The Writers’ Union of Canada is known as TWUC to its friends, so that a recent enthusiastic President, the maternal Doris Heffron, was affectionately described as a “Mother-TWUCKER”. At the start of June I was at the TWUC AGM in Halifax.
I was delighted to be there, because the annual event gives me a chance to meet up with old friends, gathered from across the country. In fact, when I was a publisher, I tried to attend the annual Conference. I would hang around the public events, happy to meet my authors, and equally keen to meet authors who were new to me. Incredibly, other publishers rarely followed suit, leaving the field to me.
After I was made an Honorary Member of the Union (presumably someone said, wearily, “He’s always hanging around, why don’t we just make him a member?”) I found it an inspiration to earn my membership by actually writing a book, and becoming a real writer.
The big event at this year’s AGM was voting on how to define that difficult term, “a real writer”.
In the old days, TWUC wanted to set itself apart from the Canadian Authors Association. That group of would-be writers was heavily satirized by F.R. Scott in his poem, “The Canadian Authors Meet.” Although many of its members were friends of mine, especially George Hardy and John Gillese from Edmonton, few of the “authors” had actually published any books. To set a clear division between these amateurs and real, working professionals, the Writers’ Union from the start insisted that its members must be published authors. In other words, authors whose books had been selected, then published, by a commercial publishing house
So it remained, with the laws laid down by people like Pierre Berton and June Callwood and Harold Horwood faithfully observed, year after year. Then the publishing world began to change. Self-publishing became an option. Then self-publishing became very popular. Very, very popular.
And, of course, some of the authors who wrote these self-published books, began to object to the fact that their self-published books — no matter how many of them they wrote, or how popular they proved to be — would never qualify them to join TWUC.
TWUC, meanwhile, was keenly aware of how many potential members were being turned away. So a Committee was struck to square the circle by finding a way of judging the quality of self-published authors so that good ones could join the Union, while bad ones were excluded.
Very tricky, as you can imagine. But the Committee worked hard to produce a points system, where worthy authors could win admission to the Union. That was the central vote at the AGM.
As a former publisher I felt disqualified from voting to restrict the membership to authors who had won a publisher’s approval. And after serious debate, including a wise intervention by Doris Heffron, the new system was unanimously approved.
Sadly, many of my greatest friends in the Union didn’t make it to Halifax. Andreas Schroeder, the man who in Brian Mulroney’s day crafted and fought through the Public Lending Right legislation that brings money to Canadian authors thanks to their books in Canadian public libraries, stayed back in Roberts Creek on BC’s Sunshine Coast. Silver Donald Cameron, despite his Nova Scotia base, was too busy at Cape Breton University to attend. I spoke to both of them by phone, reprimanding them for their absence. Both were full of regrets, but unable to attend.
And so it went, with many old friends absent. It was, however, a great joy to spend time with old friends like Harry Thurston; if you ever want to see hundreds of semi-palmated plovers wheeling in formation around your head, Harry’s your man. From Harry’s territory, on the boundary between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, is a long way to Nelson in the BC mountains, but my pal Anne De Grace was from there, spreading good stories about the Kootenays. And among the dozens of authors I got to know was Joan Levy Earle, originally from Cornwall, Ontario. I was very pleased to learn that her book of local history, The Legacy of C.W. Kyte, included the story about Mr. Kyte that is brilliantly told in John Gray’s publishing memoir, Fun Tomorrow.
I edited that book, and still love the story about how John was a small boy in 1911 when his neighbour, the bookseller Mr. Kyte, got the first private car in Cornwall. He received it with a blanket over the hood, from the livery stable. Then, after brief driving instructions, he set off, with John and many runalong small boys cheering lustily. When Mr. Kite returned from driving around the block, he seemed worried, but everyone continued to cheer.
After a few hours the small boys had all been put to bed, but Mr. Kyte continued to drive in aimless circles.
His brief driving lesson had not included instructions on how to stop the car…..until eventually it ran out of gas, far out of town, leaving him with a long walk home.
Our stories will never run out of gas.