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.

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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.

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.!

ONE GOOD STORY LEADS TO ANOTHER

My last blog lamented the recent destruction of the Mono Lino Typesetting building on Toronto’s Dupont Street, where Barry Broadfoot’s revolutionary TEN LOST YEARS was typeset, way back in 1973. In turn, that story has produced a very interesting response from Gillian O’Reilly.

My friend Gillian was an important member of the book trade for many years, and was once the Editor of “Canadian Bookseller”. That national magazine of our booksellers was prepared in-house. Then – TADA – the files, ready for typesetting, would be sent to Mono Lino.

I’ll let Gillian take up the tale:—

“Because I lived near Mono Lino, I would occasionally take the files to the company instead of having them picked up at our office by the sales rep.

One winter morning I walked up the steps of the company, and the door was opened by a smartly dressed young man who asked if I worked there. I explained my purpose, and he said, earnestly, “I’m from Coopers & Lybrand.”

My brain did not immediately register that this was an accountant standing at the door. I was rapidly, and without success, trying to process the confusing thought “I didn’t know Coopers & Lybrand did typesetting”.

The young man at the door hastened to explain that the company was in receivership.

Stunned, I retreated, and from a payphone I contacted the Canadian Booksellers Association with the bad news, but with the help of our now-unemployed sales rep we quickly found a new typesetter and got the next issue out. And I often think that I was one of  the first Mono Lino clients to learn that the company was no more.”

 

A fine story. Many thanks, Gillian.

And I should add a note to stress how seriously we at Doubleday Canada took the enthusiasm of the old-pro typesetters for Barry Broadfoot’s first book. They were so excited that we signed Barry up to start travelling the country with his tape recorder to gather stories for a second book of oral history — SIX WAR YEARS — long before TEN LOST YEARS was published.

Thanks, Mono Lino.

A PIECE OF BOOK HISTORY BITES THE DUST

On the north side of Dupont Street in Toronto, just east of Bathurst Street, stood an old red-brick factory.
Until this week.
Now the former printing shop has been torn down, to make way for what is promised will be attractive “Condos”. So what once was part of a sturdy old industrial part of the central city is swallowed up by the advancing residential Annex from the south.
Why should this matter to people outside Toronto, or to those who are not city planners? Because that old, anonymous red-brick building played a huge part in transforming the world of Canadian books.
The man behind this shift was Barry Broadfoot. He was the former Book Review Editor at the Vancouver Sun who had quit his job in the hope of writing a new kind of book that would transform Canadian History. With a tiny tape recorder in his hand he had criss-crossed the country in his Volkswagen Beetle, asking ordinary people “What happened to you in The Depression?”
Their extraordinary answers became TEN LOST YEARS, 1929-1939: Memories of Canadians Who Survived The Depression.
Along the way, however, there was a major transcribing and typing challenge for Barry, and a major editing challenge for me. In STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS I talk about how the ratio of stories we cut out, messily, was about 40 to1. I also explain that Barry “was a fast, inelegant typist who resented conventions like using upper-case letters at the start of sentences, and his typewriter sometimes made holes in the cheap paper, so the pages were arguably the ugliest ever submitted in the history of Canadian publishing,”
This led to major problems when the manuscript went off to the typesetters in their sturdy red-brick building on Dupont Street.

I go on to explain the process. “In those days, children, people typed manuscripts, then they were edited with marks in pen or usually pencil, and then they went to people called “typesetters, WHO RETYPED THE WHOLE MANUSCRIPT, from beginning to end. In this case, the ill-typed, heavily edited manuscript was so illegible that the typesetter-printer (Bob Hamilton, whom I worked with later) pleaded with me to set up shop in their building so that I could translate the constant tricky words right on the spot.
“And there — if I had any doubt about the power of the stories in the book — I received inspiring confirmation of the book’s appeal. The typesetters — hardened old pros — simply could not get enough of Barry’s stories, and talked excitedly about them over coffee and lunch. It was clear that we were on to a winner.”

And what a winner TEN LOST YEARS proved to be. It sold over 200,000 copies, in hard-cover. It established oral history as an exciting new form of Canadian non-fiction. It made Barry Broadfoot a major new author. And, to be to selfish, it helped to launch my publishing career.
And it left me nostalgic about that old building on Dupont Street, and wanting to honour its passing.

MAVIS GALLANT PROBLEMS

THE ICE CREAM TRUCK GOING DOWN THE STREET

Mavis Gallant died at the age of 91 four years ago, on February 18. She died in Paris, an ex-patriate Canadian writer who was admired by other fine writers around the world. Yet now she is at the centre of a scandal rocking the American literary firmament, from coast to coast.

Not that Mavis has any responsibility here, or is in any way to blame. On the contrary, one side in the noisy fight claims that it is defending her against a modern author who is stealing her work.

The story begins in the pages of “The New Yorker”, the magazine that for decades published Mavis Gallant’s work. In fact, only John Updike had more fiction appear in the magazine over the years than Mavis, and the role the magazine played in revealing her genius to the world is well known. On January 9th this year, however, the magazine published a piece of fiction by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.

That is the simple heading for the story. No reference is made to Mavis Gallant there, as in “A Tribute to Mavis Gallant”. There is also no specific reference such as “Based on the Mavis Gallant story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street.” To the unsuspecting reader, the story stands alone.

However, in a separate interview with the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, Sadia Shepard acknowledges “a great debt” to the Mavis Gallant Story “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street”, which she names.

Enter Francine Prose, the well-known American novelist. In a letter that sends lightning bolts from the page she accuses Shepard of stealing from the Gallant story. Her letter appeared in the The New Yorker on January 22, is and worth reading in its powerful entirety.

To summarize, it begins with Prose noting that a few sentences into the Shepard story “I began to get the eerie feeling that I knew exactly what was coming next. And, in fact I did, because almost everything that happens in Shepard’s story happens in Mavis Gallant’s story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street, published in The New Yorker, in 1963. Scene by scene, plot turn by plot turn, gesture by gesture, the Shepard story follows the Gallant – the main difference being that the characters are Pakistanis in Connecticut rather than Canadians in Geneva. Some phrases and sentences are mirrored with only a few words changed.”

Prose concludes by arguing strongly that “the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt”, or even of “homage, or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period.”

She ends with the thunderclap: “Is it really acceptable to change the names and identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?”

BANG! The debate blew up with a number of writers in the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review of Books accusing Francine Prose (and many others who criticized Shepard’s story) of racial insensitivity. Jess Row in a letter to The New Yorker actually says “…we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige”.

So where does this leave a Canadian reader? Well, I’m far from being a typical Canadian reader here, although I made my living as a Publisher, trying to anticipate the reactions of that elusive reader. But I had the honour to publish Mavis’s work, introducing her to Canadians as one of our best writers with From The Fifteenth District in 1978. We were friends, as I continued to visit her in Paris, see her in Toronto and Montreal, and to publish her magnificent stories. The classic story in question, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” appears in two of our books: Home Truths: Canadians At Home and Abroad (1981, which won the Governor-General’s Award), and Selected Stories (1996).

A Canadian reader, I think will see more than an outsider in this classic story with the distinctive title. It concerns a childhood memory shared by Agnes Bruser, who grew up, Mavis suggests, “small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child”, in a hard-striving, large Norwegian family in a small town in the Prairies. The house was so lacking in privacy that her happiest time was to slip out early in the morning in the summer. So early that, in those days before refrigerators, she could see the ice wagon making its deliveries, door to door.

Her memory of that apparently trivial moment, “Once in your life alone in the universe”, is so important to her she remembers telling it to the other Canadian she’s assigned to share an office with in Geneva. In fact, it’s the only real conversation she ever has with Peter Frazier (of the Toronto Fraziers, descended from “granite Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland” who made the family fortune that Peter at first was able to live off, until the old money ran out.)

Peter Frazier is the central character in the story, and he has little in common with Agnes from the prairies. He has never been in the West. He has never felt it necessary to gain a university degree. Agnes is so proud of hers that when she moves into the office that she has been given to share with this other Canadian she hangs her framed university degree on the wall. “It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil and family sacrifice.” On her desk she places a Bible.

You may be surprised to learn that in the, let’s say,” parallel” story by Sadia Shepard, what is placed on the desk by the Pakistani woman, Hina, to the alarm of her new colleague Hassan, is a copy of the Koran.

The anti-climactic scene in both stories follows a disastrous party at the home of influential friends from their own community. In both cases the male sharing the office resentfully with the female newcomer set above him finds himself conscripted to see her home, drunk. In her apartment, things could go very badly, but as both stories tell us, in these exact words, “Nothing happened.” Except in Mavis’s marvellous telling, when Agnes clumsily emerges from her bathroom to embrace Peter, she is wearing “ a dressing gown of orphanage wool.” Orphanage wool!

As for the Sadia Shepard story, I’m not qualified by personal knowledge to give an informed opinion. I do know the Connecticut where the story is set, but only through one eight-month academic year in New Haven.  I am amused by her impressions of how men who can do nothing well in the kitchen are expected to spring into action as experts beside the barbecue.  But I can’t express any informed opinion about the accuracy of her portrait of life among expatriate Pakistanis in North America today.  I note with pleasure, however, that Pakistanis feature in the original Mavis story, when a standing weekend invitation by well-placed Canadian friends to stay at their Swiss summer house suddenly ends. “One Sunday Madge said she needed the two bedrooms the Fraziers usually occupied for a party of sociologists from Pakistan, and that was the end of it.” Could this reference have been what inspired Sadia Shepard to write this indebted tribute?

But I must confess that I read “Foreign-Returned” very much as Francine Prose did. Paragraph by paragraph I read saying “Oh, no, she can’t do this! Surely she’s not going to have her get drunk?” I realise, as many clever readers have written, that adapting anything, however closely, will produce something new. But what would you feel about a “new” work, where its advocate says: “And then there’s this great moment, when the magic potion works, and he wakes up with a donkey’s head on his shoulders! Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

Maybe the fanciful title that I’ve given to this article might have solved all the problems of non-attribution, if the original Shepard story had been graced by it. A Publisher’s solution, which I’m glad to offer for future reprints.

As Mavis Gallant’s friend and defender,and her proud Canadian Publisher, let me end by quoting Sadia Shepard. “I believe that creating new work inspired by Gallant honours her legacy and might even bring her new readers, something that Prose and I no doubt agree she deserves.” All very well. But a more definite link with the Mavis Gallant model would send more readers her way, to their great pleasure.

A FINAL NOTE

Canadian readers will be pleased to note the difference between the languid Torontonian Peter, waiting for the appropriate job to be awarded to him, a Frazier, and his English wife, Sheilah, from Liverpool. While he stands beside the car on one Geneva evening, looking around admiringly, saying “This is the first snow”, she impatiently accuses him of repeating himself. “She was born in an ugly city, and so was Peter, but they have this difference. She does not know the importance of the first snow – the first clean thing in a dirty year”.

One other coincidental piece of pleasure for Canadian reader: Peter ascribes his mysterious failure to be presented with a job appropriate to a Frazier to the enmity and plotting of a French-Canadian former friend. “Peter says now that French-Canadians always have that bit of spite.” The story came out in 1963, almost the last year Mavis could innocently give the spiteful Canadian former friend the soon-to-be-memorable the name of Trudeau.

 

“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.