A Mile in an Author’s Shoes

Anyone who takes writers and writing seriously has the same thought when visiting a famous author’s house: what would it be like to sit  at the desk where the author did his or her work? How would it affect your own writing?

I had the chance to experiment with this, in a minor way, when Jane and I stayed in August at Bridge Cottage, the former Haida Gwaii summer home of my friend, the author, artist, and man of many talents, James Houston. The conditions were scientifically perfect, since James wrote in the early morning (check), in the summer months (check), by hand (check), and – above all – at the desk in the writing cabin that was constructed for him for that very purpose.

Obviously this piece of writing that you are reading is no “Kublai Khan,” but at this precise moment in its creation a Person From Porlock arrived to interrupt my writing. This person had every right to do so, since he was the unique Noel Wotten, the man who built the writing cabin for his friend Jim. This was in 1981, as the plaque outside, for “Hideaway Studio,” makes clear.

I have now resumed my experiment a full day later, after Noel took us fishing at Port Clements, further up the island. He is a noted expert at fly fishing, having cast weightless flies great distances on salmon rivers around the world, landing the fly gently on the ripple most likely to provide shelter for a lurking fish. I notice, too, that after the fly has landed, Noel leans eagerly forward, manipulating the coils of line in his left hand, imagining the fish just beneath the tempting fly. Far from being just a skilful mechanical exercise – cast, float the fly, swing it back, cast again – it’s an act of faith and imagination, making fleeting  contact with that other world that lies beneath the surface.

These thoughts are, just possibly, channelled by the lingering spirit of the man who sat here writing. Often, as in the third volume of his memoirs, Hideaway, he wrote about fishing. He openly admitted that his addiction to salmon fishing was what brought him to the Queen Charlottes and to Bridge Cottage and the river Tlell in the first place. He wrote Hideaway, which I had the pleasure of editing and publishing, right here. And, in the same way as he did, I have just found myself getting  up from his seat to check on the river.

The river dominates every moment we are here, only an underhand stone’s throw from its banks. Unless you are asleep, or deliberately turning your back on it and ignoring it, you always know which way the tide is running — upstream, or down the five kilometres to the salt water of Hecate Strait — and how high it has climbed against the bridge timbers, or how low it has fallen. The river dominates the view, decides our activities, and turns any thoughtful resident into a water creature.

Another interruption has left me with an extraordinary river moment. When the salmon are running, as they are now, all eyes are on the surface of the river, looking for the circle in the water that may precede a silver leap. So even tiny circles in the water catch the eye. Standing to watch them, I was like a dog on point as I saw five or six circles appear. Then the entire surface of the water was pocked with hundreds of such circles, a miracle of teeming fish. Until I realised that a cloudburst had just arrived, and that these circles came courtesy of raindrops from above, not fish from below. I wonder what the fish make of it all, when the ceiling of their world turns black, and full of noise, and fresh, cold water.

Clearly I had learned one of the great lessons of sitting at a writer’s desk. When you are there, you are in the same surrounding world. And if you are open to distraction, your distractions will be the same as his.


Jane Austen Comes to My Show in Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is the sort of place where unusual things happen sooner or later. I made my third visit to the island right after the Sunshine Coast events, flying from Vancouver to the magnificently named Sandspit airport. The bus took us to the ferry, then on to Graham Island, and to Queen Charlotte City, where we were dropped off right at the door of the auto shop that was fixing the car we were to use. No problem. Within minutes we had taken the island’s main road north to Tlell, and settled in to Bridge Cottage, right beside the famous fishing river.

The plan was to spend our days trying to outwit salmon, with the help of cunningly tied fishing flies and barbless hooks. Every morning our friend Noel Wotten would appear at the door (at 8 a.m., then 7:30, then 7:00) and would lead us to places where we stood thigh-deep in water and cast our flies for fish. Our casting was highly satisfactory in every respect, except that of actually catching fish that we could retain. Coho, our desired targets, were leaping around us, but we caught only cutthroat-trout or sculpin. But Jane and I had mastered the key to fly fishing, which is the zen-like point that catching fish doesn’t really matter. That’s just an agreeable by-product of a wonderful time spent as part of the river, absorbing the sounds and sights. Twice a shadow on the water made me look up, to see a giant bald eagle flying low overhead, using the river as a highway through the tall cedar, and spruce, and hemlock trees that Emily Carr knew so well.

Thanks to smart work by some local friends, a show was arranged for me in Queen Charlotte City on Wednesday evening. We went with our friend Noel (who brought his mouth organ along for the drive back . . . “Four Strong Winds,” “Summer Wages,” and much else) and found the Legion Hall, which doubles as the Anglican Church. Presumably “Onward Christian Soldiers” is a popular hymn there.

The show drew 42 interested people. The best moment came when I was walking around, greeting people as they came in and found a seat. I shook hands with one lady in her 60s and introduced myself. “Hello,” she responded “I’m Jane Austen.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, thank you for co–” I said, then gaped at her. She confirmed that, yes, that was her name, and told me that an over-awed teenage girl once asked her to sign a copy of Pride and Prejudice.

It was a very literary evening. When my hosts presented me with a gift book with a title in the Haida language I asked for someone who could translate it and teach me how to pronounce it. They called over a nice man in the crowd called Angus Wilson.

Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#4)

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 Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe, and this we’re featuring . . .

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant (2005)

Not only did I fail to edit this book, I failed to publish it. But in my book I mention it as One That Got Away.

That’s because my visit to James Houston’s cottage in Haida Gwaii (then the Queen Charlotte Islands) had left me so impressed that I had a proprietorial view of the islands, and their stories. So if I had caught wind of the fact that an unknown Vancouver writer was at work on a book about the legendary golden spruce that had been felled at night by a confused conservationist making an obscure point (then disappearing at sea, before his trial exposed him to the wrath of the Haida nation) I would have snapped it up, sight unseen.

Not that the book suffered by being published elsewhere, going on to win the Governor-General’s Award, and just about every other non-fiction prize available. I’ve since visited the scene of the crime, and am sad to report that the once-golden spruce (a freak of nature that made it a source of reverence to the Haida people) is now a grey, shrunken felled tree rotting away quietly in the water where it fell. But the book, which encompasses a history of the Haida, and of the islands, and of resource logging in B.C., is a superb piece of work.

For Doug’s tales of Haida Gwaii see 176-178 of Stories About Storytellers.