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.

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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.

 

 

LISTEN TO CBC RADIO’S SUNDAY MORNING TOMORROW, NOV 25

All going well, on Michael Enright’s fine programme tomorrow, you’ll be able to hear me talking about Hugh MacLennan.
It’s more than a casual chat. Young Michael is so good at what he does that his interview pushed me to declare things that I wasn’t aware that I knew. So not only will you hear me encouraging every listener to go and read THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, which I describe as Hugh’s very best book. You’ll also hear me reading aloud the paragraph from BAROMETER RISING that , I claim, created Canadian Literature.

If you find that idea intriguing , you might enjoy listening to Michael’s show tomorrow.

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.!

IN PRAISE OF MARY PRATT

I was saddened to read about the recent death of Newfoundland’s own Mary Pratt, a timeless painter of realistic scenes, often deceptively plain and domestic.
The comparisons with the work of Alice Munro are clear, and I was very glad to bring the two artists together by using Mary Pratt’s evocative image of a dress on a clothesline for Friend of My Youth in 1990, and of an unmade bed on the cover of Alice’ s Runaway in 2004.
Alice’s biographer, Robert Thacker, in Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, notes that “Gibson’s comment that he and Munro had been looking for “just the right”magic realist painting is indicative, too, since as her Canadian editor he justifiably prided himself on the choice of appropriate artworks for her dust jackets. Given the initial Rose-Janet relation in Who Do You Think You Are, they first settled on a detail from Christopher Pratt’s Young Woman in a Slip, where the young woman is looking into a mirror, rejecting it (though it was later used on the dust jacket of the Canadian edition of The Moons of Jupiter), they ultimately opted for a detail of Ken Dandy’s The Sunbather”.
To my great pleasure,Thacker ends this paragraph with the observation: “Gibson’s covers, from this one to the painting of a dishevelled bed by Mary Pratt on the dust jacket of Runaway have been capsule symbols of the elegant everyday found in Munro’s writing”.
“The elegant everyday”! Perfect.
And as Canadian magic realism flourished, I was thrilled to be able to use paintings by people like Mary Pratt, and Christopher Pratt, and Alex Colville ( Elm Tree at Horton’s Landing, on the cover of The Progress of Love).
A great generation of artists.

GREAT NEWS! MY PODCAST IS NOW AVAILABLE TO YOU — FREE!

As my faithful friends who follow this blog know, I spent a lot of time in 2017 touring my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS, 1867 To Today. Yet anyone who missed the live Power-point stage show was out of luck.

Until today. Canada Day!

Now, we’re launching a series of Podcasts based on that show. There are 16 podcasts in all,  each based on a decade in Canadian literature. For most of the decades I’ve selected the best Fiction Writer, in English and in French. Against a background of music from the time, I also talk about Canadian Art in those days, as well as the major events in our history.

It’s all very informal, and friendly, and each decade’s podcast runs between 15 and 25 minutes.

I hope that you’ll give it a try.

Here’s how:

Go to the Podcast Section of i-tunes. Search for Douglas Gibson. What you want is the one with a caricature of me, running across the country. The heading is Douglas Gibson Literary Talks. It is, as I say, all FREE.
Enjoy.

If you seek a more formal direct link, here’s the URL

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/douglasgibsonliterarytalks/id1403911781

Please share widely

THANK YOU

DOUG

A CAUTIONARY TALE

Today I heard a story on CBC radio about a Canadian shocked to find Nazi war memorabilia for sale in a shop in this country.
It reminded me of an incident at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1981. That year at Macmillan we had just published a fine non-fiction book by John Melady about German P.O.W.s in Canada in the Second World War. The title of this well-researched book was ESCAPE FROM CANADA.
I have many German friends, and once spent a high-school month in Hamburg, so decided that in my role as Publisher I should become a salesman, selling the German Rights to this book.
To do the job properly, I decided to get out of the usual English-language Frankfurt Hall (crowded with Canadian, British, American, and the other Publishers from around the world who liked to deal with major books translated from English). Instead, worriedly trying to recall my rusty German, I stepped into the very large Hall for German publishers.
I roamed around, looking for the sort of publisher who specialized in military books, like John Melady’s. In about the 40th Aisle, I found one. and when I stumbled into my introduction, the German Publisher manning the busy booth swept me into a conversation in fluent English,. He courteously agreed to consider our book, and gave me his card.
“But”, he exclaimed, with great enthusiasm, “we have a book for you! And it is being translated into English already!”
He produced a large hardcover book that was full of text and illustrations, and handed it to me.
Then he was called away to look after another urgent matter, leaving me gaping at the book in my hands. It was called the German equivalent of “The S.S.– A Celebration”
I leafed through it, shuddering, to make sure that I was not missing a shrewd satire. But no, it was an admiring look at the SS forces who had played a decisive role in the war. Instead of “decisive”, some citizens in a dozen European countries that had endured Nazi Occupation would use words like “ruthless” and “shameful”. Or given the cheerful approach of the German publisher, perhaps the correct word is “shameless”.
I remember vividly one photo from The Russian Front. A visibly terrified old woman was holding a large pitcher of milk, preparing to pour it out for five or six laughing young blond members of the Master Race; as they lined up they still had their rifles on their shoulders and broad smiles on their faces. The caption — and the gorge rises as I recall it — was, in German, “Once a mother…’
My command of the language was not up to the situation. Nor was my command of my own temper: this man really thought that I would want to publish this book, and that my fellow-Canadians would want to buy it.
My protest was mute. Instead of politely returning the loathsome book, I simply dropped it, BANG, on the floor in the middle of the booth. Then I walked away.