THIS WEEK’S TORONTO SHOW, AND A QUEBEC CITY SURPRISE

First, the surprise in Quebec. For a third time we were received at the magnificent Morrin Centre in the heart of old Quebec , by the incomparable team of Barry and Elizabeth.
The GREAT SCOTS show featured many surprising Canadian Fiction Writers , including Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspe. This author of the first great Canadian novel in French, Les Anciens Canadiens, was imprisoned for debt IN THE CELLS IN THE MORRIN CENTRE BUILDING. We visited the ancient cells, and marvelled at his languishing there for over three years, able to see his family house across the street.
Before his debts caught up to him, he led a charmed life as a Seigneur in Quebec. You can roam around the old city, finding places where he once lived, like the Maison Jaquet, now the site of the traditional restaurant (where Guy Vanderhaeghe and I once dined) appropriately named “Les Anciens Canadiens”.

In the audience that day was a man from B.C. who mentioned that, like me, he had family links with Ayrshire. As I signed books and chatted, it became clear that he was a great-grandson of Robert Dunsmuir. My book , Across Canada By Story, pays tribute to the huge impact of Robert Dunsmuir on Vancouver Island:
“Logging and fishing were the staples of life everywhere on the Island. In Nanaimo there was something else. Robert Dunsmuir, as Scot from just outside Kilmarnock, was born in 1825, around the same time as my scary (“It says here you broke your leg!”) Kilmarnock great-grandfather, Robert. Who knows what they put in the water there in those days (although the town did produce Johnny Walker whisky. But we have fatherless Robert Gibson creating a tweed mill, and Robert Dunsmuir, a miner, coming to Vancouver Island, discovering a coal seam north of Nanaimo and creating a mining empire. He was another scary man. In the restrained words of The Canadian Encyclopedia: “His disregard for safety, and his employment of cheap Asian labour and disallowance of unions made him unpopular with labour.” The coal tradition lingers in Nanaimo with colourful place names like “Jingle Pot Road”.

IN TORONTO ON THURSDAY, MAY 17 AT 1.30. I’ll be giving a show at the MILES NADAL CENTRE AT BLOOR AND SPADINA. It’s based on the show I gave at Queen’s Park for the Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and will concentrate on our GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS FROM 1967 TO TODAY.
I hope that you can come along, and say hello after the show.

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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!