NEITHER TWUC NOR TWADE, EXCEPT WITH REAL WRITERS

The Writers’ Union of Canada is known as TWUC to its friends, so that a recent enthusiastic President, the maternal Doris Heffron, was affectionately described as a “Mother-TWUCKER”.  At the start of June I was at the TWUC AGM in Halifax.

I was delighted to be there, because the annual event gives me a chance to meet up with old friends, gathered from across the country. In fact, when I was a publisher, I tried to attend the annual Conference. I would hang around the public events, happy to meet my authors, and equally keen to meet authors who were new to me. Incredibly, other publishers rarely followed suit, leaving the field to me.

After I was made an Honorary Member of the Union (presumably someone said, wearily, “He’s always hanging around, why don’t we just make him a member?”) I found it an inspiration to earn my membership by actually writing a book, and becoming a real writer.

The big event at this year’s AGM was voting on how to define that difficult term, “a real writer”.

In the old days, TWUC wanted to set itself apart from the Canadian Authors Association. That group of would-be writers was heavily satirized by F.R. Scott in his poem, “The Canadian Authors Meet.” Although many of its members were friends of mine, especially George Hardy and John Gillese from Edmonton, few of the “authors” had actually published any books. To set a clear division between these amateurs and real, working professionals, the Writers’ Union from the start insisted that its members must be published authors. In other words, authors whose books had been selected, then published, by a commercial publishing house

So it remained, with the laws laid down by people like Pierre Berton and June Callwood and Harold Horwood faithfully observed, year after year. Then the publishing world began to change. Self-publishing became an option. Then self-publishing became very popular. Very, very popular.

And, of course, some of the authors who wrote these self-published books, began to object to the fact that their self-published books — no matter how many of them they wrote, or how popular they proved to be — would never qualify them to join TWUC.

TWUC, meanwhile, was keenly aware of how many potential members were being turned away. So a Committee was struck to square the circle by finding a way of judging the quality of self-published authors so that good ones could join the Union, while bad ones were excluded.

Very tricky, as you can imagine. But the Committee worked hard to produce a points system, where worthy authors could win admission to the Union. That was the central vote at the AGM.

As a former publisher I felt disqualified from voting to restrict the membership to authors who had won a publisher’s approval. And after serious debate, including a wise intervention by Doris Heffron, the new system was unanimously approved.

Sadly, many of my greatest friends in the Union didn’t make it to Halifax. Andreas Schroeder, the man who in Brian Mulroney’s day crafted and fought through the Public Lending Right legislation that brings money to Canadian authors thanks to their books in Canadian public libraries, stayed back in Roberts Creek on BC’s Sunshine Coast. Silver Donald Cameron, despite his Nova Scotia base, was too busy at Cape Breton University to attend. I spoke to both of them by phone, reprimanding them for their absence. Both were full of regrets, but unable to attend.

And so it went, with many old friends absent. It was, however, a great joy to spend time with old friends like Harry Thurston; if you ever want to see hundreds of semi-palmated plovers wheeling in formation around your head, Harry’s your man. From Harry’s territory, on the boundary between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, is a long way to Nelson in the BC mountains, but my pal Anne De Grace was from there, spreading good stories about the Kootenays. And among the dozens of authors I got to know was Joan Levy Earle, originally from Cornwall, Ontario. I was very pleased to learn that her book of local history, The Legacy of C.W. Kyte, included the story about Mr. Kyte that is brilliantly told in John Gray’s publishing memoir, Fun Tomorrow.

I edited that book, and still love the story about how John was a small boy in 1911 when his neighbour, the bookseller Mr. Kyte, got the first private car in Cornwall. He received it with a blanket over the hood, from the livery stable. Then, after brief driving instructions, he set off, with John and many runalong small boys cheering lustily. When Mr. Kite returned from driving around the block, he seemed worried, but everyone continued to cheer.

After a few hours the small boys had all been put to bed, but Mr. Kyte continued to drive in aimless circles.

His brief driving lesson had not included instructions on how to stop the car…..until eventually it ran out of gas, far out of town, leaving him with a long walk home.

Our stories will never run out of gas.

 

 

 

 

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OH DEAR, IN FORD’S ONTARIO EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

Keen readers of my last blog will have noticed an error in the first paragraph. I write there about a mysterious book entitled THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARTH.

In my career I actually had an author widely known as “Garth” but this was not a reference to the notable Mr. Drabinsky. It was a simple, stupid mistake on my part. As millions of people around the world know, the correct book title is THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.

Indeed, I have introduced John Irving with the words…..”Crusoe……Copperfield….. Gatsby…….Garp…….” to establish the huge impact on our culture that his book has had. But in today’s Ontario, mistakes happen everywhere. My apologies.

ANOTHER BOOK FOR WALKING THROUGH

Last month I walked through the Toronto scenes in John Irving’s novel, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY. Later, I was in touch with John . To be precise, I introduced him at a Toronto event where he talked revealingly about writing, and adjusting to the changes in his life created by the success of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARTH. It was fascinating.

In the course of all this I learned about an Irving novel that I had somehow missed, LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER. It came out in 2009. It begins in New Hampshire on a wild river drive, with logs swirling downstream topped by nimble loggers : “The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand…..”

That tragic death among the “river drivers” begins this book, in Coos County, New Hampshire, in 1954. For five decades we follow a mean and murderous cop who is determined to track down two men, a father and son, that he wants to kill. They change their names and flee, but he stays on their trail. They flee to Boston in 1967, to Windham County, Vermont, in 1983, then to Toronto, in 2000.

In Toronto they settle in Rosedale, on Cluny Avenue, while the aged father works in a restaurant nearby. The son, meanwhile, has become a novelist, and he writes in a room with a view north to the historic railway tower that now marks the Summerhill Liquor Store, outside which so many of my readers wait, panting, as the sun rises. Rosedale is an interesting bit player in the book, as is the restaurant where the father plies his trade, behind the scenes.

Then, after a return to New Hampshire, in 2005, the last section of the book takes us to Georgian Bay. Pointe au Baril Station is the setting, and we learn from the descriptions of the roads on land and the islands out in the Bay, that John (a regular summer visitor) knows the area well. My hardcover edition is graced by a back cover photo of John, taken by one of his children, on the rocks beside what is clearly Georgian Bay.

So this is only partly a book that you can walk through. Swimming through it is also an option.

 

HOW WATTPAD IS TURNING THE PAGE ON PUBLISHING

That was the headline for a provocative article by Carly Lewis in the Globe and Mail on Saturday May 4.

I read it with fascination, and much surprise.

I realise that my lifetime role as a “gatekeeper” in Canadian book publishing leaves me poorly qualified to understand the newest ways of getting a manuscript accepted for publication. To make matters worse, as a white, male, Anglo-Celtic editor, I was (and am) far from the diverse ideal that is valued today. But I realise that the system we devised in the old days was far from ideal, even indefensible. Unsolicited manuscripts that came in by mail out of the blue from optimistic authors rose in a toppling tower in the publisher’s office. It was rudely known as “the slush pile”. When eventually resentful editors tackled the pile before it collapsed and smothered them, the reading conditions were very bad. The pressure to reject this manuscript and move on to the next, then the next,  meant that few manuscripts got the relaxed, respectful attention they deserved, and terrible mistakes were made.

To be personal, you could stock an interesting library with fine books that were eventually published with success, after I had stupidly rejected them.

So I was keenly interested to learn about what Wattpad was doing to simplify — and improve– the complex  process of getting published. The Globe article promised that “Wattpad’s significance is in its mutiny, waged against the gatekeepers” (pause for a Gibson cringe, although I never heard the term during all of my years of gatekeeping) “of literary homogeneity first as an online library, and now as a physical force in  the book-buying market.”

I was reading eagerly when I came on this paragraph, about why Wattpad (“an online and mobile platform for amateur , unagented writing”) is entering the physical book market, because it is ” not only logical from a revenue standpoint, but necessary in the company’s quest to highlight voices often excluded from the industry. Plus, with a fanatically engaged user base, the platform’s most promising stories rise to prominence without staff having to spelunk a slush pile.”

Wow! How is that possible? Avoiding the slush pile is a fine thing, but how can you do it?

The next sentence tells all. “Wattpad’s machine learning intelligence, which evaluates content based on an algorithm, user data and elemental qualities such as grammar, does that for them.”

Hold on. Please read that sentence again. Unless you believe that the word “algorithm’ equals “miracle” the sentence makes no sense. And it would be interesting to learn more…..much more… about these “elemental qualities”.

But I think we can make an educated guess about what the algorithm is doing here. It is, I suspect, set up to find new book proposals that are EXACTLY LIKE OLD BOOK PROPOSALS, where the books have gone on to success in the marketplace. If that is indeed the case, all of the fine talk about avoiding “literary homogeneity” is just nonsense.

The troublesome fact is that truly fine books are original, and unique. Algorithms are unlikely to be able to help here. Unless, of course, the new Wattpad system comes with a magic wand.

WALKING THROUGH AN EXCELLENT READ

I’ve just had an experience that I can recommend to you . I was in the middle of reading a fine novel when I realised that its local setting meant that I could stroll through its pages.  I’ve just done so today…a fine brisk day, good for a walk in the fresh air… and I found that the walk enriched my reading, when I returned home to finish the book.

The book in question is A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving…..or, as Owen himself would put it, “BY JOHN IRVING”. Of course I’ve read, and enjoyed, other books by John. But  as you know, we all have gaps in our reading.  Somehow I had never  read this  book, although it was on our shelves. It was time to change that. So I opened this book from 1989 ( aha! I was only one year into my new role as Publisher at M&S, so I had other things on my mind!)  with the keenest interest.

As I settled into this very unusual novel, I learned a lot about its setting in New Hampshire.  Small-town Gravesend in northern New Hampshire is described in great detail, almost snowflake by snowflake, house by house, shingle by shingle. As the group of kids around our narrator and his friend Owen ages, we go from scene by scene classroom activity (and literally scene by scene Nativity plays) to summer jobs that involve work in the woods, or in the local granite quarries, or to Hester the Molester waitressing in local dining spots where lobster is a specialty.

Then , to our surprise, Canada comes into the picture.

The book’s narrator, John Wheelwright, is notable for two things. First, his protective love of his tiny friend Owen Meany, an astonishing character with a larger than life voice, personality, and brain. Second, his political conscience. John is a member of the generation scarred by the Vietnam War. So scarred that although an amputated finger leaves him unfit for the U.S. draft, after he leaves university he feels obliged to leave his country in disgust, and move to Canada.

To Toronto. As the lengthy plot moves forward, the main activity continues to centre on Owen  and John and New  Hampshire. But whenever we move to John’s present life, we roam around a specific part of Toronto. So that’s what I decided to do. I put down the unfinished book, and became an Owen Meany tourist.

I walked to Avenue Road and St. Clair, heading north to Upper Canada College. I looked with interest up the  driveway, studying the buildings, remembering that John had compared them to the Gravesend private school where Owen and he spent their young lives. Then, impressed by the rich history on the  plaque outside U.C.C., I walked west. After  four blocks of elegant Forest Hill neighbourhood houses I came to Bishop Strachan School. It is, famously, the female equivalent of the boys-only U.C.C.. In the book it is the school where John Wheelwright becomes a teacher of English. His discussion of that role allows him to speak warmly of the writers he most admires, from Thomas Hardy to Robertson Davies and Alice Munro.

I did not enter the good, grey, Gothic walls of B.S.S., (“Hi, can I look at a classroom like the one that John Irving’s character would have taught in?” seemed an unpromising approach) but I did walk two blocks north to get a sense of the school. And I did recall that John Irving’s wife, the former Canadian Publisher, Janet Turnbull Irving, (now a notable tennis player) had attended B.S.S. as a literary teenager, so John did have inside knowledge of the place.

In the novel Owen , and his friend John, care deeply about God and the mysteries of religion. So it’s appropriate that in Toronto John Wheelwright falls in love with the gentle charms of the building due west of Bishop Strachan, the old Grace Church on the Hill. I slipped into the church and relaxed in a pew. gazing around me with slow pleasure.  Very soon, I had come up with a rule for this new programme for literary walks: it should — perhaps must — include a spell spent sitting in a church, or other religious space. Doing nothing but looking around, and thinking.

A slow tour of the stained glass windows, and the monuments, revealed, yet again, how the First World War obliterated  a whole generation of young Canadians. Twenty-year-olds who should have been sunning themselves in Toronto parks were chewed up by a war machine they could not even have imagined. I thought of what R.H.Thompson’s brilliant work to remember those millions of lost First World War lives had achieved, and how proud I had been to help him.

A final, personal look at the lives lost in that war from that little church. I always look for possible relatives. Yes, there was one Gibson, one Young and one Thomson.

A slow walk out of the Church led to Russell Hill Road, along which John Wheelwright would walk every day, to and from his classes. I trudged thoughtfully south to St. Clair, noticing the new houses that have been recently inserted, but enjoying the traditional homes that John Wheelwright would have passed. Then, with a turn at St. Clair, past the Timothy Eaton United Church, I walked east twenty minutes to reach home.

There a lively book awaited me, greatly enriched by my walking tour.

Try the idea!

GO LEAFS/LEAVES GO!

I grew up bilingual.

I’m not talking about my acquaintance with French, from my teenage years. No, in my wee Ayrshire village from the very start I was bilingual, speaking both a version of English that all of my readers would recognise, and the local broad Scottish idiom, now formally called “Lallans”.

On the local soccer field, “the fitba pitch”, I ran around imploring my 8-year team-mates to pass the ball to me with the urgent cry “Geesabaw! Geesabaw!” At home my mother would have been scandalised if I had introduced that language, with its array of improper words like “pish”and “shite”. So I was carefully bilingual at home and in the classroom, and very different in the schoolyard.

My mastery of Lallans came to play an important part in my literary life, and it can be argued that it brought me to Canada. Because I was in Ayrshire, the older people around me, especially the farmers, were speaking the language of Robert Burns. My first summer job was working on a local farm that was placed right beside Dunlop House, where Burns used to visit his patron, Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop. The grandfather on the farm, “Auld Moneyacres” (like Tam o’ Shanter he was known by the name of his farm) spoke pure Burns. In the nearby Stewarton kirkyard my Young ancestors lay beside an uncle of Robert Burns.

So when I went on to study English at the University of St. Andrews I had an advantage when we studied the poetry of Robert Burns. My classmate from elsewhere, especially from England, tended to treat it  as a new language, like Chaucer’s Middle English. To me, it was just the language I had known in the village. Easy.

But I had never written in it. Then, in November in my final year, I started thinking that it would be nice to win a scholarship to go to somewhere interesting the next year. I learned about a sort of Rhodes Scholarship in reverse. It was open to contenders from each of the Scottish Universities, and a selected Scottish candidate from Oxford and Cambridge. The winner would receive a free year at the American university of his or her choice, thanks to the scholarship provided by the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York.

One scholarship would be given.

I looked at the requirements, and looked at my own qualifications. Thanks to my sporting and dramatic and newspaper deeds, not to mention my being President of the Student Union, I found that I ticked many of the required boxes.

But not any academic ones So I started to leaf through the list of annual University prizes. I found “The Sloan Prize, awarded for the best composition in Lallans”. A friendly professor advised me that an entry should run about 5,000 words, so that Christmas I cleared the decks at home, and on the dining room table, bolstered by dictionaries, I created a short story in Lallans.

You can see where this is going. There was a moment of horror when I learned that the Sloan Prize judge would be the Editor of The Scottish National Dictionary. But the Essay won The Sloan Prize. And it won in time for me to include it in my Scholarship application, ticking another important box.

I won the Scholarship, went to Yale, and after a year gaining my MA, came by Greyhound Bus to Canada, and never looked back.

But what about those Leafs? Thanks to my friend Donald Gillies, I recently read an edition of his magazine “Lallans”. It mentions the amazing fact that when the version of English spoken in Scotland began to be written, in formal print, the correct way to form the plural of the Scottish word for “wife” and ” life” and “leaf”, was simply to add the letter “s”.

Who knew? Generations of schoolteachers have decried the spelling as simply wrong. Now we’ve learned that the spelling”Leafs” is an official old Scottish plural.

Go Leafs Go!

WHITE FANG IN SUNNY CALIFORNIA

Winter in Ontario — where, as John Kenneth Galbraith wrote,”The seasons are good and strong” — can try the patience. So this March we decided that a visit to California, to see our relatives who had just moved there was essential to family harmony. Flying to L.A., then driving up the coast to the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, would be a great inconvenience, of course. But for family, we all have to make sacrifices. Right?

Our sacrifices included being ushered around L.A. by my cousin Doug Caldwell and his wife Judy McAlpine (both formerly of CBC). Their place in the hilly Silver Lake district (and L.A. is made up of many distinct parts of the city) gave us a view of the famed “Hollywood” sign, while allowing us easy access to the old downtown core . And we were whisked from Malibu to the Huntington Centre and its Desert Garden, to the Los Angeles Library and the Getty Centre, and so on, before we staggered off in a haze of delight.

And there was no ice to chip off the driveway. At any point.

The drive up the Central Valley around Bakersfield, where North America’s fruit and nut crops are grown, was long, but instructive. The miles of orange groves are dropping millions of oranges, left to rot, for want of Mexican pickers. President Trump seems to have turned his back on this California problem.

We spent happy times in the hills near Los Gatos with two old friends, then paid — yes, paid — for  a hotel room near Half Moon Bay. We spent one afternoon, then a morning, walking along the beach beside the booming surf. Because I have Scottish skin (my friend Matthew Swan, of Adventure Canada fame, claims that he can get sunburned from watching a night-time fireworks display) I soon got a robust, red, sunburn.

Then it was, ho, for the North, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Sonoma and Napa, where Jane’s brother Michael is now based, with his Saskatoon-raised wife, Jan. Joined by Jane’s brother Peter, and his wife Heather (down from Kelowna) we had a fine few days of family reunion. We may even make the sacrifice again next year.

But what about Jack London? To our surprise we learned that this man who made a reputation for his books about the Klondike, later bought a ranch near Napa. with his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. Near the town of Glen Ellen you can still visit that ranch, and learn all about the experiments he made, to improve on the old system of ruthlessly mining the soil, and then moving on. His new system involved contouring his vine plantations so that, like ancient Chinese plantations, they would last for many years. His attempts to grow cactus for cattle and pig feed were less successful, and his ranch is now regarded as a failure. But the old Publisher in me was pleased to see that his expenditures on the ranch led him to increase his requests to his luckless publishers for higher advances on his next book.

But of course, Jack London was at the time, thanks to THE CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG, the most successful author in the English-speaking world. In the Napa Valley today we can visit the Jack London Park and the Jack London Museum and learn all about his farming life, about which I knew nothing.

TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS.

You can get a copy of my Podcast (a decade by decade look at Canada’s greatest storytellers from 1867 onward) ABSOLUTELY FREE if you are on i-tunes. Simply sign into your i-tunes account and go to podcasts, and then search douglasgibsonliterary talks. You can download it for free.

Also, you can get a copy of my NEW AUDIO BOOK by encouraging your local Library to stock it. You’ll find that they ask you to fill in a form, where you explain that ACROSS CANADA BY STORY is an Audio-book, that it’s available from ECW Press, that it came out in January, 2019, and that the ISBN Number is 9781773053776 .(You might want to take this form with you, unless your memory is remarkable.)

Then they’ll order it, and you’ll be able to listen to my 16 hours of reading, FREE. And I’ll be very grateful to you.