AN ASTONISHING STORY ABOUT HUGH MACLENNAN

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.

Advertisements

A NEW YEAR, A NEW BLOG, A NEW 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.

Joan Rivers and Me

I was on the stationary bike at my local gym, when the TV screen in front of me flashed an intriguing message: “POLICE WERE CALLED TO A L.A. STORE WHEN JOAN RIVERS HANDCUFFED HERSELF TO A SHOPPING CART.”

I should explain that the bank of TV sets at the gym produces some of the most amazing daytime programs, so that I regularly return home with breathless news about what Dr. Oz has discovered about pills to prevent cancer, or the special melons from the south of France that prevent Cindy Crawford’s face from aging, and much else. It’s a different world out there.

But now this, about Joan Rivers!

I have never met Joan Rivers, and if we did meet I suspect that we would not agree on many things, especially around the area of cosmetic surgery. And while she does not play a regular role in my imaginative life, the “handcuffed to a shopping cart” story certainly caught my eye.

Soon the second shoe dropped. The follow-up line came five minutes later. “SHE IS PROTESTING COSTCO’S FAILURE TO STOCK HER BOOK.”

Aha! The shopping cart ruse was not a stupid tantrum thrown by a never-was celebrity. It was an act of literary defiance by an author spurned. The people at Costco, you see, do not stock many titles, and work hard to screen out books of literary merit. They, and presumably their customers, want only popular blockbusters by established authors (or, to be fair, flavour-of-the-month newbies). And their choices run heavily to big novels, and self-help books, and books by show biz celebrities like . . . well, when you come to think of it, like Joan Rivers.

Another Aha moment! If you are Joan Rivers, and used to seeing banks of your latest artistic creation displayed in the book section at Costco, it must be a terrible moment of  betrayal to find that Costco has decided to take a pass on your new “book.”

So I, and all authors with a new book fighting for space out there, share a moment (a very, very brief moment) of sympathy for the spurned author who decided to make her disappointment known. Few of us, however, would think of handcuffing ourselves to  a shopping cart. Joan Rivers wins on imagination there, hands down, as it were.

I hope that she runs up against a judge with equal imagination who is aware that by causing this fuss Joan Rivers has let millions of people know that she has a new book out there. Ideally, Ms. Rivers would be compelled to remain handcuffed to the cart 24 hours a day for six months. That would be the perfect sentence . . . not a phrase usually associated with the books of Joan Rivers.

Another Bookstore Lesson

I dropped in on Book City’s Danforth Avenue store, fresh from buying a Big Carrot tofurkey for the vegetarian troublemakers around our Christmas table.

The elder statesman of the Toronto chain, the eminent Frans Donker, happened to be in the store, and greeted me warmly. He urged me to sign the two copies of my book, then went looking for a third copy out on the shelves. He returned, shaking his head over that copy. The flap had been carefully folded over to mark a place two-thirds of the way through the book. Some anonymous browser had apparently been working his or her way through the book, and was nearing the end — without any messy expenditure of dollars.

I’m torn between pleasure that this discriminating reader would sacrifice a part of lunch-hour each day to drink in my stories — and outrage that the book is being devoured for free. I’d love to meet the culprit. We could have an interesting conversation.

As for the life of a bookseller, who could have predicted this?

— Douglas Gibson