The King’s Speech

I was very pleased to be invited to give the annual Flemming Lecture at King’s College, Halifax. Naturally, as I worked on this speech, it became known around the house as “The King’s Speech.”

The title I chose was “WITH A PINCH OF GENIUS: A Recipe to Produce Great Authors.” My starting point was the “Own the Podium” plan, which holds that choosing young athletes and pouring lots of money into their development will produce lots of world-class figures who will win lots of Olympic medals. I wondered what a parallel program to produce lots of world-class Canadian writers would look like.

It was a mischievous concept from the first, of course, but it led me into some interesting places. The trick, I find, to producing an interesting talk (or essay) is to set out to discover what you really think about an issue. With luck, the revelations will surprise the reader as much as they surprise you, and you’ll both be better for it.

For instance I started out to see how encouraging Canada is for its writers, in terms of providing readers. The news here is terrible. The 2008 TD-Canada Trust survey of literacy found that 50% of the adult population has trouble reading. Let me repeat that; half of Canadian adults have trouble reading. Since nobody who regards reading as a decoding problem is going to buy books, our authors are like wheat farmers growing their crops for a population where 50% are celiacs, unable to enjoy their wares.

I won’t repeat the whole 45-minute speech here, but the people like Roy MacSkimming and Rowly Lorimer and my friends at the Canada Council came up with an interesting response to my questions. In a roundabout, shuffling sort of Canadian way, we have already come up with a successful “own the podium” kind of program for our writers, and it has worked remarkably well, with many of our current writers renowned around the world, by surname alone. The trick now is not to throw it away. In fact, one of them suggested, we’ve done such a good job on the “supply” side, that for our authors’ sake we now need to work on “demand.”

Very interesting.

I enjoyed my time at the podium (but why do young people cluster at the farthest corners of a lecture hall?) and  enjoyed it best when I could get out beyond the podium to handle the lively Question and Answer session with the 50 or so bibliophiles in the audience.

Afterwards, thanks to the fine people at the King’s Bookstore (working in the tradition of James Rivington, who opened Canada’s first English bookstore in Halifax in 1761) I was able to sign some copies of my book, before going off to dinner with Bryan Flemming himself, and some lively friends.

I spent the night at the Lord Nelson Hotel, celebrated in my book as the place where an alert House Detective saw something fishy in Don Harron, dressed to do book promotion for me as Valerie Rosedale, and told him sternly to move along.