(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.