As you know from Stories About Storytellers I’ve long had a huge admiration for Hugh MacLennan. There’s a whole chapter in that book about him, full of admiring stories, showing how this man bestrode Canadian culture, carving a trail for other writers. You’ll recall that he won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction, but — just as important — also two for Non-Fiction, thanks to his wide-ranging essays.

My new book will have a chapter on him.  While most of the chapters are centred on a Province (“Saskatchewan!” or “The Coasts of B.C.”) his is simply “Hugh MacLennan’s Canada”. As you’d expect, it deals with Halifax, and Montreal, and Quebec City, and Sherbrooke and his beloved Eastern Townships, including North Hatley, where he died in 1990.

But since Hugh was also the author of The Colour of Canada, and The Rivers of Canada (where as a young editor I played a role as a minor tributary) for this book of Literary Tourism  I have him take us right across the country, to the roaring Fraser in the West, and the mighty Mackenzie in the north. His love of the country comes through in every line he wrote.

He was such a major Canadian figure that he was often called up for national assignments. In 1958 the country was facing a General Election, with two leaders who  were not well known, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker (who had just won an unexpected minority). To allow people to get to know them better Maclean’s magazine selected Hugh to be one of a panel of three interviewers, with Pierre Berton as the Chair.

The interview with Diefenbaker did not go well . Here is how Pierre Berton described it in his memoir, My Times :  “When the interview ended and the prime minister left, I looked at Hugh MacLennan, who was clearly badly shaken by the encounter.   “The thought of that man being prime minister…” he kept saying. Suddenly he hurried to the washroom and threw up.”

There are other, much more surprising revelations about Hugh in the book.



You may have wondered why I let my blog slip in recent months. The answer is the best one possible, for me, at least. I’ve been busy writing a new book.

This was a major surprise to me. Whenever friends, or interviewers, asked me if I had another book up my sleeve I would answer honestly, saying ,”Look, Stories About Storytellers is about my forty years in publishing,I don’t think I’ll live long enough to come up with material for another book So no, I don’t think I’ll ever write another book.”

But then, to promote that book I turned the book into a one-man stage show, and decided to see where it would go. It went everywhere. And roaming the country from this Festival to that University, to this neat bookstore or that Library , with Jane as my “lovely and talented assistant”,  we came across dozens of stories. Too good not to share. Enough for a book.

So, in September 2015 our friends at ECW Press will bring out ACROSS CANADA BY STORY: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure.

It will remind you of my first book, because I’ve persuaded Anthony Jenkins to enrich it with his caricatures, once again. This time there are no fewer than 30 of his superb drawings, of our major authors. With this book I’ve widened my range beyond just those authors that I edited, to include major figures like Margaret Atwood, Marshall McLuhan, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Carol Shields, Michael Ondaatje, and dozens of others.

As a Literary Tour the book will take you from Newfoundland to Haida Gwaii, and from Moose Jaw to Grand Manan, as we visit all ten provinces. It will set your feet itching to travel ,as I recall exciting events we enjoyed roaming around cities, small towns, mountains and islands . And as the books and authors spill out in the stories you’ll find that you’ll be tempted to read — or to re-read — dozens of our best books.

You heard it here first.

Will Ferguson Almost Made It into My Book!

I was delighted when my friend Will Ferguson won the Giller last night. He and I and the film world’s Michael MacMillan were the only three people at the Giller Dinner in kilts, and it sure seemed to work for Will. (When we compared knees, his were sturdier, but mine were browner, and the hairiness was a manly tie.)

In kilted solidarity, Jane and I cleaned up in the side betting at our table, by putting our money on 419.

Although I have never published Will, we have had a friendly acquaintanceship for some years, and a story about him almost made it into Stories About Storytellers. It was in the original version, which (and I know this is hard for my most dedicated admirers, and my mother, to envisage) seemed to be a little too long. So, with the assistance of my editor, Jen Knoch, I edited out some stories.

Including this one:

After getting an Arts degree, like so many young Canadians Will headed off to teach English in Japan. He lived in an English-speaking bubble, so his use of Japanese was restricted to the usual tourist stuff: “Men’s room?” “How much?” “What time train to Yokohama?” and so on. And everyone he met socially was determined to practice their English on him, so he stayed at a basic tourist level.

When he came back to Canada, after the usual spell of hanging out with friends, it became necessary to get a job. A newspaper ad for a job with the Tourism Board in PEI, caught his eye. He met the general requirements – a B.A., and a willingness to relocate to P.E.I. (sounds great!) and an ability to write. But what caught his eye was a line about “the ability to speak Japanese” being an asset.

Will is like the rest of us, and he really wanted the job. So in his application, and the subsequent interviews he did not, let’s say, “understate” his fluency in Japanese. And he got the job!

He spent a number of happy months in PEI until the day his boss came into the office, rubbing his hands. “Great news, Will. You know how keen Japanese tourists are to come here to visit Anne of Green Gables sites. Well, next week, a whole busload of Japanese Tourist Agency owners are coming here, and you’ll have a chance to use your Japanese language skills on them!”

It was a dreadful week for Will. He spent hours secretly combing through phrase books and dictionaries.

Then the day came, when the busload of smartly dressed Japanese men filed off their bus, and stood attentively before Will’s boss. He welcomed them, in English, then proudly introduced “my colleague, Will Ferguson, who will address you in your own language.”

Will stepped forward, and said, in Japanese: “As you can hear, I not really speak Japanese. But my boss here, he not know that. So please not to tell him.”

There was a gale of laughter.

Then Will said, in Japanese, “Many thanks, nice to see you here, welcome to Prince Edward Island, and now I talk in English.”

When he finished, he was warmly applauded. A number of the Japanese visitors even came up, congratulated him, and said loudly to his boss, “Very good Japanese.”

When the successful visit was over, his boss was very pleased. “That went really well, Will. But tell me, what was the joke you made early on that really got them laughing?”

“Ah,” said Will, “It’s kind of hard to translate.”



Just Glad to Be Nominated – No, Honestly

On Saturday, July 28, I went to Orillia for the exciting announcement about this year’s winners of the Canadian Authors’ Association prizes. I and Jonathan Vance and Richard Gwyn had been nominated (from among, they told us, countless authors of Canadian non-fiction books) for the Lela Common Prize in Canadian History.

I was, of course, very pleased to have my book nominated for an award, and in such good company. But the “history” designation worried me. So when the local TV station asked me what I planned to do if I won, I said, “Demand a recount!”  My objection was that while Richard and Jonathan are real historians (who wear gloves in archives, and get ancient dust up their noses as they research Sir John A, or Canadians in Britain during the First World War) my book was a cheerful personal memoir of working with 20 famous Canadian authors, many of whom are still with us.

I argued, in fact, that while I am certainly a “mature” individual, I am not yet “history,” and I want no part of it. Yet.

As the day wore on, however, and Jonathan and I read from our books, and smiled continuously and were relentlessly charming, my objections to receiving the award weakened. At the evening dinner I was the keynote speaker, and the stars seemed to be aligned for a triumph for Stories About Storytellers. It was not to be. The absent Richard Gwyn received the award, and Jonathan and I consoled ourselves by saying, truthfully, that this was the result that we had expected.

And as the announcement was made, sitting with my game face on, I had just enough of a sniff of the smell of success to realise that while it is very pleasing to be nominated for a book prize, it must be much more pleasing to win one.

Is anybody listening?

Stories About Storytellers nominated for the Lela Common Award for Canadian History

Stories About Storytellers is a nominee for the 2012 Lela Common Award for Canadian History. The other nominated titles are Richard Gwyn’s Nation Maker and Jonathan F. Vance’s Maple Leaf Empire. The awards celebrate a work of historical non-fiction on a Canadian topic by authors “honouring writing that achieves excellence without sacrificing popular appeal.” To find out more, head to the website for the Canadian Authors Association. The winner will be announced on July 28, 2012.