From the Sackville to Sackville

I gave my show at the theatre in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on a Saturday night, to an audience that included the veteran publisher Jim Lorimer and John Houston, the filmmaker son of my old igloo-dwelling friend James. Some old friends from my Speech at King’s College were there, too, and were polite about a sound system that had some problems. Books were sold, and signed.

The next day I went down to the Halifax waterfront, admiring the historic corvette, HMCS Sackville, that is tied up alongside as a floating museum. It’s a fine memorial to the Battle of the Atlantic that was largely fought out of Halifax and St. John’s, and the ship always draws me to it because in the 1970s I published the classic memoir of that war, The Corvette Navy, by James B. Lamb. These U-boat hunters were surprisingly small ships, and in mid-Atlantic they “rolled like pigs,”  but they won their part of the war.

Another reason for being on the waterfront is that it was the location for Halifax’s Word on the Street Festival. I roamed around the tented areas, visiting publishers’ booths and meeting old friends like Goose Lane’s Suzanne Alexander and Lesley Choyce of Pottersfield Press. But my main role was to be the host/interviewer for two author events. The first was with Ami McKay, author of The Birth House and, now, The Virgin Cure. Although the interview set-up had Ami and me arching like gospel singers at stand-up mikes at opposite sides of the stage, she is such an impressive performer that the interview/reading/Q & A went very well, and I was able at the end to escort her to a long signing queue.

Next it was Marina Endicott, talking about and reading from her new novel, The Little Shadows, which is terrific. In fact, I opened my interview with the words “Where have you been all my life?” She is precisely at that stage in a writer’s career when the prizes she has won and the nominations she has enjoyed are attracting readers to her work. For example, I admired The Little Shadows so much that I have since read her previous novel, Good to a Fault, with great pleasure. Both books are highly recommended.

Happily, Marina is as good a reader as she is a writer, and her time on stage flew by.

This was just as well, because I had to jump in my car and drive west all the way to Sackville, New Brunswick. I was to read at Mount Allison, at The Owens Gallery. Driving into Sackville, I encountered town and gown separation at its worst. Two young teenage girls at the town’s main crossroads had no idea where the Owens Gallery might be. It was perhaps four minutes walk along the very street we stood on.

The Marshlands Inn is the grand old Victorian hotel in town, where I had stayed on my previous visit (when, as my book describes, I became an Acadian), and it was there that I was picked up by Christl Verduyn, an old friend from her Trent university days, now on the Mount A. faculty. She and the student newspaper had done such a great job publicizing the Sunday evening event that we had 64 people in the audience, with some standing.

The show seemed to go down well, and I was especially pleased to meet long-range visitors from Moncton.

Afterwards, I was taken for dinner to Joey’s in downtown Sackville by  my friend Chris (of Sybertooth Inc., a gallant Sackville-based publisher that has picked up the Bandy Papers Series that I was proud to publish originally.) He and his wife drew me useful maps of how to explore the Tantramar marshes. The next morning, after wandering with my binoculars in town, I drove to High Marsh road, rambled across and through a covered bridge, then spotted a birdwatcher who confirmed that the dozens of little birds exploding into the air  around us were indeed migrating Savannah Sparrows.

It was time for me to migrate east to Wolfville, on the Bay of Fundy.

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The King’s Speech

I was very pleased to be invited to give the annual Flemming Lecture at King’s College, Halifax. Naturally, as I worked on this speech, it became known around the house as “The King’s Speech.”

The title I chose was “WITH A PINCH OF GENIUS: A Recipe to Produce Great Authors.” My starting point was the “Own the Podium” plan, which holds that choosing young athletes and pouring lots of money into their development will produce lots of world-class figures who will win lots of Olympic medals. I wondered what a parallel program to produce lots of world-class Canadian writers would look like.

It was a mischievous concept from the first, of course, but it led me into some interesting places. The trick, I find, to producing an interesting talk (or essay) is to set out to discover what you really think about an issue. With luck, the revelations will surprise the reader as much as they surprise you, and you’ll both be better for it.

For instance I started out to see how encouraging Canada is for its writers, in terms of providing readers. The news here is terrible. The 2008 TD-Canada Trust survey of literacy found that 50% of the adult population has trouble reading. Let me repeat that; half of Canadian adults have trouble reading. Since nobody who regards reading as a decoding problem is going to buy books, our authors are like wheat farmers growing their crops for a population where 50% are celiacs, unable to enjoy their wares.

I won’t repeat the whole 45-minute speech here, but the people like Roy MacSkimming and Rowly Lorimer and my friends at the Canada Council came up with an interesting response to my questions. In a roundabout, shuffling sort of Canadian way, we have already come up with a successful “own the podium” kind of program for our writers, and it has worked remarkably well, with many of our current writers renowned around the world, by surname alone. The trick now is not to throw it away. In fact, one of them suggested, we’ve done such a good job on the “supply” side, that for our authors’ sake we now need to work on “demand.”

Very interesting.

I enjoyed my time at the podium (but why do young people cluster at the farthest corners of a lecture hall?) and  enjoyed it best when I could get out beyond the podium to handle the lively Question and Answer session with the 50 or so bibliophiles in the audience.

Afterwards, thanks to the fine people at the King’s Bookstore (working in the tradition of James Rivington, who opened Canada’s first English bookstore in Halifax in 1761) I was able to sign some copies of my book, before going off to dinner with Bryan Flemming himself, and some lively friends.

I spent the night at the Lord Nelson Hotel, celebrated in my book as the place where an alert House Detective saw something fishy in Don Harron, dressed to do book promotion for me as Valerie Rosedale, and told him sternly to move along.