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.

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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!

TRANSLATING YVES BEAUCHEMIN

The Globe and Mail on  Saturday, December 29, contained a book review written by the thoughtful Russell Smith.  The review is of Yves Beauchemin’s latest novel, The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien, translated by Wayne Grady.

The review is headed “An all-around disappointment”. The sub-heading reads “The translation of Quebecker Yves Beauchemin’s 2016 novel is full of cliches, clumsy language and implausible scenarios that would do well as a humourous cartoon.”

Naturally, I rushed to read it.

I should explain right away that I know and admire all of the people involved here, even the people at Anansi who published the book. I always read Russell Smith’s commentary on the literary scene with interest. As for Yves Beauchemin, I am a huge admirer. I have thrust “The Alley Cat”, his 1981 classic, upon hundreds of readers, and in my role as Publisher at M&S I have proudly published several of his later books.

My enthusiasm was such that before publishing “Charles The Bold”, I dragged Jane around the mean streets of east-end Montreal’s Rue Ontario area in freezing weather . It was in fact so cold that when we took shelter in a nearby church, the tears that sprang to our eyes from  the temperature change meant that we were instantly at home in the funeral party that we had accidentally joined . Jane was impressed — not favourably — that we were roaming the icy streets to follow the landmarks in the life “of a fictional character?” For Yves Beauchemin it was worth it. His Montreal is always a special place. What London was for Dickens, and Paris for Balzac, Montreal , in all its modern variety, is for Yves Beauchemin

As for Wayne Grady, my admiration for this walking compendium  of bookish virtues is hard to express. He is an excellent editor, an anthologist, a non-fiction writer, a novelist , a reviewer….and a superb translator. I had the pleasure of editing his translations of several Beauchemin books. I used to enjoy my role of editing Wayne’s translation so much that I would joke –sotto voce — that instead of being paid for the work, I would happily pay for the pleasure.

I should explain that while my spoken French is childish (my ears and lips limping along behind the conversation, trying to imagine the sounds in print) my translation of written French is good enough that many of my short translations have been published, without complaint.

When we published Yves, whom I got to know and like in person, my practice was always the same. I had read the book in French, to start the publishing process. When Wayne’s translation came in, I would read it, setting aside and ignoring the French original. Only when something seemed strange about the English manuscript would I go back to the original. And  invariably I would find myself saying, “Ah, I see the problem. This is very tricky to translate.” And almost invariably Wayne would have made the difficult choice — skilfully — between  an uneasy literal translation and a dangerously free one. My faith in Wayne’s superb translating abilities is such that if he were now to use the word “Gadzooks!”, I know it would represent an equivalent old French exclamation.

Translating the commonplace conversational cliches of a difficult hero like Jerome Lupien creates a special challenge. For Russell Smith, Wayne Grady’s translation fails the test here, falling back on cliches. To which I  say, for crying out loud, Wayne’s everyday language surely must establish the banal level of conversation, and thought, of our anti-hero Lucien. It works for me.

Many of Russell Smith’s criticisms in the review are fair. This is not Beauchemin at his best. But it’s still Beauchemin. I found myself once again happily immersed in the world of named streets, and coffee shops, and brasseries, and bookshops, and enjoying the reading very much. And for a loyal Quebecois like Yves to plunge into the shameful swamp of price-fixing in the construction industry there, which has been amply proved in official enquiries, must have been a painful journey. It is a world populated by shameless lobbyists like Jerome Lupien that richly deserves  bitter satirical treatment.

So why did an  astute reader like Russell Smith not get more out of the  book? I have one suggested answer, which is, you might say, political. When the struggle for Quebec’s future was going on, Yves Beauchemin was the President of the Union Des Ecrivains Quebecois and a vocal, hard-working leader in the fight for independence. He and I disagreed about this, but  I admired his passion, and his use of words, and ideas, to make his case.

Imagine, then, how such an idealist must feel today, now that his hopes for an independent Quebec, a country of his own, are almost gone. That, I suggest, is what makes this book fascinating.

For instance, in the middle of the book Jerome goes to a Thai restaurant near Cote des Neiges, eating his meal “until a familiar voice made him look around. To his left, in the middle of the room, Jacques Parizeau, the former Quebec premier, was sitting at a table with a man in his forties who looked perfectly at ease. That said, during his university days he’d often seen the famous politician having lunch in a local restaurant — alone, on one occasion, an ordinary citizen reading his newspaper.”

“Parizeau had been his father’s idol”. Jerome remembered how his father had said…”that man REALLY works for Quebec. We’d be our own country today if it wasn’t for those cheats who stole the referendum from us in 1995.”

The revealing Parizeau scene concludes: “As he ate, Jerome snuck furtive glances at the former politician. He’d aged and was bent over, his grey hair almost white, yet the familiar intelligent energy and aristocratic presence that, among journalists, earned him the nickname”Sir Jacques” still emanated from his eyes, face, and smallest gestures. Simply seeing him made one forget the sordid aspects of human nature.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a deeply important book for people who wonder about what former fighters for Quebec independence are now feeling. It doesn’t make for relaxed, easy satirical fiction. It’s more like a lament. A new Lament for a Lost Nation. See what you think.

 

W.O.MITCHELL AT MABEL LAKE

We know that W.O., (1914-1998) the beloved author of Who Has Seen The Wind, and many other books and radio plays including Jake and The Kid, was a remarkable character. In fact my chapter on him in Stories About Storytellers has the sub-title “Character, and Creator of Characters.”

He and Merna were also creators of children, who have proved to be interesting  writers. The prime example is Orm, who with his wife Barbara wrote the fascinating two-part biography of his father. I proudly published them with Volume One simply called “W.O.”, and Volume Two grandly entitled “Mitchell”. But second son Hugh, a former teacher, has now come forward as a writer. Thanks to Alan Twigg’s B.C Bookworld, I came across an essay from Hugh that appears in a new book called Flowing Through Time: Stories of Kingfisher and Mabel Lake.

First, the location. Mabel Lake is in eastern B.C., just south of the Trans-Canada highway, near Enderby, north of Vernon. Its location made it easy for Albertans like W.O. (based in High River, then Calgary) to drive west into the mountains, through Banff,  find a spot for a cottage beside a lake, then build a summer retreat. That was what W.O. did in 1963, on Mabel Lake.

And that’s the subject of Hugh’s fond essay, called simply “The Mitchell Family at Mabel Lake”. But nothing to do with Bill was simple. As Hugh puts it, gently, “Summers at ‘the lake’ were pretty exciting. Life with W.O. Mitchell was never dull….”

For example, people on the lake used to honk for someone to come in a boat to the parking lot to bring them across to their cabin. Each cabin devised a ritual honk (short-short-long, for instance). On this occasion , Hugh tells us, “W.O. was up on the roof trying to finish mortaring  the chimney cap for the fireplace that he had built that summer. He was engrossed in the delicate finishing touches of the chimney cap with a small triangular trowel. Doing delicate finishing work on anything except writing was not one of his fortes.”

Hugh goes on:  “Across the river mouth , Mrs Van Fossen had just arrived from shopping in Enderby and started the ritual honking to get a ride to her cabin.”The honking went on and on. “Dad was just reaching inside the chimney cap to smooth out a grout line as Mrs. Van Fossen laid on the horn. Startled, W.O. dropped the little trowel down the chimney and it settled on top of the damper plate. He looked up and screamed across the river mouth, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Get off that God-damned horn!”

The crisis continued, producing a very memorable image. Hugh tells us: “He could not reach the trowel from inside the fireplace hearth, and thus it became another extended delicate operation to retrieve the trowel from inside the chimney USING HIS FISHING ROD (my emphasis). Mabel Lake cabin owners were not surprised to see W.O. Mitchell up on the roof fishing in his chimney”.

The stories go on, many dealing with W.O.’s fishing and boating adventures. One of them I heard him tell to my Publishing Workshop at The Banff Centre, around 1985. For reasons that made sense to him, W.O. was alone in his boat on the empty lake when spilled gasoline on his pants made it necessary for him to tinker with the engine stark naked. When he stood up and arched to ease his acing back, he found that a silent sailboat had drifted alongside him, full of pop-eyed sailors of both sexes. W.O. told us that he instantly called out. “What class is that boat?”

Hugh tells the story of how W.O.s love of a bargain let him down: “Dad was always exclaiming what a great deal he got. He paid $5.00 per 100 board feet for the 2×4 deck boards. It didn’t turn out to be such a great deal, as the deck boards started rotting out within five years and culminated in George McClelland, former Chief Superintendent of the RCMP, plunging through an especially rotten section of the deck, getting stuck up to his midriff.” George McClelland, Hugh recalls” wasn’t a small man….We had some difficulty extracting him.”

Great stories. Somehow they make W.O.’s stories about blowing up Grandpa in the outhouse seem less amazing. Just everyday stuff.

Many thanks for sharing all this, Hugh.

“INDESCRIBABLE”, ACCORDING TO TOMSON HIGHWAY

(Photo of Tomson Highway, left, and Doug Gibson, Toronto, June 2018, by Mark Cardwell)

As my faithful readers know, I have made a point of attending The Writers’ Union annual Margaret Laurence Lectures down through the years. The very first Lecture, at the Union AGM at Queen’s,  was given by my author Hugh MacLennan. I recall that he reported with satisfaction on a recent very frank conversation with a small boy, who was appalled by Hugh’s great age, and asked him “What does it feel like to know that you’ll soon be dead?”

Other lectures have been memorable, usually in a different way, as Canada’s finest authors spoke about their experience of the writing life. Sometimes I , smiling benevolently as a friendly Publisher in the audience, found myself playing the role of the villain. The most notable case was in 1997, when Edna Staebler , the author of books like “Food That Really Schmecks”, was the selected author. Edna, born into a Mennonite family in 1906, was a sweet little old lady, a smiling apple-cheeked veteran, worthy of her proud Publisher’s support on this important evening.

IN ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I write: “At the end of a long publishing day I drove to Kingston to support good old Edna. She chose to take the audience through her career as an author, book by book. When she came to the first book  published by M&S, she said: “Now I see Doug Gibson in the audience, and Doug, I have to say that when it came to Promoting “More Food That Really Schmecks”, I was really disappointed by the job that M&S did. Really disappointed.”

The audience of writers — not all of whom believed that their own publishers had promoted their own books ideally, successfully attracting every possible reader — was loudly delighted.

It got worse. Every book we had published, it seemed, had been badly promoted, although each time Edna was “sorry to have to say this, Doug”. Eventually I sat there in the middle of the audience (my neighbours drawing away from me) with my hands clasped protectively over my head. It was an admission that I was being publicly beaten up, from the stage, by a sweet little lady, now aged ninety-one, but still kicking.”

In later years authors like Alistair MacLeod had some fun at my expense, and in St. John’s in 2014 Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Lecture was so critical of the publishing hotshot named Gibson who took forever to decide to publish Man Descending (until HE gave ME a deadline) that friends in the audience later asked me for my side of the story. I simply said that Guy’s story was too good not to be true.

So this year, at the Writers’ Union AGM in Toronto I was excited to attend the Margaret Laurence lecture delivered by Tomson Highway.

Tomson’s career led us to expect something a little different, and he had great fun providing it. We all learned more Cree than we had known before. Since Tomson, who spends a lot of time in Europe, is fluent in  French, and Spanish and Portuguese and much else, there was a feast of language behind his witty talk.

But words failed him the next day , when I ran into him in the corridor. My friend Mark Cardwell was with me , with his trusty camera, when I shyly went up to Tomson, whom I had never met. When I introduced myself, he said: “Doug Gibson? DOUG GIBSON? THE INDESCRIBABLE DOUG GIBSON?”

It must be true. Tomson Highway said so. I like to think that this is one of the few cases when “indescribable” is used in a good way.

A GREAT HONOUR FOR MY FIRST BOOK

Here is what Terry  Fallis entered, at Kobo’s request, to celebrate Canada Day this year. Look at the authors he chose :– Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Donald Jack………and Douglas Gibson!
Read on.

5 books that say “Canada”

Posted by Terry Fallis June  30, 2017
Fallis Terry_2008_cr. Tim Fallis

1. The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies captures small town life in Canada as only one who grew up in several small towns could. With its gentle humour, brilliant sentences, and captivating storytelling, this, to me, is a supremely Canadian tale.

2. Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

This fine novel tells the story of three generations of the Gursky family and cuts a broad swath through the country’s history and geography. Any story that includes a plane crash, rum-running, and the Franklin Expedition puts a check mark in the “Canadian” box.

3. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Few stories capture the distinctly Canadian humour, tone, and sensibility as well as Anne of Green Gables. While the musical may now be more popular than the book, it’s well worth revisiting the L.M. Montgomery’s classic for a few laughs, a few tears and a dollop of national pride.

4. Three Cheers for Me by Donald Jack

If you want to read a hilarious novel that captures the Canadian role in the Great War through the eyes of an oblivious horse-faced farm boy from Eastern Ontario (and who doesn’t?), I give you Three Cheers for Me. Written by the three-time Leacock Medal winning Donald Jack, this is a comic masterpiece, and oh so Canadian.

5. Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson

Canadian writers have played a profound role in shaping how we view our own country. The history of Canadian literature is a critical strand running through the history of Canada. Why not read about some wonderful Canadian storytellers in a fantastic book by Douglas Gibson, an editor and publisher who has worked with some of Canada’s most influential writers including Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, and W.O. Mitchell? You’ll thank me.

Terry Fallis is a Canadian author and two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, winning in 2008 for his debut novel, The Best Laid Plans, and in 2015 for No Relation. To date, all five of his published books have been shortlisted for the award.

COMMENTARY

You can imagine how thrilled I am to be in this company. I have strong links with all of the other four authors.

I edited many ROBERTSON DAVIES books, starting with World of Wonders, the third in the trilogy started by Fifth Business. It is, of course, a superb book, and features in my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS.

I knew MORDECAI RICHLER well, although I never edited his work. He, too, features in my new STORYTELLERS show, where he and I feud as his weary letters begin  “Gibson, Gibson”. Much of the excellent Solomon Gursky book is set in Magog, around the corner from my beloved North Hatley in the Eastern Townships.

Like every Canadian publisher, I published several of LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY’S books, including Anne of Green Gables,( with an “E”). I talk about her in the STORYTELLERS show, noting that it was her Emily of New Moon that set young Alice Munro off on a writing career.

DONALD JACK is a great hidden comic genius. He  brought out  Three Cheers For Me in 1962, and its Wodehousian treatment of Bartholomew Bandy’s adventures among the horrors of Flanders Fields raised many eyebrows. When he brought me a second volume in 1972 ( entitled That’s Me In The Middle), I reshuffled the new book and Three Cheers For Me, so that they became part of  a continuing series.  Don generously signed the 1972 edition of Three Cheers For Me  with the words “For the originator of The Bandy Papers, Douglas Gibson”, so you can imagine how pleased I was to find him included here by Terry.

As for DOUGLAS GIBSON, words fail. But if anyone reading this has not yet read Stories About Storytellers, I hope you’ll see if  you agree with Terry’s generous assessment.

Remembering Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean was once my boss. He was the Producer of the CBC radio show, Sunday Morning, from 1981 to 1983, and I was the programme’s weekly movie reviewer from ‘81 to ‘84.

It was a whirlwind environment, a little like a student newspaper, with excited, bright, young people dashing out on to Jarvis Street from the old red-brick building to record street noises for the final section of a profile that was already 95% “in the can”.  Stuart was right at home in the middle of the whirlwind, chatting, and laughing, and losing things, and encouraging the troops. He was, as everyone who saw him on-stage knows, a resolutely “aw-shucks” guy. Word filtered out that his cheerfully unrehearsed acceptance speeches, when his show won international awards, caused scowls at “The Kremlin”, the CBC headquarters.

Yet I know that he could be an inspiring leader. My contact with the show was through the superb Suanne Kelman (who fiercely taught me “how to breathe” on the air) and after 10 rigorous takes and re-takes of my 3-minute piece, I would go home before noon on Saturday. Once, my restful afternoon was marked by a phone call from Stuart.

“Doug, I’ve just heard your review for tomorrow’s show, and I wanted to tell you how great it is to have you doing your movie reviews for us.” Other compliments followed. And I swelled with pride and pleasure, and remembered the incident fondly, as you can see.

Some years later, I almost became his boss, or at least his Publisher. I had just started my own imprint at M&S and had lunch with Stuart to discuss his future, since at the time he was selling traffic barrier equipment, which was not the ideal road to success. Stuart had some interesting ideas for heading into the book world. I warmly encouraged him to develop his plans for a book. But I explained that I was busy bringing major authors who had already published with me to my new Douglas Gibson Books imprint. To be loyal to Avie Bennett, who had arranged my new home at M&S, I suggested that I would be glad to promote his new book idea to Adrienne Clarkson and her team at M&S. I did so, with enthusiasm…..and was astonished when later they turned him down. Fourteen Penguin titles, and more than a million book sales later……

The only figure I can compare Stuart with – as an author who became a beloved performer across the country… is W.O.Mitchell.  Stuart and he met through their mutual friend Peter Gzowski, and I know they hit it off right away. I like to think that W.O. spotted Stuart as a blood brother, another guy who loved travelling around and meeting ordinary Canadians in places large and small. I believe that W.O. knew by instinct that he would turn into a major storyteller. Certainly Stuart loved spending time with W.O., and was a good friend to him.

For instance, when we issued tapes of W.O.’s stage performances, it took me no time at all to persuade Stuart to contribute a fond Introduction to “An Evening With W.O. Mitchell”. He said “Hello, I’m Stuart McLean, and I’ve been a fan of W.O. Mitchell ever since I heard him read when I was in University. So I’m delighted to be part of this Tribute to W.O. Mitchell, the Writer and the Performer…”

After W.O. died, a fund-raiser for the Writers’ Trust featured an auction for one of his snuff-boxes. Stuart was a determined bidder until almost the end, when a very rich rival won. When the Mitchell family learned of Stuart’s disappointment, they sent him another of W.O.’s snuff-boxes. Orme Mitchell still remembers the touchingly grateful letter he received.

As for me, I stayed in touch with my old friend.  I remember disappointing him at The Royal York at a Bookseller’s Awards Ceremony where he was the MC. When I stepped up to the platform to accept an award won by Alice Munro, he said “Aww, it’s Doug”, in sinking tones. Once I was the MC at A Different Drummer Books event in Burlington, where by contrast I had fun at his expense.

The fun stopped when he fell ill with melanoma, although in our phone chat early in 2016 he was very upbeat, confident about the odds. When I called ten days ago, I spoke to Stuart’s son, Robbie, who told me that his father was sleeping. Two days before he died I left a fond message on his answering machine, a message into limbo from an old friend, who now knows that it’s always later than you think.