Quebec City

Thanks to local friends like Neil Bissoondath I was lucky enough to be invited to the Quebec City InterNational authors event, an English-language event that takes place in the heart of the old city every spring. The organizer, Elizabeth Perreault, is so calm and efficient on e-mail that I was expecting a much older person than the fresh-faced young woman who greeted Jane and me.

She runs a top-class festival, too, with authors like Charles Foran, Emma Donoghue, and Guy Vanderhaeghe in attendance. We saw readings in two remarkable rooms in The Morrin Centre, in the heart of old Scottish Quebec. If you think I exaggerate there, The Morrin Centre (named after a Scottish doctor from the early 19th century) is on the Chaussée des Écossais, and is right opposite the old Scottish Church and the “Kirk Hall.”

Inside, the great hall of the Centre (housing The Literary and History Society)  is constructed on 19th century Scottish traditional lines, so that the electric light bulbs seem almost like an intrusion. The library is equally famous, with its wooden statue of Wolfe casting a dramatic arm from a corner of the two-story ranks of shelves. Louise Penny fans will be familiar with the setting, and after seeing Peter Dube talking about his books there, I learned that ancient authors from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain had given readings there.

After Guy Vanderhaeghe entertained us with tales of Western History in this Eastern city, I recalled for him that it was exactly 30 years earlier that he and I celebrated his Governor-General’s Award win for Man Descending in this city. The actual award was given in an ancient room in the Laval campus downtown, but Guy remembered that the evening dinner was held in the Royal 22 (the Van Doos) Regiment’s Mess room at the Citadelle, with the waiters in full red mess uniforms. I was in a daze of delight that evening because as the Publisher at Macmillan I was celebrating two Governor- General’s Awards that year, for Guy’s short stories and Christopher Moore’s superb history book, Louisbourg Portraits.

On the Sunday afternoon I gave my show in the grand old hall, introducing a Guy Vanderhaeghe anecdote from my book that doesn’t usually feature in my stage show. It’s the story of my edgy walk back into Saskatoon alongside a gigantic guy who had just exited a bar, running very fast, and who asked me, in a challenging way, “Are these women’s boots?”

The crowd seemed to like that story, and the rest, so that at the end they gave me a standing ovation. (Jane, I must report, far from leading this excellent development, said to Elizabeth Perreault, “Do I have to stand up?” If anyone wonders about my being a grounded sort of fellow, look no farther than this story for a reason.) But a standing ovation in Quebec City is something worth recording, if I can find a suitably capacious tombstone.

The rest of our visit was taken up with a wonderful dinner chez Bissoondath, and three days of strolling around old Quebec from our central base at the Hotel Clarendon.

One feature of the weekend involved a coincidence that no fiction writer would dare to attempt. In the appreciative crowd for Guy Vanderhaeghe was a nice fellow who proved to be the American consul-general, Peter O’Donohue. What led to his appointment here, we wondered. Well, he grew up in Connecticut and knew Quebec well. Where in Connecticut, Jane wondered, because she had an uncle and aunt in Norwalk. Norwalk! What were their names? The Finlaysons, my God, I practically grew up in their house!

It turned out that Jane and he had been at cousins’ weddings, and two of her cousins are going to stay with him at his amazing house overlooking the slide on Dufferin Terrace, near the Chateau Frontenac

The next day the coincidences continued, because our sight-seeing stroll took us past the magnificent Consulate just as his wife was in the doorway, greeting a friend. We ended up with a tour inside, and spent time gazing over the St. Lawrence from Levis to L’Ile D’Orleans. A magical view, and a magical weekend. And almost 20 more books sold!


Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#3)

Many early readers of Stories About Storytellers have remarked that they finish reading it only to rush to pick up one of the other books Doug has so lovingly described. So to make it easier, this recurring feature revisits some of those books and reminds you why they’re worth a read. Last time, we revisited Broken Ground by Jack Hodgins, and this we’re featuring . . .

Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe (1982)

I did not edit this collection of Guy’s stories, which won the Governor-General’s Award in 1982, but I did publish it. In fact I remember being flu-struck at home when I took the chance to read this manuscript sent in by an unknown writer that my colleagues had recommended, and even through the fever it was clear to me that this was a remarkable book from a fine new voice.

Impressed by Guy’s new book, A Good Man, I’ve just re-read Man Descending, and it continues to delight me. If you’ve skipped over it, for whatever reason, run to catch up to it. The tough, clear prairie voices (often of working-class young guys who are rarely heard in “Literature”) ring out from each page, and from the start you know you’re in the hands of a real writer. Like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod and a few others, Guy has shown that Canadian readers (more than most) will respond to short stories, and make them commercial as well as artistic successes. This remarkable book is both.

For a bit more on Guy Vanderhaeghe see page 274 of Stories About Storytellers.

The Pleasures and Perils of the Festival Tour: Banff

In Banff, where I taught at the Banff Publishing Workshop from 1981 to 1988, I ran into the usual elk stories. The drifting herds of elk were  a prominent part of the campus , and in rutting season (October, and thus Writers’ Festival season) there were so many problems that I remember Roddy Doyle complaining that he had experienced a lot,  touring the world to promote his books but, as he put it in his worried North Dublin accent, this was the first time he had been in danger “of being focked by an elk.”

One of the things I’ve learned about being on the writers’ festival tour is that you’re on a magic carpet, whisked by kindly drivers from the airport to your hotel, which comes complete with a hospitality suite. Even better, the suite comes complete with an interesting group of other writers, who tend to be on the same circuit. So in Banff, and then Vancouver, and so on, I found myself running into the same people, in very convivial circumstances. Sometimes they share a programme with you (in Banff, after my own event, I had fun chairing the final session, featuring the fiction quintet of  Germany’s Thomas Pletzinger, my old friend Madeleine Thien, Scotland’s Stuart McBride, Helen Humphreys, and David Bezmozgis). And sometimes they are old, close friends like Guy Vanderhaeghe, whom I’ve published right from the start, until his current fine book, A Good Man.

Guy’s  Saturday night reading was the high point at Banff, where he alluded to an elk story, without elaborating. I know the story, and can reveal it here. Some years ago (possibly even before Roddy Doyle’s complaint) Guy was staying at the Centre, in rutting season. Coming out after breakfast he noticed that the herd had drifted across to block his path up to his residence, and that the male was looking aggressive. So he prudently waited at the foot of the stairs, a barrier to the elk. A confident young woman came out from breakfast, and Guy politely suggested that it might be best to wait for ten minutes until the elk moved on. She took this suggestion badly.

“I will walk wherever I please!” she announced, and strode towards them.

The male elk had not read the proper books. In Guy’s words, “She ended up behind a tree,” yelling for help.

Guy is familiar with cattle and horses, so he tore off his jacket, waving it as he bravely approached the elk, to distract it from the trapped woman. It worked. The woman was able to escape up the hill while the elk charged Guy, who just made it to the safety of the stairs with the elk in snorting pursuit. Guy did not sprain an ankle. The elk did not stay in the area for long. And the woman did not seek Guy out to thank him.

— Douglas Gibson