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.

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The Mills of Eden Grind Fine

I have attended the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, just outside Guelph, on several occasions, but always as a supportive publisher, cheering on an author or two. This year, in my new role of Author, I got to attend the Saturday evening dinner held in the fine garden of a festival supporter.

As always, the literary festival magic took over, as I and other friends from the author circuit greeted each other with glad cries (“Hello, Angie!” “Don, I’ve got some great birding stories from the Prairies for you.” “Alistair, how are you?”) and enjoyed an outdoor meal warmed by heaters as night fell around us.

The next day, after parking my car with the help of solemn air cadets, I wandered around in the sunshine dropping in on various readings in the various sites around the little village. In the authors’ “Green Room” (actually in a blue house) I mingled with the likes of George Elliott Clarke and Donna Morrissey, although Richard Gwyn and Linden McIntyre tried to exclude me, on the grounds that I was really a publisher. I can reveal the exciting secret that the Green Room supplies authors with snacks (celery! carrots!) and soft drinks and wine. There is even a special washroom!

Alistair MacLeod and I walked to our show, which was in the little church nearby. The “little” proved to be a problem. We learned afterwards that disappointed fans of Alistair were to be seen pressing against the outside of the windows in the hope of hearing his reading, but the church proved to be soundproof. My own role, in what I described as “a Punch and Judy show” was to talk about my role in extracting No Great Mischief from him, and to set the urban legend straight I read the relevant passage from my book about the famous “home invasion.”

Alistair then read the tragic scene of the deaths on the spring ice from No Great Mischief, and the third part of our show consisted of me being mischievous, prodding the chuckling Alistair to tell stories like the famous midnight ride from Calgary to Banff that he took with W.O. Mitchell and a nervous cab driver not familiar with blizzards. The Question and Answer session went well, and on leaving I was pleased to meet the church’s minister who that day had preached from a text taken from my pal Trevor Herriot’s River in a Dry Land.

In the autographing session that followed I disobeyed my own rule for authors that you should never engage in a joint session with a famous and popular author. So I sat there beside Alistair while 50 eager fans lined up in front of him, and the kind people from the Book Shelf in Guelph engaged me in distracting conversation. I did, in fact, sign a few copies, but it was a tiny portion of Alistair’s, and the area in front of me was a still centre compared with the eager dozens lined up before him.

As he signed copy after copy I leaned over to whisper that he should sign the words, “Please buy my friend Doug Gibson’s book,” but I think he failed to do so.

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.

Jane Austen Comes to My Show in Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is the sort of place where unusual things happen sooner or later. I made my third visit to the island right after the Sunshine Coast events, flying from Vancouver to the magnificently named Sandspit airport. The bus took us to the ferry, then on to Graham Island, and to Queen Charlotte City, where we were dropped off right at the door of the auto shop that was fixing the car we were to use. No problem. Within minutes we had taken the island’s main road north to Tlell, and settled in to Bridge Cottage, right beside the famous fishing river.

The plan was to spend our days trying to outwit salmon, with the help of cunningly tied fishing flies and barbless hooks. Every morning our friend Noel Wotten would appear at the door (at 8 a.m., then 7:30, then 7:00) and would lead us to places where we stood thigh-deep in water and cast our flies for fish. Our casting was highly satisfactory in every respect, except that of actually catching fish that we could retain. Coho, our desired targets, were leaping around us, but we caught only cutthroat-trout or sculpin. But Jane and I had mastered the key to fly fishing, which is the zen-like point that catching fish doesn’t really matter. That’s just an agreeable by-product of a wonderful time spent as part of the river, absorbing the sounds and sights. Twice a shadow on the water made me look up, to see a giant bald eagle flying low overhead, using the river as a highway through the tall cedar, and spruce, and hemlock trees that Emily Carr knew so well.

Thanks to smart work by some local friends, a show was arranged for me in Queen Charlotte City on Wednesday evening. We went with our friend Noel (who brought his mouth organ along for the drive back . . . “Four Strong Winds,” “Summer Wages,” and much else) and found the Legion Hall, which doubles as the Anglican Church. Presumably “Onward Christian Soldiers” is a popular hymn there.

The show drew 42 interested people. The best moment came when I was walking around, greeting people as they came in and found a seat. I shook hands with one lady in her 60s and introduced myself. “Hello,” she responded “I’m Jane Austen.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, thank you for co–” I said, then gaped at her. She confirmed that, yes, that was her name, and told me that an over-awed teenage girl once asked her to sign a copy of Pride and Prejudice.

It was a very literary evening. When my hosts presented me with a gift book with a title in the Haida language I asked for someone who could translate it and teach me how to pronounce it. They called over a nice man in the crowd called Angus Wilson.

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.

Praise from the Sunshine Coast

The Coast Reporter . . . Voice of the Sunshine Coast” recently ran a very nice report on this year’s superb Festival of the Written Arts at Sechelt under the heading “Making history — 30 Years of Festival.” The final paragraph reads,

“But it was the respect for history that dominated this 30th festival. It could be felt in the work of (Jane) Urquhart whose books turn on scenes from Canada’s past, and in the humorous anecdotes about Canadian literary giants, as told by editor Douglas Gibson. The polished ramblings of this career editor and publisher, more than any other speaker, reminded the audience of how this country’s literary tradition is still youthful, and how it has blossomed into adolescence over the last 30 years, completely in step with a festival that has proudly fostered its growth.”

Read the full article here.

Saskatchewan Birding with Trevor Herriot

I once was given a private tour behind the scenes in Parliament by Erik Spicer, the Parliamentary Librarian. On another occasion James Houston took me and some others through a special exhibition of Inuit art, recalling when he watched this piece being sculpted, and what his sculptor friend was chatting about as he worked on that other piece over there.

You have the same “behind the scenes” feeling when you set out with Trevor Herriot to look at birds in Saskatchewan. Trevor is not only a wonderful writer about nature, as well as many other things, as readers of his books know well. He is also an expert bird-watcher, so good that he has run a Regina radio show that helps callers to identify birds that they have stumbled across “with a yellow neck at the back.”

His own keen ears can identify different types of sparrow calls at a hundred paces, and his long-range camera skills are remarkable. I knew this because a couple of years ago he took me out from Regina to do some birding near Last Mountain Lake, and it was a very memorable morning.

So when Trevor suggested that Jane and I (who were staying in Regina with him and Karen and the family) head south with him and his birding friend Bob Luterbach to see what we could find en route to Weyburn, we were delighted.

It is as if the word spreads through the bird community that “Hey, Trevor Herriot’s here!” and they flock (so to speak) to see and be seen by this great celebrity birdwatcher. If you think that’s unlikely, look at the list birds we saw that morning, aided by the fact that a lush Prairie summer has lured uncommon visitors north from the parched American Plains states.

We saw White-faced Ibis (as in Egyptian pyramid art), Burrowing Owls (now endangered), Black Terns at the sloughs (and one angry Forster’s Tern), Baird’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Bobolink (with a yellow neck at the back), Chestnut-collared Longspur, and an amazing range of exhibitionist Bitterns, normally heard but never seen. All of these were first-time sightings for me and Jane.

Of course we also enjoyed watching Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, not to mention the usual Mallards and Eared Grebes on the sloughs, the usual gangs of Redwinged Blackbirds and Cedar Waxwings, and a lone Upland Sandpiper. Wonderful!