WOLFVILLE AT THE DOOR

In ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I’ve written about an earlier Halifax visit when I wandered from The Waverley Inn down Morris Street to the Harbour. That bright summer day, ambitious anglers with baited lines were hauling in mackerel by the dozen. Our icy November visit was more likely to produce frostbite, so we stayed clear  of the water, and from the Inn set out early, straight for Wolfville.

The car wind-shield wipers were working well, you’ll be relieved to hear, and we knew the way to the Annapolis Valley, via Windsor. I’ve always given Windsor short shrift, just driving around it. I must confess that I’ve never ventured into the enterprising town that claims to be the cradle of hockey. We did the same on this occasion, although on the return trip the next morning, Windsor struck back. I had just told Jane to look north, to where the arm of the Minas Basin brought Fundy’s tidal waters very close, when within twenty feet — a healthy spit away — a gigantic bald eagle flew angrily alongside us, for a few dramatic seconds!

On our way to Wolfville that morning we were very conscious that our “Across Canada By Story” show was to be given at Acadia that afternoon. Apparently Friday evenings in the Fall are sacred at Acadia (football? parties?) and we were advised that student attendance would be minimal, unless we gave the show in the afternoon. So, based on the shrewd advice of our hostess, Professor Wanda Campbell, that is what we did.

The early start caused me to sacrifice a visit en route to the Acadian site at Grand Pre, although I tried to persuade Jane to turn right to see it. I even failed in my attempt to have us search for the “Elm Tree at Horton’s Landing” that my friend Alex Colville painted so memorably — and that in 1986 I put on the cover of Alice Munro’s book, THE PROGRESS OF LOVE, the very first Douglas Gibson Book. Worst of all, we didn’t get to visit my beloved Acadian dykes along the shore, which had inspired stories from Wolfville to Adventure Canada cruises in the Arctic, as my second book reveals.

Instead, we drove straight to The Blomidon Inn, on the near side of Wolfville. If you ever get the chance, go there. We were warmly welcomed at Reception, despite our early arrival , and I found myself presenting the Inn with a signed copy of my second book, which raves about the very traditional hostelry.  The lively owner told us about a meeting there of NATO’s Defence ministers that was hosted by Nova Scotia’s Peter MacKay. Apparently, after the formal meeting, when our friend was serving drinks, he spilled the wine all over the British Minister’s briefcase. When he dived towards the spill, planning to mop it up, the UK bodyguard seized his wrist in a death grip, saying (untruthfully) “No problem. The spill missed the Minister’s briefcase. Nothing to mop up.” End of story.

I learned from him that Mordecai Richler, no doubt on the way to visit his son Noah at Digby Neck, used to stay at the Inn, and smoke very pungent cigars in the open air. I could have identified Mordecai, even without the name. The aroma lingers.

We drove to the Acadia campus, and found our way to  The K.C. Irving Centre, the most beautiful space in any Canadian university I know. Interestingly, the heroic portrait of the founder shows him ringed by Irving factories, all blasting out smoky pollution as fast as possible. In the Centre we met the very efficient Wanda, and set up in good time for the show, where I encountered interested book-lovers from all over the Annapolis Valley. They included Terry Fallis’s father-in-law, whom Jane and I had met before. I even met a Newfoundlander from Woody Point!

When the show opened, I began with a tribute to Jen Knoch, my editor at ECW, my Toronto  publisher. Jen is a proud graduate of Acadia, and the Acadian faculty and students  were glad to hear that one of the best book editors in Canada was someone who had been a student just like them, just a few years earlier. Later, I heard that one of the students present said in wonder to a teacher, about me: “He knew everybody ! He must be really old!”

After the event, Jane and I sat and chatted about books and publishing with the fascinating Andrew Steeves, the Publisher of Gaspereau Press in Kentville. You may remember him as the publisher of the Giller Prize-winning book THE SENTIMENTALIST by Johanna Skibsrud that made waves in 2010. Andrew and I solved all the problems of the publishing world, you’ll be pleased to hear.

That evening Jane and I had a fine dinner at, of course, The Blomidon Inn. The next morning, the Saturday, we rose early, then blasted our way to the Halifax Airport. We had done six shows in seven days, and were able to fly to Toronto in time to attend the St. Andrew’s Ball at the Royal York Hotel that evening. There people asked innocently, “Been up to anything interesting recently?”

 

 

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FLIRTING WITH DEATH ON THE WAY TO HALIFAX

We almost died.

The lazy rental car people almost killed us.

Here’s what happened. We woke up to find Antigonish in a deep freeze.  A foot of snow had fallen, and the schools were closed. At The Maritime Inn we fuelled up with a big breakfast, preparing for a long drive all the way to Halifax, where Alexander MacLeod awaited us. We wearily checked out of our hotel room (“I’ll bring the bags, while you clear the snow off the car”), then Jane drove carefully out of the snowy town.

We were on the main highway, driving cautiously, when a truck passed us, flinging lots of dirty snow on our windshield. Jane hit the wipers, which began to scrape noisily, and very messily, across the glass. She hit the button to squirt wiper fluid to clear the windshield….and NOTHING HAPPENED. We were driving blind, with only faint streaks of light across the solid streaks of frozen snow on the squeaking glass.

Whenever a car or truck passed us, the process repeated itself. Soon we knew to slow right down when we were passed, to stop the passing car throwing more junk on our windshield. But as we inched along, the highway had no turn-offs, kilometer after kilometer, minute after scary minute. Even pulling the car to the side, to rub clean snow on our blocked front windshield, was very risky. So we edged forward, noses to the smeared glass.

Eventually we did find a turn-off, and quickly rubbed fresh snow on the front, to let us see. At the first gas station we got the hood up, to find that the windshield fluid container had FROZEN SOLID. We bought some new fluid, guaranteed to operate at temperatures well below zero, and a tube of emergency winter fluid that opened up the frozen sprinklers on the hood. Then, still badly shaken, we went back on the Highway.

You’ll notice that I have not named the car company. Yet. When we returned the car eventually, and made our complaint, the cheerful man at the desk admitted that  they were “still transitioning” from summer grade wiper fluid to winter grade. In late November! In the frozen Maritimes! Which meant that to save a cent or two on summer-weight fluid, they were risking the lives of their customers.

Apart from all that, we drove without incident down 102 from Truro ( where in NO GREAT MISCHIEF a muttered Gaelic curse produces warm hospitality from an old Cape Breton householder) then across the main bridge to Halifax and all the way east on Barrington Street, to The Waverley Hotel. To relax , I took Jane around some of my old haunts in Halifax, including the lobby of The Lord Nelson Hotel. There, as I’ve told before, Don Harron (not in his Charlie Farquharson garb, but dolled up as “Valerie Rosedale”) was waiting for our Publicist to take him around the local media when an alert House Detective sternly told him to move on from the hotel’s lobby. Jane, in no danger of being asked to move on, although excessive shivering might have been misinterpreted as wild dancing, chose to stay inside while I sought out the Park Street site of Hugh MacLennan’s house, where as a boy he had experienced the 1917 Explosion.

True to his promise, Alexander picked us up at the Waverley ( a name that was to feature in my GREAT SCOTS show, when I discussed Sir Walter Scott’s influence on Joseph-Aubert de Gaspe’s great classic, Les Anciens Canadiens). He was still the same lively Alexander, a little greyer than I remembered, and it was great to be back in touch with the beloved MacLeod family. He set us up without fuss or delay at The Sobey Building at St. Mary’s.

And as the crowd rolled in, it contained many old friends. There was Graham Pilsworth, with Jamie and their book-selling daughter. When I spoke of Charles Gordon/Ralph Connor I mentioned the classic AT THE COTTAGE by my contemporary, Charles Gordon. And…TADA!…. the fine, funny illustrations were by Graham Pilsworth! (Applause).

Also present was James Houston’s son John, and his wife Bree. It was John who kindly introduced us to the Adventure Canada world ten years ago, and he’s a very good, Inuktitut-speaking, friend.

And, amazingly, fresh from her Biology-teaching role at St. Michael’s was Brenna, W.O. MITCHELL’S GRAND-DAUGHTER. When she introduced herself and we chatted beforehand, I couldn’t help telling her excitedly that she had her grandfather’s eyes.

After the show, after further chat and some book signing, Alexander and the mediaevalist, Stehanie Morely, swept us off to a late-night dinner at 2 Doors Down, on Barrington Street. Happy conversation surged around us, and good food zoomed into us, until it was time for us to part. I’m (mostly) glad to report that, unlike some nights at The Waverley, Oscar Wilde’s ghost did not put in an appearance.

BY FERRY TO ST. F.X.

I’ve spoken and written proudly that as a Scottish immigrant with a unique sense of direction, in 1967 I came to Canada at Victoria off the Seattle ferry. Since then I’ve taken dozens of ferries in Canada, and enjoyed the experience every time. In fact, I find it very hard to come in off the deck when I sail, because exciting things are always happening, and killer whales or U-boats may surface at any second. This accounts for my alert pacing on ferries from Bonne Bay in Newfoundland all the way to Sandspit in Haida Gwaii.

The morning ferry trip from Wood Islands, near the south-eastern tip of PEI,  across to Caribou, Nova Scotia, was exciting. Who knew that PEI’s famous rich, red, earth actually stains the waters just off-shore? And because we were in sight of land all the way, we could constantly judge whether we were half-way, or three quarters of the way, and whether the swell of waves from the west  was mounting, or falling, or if we should head back down to our car below decks. Given the arc of our Maritimes journey, it was ideal to arrive by sea in Nova Scotia near Pictou, well on our way to Antigonish in the east.

But first there was the ugly business of passing the pulp mill at Pictou Landing. This mill, well protected by the political establishment, has caused immense problems, to the water, and to the fish and fishermen in Northumberland Strait. Also, believe it or not, to the world of Canadian books. In December last year, Joan Baxter’s very critical book, THE MILL , about the pulp mill’s sorry record of pollution, was due to be celebrated at a signing session in the New Glasgow Coles store. Pressure from the offended company, Northern Pulp, (and vague threats of trouble in the store) led to the invitation being withdrawn. A major setback for freedom of speech in Canada.

We drove on,  along the main Highway 104, past Stellarton. I remembered an earlier visit there, when I sought out the nearby site of the Westray Mine Disaster. The sorrow around the place where so many men died was omnipresent, almost dripping from the trees above my parked car.

The road east to Antigonish (emphasis on the “nish”) is wild and dramatic, with steep hills and valleys and mountains enlivening the view, and many of the east-bound cars on the road seeming to strain onward to Cape Breton. But we restrained ourselves, and turned in to Antigonish. After two previous visits, we remembered the drill very well: go down the hill past the University, turn right at Chisholm Park, then wind along Main Street until you reach our old home, The Maritime Inn.

There we had lunch, and were joined by our hostess, the remarkable Mary McGillivray. Mary, a vastly experienced teacher at St. F. X., kindly remembered me from a sad duty we performed together many years ago , when with Andy Wainwright  she and I spoke at the Halifax funeral for Malcolm Ross. Malcolm, you may recall, was the Dalhousie Professor who created The New Canadian Library for Jack McClelland. As the head of M&S I was very glad to fly east to speak about how nationally important Malcolm’s work had been, creating an accessible paperback line of our country’s great classic books. Mary recalled that this national message was important to the Halifax family that sad day.

Mary was the salvation of our visit to St. F.X. . Maternity leaves and other absences had left our visit uncertain, until Mary took charge. She took dramatic charge later that evening, too, setting us up with a fine crowd in the  Scotia Bank Lecture  Theatre, and introducing me very kindly. The audience included the pleasant woman whom we’d met at the Antigonish Museum downtown, where I’d not only recognised the uses of the old tools on display in the former railway station, in the past I’d actually once used them. Interestingly, the crowd included the fine man who had told me about Brian Mulroney’s fire-raising trick to win a debate. (I signed his copy of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY with reference to the page where I tell his story). More alarmingly, the Philosophy Department was represented by three keen-eyed professors who, as they had threatened, posed difficult questions. As promised, I’m still considering them.

Finally, Mary took us for dinner to a fine local restaurant, where I ran into the Art Gallery owner we had met in our earlier town tour, seeking out the work of my old friend Linda Johns, “the Bird Lady.” As a village boy I was right at home with this kind of coincidence, and Mary’s stories over dinner were constantly fascinating. But when she told the story that she had seen Brian Mulroney standing on the road, being shown the massive new building in his name, she said “I wondered if he was aware that he was stopping all the traffic, and everyone was looking at him?”

I laughed and laughed.

 

THE ISLAND’S PREMIER ATTRACTION

When you drive in the Maritimes in late November, you take your chances. Snow and ice are likely to feature in the weather forecasts, and fingers remain cold and crossed. When we set out from Fredericton to head north to PEI, via Moncton, we knew that we — or rather, the heroic Jane, our driver– faced difficult times.

But we made it. This time, after my earlier visit to downtown Moncton ( where I saw Northrop Frye’s avuncular statue encourage young Library visitors —“Hello, Mr. Frye”— as recorded in ACROSS CANADA BY STORY) we avoided Moncton. We also ignored the Acadian shore, where my visit to Shediac in the midst of a Festival du Homard had once turned me into a fervent Acadian. Sadly, this meant, too, that we missed the David Adams Richards territory to the North and West, near the Miramichi. Resolutely, with tough driving in store, we headed straight for Port Elgin and the PEI bridge.

Crossing Confederation Bridge at any time of year is always thought-provoking, and I can report that the November Northumberland Strait waters looked very cold indeed. Then, safely landed on the Island, we drove admiringly through the well-populated land  (Farms! Barns! Fields!) east to Charlottetown.

We soon found the Dundee Arms Hotel, the subject of an earlier blog about Louis Armstrong. When Jane found our walk around downtown chilly, and returned to the warmth of our hotel, I continued to stroll through Canada’s history (“Ah , they’re fixing the famous Confederation Building, in time for the next tourist season”), and my own history.

I dreamily re-visited scenes from my earlier visits, including the Art Gallery event, when extra chairs had to be rushed in, and the restaurant Mavor’s, in Confederation Centre where the post-show dinner had taken place. That was where Professor Don Desserud told me the story of how young Jack Hodgins learned to read from studying comics in his Vancouver Island home, only to learn that the comics were in Finnish. Of course, my readers know that Jack had a huge impact in this distant province .  When I gave my STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS summer show in North Rustico ( in what is now The Watermark Theatre) our host, the excellent Duncan McIntosh, recommended that we dine at Maxine Delaney’s restaurant. Later, Maxine came to our show, and shyly revealed that she had chosen the name Delaney after, um, reading Spit Delaney’s Island, by my friend Jack!

The remarkable Richard Lemm was our PEI host. Richard and I have been friends for almost 50 years, ever since he worked for Bill Duthie’s remarkable bookstore in Vancouver. Then Richard’s always-interesting path took him to The Banff Centre, where he taught in the Creative Writing Course, alongside Alistair MacLeod and W.O. Mitchell.

You want stories? Just get Richard started, and you’re in for a fascinating time, all the way up to his continuing career as an enthusiastic Professor at UPEI. He’s such an active fellow that until recently he was a dashing figure on the basketball court. Now– just last week, in fact — he has accepted a brand-new knee, so who knows where his athletic talents will lead in the future. We all wish him well.

Richard not only speaks and writes engagingly about our literary figures, he organises author tours brilliantly, so he deserves credit as the creator of our Maritimes Tour.  He had arranged for our Charlottetown show at the Carriage House, run by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. On a chilly night it produced a warm crowd of book-lovers. As usual, I tried to mingle with the audience (I use terrible lines like, “I’m Doug, I’ll be your waiter tonight,”) and I really enjoy the chance to meet and chat with them, breaking down the distance between them and the fancy-pants guy in the blazer on the stage. I like it, and I think they do, too.

As you can imagine, I didn’t rush over the role of Lucy Maud Montgomery in the show, although I might have spent more time boasting about my potato-growing youth in Ayrshire, where the potatoes are justly famous.

But I was delighted when, just after I was introduced by my very complimentary friend Richard, a member of the MacLauchlan clan quietly joined the GREAT SCOTS audience. It was Wade MacLauchlan, the Premier of the Province.

A CAPITAL TIME IN FREDERICTON

Before we left Saint John we had three notable experiences. First was the Santa Claus Parade, which I gather was not staged specially for us. But it was, in every sense, a traffic-stopper. Jane and I even saw the city’s historic  Fire Engine lumber out of the Fire Museum to join the parade, for its annual November outing in the fresh air.

Then we gave the show in the Library (formerly the Free Public Library), which had been  cleverly installed at the tourist-attracting central shopping complex, to draw foot traffic there. The Museum is right alongside, and you all know the impact it had on us. Our GREAT SCOTS show drew lots of fine people to the Library, many of whom had personal links with Scotland. Some even bought books, made available by UNB’s Andrea Kikuchi.

Finally, on our last morning we walked out on to the boardwalk beside the Hilton. Jane and I were alone there, gazing out at the Harbour, with the misty Bay of Fundy in the distance, when a tugboat chugged toward us. It was “Spitfire 3”, and had nothing under tow. To our amazement, right in front of us it suddenly put on a roaring display of power, spinning 360 degrees, creating a giant bow wave as it did a salt-water “spinarama”. Then it chugged placidly away, leaving us breathless. Ah, Saint John….if it’s not bikinis, it’s prancing tugboats!

The drive to Fredericton was a reminder how many trees line the roadsides in New Brunswick. Not fields. Trees.  When eventually we approached Fredericton, a slight confusion took us north across the river from downtown.  But how could we object to seeing the major thoroughfare named Gibson Street, and learning more about the 19th century industrialist “Boss Gibson”, who built lumber mills and cotton mills, and entire communities to serve them. Alexander Gibson sounds like a very worthy candidate to be a relative. My great-grandfather Robert, back in Kilmarnock, was in the tweed mill business, to good effect.

It was snowy and icy underfoot when we drove in to “Lower Town”, the affluent downtown of Fredericton, and found the “Carriage House Inn” on University Avenue, where John Ball had arranged a room for us. A word about John Ball. From 1981 to 1988 I taught at The Banff Centre. The summer course was called “The Banff Publishing Workshop”. In those days before internships or College courses in Publishing the Workshop took about 35 bright young people who thought they might be interested in Book Publishing as a career. Sometimes they were working at low-level jobs in publishing, and sometimes they were fresh out of university. Sometimes, like John Ball, they already worked in linked areas in publishing, and their employers liked the idea of giving them an over-all look at the industry. Then, who knew?

Well, John was a bright spark in the course (in 1985, I think) and learned, and contributed, a lot. But the academic world drew him in, and after a Ph.D. in Toronto, he married Lisa (another veteran from the extended publishing world) and moved to teach at UNB. And we managed to stay in touch, so as my Maritimes Tour began to take shape I contacted my old friend John. And, shazam, there we were at the Carriage House, just north of UNB,s main campus..

Our plan had been to spend our early hours at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, justly famous across the country. Great idea. But not on a Monday, when the Gallery is shut as tight as your favourite simile. So Jane and I wandered around the city centre, enjoying the traditional provincial buildings, and speculating how much frantic activity was buzzing on behind the quiet facades, as the new Conservative Government came in.

We met John Ball (unchanged, except for a grey rinse to his hair) and he drove us up to Memorial Hall, where the show was to take place. I made myself scarce as Jane and John and his technical expert set up the show. I was busy wandering around inside the big hall, which dominates the university skyline as it looms over the city. It really is an impressive space, with recently restored stained-glass windows. Early generations of UNB graduates remember when the graduation ceremonies were held there.

After the set-up, Jane and I returned to our hotel room. Then, greatly daring, we trudged the icy streets back to the University, and slogged our way straight up the Hill to Memorial Hall…… breathing a little harder than usual. Jane, who tends to outstrip her walking partners in Toronto, who call her “Orkney woman!” out of respect, was less affected by the climb.

As people came in for my show, which this night was ACROSS CANADA BY STORY, I made a point of greeting them, and learning a little about them. Later, after the show , at a pleasant Q and A session, I was relieved that Desmond Pacey’s son forgave me for keeping my Maritime authors to the end.

UNB , of course, in the fullest sense is “Fiddlehead ” territory, and at the post-event supper at John and Lisa’s, it was great to spend time with Fiddlehead names that had made UNB into the impressive writing centre that it is.

But Jane and I were well aware of our drive all the way to PEI the next day, and slept well that night, dreaming of tugboats.

 

 

MY MARITIMES BOYHOOD…..IN SCOTLAND!

Our November tour of Maritimes universities began in Saint John.  That Saturday UNB kindly allowed us a day to recover from our flight, and from our room at the Hilton we went exploring the old city, the biggest in New Brunswick.

I was glad to show Jane the downtown church that features a codfish on its spire, in tribute to the huge importance of the mighty cod fishery to the city’s past. I also showed her the snow-covered patch in front of that same old Loyalist church.  There, on a mid-summer visit in broiling weather, I once watched two healthy young women in bikinis, sun-bathing shamelessly on the sacred grass. Behind them the minister of the church stood with his angry hands on his hips. Steam was rising from his ears as he ground his teeth, trying to work out what to do.

I had to leave before he reached a decision. I can report that he is no longer there, and the sun-bathers are gone.

I can also report that our visit to The New Brunswick Museum revealed that in the Scottish countryside I had a Maritimer’s boyhood. We had the Atlantic Ocean in common, of course. Our village was only 11 miles inland from the Ayrshire coast, and storms from the west sometimes speckled our windows with salt.

But the museum astonished me by revealing how little I had in common with my urban schoolmates in Glasgow. Our train journeys into the city were often delayed by snow, which we did not minimise as we reported in late to impatient teachers; if bears and wolves had been even a possibility, they would certainly have featured in our late reports.

But room after room in the Museum would have baffled my city friends, while reminding me very happily of my youth. My Dad was in the timber trade, which meant that, like most kids in New Brunswick, I grew up among saw-mills. I knew to shake hands cautiously with my father’s friends who worked in the mills; very few right hands contained five fingers.

In our house we burned nothing but wood. It was dumped in our field near the house in foot-long rounds, mostly hardwood, that had to be split into stove-lengths, and then stacked for drying. I spent hundreds of hours a year at this task, and was able to split over the left shoulder (slightly more accurate, thanks to the guiding right hand) and over the right (slightly more powerful, in a slashing way). Taught by my father, I used a 7-pound Splitting Axe……and there it was, in the New Brunswick Museum!

Not only did I grow up with an axe in my hand, and a spade, as I dug new potato patches in that field, my first job was working at a local dairy farm. And in the next New Brunswick Museum room was the very pitch-fork I used to turn over the drying hay, as it waited for the baler. The grandfather on the farm, old Mr. Young, ( who was born in the 19th century, and spoke pure Robert Burns) was suspicious of the mechanical baler, so preferred to take the reins of the horse pulling the hay-rake. As you can see, I was part of an ancient rural tradition.

My first job away from home was as a fishing “ghillie” at a hotel in the Highlands, taking rich tourists out in a boat rowed by outriggers to catch salmon in season. And there, to my surprise, was that very boat! Perhaps a foot or two longer than the one I rowed up and down Loch Awe, but undeniably the same construction, and the Museum  was rightly proud of the fine specimen they had on display.

Later, as the Museum devoted rooms to the Days of Sail, I realised that I knew about these old boats. When I was 16 I was invited by friends in the village to join a three-week charter of an old, 40-foot ketch. We sailed it from the Clyde all the way up the West Coast, until north of Skye we set  out across The Minch, to the dangerous Outer Hebrides. The weather was so unusually mild that after surveying many Standing Stones (with my theodylite I was helping Professor Alexander Thom re-write British History… or Pre-History ) we sailed out into The Atlantic.

Next stop Newfoundland! And just beyond that, Saint John.

When we stopped in at Barra Head, the lighthouse at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides, they told us that they were the first boat under sail that they had seen in seven years! So, as you can see, I was right at home in the 19th century world of New Brunswick. If you think of me as a slick, urban figure, please think again.

A further link: as we roamed  the centre of  Saint John we walked around the central square, where statues commemorated historical figures like Leonard Tilley, who came up with the idea that Canada should be a “Dominion”. One statue was a surprise to me. Since my father’s mother was Janet Young, I was intrigued to find a large statue  dedicated to “YOUNG”, John Frederick Young, to be precise. Might he be a relative? A little research revealed that young John, a song-writer, died at the age of 18 in the sea near Saint John, trying to save a young boy from drowning.

I like to think that we may be related.

 

THE VERY FIRST GILLER PRIZE…..A STORY OF TERROR

The contribution made by The Giller Prize to Canada’s writers, publishers and readers is well-known. The impact on sales for the winning novel (even for books on the short list) is so dramatic that it has its own term: “The Giller Effect”.
Yet that might not have happened, without an outrageous gamble 25 years ago.
I was there. To be precise, I was in the room with Avie Bennett, the Chairman of McClelland & Stewart, where I was the Publisher, when we had a very, very tough decision to take.
It was the first year of Jack Rabinovitch’s interesting new prize. We were glad that he had decided to launch the Prize, and we looked forward to the fine evening Dinner.
Avie and I were both going to be there, since several of our books were among the five finalists. But we had no idea if the Giller was going to be just a pleasant Toronto social event. Or if, possibly, it might prove to be a very effective way of selling books.
(It’s fair to say here that neither Avie nor I would have predicted even half of the impact that the Giller Prize has proved to have on sales in our bookstores.)
Our problem revolved around one of the finalists, M.G. Vassanji’s novel THE BOOK OF SECRETS.
Unlike the other M&S contenders for the Prize, we did not have a good supply of copies. In fact, if the book were to win the Prize, we would not be able to meet any demand for it that rose in the bookstores. Even worse,if we delayed a reprint, while the book was being re-printed, which would take weeks, the book would be “out of stock”, and any surge of popular interest would be flattened. “Come back in two weeks” is not a good line for a bookseller.
So we had a major problem with THE BOOK OF SECRETS.
To make matters worse, the book had come out in the Spring. So in the bookselling world it was an “old” book. It had had its day. And as a Spring title, by the November Giller Prize Dinner it was being returned to our warehouse.
So, in these circumstances, Avie and I knew that if the book did NOT win, it would not lead to any further sales from our warehouse. At best, the fact that the book had been short-listed might slow down the rate of returns, a little.
So for us to reprint in these circumstances, before we knew if it had won, was a horrendous commercial risk. In effect, we knew that WE WOULD NOT SELL A SINGLE COPY OF THE REPRINT.
On the other hand, IF THE BOOK WON, AND WE WERE OUT OF STOCK FOR WEEKS we would be dealing a death blow to the hopes that The Giller Prize might lead to dramatic sales of the winning book.
So, after anguished debate, Avie took the bold decision to reprint (I believe 7,500 copies). We both knew that every single copy we printed would moulder in the warehouse if the Giller Prize went to one of the other four contenders.
So, that year, Avie and I were sweating blood through our fancy dinner jackets as the evening culminated with the words, “And the winner is……..M.G. Vassanji’s THE BOOK OF SECRETS!”
Afterwards , Avie and I were asked what we felt when this M&S book won the Prize, and we both said” Relief!”

And indeed the reprinted books flew out of the warehouse, so that we had to reprint again and again. And we helped to establish “The Giller Effect”.

On the 25th anniversary, it’s a very proud memory. Well done, Jack! Well done,Avie.!