BAYFIELD DAYS AND NIGHTS

Late in July we drove down to Bayfield, in Alice Munro’s Huron County.  

   After Stratford the car knows the way… through Sebringville (Ontario’s longest hamlet, I’m told) then Mitchell (former home of Orlo Miller, who wrote Death To the Donnellys for me) then Dublin (home of “The Liffey Drain”) then Seaforth. Here we took a turn south, wrenching the car wheel away from the traditional route on to Clinton and then Goderich,  to go straight to Bayfield. Along the way we saw the Bannockburn Bridge (worth a photo shoot, since I’m organising a Bannockburn reunion next June, the 700th anniversary of the 1314 battle, where Robert The Bruce defeated Edward The Second-Rate) with the next village, appropriately, named Brucefield.

Bayfield is a place well known to Alice. She once did a “Long Pen ” signing event there , as a favour to her friend the bookseller and her friend Margaret Atwood, the Long Pen’s inventor. We know it, too. In fact my wife Jane is a former resident. When she was based in London, working as a Speech Therapist at the old Victoria Hospital, she and her first husband had a summer place in Bayfield, so we’re always glad to have an excuse to head for “Ontario’s West Coast”.

After wandering around the busy Main Street (on a summer Sunday it’s as crowded with strollers as Yonge Street) we settled in at The Little Inn. In the evening we met Mary Brown, the brave bookseller who organised the event, at the Town Hall, an old church built in 1882. There were the usual technical difficulties before the show, but it all worked out well, with me performing my act at floor level, in front of the stage, and introducing my “lovely and talented assistant”, Jane, who would be changing the slides for me. We even had a Q. and A. session , which was fun, including a woman with memories of being hailed as a  fellow “stubblejumper” by W.O. Mitchell.

Among the audience were old friends of mine , lost for 30 years, and a number of Alice’s friends, from Goderich, Clinton, and even Blyth including one lady who once shared waitressing duties with her. There was a flash of Huron County understatement when one woman told me she was at the show because a friend had seen my show in Stratford and had reported that it was ( I swelled, expecting superlatives, although she was really  too old for “awesome”) it was … um …  “quite interesting.”

When we visited Alice at home in Clinton the next day, she liked that story, and matched it with a story from some years ago when she was visiting a bookstore and offered to sign the pile of copies of her latest book. The bookseller refused the offer…  “because then I couldn’t return them if they didn’t sell.”

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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.

My New Book Club

We all know how important the avid readers who belong to informal book clubs are to the world of books.

I’m doing something new for them. I’ve produced a Storyteller’s Book Club where I deal with five classic Canadian books, and provide 20 Discussion Points about each one of them for the club members.

What’s special here is the I edited all the books I discuss. Well, with one exception. I didn’t edit Hugh MacLennan’s great novel The Watch That Ends the Night, but I did edit books by my friend Hugh, which allows me to talk about how I might have edited the book. As for the others, I can take the club members behind the scenes with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies and Alistair MacLeod.

Check it out at on the Storytellers Book Club page.

STRATFORD, CLINTON, AND ALICE MUNRO

ALICE MUNRO 1931– Not Bad Short Story Writer

ALICE MUNRO 1931– Not Bad Short Story Writer

My two Stratford shows – in the grand old City Hall building, right downtown, near the Avon theatre – were inspiring for me. The school show on Friday afternoon drew a crowd of adult friends, including Geoff Hancock , the former editor of Canadian Fiction (and photographer of Mavis Gallant), who now runs a B&B in Stratford, and the Stratford Festival’s David Prosser. But the main audience was a large group of high-school kids brought in by bus.

I was able to speak briefly about their home town to the kids from Exeter – home of the unique breed of all-white squirrels, and of the famous family of my Toronto  friend John MacNaughton, who died a few months ago.

I was, however, able to speak at much greater length to the Grade 12 kids from Clinton. This, of course, is the town where Alice Munro lives, and I was able to suggest to them how amazingly lucky they were to live in the same place as a world-famous writer who was putting their town on the literary map of the world, an internationally famous figure they might meet on the way to the Post Office. I talked about how her stories were set among people like their neighbours, and explained how famous Alice (“the living writer most likely to be read in 100 years time”, according to The Atlantic magazine) really was.

The next day word filtered back from a teacher that conversation among the kids on the bus home included the comment that this was the first time they had “ever felt proud about coming from Clinton”.

The next night’s show (part of Stratford’s Springworks Festival ) was for adults, and went fine. The sound man, who had worked at The Banff Centre and fallen under W.O. Mitchell’s spell, was hit hard by my final story about the unforgettable W.O.. After the show, our hosts, Lucille Roch and Warren Holmes, held a reception for us, and as we entered they kindly led a round of applause. It was a pleasant surreal moment (“I’m being applauded as I walk into a friend’s house!”), but it was nothing compared to the news of the impact on the kids from Clinton.

Stratford and Me

I’m getting more and more excited  about my show at the Stratford City Hall on Saturday, May 11, at 8 p.m.

It’s part of the famous SpringWorks festival, and I’ll also be giving a special show for schools on the Friday afternoon. This has set me wondering just how well a young audience will react to stories from behind the scenes in the world of books, a world that alarmists warn is increasingly remote from their own world. Maybe a Harry Potter comparison or two would be helpful . . . especially the story of idiot publishers turning down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript!

I’m spending some time recalling my own Stratford connections. As a publisher I was proud to bring out the official  Festival history, Stratford: The First Thirty Years by John Pettigrew and Jamie Portman in 1985. That handsome two-volume edition was published by me at Macmillan of Canada, with a Foreword by Robertson Davies. I note with pleasure that he dated his Foreword “March 1, St. David’s Day,” and we, sparing no expense, ran his distinctive signature in blue ink. I forget why blue was regarded as the ideal colour for the signature of this avid supporter of the festival from its earliest years. Blue?

Later, the link between Robertson Davies and the festival was made clear, in the saddest of settings. Along with John Fraser, RD’s successor as the Master of Massey College, I was involved in arranging the Celebration of the Life of Robertson Davies at Convocation Hall in Toronto in 1995. I asked Richard Monette, then the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, to join the group of speakers paying tribute to the Master’s life, and Richard did a superb job, speaking of RD as a Stratford supporter, and as a man of the theatre. That memorable evening had two other speakers with Stratford links: Timothy Findley, a festival alumnus, and Jane Urquhart, for many years a Stratford resident.

Like most Ontarians I have warm memories of many fine visits to Stratford, usually theatrical, but sometimes involving visits to friends like Geoff Hancock, Lynn Schellenberg, or Lucille Roch. I have even met Alice Munro for lunch there. But usually my meetings with Alice were at her home in Clinton or in Goderich. This meant that to follow the old Huron Line I would take a right turn at Stratford City Hall, and head west into Alice Munro Country. It’s appropriate that the building I used as my landmark for that turn to visit Alice will now house my show, with its tribute to Alice and her achievements . . . although the caricature of Alice bears the mischievous subtitle  “Not Bad Short Story Writer.”

Alice Munro Rules Scottish Rugby

Alice Munro is renowned around the world for her superb short stories, and she has the prizes and the reviews to show why many claim her as the world’s best. An American reviewer for The Atlantic magazine said simply, “She is the living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years.”

To my delight, Alice wrote the introduction to my memoirs, Stories About Storytellers. In the book I talk proudly about our long association as author and editor, now amounting to fourteen story collections. I note that one of the happy coincidences that brought us together was the fact that Alice grew up in Huron County, Ontario, which is a landscape dominated by many branches of one river, the Maitland. Thanks to my mother, I bear that fairly uncommon family title as my middle name, as in Douglas Maitland Gibson.

Alice’s own semi-fictional memoir, The View From Castle Rock, begins with the story of her own family, the Laidlaws, in the Scottish Borders. The earliest ancestor she found, Will Laidlaw, was born around 1700, and gained such local fame that his tombstone epitaph in Ettrick Kirkyard reads: “Here lyeth William Laidlaw, the far-fam’d  Will o’ Phaup, who for feats of frolic, agility and strength, had no equal in his day.”

That epitaph was written by his prominent literary grandson, James Hogg.

Yes, yes, you say. We know that Alice’s wonderfully perceptive short stories may range beyond her usual Huron County settings, sometimes as far as Australia, Albania, or even the world of a 19th century Russian female mathematician, as in “Too Much Happiness.” But what on earth does she have to do with the manly sporting world of Scottish rugby in 2013?

Last week the Scottish national rugby team played their annual grudge match against the English rugby team. They lost heavily. But every single Scottish point was scored by three men.

Their names were Maitland, Laidlaw and Hogg.

Alice Munro Is Not Often Associated with Disappointment

As many of you will know, this year’s Toronto International Festival of Authors was supposed to feature an appearance by Alice Munro on October 19. To be more precise, it was supposed to be an on-stage conversation between Alice and me. All of the tickets were sold, the media were panting, the excitement was building . . . and then Alice’s health meant that we had to cancel it.

I tried very hard to make it possible.

But there were warnings. For example, Alice was unable to come, as planned, to my stage show at the Blyth Festival on September 28th.  And can you imagine my anticipated pleasure at presenting my section on “ALICE MUNRO: Not Bad Short Story Writer,” in Blyth, the heart of Alice Munro Country, with Alice herself in the audience?

Blyth, I should explain, played a major role in Alice’s life. Her father, Robert Laidlaw, was born on a Blyth farm, went to school there, and eventually set up his  trap-line along Blyth Creek, to augment his role as a young Huron County farm boy. He went after muskrats, weasels, mink and even foxes, which led him to his life raising foxes for their fur, in nearby Wingham, where Alice grew up.

Alice, too, has strong links with the Blyth Festival Theatre. In the 1990s (as Robert Thacker recounts in his classic biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives) she acted in two theatrical fundraisers there. In her words, quoted by an interviewing journalist, “In one  play – both of them were murder mysteries – I was an aging but still sexually voracious professor of English . . . And in another I played a lady writer who comes into the library and demands to know if any of her books are available. I loved it.”

Thacker continues, “When the journalist asked her why she would do this since she was well known for avoiding publicity connected with her writing, Munro’s response was interesting. “Well, that’s because I have to be me,” she says to explain her dislike of such self-promotion. “With acting, I love the mask.”

It was at a Blyth Theatre fundraising chicken supper that Alice played the mischievous waitressing role recounted by Val Ross in my book, and repeated in my stage show . . . the one that Alice was unable to attend.

But our Alice Munro Country weekend didn’t end after the show, which later featured a very interesting and informative panel discussion of Alice’s work. After spending the night with friends in Stratford, we headed back west to attend an event in Alice’s honour at the Wingham Golf Club, where the winners of a local writing competition were celebrated. The former Bayfield bookseller, Mary Wolfe, gave a fine account of Alice and her work, and Jane and I returned to spend the night at the Ben Miller Inn, on the Maitland River (always a source of unearned pride to a man with my middle name).

Later that week, to leave no stone unturned, I headed back from Toronto to Huron County to chat with Alice, to see if there was any way to salvage the Harbourfront event. I drove west from Stratford, on Highway 8, the old Huron Line that the settlers followed. As usual I found myself contentedly ticking off the familiar towns . . . Sebringville, Mitchell, Dublin (celebrated in my book for the realism of the settlers who named the majestic local waterway, “the Liffey Drain”), Seaforth, Clinton (Alice’s town, though tourists seeking directions to her house will encounter a veil of protective ignorance) and Goderich, where we were to meet for lunch.

I had not seen Goderich since last summer’s tornado tore through, and was shocked by the damage. When Alice and Gerry met me for lunch at the restaurant at the top of the hill going down to the Goderich harbour, I noted that Baillie’s, the restaurant on the “square” where Alice usually liked to meet friends, and where her books were displayed, had been wiped out, almost as if it had been the target of the storm. Alice chose to consider the gloomy possibility that this was the sign of a jealous God at work.

So she was her usual amusing self, but it soon became clear that all of my plans to make her Toronto stage appearance as undemanding — and as untiring — as possible for this 81-year-old were simply not going to work. So we had a nice lunch, and both of her arms remained untwisted. When we hugged goodbye, she noted fondly that we had been through “some interesting times over the years.” I was able to reply that I didn’t regret a moment of those, let’s see, 35 years.

But I do regret the Harbourfront show that we never gave. Speaking selfishly, it would have been a type of pinnacle for me. Speaking for the audience, and for Alice Munro admirers everywhere, I’m convinced it would have been a very memorable evening.