WORKING HARD AT LAKEFIELD

  Three years ago I was the Lakefield Festival’s host/interviewer at an evening celebrating Michael Crummey’s Galore and Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man. With those two fine writers and performers crooning their readings at the entranced audience, how could it go any way other than very well indeed?

  But the Lakefield Festival organisers (this means you, Stephanie) remembered me with affection, and this year presented me with an offer I could not refuse. I would give my solo Stories About Storytellers Show at 2.30 on Saturday afternoon, then act as host/interviewer for the evening session at 8.00, with three authors — count them, three. Then, presumably, I would collapse off-stage, but the show would be over by then.

   Ruthless people, those Lakefield folks.

   On the Friday evening we had dinner with Orme Mitchell (W.O.’s son) , his wife Barb, and  Norman Jewison and his wife, our dinner enlivened by Norman’s tales of his Caledon neighbour , Robertson Davies, and his Hollywood friend Sean Connery, whom I can imitate shupremely well.

  Saturday was spent roaming around Lakefield, before we went to the superb theatre at Lakefield School. After many careful sound checks the lapel mike was working really well… until, after a kind introduction by Lewis MacLeod (son of you know who), I went on stage, to find that squeaking feedback was now, mysteriously, a constant enemy.

   In the end Jane (urged by the sound man) strode on to the stage, demanding the slide-changing “clicker”, which she handled off-stage, and we soldiered on, to good effect. There was even a standing ovation, which is a surprisingly humbling experience (“You really liked it that much?”). Then Lewis conducted a kindly Question and Answer session, and I went off to sign books.

  So many books were sold, and signed, that the local bookseller ran out, and we were able to replenish her supplies with extra copies from the car. Ah, the glamorous life of a touring author.

  The evening session featured three very fine novelists, reading from their recent books, then chatting about them with me. The final part of the evening allowed the audience to throw questions at any of the authors.

  The books in question were very different: Annabel  by Katherine Winter tells the story of a hermaphrodite baby raised as a boy in Labrador in the 1970s:  The Empty Room by Lauren B. Davis tells the modern story of a day in a middle-aged Toronto woman’s life when her alcoholism catches up with her: The Purchase by Linda Spalding is set on the violent Virgina frontier around 1800 when an abolitionist Quaker finds himself the owner of a slave.

  All very different, all very good. I recommend each one of them whole-heartedly, and am proud that our discussion centred exclusively on the books, as opposed to the prizes won, or the brothers or husbands (including Ron Davis, an excellent photographer) who might have earned a mention. Our main problem was that we ran out of time before all the audience’s questions could be answered. But the books are there to be read.

And I did not collapse, on-stage or off, and even attended a post-show party, before sleeping very soundly that night.

A Montreal Coincidence

In July I gave my show at a Westmount residence for seniors named Place Kensington. It’s a fine, lively place (or Place) and the residents include two authors of mine, the charming Ted Phillips and my friend William Weintraub, the author of City Unique. Bill Weintraub is also famous for the  classic novel Why Rock The Boat?  and I proudly edited his last novel , Crazy about Lili,  providing  it with a very funny cover illustration by the wonderful Anthony Jenkins, whose path was later to cross mine, as my readers know.

In the course of my show, when I was talking  about James Houston going into the North, an older man in the audience asked me, “When was this?”

“In 1948,” I replied.

“Yes, that sounds about right.”

He went on to explain that he was setting up his medical practice around then, and had wandered into the Canadian Handicrafts Guild shop, and had come across a very fine portrait of a young woman (in those days a young “Eskimo” woman) in full sealskin traditional outfit. He stood there admiring this piece of finely drawn art that revealed another world, far from Montreal. Then another customer, a young dark-haired man, came and stood beside him, looking over his shoulder at the drawing.

“Do you like it?” the stranger asked.

“Yes, I do,” said the young doctor, “but I’m just setting up my medical practice, and I’m sure I can’t afford it.”

“Can you afford $50?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said the surprised doctor, and James Houston made the deal with him right there and then, remarking that this was the first of his Northern drawings that he had ever sold.

The doctor told us that he still had James Houston’s drawing, after all these years. And I told the audience that we had all been part of the sort of coincidence that weaves its web around us every day, in unexpected ways.

Later that evening Jane and I had dinner in Old Montreal, celebrating the coincidence that had brought us together at The Couchiching Conference, so that exactly 11 years earlier we had got married.

ALICE MUNRO SAYS GOODBYE TO THE WRITING LIFE.

 In 2006, Alice Munro said that she was not going to write any more. Many journalists seized on this terrible news and reported it as fact, and it flashed around the Canadian literary world like summer lightning

 Wiser heads, however, checked with me, her long-time editor, and found me dismissing the idea, with the words that “Alice is a born writer, and she’s not going to stop writing.”

   Fortunately for the world, I was right, and she has produced two collections of stories since then.

  Sadly, I’m not saying that this time.

   In fact, when she came to Toronto in June, to accept the Trillium Prize for Dear Life, I was with her in a private room at the Toronto Reference Library when the enterprising Mark Medley interviewed her and asked her about her future writing plans. When she told him that she had no such plans, and had stopped writing, (“I’m probably not going to write anymore”), I stayed silent.

  Recently Charles McGrath, of the New York Times, visited her in Clinton and returned with the same story. His fine July 1 article, “Alice Munro Puts Down Her Pen To Let The World In” reflects the fact that he is an old friend and editor of Alice’s work, and a great admirer. It’s a superb account of Alice’s life and work, and I recommend it highly.

  So what has changed? For a start, Alice is now 82. In April she lost her beloved husband, Gerry Fremlin, and life is harder now. On the subject of growing old, which Charles McGrath rightly notes is “a subject that preoccupies some of her best stories”, she says “I worry less than I did. There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s better than being dead. I feel that I’ve done what I wanted to do, and that makes me fairly content.”

   “Fairly content”…now there’s an Alice Munro expression, (just like “better than being dead”). I suppose I can say that the millions of readers around the world who know her work can be “fairly content” that she wrote a lifetime’s worth of wonderful short stories that can be read and re-read for ever. My own recommendation, by the way, is The Progress Of Love, which I discuss on my Book Club website, complete with 20 Discussion Points.

   I accompanied Alice to two award sessions in Toronto in June, in both cases whisked by limo to the event, then escorted (with me hovering at Alice’s elbow, the escort escorted) to the reception and the dinner. At both the Libris Awards session, where I spoke to introduce Alice to the nation’s booksellers, who were giving her a Lifetime Achievement Award, and at the later Trillium Prize event, there was a strong sense that people in the audience knew that this was a special moment towards the end of a long , unmatched career. The affection and respect in the sustained, standing ovations were very obvious, almost tangible. And the people who took the opportunity to come to our table to greet Alice (“Yes, I once met Alice Munro!”), sometimes were literally kneeling to greet her , and were always visibly affected when they staggered away, dazed by the experience of meeting her, although she was always friendly and unaffected (“Who do you think you are?”)
It was wonderful to be so close to such powerful experiences, although my role was to watch for signs of strain, then to swoop Alice back to her limo, and back to the family waiting for her at the hotel.

The Canada Trip

This summer, Jane (my “techie”– though no tattoos so far) and I are going to be travelling widely to give my show in various parts of Canada. As usual, I’m preparing by consulting the 1997 classic, The Canada Trip, by Charles Gordon.  

  You may know him as a former writer for The Ottawa Citizen, or a witty columnist for Maclean’s. Even better, you may know him as the author of the classic At The Cottage and the follow-up Still At The Cottage. His other books include an affectionate satire on life in Ottawa (The Governor General’s Bunny Hop), The Grim Pig, a novel based on the newspaper world , and Canada’s answer to the wave of hyperbolic self-improvement books from the U.S.A., brilliantly entitled  How To Be Not Too Bad. All of them reveal Charles as a man with a finely understated style that is a delight to read, and a dry sense of humour so Canadian that  it deserves to occupy our seat at the United Nations.

   In the summer of 1996 he and his wife Nancy (known in the book, to her slight irritation, as “The Business Manager”) set out from Ottawa in the family car to drive across Canada and back. The result is a wonderful book that shows what typical travellers will find as they enjoy the trip. It is not an earnest “Whither Canada?” book, as much as a “Whither the moose?” or even a “Whither the washroom?” book, and we are all grateful for it. Check it out.

  I am especially grateful for what my old friend Charles wrote about me in his Acknowledgements:  “My publisher, editor, and fellow Scot, Doug Gibson, was as encouraging as always on this, our fourth project together. In his editing,  Doug consistently amazed me with his knowledge of what is where in Canada. Many times he was able to tell me that I could not have been looking at what I thought I was looking at from a given spot – a sunset, a mountain, an ocean – because I was facing the wrong way. This invariably sent me back to my map collection and invariably forced me to conclude he was right – except maybe for once in Saskatoon.” (Ah, Saskatoon, where the reliable old north-south Idylwyld Freeway treacherously turns east, south of the river.)

   Jane and I will have a chance to expand our knowledge of the country as we roam around with my show, this summer. Maybe we’ll meet you along the way. It should be fun.

 

A Fine New (Oh, All Right, Not So New) Book About Publishing

We all have authors we know about whose books we plan to read “some day.” That was the case for me with the English author Anthony Powell, who lived from 1905 to 2000, and is best known for his 12-volume series of novels entitled A Dance to the Music of Time.

This series remains a treat in store for me, because I took the Powell plunge by diving into his 1939 book What’s Become of Waring. It is a brilliant satire of the London world of book publishing, and it is very, very funny.

Our narrator is an editor for the old firm of Judkins and Judkins. “It was a small business with two partners, Hugh and Bernard Judkins, who were partners.” Hugh, the younger brother, joined the firm later, and “threw himself heart and soul into a profession which provided boundless scope for the intellectual fussing that he had found so congenial as a schoolmaster. . . .

“From the day that Hugh entered the office, Bernard, never over-addicted to optimism, became increasingly embittered. He dated from the period when a reasonable standard of honesty and good manners were the best that any writer could hope for from his publisher – and even these were hard enough to obtain. . . . ” |

I should interject here that Powell worked in the 1930s in the world of publishing, and his weary knowledge shines through every line.

“Bernard” our narrator tells us, in a book where every paragraph begs to be quoted “began to loathe books, so that it seemed that he had only entered the trade to take his revenge on them.” His life “became one long crusade against the printed word. Every work that appeared under the Judkins & Judkins colophon did so in the teeth of Bernard’s bitter opposition.”

As you can imagine, this makes life hard for our narrator as he tries to find books for his firm  to publish. His major, immediate problem is to find an acceptable author to write an authorized biography of the recently deceased travel writer, T.T. Waring, the big star on the Judkins list. The search does not go well. When finally, miraculously, a man named Hudson (a good chap, an officer in the Territorial Army with no writing experience) is accepted by both brothers, his research goes badly. It produces proof that the shadowy Waring plagiarized all of his most successful titles from hidden travel tales published in French and never translated.

This news does not go down well with Judkins and Judkins. But Hugh is philosophical about it because at this point he is so madly in love with a young journalist named Roberta Payne that he has signed up a collection of her newspaper articles, although he knows that the book will sell, in his editor’s words “no more than a dozen copies.”

And so it goes, in a book full of characters like the man whose face “had the open, appealing frankness of expression of those who live by their wits.” When another man, a general, leaves a house wearing an opera hat and a black overcoat, “He looked like an immensely distinguished conjuror.”

Powell’s women are equally memorable, such as Beryl, Hudson’s fiancé: “Like so many girls whose lot had been to lead dull lives, her manner implied that all men were her slaves.” Or Beryl’s sister Winefred “all teeth and badly cut brown hair,”  whose approach was “threatening” and who had a “goatish” laugh. When she went to a military ball “she said at the top of her lungs that she thought middle-aged men looked silly in short red coats and tight blue trousers.”

Powell reminds me of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, but with a little less acid in the mix. (Waugh was, famously, such a nasty man in real life that he once gloatingly sat and ate the first banana his war-starved children had seen, as they sat drooling.) I can see why the critic V.S. Pritchett said, “Anthony Powell is our foremost comic writer. ” And from reading What’s Become of Waring, I can see why William Trevor, no less, wrote, “In his ability to capture and control the imagination of his readers through his characters, Mr. Powell is the most subtle writer now performing in English.” I’m glad that I finally caught up with him. I hope that you will, too.

Recommended Reading: The Free World

Recently I had the pleasure of being one of the three judges of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. I accepted the role when asked by my friend Stuart Woods, the editor of Quill & Quire, before the Amazon link became a major embarrassment. (Amazon is throwing its weight around, and if publishers don’t automatically agree with the new, worse terms they’re offered, their books are automatically de-listed – in their electronic form, at least – from all Amazon websites. That has happened to my book, and to all books published by ECW. There are other ways, of course, to get our books electronically, but doing business with bullies is not good.)

The judging process put me in touch with five fine books, by authors who were mostly new to me. In every single case I was glad to be introduced to the book, and enjoyed reading it. The judging process, expertly arranged by Stuart Woods, brought pleasant contact with Nathan Whitlock, whom I knew slightly and whose work I admired, and my old friend Kelly Duffin. I suspect that with the variety of opinions we brought to the (metaphorical) table we could have spent a week putting the five books in order, but after a full discussion it was clear that we all agreed on The Free World by David Bezmozgis as the winner.

The plot is simple. Three generations of a family of Latvian Jews escape to “the free world” of the title. In this case, that world is Rome, and the life that various refugee organizations offer to people in transit, while they choose their new home, and – after a tense time — are accepted by the officials of that country.

All of the family members adapt to their new life in different ways, including the grandfather who preferred the way things were back home. It’s a very sophisticated piece of fiction and is full of wry humour. (At one point, when an amorous young man suggests a horizontal tree branch as a solution to the lack of a private bedroom, the offended lady retorts, “What are we? Squirrels?” )

I recommend the book without reservation, and look forward to many more fine books coming from David Bezmozgis. But watch out, too, for more fine books from the other nominated authors.

Recommended Reading

Now, a new book, where I played no role in the publication.

But my admiration for Robert Levine’s Free Ride (with its gentle and understated subtitle How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back) led me to jump at the invite from my friend Duncan McKie to attend the recent music industry convention on March 23 at The Royal York, where Levine was the keynote Breakfast Speaker.

The key message of his Fall 2011 book, published by Doubleday, is that every single part of “the culture business” – newspapers, magazines, television, movies, books and music – is under siege from the “information wants to be free” online economy. And the preference for consumers to get online stuff free . . . and to regard copyright as an outdated concept that interferes with true freedom . . .  is driving every single one of these industries, and the creators they represent, over the cliff. Meanwhile technology companies build billion-dollar businesses on content that belongs to others . . . like authors, to give one example.

Common wisdom tells us that the music industry’s problems with pirates like Napster were solved by iTunes, and that it provides a useful model to solve this problem in other industries. Right?

Wrong.

Clearly iTunes is good for Apple, and for consumers who feel good about paying something for their music. But it’s bankrupting the music industry. The people working there know it.  The artists who are getting less studio time, as quality suffers, know it, too. And that’s why Robert Levine (with whom I chatted before his speech) was invited to confirm the crisis to a deeply worried Canadian audience.

Robert Levine deserves great credit for demonstrating that “we can’t go on this way” . . .  this means you, writers and publishers. Sadly his book is weaker in the area of providing solutions. But reading it makes us aware of just how big a problem creators now face, as the big Internet players fund advocacy groups that  frame the debate about “freedom” as opposed to fair return for copyright holders.

Serious stuff.