The national mourning in December for Jean Beliveau was extraordinary. It ran from the formal Memorial Mass in Montreal, attended by several Prime Ministers, all the way to a feature on him before a televised Maple Leafs game that silenced a raucous sports bar in the Beaches and had the fans getting reverently to their feet, their Leafs caps clutched in their hands.

But of course Jean Beliveau was extraordinary.

I was lucky enough to get to know him when at McClelland & Stewart we published his autobiography in 1994. Naturally, we planned a major author tour for him. It began in the West, and from Vancouver onwards the crowds were larger than we had ever seen. Every newspaper and TV and radio station was clamouring for interviews, and soon the whole event had taken on the dimensions of a Royal Tour. Signing books for the hundreds of admirers who had lined up to meet him made for very long days, city after city, and eventually Jean began to wear down.

Near exhaustion, he phoned from Winnipeg to ask for help. Typically, instead of brushing him off on the phone, our Chairman, Avie Bennett, flew out to give help in person. He and Jean decided that as the tour proceeded into the cities of the East, we should cut back on the original plans. We would cancel the media interviews, to allow him to concentrate on the massive signing sessions in the bookstores. That was a great relief to Jean. Problem solved.

After the weekend, however, Avie got a phone call from Jean. He said, “Elise has reminded me that I have never failed to do what I promised to do. So we should stick with our original plan. I’ll do the media interviews.” And he did. Brilliantly, with the dignity and the grace that were built into him.

It’s typical of Avie (and he and I were constantly in and out of each other’s nearby offices, so I knew him very well) that when he was briefly in Winnipeg that day, he was able to see another touring M&S author, Karen Kain, who was proudly promoting her memoir, Movement Never Lies. It was clear that the investment he made in our authors was worth it, even if publishing in Canada is such a tough business that the rewards tend not to be measured in dollars.

For similar reasons, he enjoyed his time as a part-owner of the Montreal Expos. He loves telling the story of strolling out of the stadium with two M&S authors on either side: Pierre Trudeau and Jean Beliveau. This allows him to set up the classic line: “Hey, who are those two guys with Avie Bennett?”

Another Jean Beliveau story:

Some years after we published his memoir Canada Post brought out a stamp in his honour. I happened to be visiting the great Montreal book event, the Salon Du Livre, and in my ramblings I came across a Canada Post booth, where Jean was signing for a crowd. They were lined up around the Hall, in their hundreds. I was standing there quietly, enjoying the sight of my old friend surrounded by admirers of all ages. I had no plan to intervene, since he was obviously very busy. But he paused in his signing, looked up, and saw me. And Jean Beliveau put down his pen, got up, came around the desk and across the aisle to greet me, shaking the hand of his “old friend Doug.” It was wonderful, and we had a warm conversation. But like a good publisher I was concerned about the delay we were causing for the people in the line-up, and I managed to move him back to the signing table.

During all this time, the people lined up showed absolutely no sign of irritation. If M. Beliveau wanted to get up and go to greet a friend, that was fine with them. But they looked at me with keen interest. I wasn’t a hockey player. So which NHL team, they wondered, did I own?

It’s too bad that Jean was never able to accept the invitation to be Canada’s Governor-General. He would have been a great, distinguished occupant of that role. And as we’ve seen, he knew all about Royal Tours.


Christmas Holidays

And indeed I did retire for the Christmas season, which was devoted to the usual family stuff, with the usual range of turkey and vegetarian dishes on offer, and kids pausing only occasionally to sit down at the table. They obviously had never studied any Norman Rockwell paintings.

One unique aspect of this Christmas is that friends and neighbours would show up at the door asking me to sign the books that they had bought as gifts (for especially lucky loved ones). I was always happy to do it. We even considered hanging a sign on the door . . . “Books Signed Here.”

Tales from Edmonton

Photo by Kim Fong

My first encounter with the “magic carpet” treatment that authors receive from Literary Festivals came at the Edmonton airport when we were met by the friendly volunteer Jean Crozier, who whisked us in her car to our downtown hotel. In less than an hour I was perched on one of those bar stools reserved for TV talk shows, and trying to interest the passing crowd of shoppers in the possibility of coming along to my show that evening. The amiable CBC host/interviewer got the name of my book wrong, but recovered swiftly after I happened to mention it in the course of my reply. Another of my Awful Warningscomes true in real life. Lunch with the energetic David Cheoros, who runs the festival, resplendent in characteristic suspenders. Then we moved to the Milner Library Theatre for technical preparation — stage setting, lights, screen, sound, with my “Techie,” Jane, handling the computer power point show link-up. I ran through 10 minutes, almost like a real professional actor, then we called it a day . . . or a rehearsal. It’s remarkable fun to work with real professionals in an unfamiliar world.

Photo by Kim Fong

That evening the show went fine, with the attendant photos by the excellent Kim Fong showing what it was like. Afterwards I got to sit there smiling at a table and signing books, some of them to Alberta relatives, but others to apparently sober civilians. There are book-signing tricks, as I am learning. When an old acquaintance whose name you have forgotten asks you to sign, the stand-by “And how would you like me to sign it?” does not always work. “Oh, just to me” is not the reply you want. And the feeble,  “Let me be certain about how you spell your name” can lead to the barked reply,”Mary!” I’m sure there are ways out of this. Time will tell.

— Douglas Gibson

Photo by Kim Fong

New frontiers not far from home . . .

Though this Dispatches section will have tales of the Adventures of Douglas Gibson all across our fine country, for a new author, there are adventures to be had at home as well as abroad. Our intrepid author headed to his local Book City, and after locating his book (defying the Murphy’s Law that governs such things), Doug signed a few, and afterward took the time to write a note to the manager about his new experience:


Although you don’t know it, you have just played a major role in the transformation of your friend Doug Gibson, editor and publisher, into Doug Gibson, typical author.

This morning my wife and I went into your Danforth store. We found 5 copies of my book and I carried one to Hanna at the front desk (in case I needed proof, I suppose, if challenged) and shyly confessed that I was . . . ahem . . . the author of this book, and . . . er . . . um . . . would she like me to sign the copies in the store?

She responded very kindly, and stood by with “Autographed” stickers, while I adorned the books with a signature that she generously described as “cool.”

Then, after buying another, different book, Jane and I exited. It was my very first in-store signing, and a frontier has definitely been crossed.

— Douglas Gibson

A few words on Word on the Street

Toronto’s Word on the Street. Great weather means an attendance ten times the rain-swept version. Queen’s Park looks perfect with crowds of adults and kids and dogs  and tents, prompting the question: why doesn’t the city make more frequent use of this fine, central park?

A series of “firsts” for me. The very first public  reading from my book, and it takes place in a tent labelled (are you ready?) “Vibrant Voices Of Ontario.” The tent is flatteringly full, and Stuart Woods of Quill & Quire introduces me efficiently. I explain that my book is a series of profiles of authors that I edited, but that I’ve chosen to read the book’s Epilogue, “What Happens After My Book Is Published?”, which consists of the Awful Warnings I used to give to first-time authors. As usual, most of the crowd laughs happily at the examples of Murphy’s Law in action – and authors and publishers shake their heads in  sad recognition.

The second “first” is that, after a “Q and A session,” I am led to the “Authors Signing Tent.” There I shyly sign seven (maybe even eight!) copies, and find myself guiltily resenting the pals who stand at the front of the line to chat, not buy. As the line-up disappears I have time to notice that within twenty metres is the superb black  statue of my old friend Al Purdy, characteristically in a relaxed sitting pose, his hair drooping to the very life. I published him at M&S and, in addition to routine, in-office chats, we became friends after I went out to High Park to support him at a sweltering outdoor reading. Backstage, I remember, he was really glad to see me, and we both were bathed in sweat. I hope that the campaign run by Jean Baird to try to preserve his A-frame house in Prince Edward County is going well. I should have done more to help.

There’s still time though, and efforts to save the house continue. On November 23, Margaret Atwood is giving a special presentation at Picton’s Regent Theatre. Her provocatively titled presentation “Bulldozing the Mind: The Assault on Cultural and Rural Heritage” follows a reception with Ms. Atwood at Books & Company featuring County food and wine. More details can be found here.

— Douglas Gibson