Alistair MacLeod Writes Again

I’ve spent much of my stage-show tour in the company of the clan MacLeod. In Guelph, for example, young Daniel was in the audience at The Book Shelf show. In Peterborough, Lewis, as a faculty member, organised my Trent University event. In Halifax, Alexander (author and professor) brought me to my event at St. Mary’s, where he introduced me very kindly, and also helped to arrange my tour of other Maritimes universities.

As for Alistair, he dropped in on my show at Windsor, and then joined with me in our Punch and Judy show at Eden Mills.

In the middle of summer, however, we were engaged in real work together. Hal Wake, of the Vancouver Writers’ Festival, had decided that a perfect way of marking the Festival’s 30th anniversary would be to sponsor, and publish, a new short story from his good friend Alistair. With my secret encouragement he approached Alistair, mentioning a mid-summer deadline, to which Alistair (to my amazement) assented.

Then Hal enlisted my help as editor (or swooping enforcer, if necessary). The enforcer role was not necessary. Alistair delivered the story to me in mid-summer. Since we both were slated to speak on the same afternoon (July 12) at the Humber Writers’ course, we arranged that I would send my editing suggestions by mail to Cape Breton, and then we would get together  in Toronto. And so we did, meeting in Alistair’s hotel room after lunch, with friendly discussion of the few tweaks I had to suggest (not to mention details of the fighting around Ortona in 1944 that I was able to bring to his attention). As usual, our work was improved by the copy-editing skills of Heather Sangster, who had collaborated with us on No Great Mischief in 1999.

The design and production of the 40-page chapbook was all handled by Camilla Tibbs and Hal’s team in Vancouver. At this year’s Festival in October, Alistair was present for an on-stage interview with Hal that featured a reading from the chapbook that was being launched, entitled Remembrance.

My copy has just arrived, and I’m delighted with it, and very proud of my role. I’m pleased that the final page reads “The Vancouver Writers Fest would like to thank Doug Gibson, Peter Cocking (internal design) and Jessica Sullivan (cover design) for donating their time and expertise to this project.” Donating? I’d have paid for the privilege of working once again with Alistair, to help him bring a new story into the waiting world

There’s a special joy in reading the note: “ Alistair MacLeod would like to thank Doug Gibson for his help and editorial insight.”

My role was not restricted to editing the little book. I wrote the author’s biography, and the list of other books by him (including the special Christmas book To Every Thing There Is a Season that is not widely known) and I provided the cover copy, describing the book to readers encountering it for the first time. Here’s what I wrote, possibly influenced by the rhythms of Alistair MacLeod’s work in Remembrance:

It is November 11. In the cool morning air David MacDonald stands outside his Cape Breton home, planning to attend his last Remembrance Day Parade. As he waits to be joined by two younger David MacDonalds, he remembers the Second World War. He remembers the horrors of the battle at Ortona in Italy, and what happened in Holland when the Canadians came in as liberators. He remembers how the war devastated his own family, but gave him other reasons to live.

As the classic story unfolds, told in Alistair MacLeod’s deceptively simple style, other generations enter the scene. And we, aware of how many of the linked events go back to the mistakes of war, realise on Remembrance Day that “this time comes out of that time.”

Only 600 copies of this precious little book were printed. If you would like to get your copy, at $25.00, you should quickly go to

I have no financial involvement. But I am emotionally involved in a fine book by a fine friend, Alistair MacLeod.

The Vancouver High Wire

The Granville Island Hotel is the centre of the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival, run by a dedicated staff under Hal Wake. The usual suspects assembled there although Jane and I were also lucky enough to attend the opening night Gala Dinner. This was a Bollywood-themed extravaganza, with much merriment, where I was delighted to meet the splendid non-fiction writer John Vaillant. I told him that he was mentioned in my book, where I bitterly regretted that despite my Haida Gwaii knowledge, I never had the chance to publish his superb book The Golden Spruce. (I have now read his latest book, The Tiger, which I recommend – but not for bedtime reading.)

The MC of the dinner was the admirable Bill Richardson, who met up with me to recall a publishing prize-giving ceremony in Toronto where I accepted his challenge to accept a prize using “interpretive dance.” He claimed at the time that generations of my ancestors were spinning in their graves.

The prize, by the way, was for doing good environmental work. The truth of the matter is that Alice Munro twisted my arm to have Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage printed on recycled paper, which at the time was both eccentric and expensive. By doing it with this major bestseller, M&S broke the log-jam, and now it is usual, sensible publishing practice. But the credit all goes to Alice.

On the Tuesday evening I was thrown to the lions (and tigers), doing a one-man show at the Improv Theatre, where I told the audience from the empty stage that my book consisted of stories about these 20 authors, then asked for the names they’d like me to tell stories about.  It was an exciting high-wire act, and it seemed to work, right down to my friend, Paul Whitney, calling the event to a halt with a request for “one last story.” It must have worked, since the head of the Sunshine Coast Festival was in the audience, and later invited me to their Festival next August.

A new life beckons.

One behind the scenes story: I was in the Green Room backstage with seven minutes to go, when I thought it prudent to visit the washroom. “Not that one,” I was told,  “the one in the corridor.” Nobody added the words. “But don’t close the door, or you’ll be trapped inside.” You can imagine the rest, including the thunderous beating on the door until I was released just in time. You will understand why Jane was appalled for the next 75 minutes as I strode around at the very front of the stage with my zipper at half mast. All part of the excitement of the unscripted show.

Afterwards I signed copies for a crowd including the woman I first met as a seven-year-old next door in Toronto, and a downstairs neighbour from a later apartment. My life flashed across my eyes. The best surprise of all occurred in Banff when Robin Spano, the fine novelist published by ECW, greeted me with the words,  “Hi, you once came to talk to my high-school class.” And so I did, at Jarvis Collegiate twenty years ago.

Everything connects.

— Douglas Gibson