrote here.

Douglas Gibson

On Saturday, July 10, 2021, Alice Munro will turn 90. Since she is , so far, Canada’s only Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, this will be an occasion for the country to mark with pride.

In 1921 The Wingham Advance-Times announced the birth: “Laidlaw – In Wingham General Hospital on Friday, July 10th, to Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Laidlaw, a daughter, Alice Ann.” From that simple beginning in Huron County, Ontario, Alice Laidlaw went on to a career that involved meeting and marrying a man at Western named Jim Munro. In time he became a bookseller in Victoria, with his wife Alice working in the bookstore, while producing three fine daughters and, oh yes, writing short stories on the side.

Those short stories proved to be the beginning of a major literary career, so that one important magazine, The Atlantic, stated with confidence in 2001 that “Alice Munro is the living…

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Celebrating Alice Munro’s 90th Birthday

On Saturday, July 10, 2021, Alice Munro will turn 90. Since she is , so far, Canada’s only Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, this will be an occasion for the country to mark with pride.

In 1921 The Wingham Advance-Times announced the birth: “Laidlaw – In Wingham General Hospital on Friday, July 10th, to Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Laidlaw, a daughter, Alice Ann.” From that simple beginning in Huron County, Ontario, Alice Laidlaw went on to a career that involved meeting and marrying a man at Western named Jim Munro. In time he became a bookseller in Victoria, with his wife Alice working in the bookstore, while producing three fine daughters and, oh yes, writing short stories on the side.

Those short stories proved to be the beginning of a major literary career, so that one important magazine, The Atlantic, stated with confidence in 2001 that “Alice Munro is the living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years’ time.”

Consider the list of books that she has produced over her career– all of them, please note, collections of short stories, although one of them, Lives of Girls and Women, 1971, was inaccurately presented as a novel, because of the publishing world’s belief in those days that “short stories don’t sell”. Alice Munro helped to change that.

In order of publication Alice Munro’s books are, Dance of the Happy Shades, Lives of Girls and Women, Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You, Who Do You Think You Are? (published outside Canada with the inferior title The Beggar Maid), The Moons of Jupiter, The Progress of Love, Friend of My Youth, Open Secrets, Selected Stories, The Love of a Good Woman, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Runaway, and The View from Castle Rock. An astonishing record.

Now, sadly, Alice is not writing any new material. Instead she is living quietly at home in small town, Ontario, and is avoiding any further public engagements. But her stories live on, and her millions of admirers, like me, (and I was lucky enough to work with her from Who Do You Think You Are? onward until The View from Castle Rock) will wish to celebrate her long life.

Supporting the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour

Recently I learned that this Award was in grave danger of disappearing, because the money to keep it alive was shrinking. I knew that over the years the annual Prize had played a huge role in advancing the careers of some authors. I knew, too, that in a modern world of shrinking financial returns for writers the money won by the successful author is very useful . Just think……food, drink, warm clothes!

So, encouraged by the example of my friend Terry Fallis, I made a contribution.

Then, I realized that instead of just making a financial contribution I could tell a few stories about Leacock, the Award, and me. One thing led to another, and this week David Mallinson, in charge of the fund-raising drive, published my essay.

I’m attaching it here, for your pleasure:–

STEPHEN LEACOCK CHANGED MY LIFE

When I was a boy growing up in rainy Glasgow, inside the school library I came across the work of Stephen Leacock. His Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses had me chortling, and wanting to learn more about this very funny writer. It turned out that he was a Canadian. Aha! Obviously Canadian writers were excellent. If I were to get the chance to visit Canada….

One thing led to another, and after St. Andrews I got a scholarship that took me to Yale. After that I got a Greyhound Bus pass that took me across America, so that I entered Canada off the ferry at Victoria. Heading east I spent many hours gazing out of the bus window at lakes and trees in Northern Ontario. Then fields and farms and maple trees appeared, and soon we were approaching a sunny little town of orange brick named Orillia. Wait a minute! Surely this was the place that Leacock had….. and of course it was, and in a sense I had arrived at the Canada I was seeking.

We got to stretch our legs there, and the sun was shining, and the little town did indeed look like a scene of “deep and unbroken peace” – although I knew that, in reality, the place was “a perfect hive of activity”.

Some months later, in March 1968, I got an editorial job in Toronto. The very first book I got to edit was, of course, a biography of Stephen Leacock.

That book, a serious study by Montreal’s David M. Legate, was not a candidate for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. But I have a weakness for publishing funny books, so over the years I have been involved with many celebrations of this important Award. The winning authors included Harry J. Boyle (who enjoyed being Mariposa’s Honorary Mayor, and who changed my life by introducing me to a Huron County friend named Alice Munro). There was Robert Thomas Allen (author of Children, Wives and Other Wildlife) who at the grand Dinner was delighted, but shy. Donald Jack (after winning the Leacock Award for both Three Cheers for Me and That’s Me in The Middle ) played up to the role of his character, Bartholomew Bandy, by dressing in a cocked hat. The irrepressible W.O. Mitchell misbehaved, and to my horror got into a public spat with a cousin.

I’ve been involved with publishing many former Leacock Award winners like Eric Nicol, Pierre Berton, and Robertson Davies. But perhaps the best story involves Terry Fallis. Terry, whom I knew as a friend, had self-published a funny book called The Best Laid Plans in 2007. But its future was very limited. Until Terry read that self-published books could be entered for the Leacock Award. So he entered, and won! This brought me into the picture very fast, and I went on to publish this hidden book, which has now sold over 100,000 copies!

So the Leacock Award continues to do very good work. It deserves our support.

 

If you would like to help the Leacock Award Fund-raising drive, use the link here, or copy it into your browser.

https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/Leacock_Medal/pay?utm_campaign=story-update&utm_medium=email&utm_source=09-2020

TRUE ROMANCE…..A final note, which you may know if you’ve followed my book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. There I talk about how, having lured me to Canada, Leacock is apparently still hovering over me. In the summer of 2001 I went to Geneva Park, near Orillia, to give a speech to the Couchiching Conference on globalization and publishing, or something equally grand. At the conference was a member of the board named Jane Bartram, who was to my smitten eyes clearly The Most Fascinating Woman in the World. During the first evening’s sober political conversation I attracted her attention by recounting what I had learned that day about the rules of the Jumping Frog Competition at the Sutton Fair, Leacock territory in every sense. Our first date was a canoe ride together on Lake Couchiching, where we did not quite reach Leacock’s Old Brewery Bay on the opposite shore. But having brought me to Canada he was still obviously running my life. Jane and I were married within the year, and are still going strong, 19 years later .

Keep up the good work, Professor Leacock.

 

 

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GOLD RUSH, A JUST-PUBLISHED BOOK OF POETRY BY CLAIRE CALDWELL

These are difficult days for all of us. Imagine how hard it must be for a young author to bring out a new book. And for the gallant publisher, in this case Invisible Books, trying to give an exciting new book a virtual launch on April 1, 2020, into a world we barely recognise.

I’m glad to play my part in beating an enthusiastic drum, or ten, because I know Claire Caldwell and her work very well. She is a cousin of mine! Her grandfather, Douglas Caldwell (after whom I was named) was my mother’s first cousin. Her father, Doug Caldwell, and her mother Judy McAlpine, both CBC Radio stalwarts in their day, are good friends. And right now they’re bursting their britches with pride at Claire’s new book.

GOLD RUSH is an 80-page collection of poems. The publisher’s catalogue description is intriguing. You can read the entire description at the website invisiblepublishing.com/product/gold-rush . It begins: “From the Klondike to an all-girls summer camp to the frontier of outer space, GOLD RUSH explores what it means to be a settler woman in the wilderness.” The description ends: “Whether they’re trekking the Chilkoot Trail, exploring the frontiers of their own bodies and desires, or navigating an unstable, unfamiliar climate, the girls and women in these poems are pioneers — in all the complexities contained by the term.”

Obviously, I’m too much of a cheerleader to be totally reliable guide to the quality of Claire’s poems. So let’s turn to JOHN IRVING:    “A salute to Neil Young’s enduring prophecy “mother nature on the run”, but it’s scarier now — it’s not the 1970s. Claire Caldwell is an environmental doomsayer, but she’s also a comedic, antic storyteller, and she’s great at dark endings. Wilderness women are her storytellers; they speak with the melancholy of country music. “One day, I vanished,” says one. Another says, “To wear the moon like a breast.” From actresses fording a river: “Applause had softened us.” Nothing soft about these poems.”

Thank you, John Irving.

ABOUT CLAIRE CALDWELL. Claire is a children’s book editor at Annick Press (another fine reason to give her our support, an editor who writes!). She is also a kids’ writing workshop facilitator. Her debut poetry collection Invasive Species (Wolsak and Wynn) was named one of The National Post’s top 5 poetry books of 2014. Claire, who spent many of her early years in the Yukon, was a 2016 writer in residence at the Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon. She was the 2013 winner of The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. She has a BA from McGill, and an MFA from the University of Guelph.

THE BOOK OF NEGROES AND THE ROLE OF SCOTS

Like so many readers around the world I was deeply moved by Lawrence Hill’s 2007 work, The Book of Negroes. Although it is supposedly fiction, this book of “memoirs” set down around 1800 by the former slave Aminata Diallo is very clearly based on bitter reality, and on a great deal of scholarly research by my friend Lawrence Hill. A great Canadian literary success story about an international tragedy.

But I had a stronger reaction than many readers. As someone born and educated in Scotland, I had no idea of the huge role played by Scots in the Slave Trade. Or of the huge role that the economics of the Slave Trade exerted on Scottish life,   and continued to do so long after the formal slave trade became illegal. In many parts of the Western world, (such as Jamaica and the U.S. southern states), slaves remained valuable “chattels” and their owners expected to be compensated for their “loss” when the slaves were freed. Scots, I find, were not shy about seeking compensation in these areas, to the tune of what would today amount to many millions of dollars.

I have spent some time recently learning about these matters with the help of the distinguished Glasgow University historian, Dr. Stephen Mullen. He has researched this area very extensively. Recently he brought the results uncomfortably close to me when he delivered a Lecture on the subject at my old school, Glasgow Academy, (an old school, indeed, which was founded in 1843). The role of what we might call the “slave-based economy” on Scottish life is something that scholars like Dr. Mullen are investigating. We look forward to many future revelations.

I’m struck, for instance, by the astonishing fact that Glasgow’s central Buchanan Street (where my mother used to buy my Glasgow Academy school uniform) is named after a slave owner. And that the Tobacco Trade, and the Sugar Trade, and the Cotton Trade, all important to western Scotland, were each based on slave labour.  Dr. Mullen tells me to look out for a book next year from the Royal Historical Society on The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy.

And Lawrence Hill’s book? The embarrassing Scottish incidents build up, from the news that a Scot named Armstrong played golf, with a wooden ball, at his Sierra Leone Banca Island slaving station. But the truly terrible moment is when young Aminata is branded. The “O” on her skin is for Richard Oswald, a Scot from Auchincruive, in Ayrshire This lies very near the land that Robert Burns was planning to leave in order to help to run a plantation in Jamaica, when he was saved by the publication success of his first book. The line from “Scots Wha Hae” that sneers “Wha sae base tae be a slave” would have ranked high in hypocrisy if Burns had spent time with a whip in his hand, striding around slave plantations.

 

AN AMAZING BUSH PILOT STORY FROM HUGH MACLENNAN

My last blog about Jake McDonald taking me to  meet some bush pilots has attracted some interest. In ACROSS CANADA  BY STORY I gave the learned opinion that “every successful Canadian non-fiction book must involve stories about bears, wolves, hockey players, and bush pilots”.

Hugh MacLennan knew this. He won two Governor-General’s awards for his non-fiction (plus three for his books of fiction), and paid careful attention to Canada’s North, and to the bush pilots who fly the freezing skies there.

I quote the following story by Hugh:…..

“When winter comes to this region, it does not come slowly, it strikes with a crack. I met a veteran of many years on the Mackenzie who told me that he once escaped having to spend an entire long winter in Aklavik by a matter of a minute. His was the last plane out, and as he stood on one of the pontoons filling his tank with gas, he suddenly noted ice forming on the water. He threw the can away, jumped into the pilot’s seat without even taking the time to screw on the cap of the gas tank, gunned the plane, and took off. The thin ice was crackling about the pontoons before he became airborne, and as he made his circle to head south he saw the pack ice thrusting in, and the lagoon from which he had risen turn opaque as though the frost had cast a wand over it.”

 

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

For Toronto friends, I’m happy to spread the word about an intriguing new show at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, on the south-east corner of the fortified Robarts Library. It is STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: The CanLit Community. It will be open to the public until May 1.

The fascinating Catalogue is designed  by Stan Bevington, and printed by his Coach House Press (with more detail about the Goluska typeface than a casual reader might expect: “Goluska is sturdier and the x-height is larger than Electra.” Now you know.)

But the exhibition, on two floors, provides hours of happy roaming for true admirers of Canadian writing, from The Confederation Poets to George Elliott Clarke. There is simply too much, and too many display cases full of astonishing tidbits, for me to suggest a route for a set tour. Just wander around, peering into the cases, admiring the author photos, or reading about Mazo De La Roche’s Jalna series, with over 11 million copies sold, or Lucy Maud confessing that she’s sick of writing about Anne with an E. Or enjoy the letter from Robertson Davies to the popular novelist Arthur Hailey (Hotel, and Airport) sympathising with him over the savagery poured over his work by jealous reviewers.

I spent a very happy time there on the opening night on Friday January 31. I especially enjoyed meeting the two Librarians who designed the show, choosing from the University Library’s wealth of original literary documents.  Natalya Rattan was appealingly modest about her fine work, but John Shoesmith reminded me that I had turned him down for a job at M&S (allowing him to escape a life of penury , working in publishing). He seems to have forgiven me.

I did meet a number of old friends, including a woman who still remembers me as her daughter’s soccer coach from almost 40  years ago. And I was delighted to read a promotional blurb about the excellence of CanLit that names the following authors……Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Mavis Gallant….all of whom (modest cough) I proudly published.

SAD NEWS FROM WINNIPEG

My good friend Gordon Sinclair (who wrote for me the fine book about the police murder of the native leader J.J. Harper, COWBOYS AND INDIANS) contacted me yesterday to tell me that Jake McDonald had died in a fall in Mexico.

Jake was one of the bravest men I ever knew. His refusal to let his terrible spine deformities impede his life as a writer was truly inspiring. He wrote hundreds of fine articles in places like Canadian Geographic, the Globe, and The Beaver. He also created many books, the best-known being his HOUSEBOAT CHRONICLES. As the title implies, this man moved around the country, by hook or by crook, and inspired his many friends to get out there and live.

I remember one visit to Winnipeg, as the M&S Publisher, where Jake proudly drove me north to Selkirk. There he showed me the airport  that was used by bush pilots heading north. We wandered happily around, clambering into bush planes where you could see where the dogs went, and where their sled was stowed. We chatted eagerly with the determined pilots, hearing low-key tales of adventures in the North that almost defied belief. But the pilots were happy to talk with us, because they really liked Jake, who could chat with anyone.

And I was lucky enough to be the guy with Jake.

We’ll miss him.