“WHAT’S IT LIKE, BEING MARRIED TO MARGARET ATWOOD?”

Every so often, as I roam around book Festivals, or other literary events, a conversation with a nice stranger will take an odd turn. They ( and they’re usually women, but not always) will start to ask what it’s like  “having two writers in the family”. I’m able to laugh this off, explaining that Jane is much too sensible to get into writing, ha, ha. But sometimes they are more direct, asking about what  “Margaret” or even “Peggy” is up to these days.

And it becomes clear that they think that I’m Graeme Gibson.

Now Graeme is a very fine fellow, and I’m pleased to call him a friend, even if we’re not related. But we both suffer ( at least I hope he suffers from people telling him how much they enjoyed his publishing memoirs) from having a very common Canadian surname, in the narrow confines of the world of books, which leads to our being mistaken for one another.

We are both keen birders, and have worked for Adventure Canada, and are members of The Writers’ Union of Canada(which he helped to found) and I have published him with pride in the past, so life often throws us pleasantly together.

Never more pleasantly, however, than in August at Port Medway in Nova Scotia. After I had performed my stage show, I signed books at the local Fire Hall. The excited volunteers told me at the end that I had sold 29 copies of my book, the most ever in the 12 years of the Readers’ Festival…matched only by Graeme Gibson.

Advertisements

From Shore to Shore

Waking up to a fine fall day at The Blomidon Inn in Wolfville is a perfect start. Roaming around the inn’s varied gardens is a very good way to ease into the day. But walking into the little town then drifting down to the dykes that created the Acadian settlement is another level of happiness.

In my book I talk about my fascination with the dyking system introduced by the early Acadian settlers. So you can imagine my delight in being able to walk along the top of the historic dykes that run very close to downtown Wolfville. A class of lucky young students from Acadia was being introduced to the natural wonders of the dykes, but I walked east, away from town, noticing that the fields walled off from the sea are still so rich that some of them are devoted to growing fine crops of corn. And the Fundy sands were still red, the waters of the Bay were still blue, and the great wedge of Blomidon still stretched into the bay, like a backdrop to an Alex Colville painting.

I had seen, but never visited, Cape Blomidon, but this was the day to fix that. I drove west, then turned right towards Blomidon and reached “The Look Off” (do locals shout warnings of “Look off!” rather than “Look out!”, I wonder?). From that height you can see much of the Annapolis Valley laid out before you with the “sleepy little town” of the Acadia school song in the middle distance, looking very fine.

I drove on to the Blomidon Park (although I was tempted to drop in on Ami McKay) and climbed down the steps to walk along the beach. I wasn’t exactly dancing on the shore, but it was a delight to get red Fundy sand on my shoes, and to dip a hand into the salt water. Then it was back to the idyllic town of Canning for a fine lunch, then ho, for Halifax, and my last event. Although I did load up on local apples, Gravensteins, at a roadside stand.

Alexander MacLeod is a well-established teacher at St. Mary’s University (as well as being my friend, and a fine fiction writer, with excellent bloodlines). He had kindly arranged for me to stay at The Waverley Hotel, east on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax. It was a revelation! A traditionally furnished old Victorian hotel, where Oscar Wilde once stayed (with no comments about his room’s wallpaper ever recorded). I warmly recommend it to all literary visitors.

As for St. Mary’s, Alexander drove me to the fine old campus and established me in the room where I performed my show to about 40 kindly people, including my old friend Harry Thurston, the notable writer about the natural world. Harry, I’m glad to say, later wrote that he found my show “entertaining and moving,” which was a pleasing combination.

The next day, after a pre-breakfast stroll down the hill to where early bird fishermen were hauling dozens ( “I’ve got about 40 in the bucket here, so far”) of mackerel out of the Atlantic-facing harbour, it was time to leave that particular shore, and fly back to Toronto. But I’ll be back.

Acadian Adventures of the Idle Rich

In Nova Scotia, all highways lead to Truro. Yet a Wolfville-bound traveller with time to spare and a love of the landscape can turn off the fast highway system at Truro and drift west along the Fundy shore, winding through little towns like the magically named Maitland. Gifted with that middle name (my mother was Jenny Maitland) I was excited to find that it is a little town laced with beautiful old houses, many now being restored.

I stopped at the local store to grab a sandwich, and casually asked how the place got its name. “It’s a native name,” I was told. My comment that this would be news to thousands of Scottish Maitlands made little impression. Could this be part of the weird intermingling of Scottish and Native history in Nova Scotia, where some believe that Glooscap was really a Scottish explorer named Sinclair? An enquiry for another time.

I drove happily on to Wolfville, pausing to notice that the incoming tide, off to the right, was racing in so fast that I could see sandbars disappearing every ten seconds.

Wolfville is a university town. Just as the ebb and flow of the Fundy tides rules the landscape, so the Acadia University year rules the town. During the academic year, when the 3,500 students transform the town, the movement of young people down from the slopes of the campus into the town is almost tidal. Driving along the main street I foolishly wondered what was causing the stop-and-go traffic. Then I realised that we were obviously between classes, and scores, even hundreds, of students were casually exerting their right to drift across the street, halting cars like mine. Not a bad traffic planning principle.

It is time to celebrate the Acadia school song. It goes:

Far above the dykes of Fundy
And its basin blue
Stands our glorious alma mater
Glorious to view.

Lift the chorus
Speed it onward
Sing it loud and clear
Hail to thee,
Acadia, hail to thee.

Far above the busy highway
And the sleepy town
Raised against the arch of heaven
Looks she proudly down.

They don’t write them like that today. I’d love to hear it sung.

I’m sorry to report that nobody serenaded me when I drove up the hill to the K.C. Irving Building to meet my gracious host, Andrea Schwenke Wyile. But before we went down to the basement theatre we paused to look in at the main hall, which is arguably the most welcoming space in any Canadian University I have seen. Almost worth going back to the world of classes and papers just to get to sit and read there, and think great thoughts.

Andrea (a specialist in books for children) was able to help me with the technical set-up, but the absence of security meant that we had to baby-sit the computer once it had been set up. Her gallant husband, Herb Wyile (author of the well-known book on Canadian historical fiction Speaking in the Past Tense, not to mention Anne of Tim Hortons) brought her food from home, and I was able to slip away to the Blomidon Inn to get into my “costume.”

As usual, before the start of the show I tried to greet my audience, mingling with them and welcoming them to what I hoped would be a good time. This evening before the show I was delighted to meet Terry Fallis’s in-laws, who live in Wolfville, and who were later pleased that I incorporated a tribute to Terry (“Saint, Little Red Hen, and Prizewinner”).

When the event started, things rapidly went downhill, because in introducing me Andrea laid great stress on the role of Jennifer Knoch, a recent and fondly remembered Acadia graduate, and the editor of my book.  I went on to repeat the tributes, so that many miles to the east Jen was blushing hotly for some reason unknown to her. The Acadia students, however, were visibly pleased by all this, as an inspiring example of good things happening to Acadia graduates just like them, and in the Q and A session I was able to reinforce this piece of inspiring news.

The show went well, the Q and A session was fun (including questions from some of Jen’s old teachers), and I signed a few books. Then I followed the line of least resistance down the hill and drove back through town to the grand old Blomidon Inn. It is such a traditional Victorian mansion that when I asked for a drink they directed me to a deserted drawing room, the Rose Room. There I sat sipping my colour-coordinated cranberry juice, and thinking that Wolfville is a fine place to be. Idle rich, indeed.

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.

Stories About Storytellers Comes to the East Coast

Having already ranged all over Ontario, the Prairies, and the West Coast, Douglas Gibson is bringing his stage show to the Atlantic provinces at long last.

Between September 20rh and September 26th, he’ll be doing his stage show at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Mount Allison University, Acadia University and St. Mary’s University. You can also catch him hosting Marina Endicott and Ami McKay at Halifax Word on the Street and giving the Flemming Lecture at King’s College.

For more information on dates and showtimes, head over to the events page.