All Roads Lead to Terry Fallis

Recently I wrote about my visit to Wolfville, where I stayed at The Blomidon Inn. A recent chat in our kitchen with Terry Fallis, author and neighbour, revealed that in October, precisely 25 years ago, the Blomidon Inn held Terry’s wedding reception. He had just married a Wolfville girl named Nancy Naylor who was on her way to become not only the mother of Calder and Ben, but a major figure in Ontario’s public service.

In her government role Nancy encountered Jane (now my wife, and at the time another senior civil servant), and they became close friends. This meant that when Jane and I got together, we would regularly have dinner with our friends Nancy and Terry.

Some of my stage performances have featured a section on “TERRY FALLIS: Saint, Little Red Hen, and Prizewinner.” Let me explain that.

First, the “Saint.” When Terry shyly started to try his hand at writing fiction, with a political satire named The Best Laid Plans, he never once asked me to “take a look at” his new novel. Even when he was facing months of silence from literary agents, and from other publishers, he never raised the question. He didn’t want to trade on our friendship, you see. This, in a world where people accost me at funerals, or bang into my cart at supermarkets hoping that I’ll read their manuscript, comes pretty close to sainthood.

In time, he decided to advance the situation, not by approaching his friend Doug, but by reading the first chapter on the podcast he ran as part of his PR professional life. People really liked it. So he kept going. Then he started to blog the chapters, to his usual audience, which was not used to fiction from him. But people really liked that, so he kept going. People liked the whole book so much, in fact, that he decided, what the hell, to turn into The Little Red Hen. You remember her? When no one would help her in any task she would say, “Very well, I’ll do it myself!”

So Terry decided to publish the book himself, using an electronic self-publishing system that worked well, supplying him with electronic books as well as real, paper ones. He happened to have 10 copies lying around when he read the entry rules for The Stephen Leacock Prize for Humour, and saw that self-published books were eligible, if you submitted 10 copies. It was the ultimate “Little Red Hen” moment.

The book made it to the short list, along with King John of Canada by my author, Scott Gardiner. So I was at the Leacock lunch where the prize-winner was announced . . .“Terry Fallis!”

I went up to him and said, “Terry, now you really need a publisher. Let me read your book.” And I did, and I liked it very much, and I made a few tiny tweaks to the Scotticisms employed by his irascible hero Angus, and rushed to bring the novel out as a Douglas Gibson Book.

And people loved the story of the outsider who took on the staid publishing world, and it went on to great success. There was a follow-up novel, The High Road, in 2010, which I published in a more conventional way, and which  did well. But the high point was Spring 2011, when The Best Laid Plans won the Canada Reads competition. Tick the “Prizewinner” box.

This September his third novel, Up and Down came out. The reviews have been good for this “poignantly funny third novel” (Ottawa Citizen) and “a breezy, gentle satire . . . he might have a shot at another Leacock” (Globe and Mail). But what marks Terry as a truly remarkable author is how hard he works at getting to know his readers, and how much people like his public appearances. At that kitchen meeting last week, as his editor/publisher I asked him to take me through the promotion tour he has been undertaking for Up and Down.

He told me that in just under two months he has already made 42 public appearances . . . readings, question and answer sessions, bookstore chats, inside library events, convention speeches, and so on. And in every case, he finds to his delight that he sells, and signs, not only the new book, but also the previous two books. People are catching up to this author, and they like all of his work.

This is great news for me, of course, as the proud publisher of my friend Terry.

But there’s another reason for my special pleasure in his success. He works notably hard at promoting his book. And he’s very, very good at it, because you can see the very likeable enthusiast shining through.

Like his other books, Up and Down will leave you feeling “up.”

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From Shore to Shore

Waking up to a fine fall day at The Blomidon Inn in Wolfville is a perfect start. Roaming around the inn’s varied gardens is a very good way to ease into the day. But walking into the little town then drifting down to the dykes that created the Acadian settlement is another level of happiness.

In my book I talk about my fascination with the dyking system introduced by the early Acadian settlers. So you can imagine my delight in being able to walk along the top of the historic dykes that run very close to downtown Wolfville. A class of lucky young students from Acadia was being introduced to the natural wonders of the dykes, but I walked east, away from town, noticing that the fields walled off from the sea are still so rich that some of them are devoted to growing fine crops of corn. And the Fundy sands were still red, the waters of the Bay were still blue, and the great wedge of Blomidon still stretched into the bay, like a backdrop to an Alex Colville painting.

I had seen, but never visited, Cape Blomidon, but this was the day to fix that. I drove west, then turned right towards Blomidon and reached “The Look Off” (do locals shout warnings of “Look off!” rather than “Look out!”, I wonder?). From that height you can see much of the Annapolis Valley laid out before you with the “sleepy little town” of the Acadia school song in the middle distance, looking very fine.

I drove on to the Blomidon Park (although I was tempted to drop in on Ami McKay) and climbed down the steps to walk along the beach. I wasn’t exactly dancing on the shore, but it was a delight to get red Fundy sand on my shoes, and to dip a hand into the salt water. Then it was back to the idyllic town of Canning for a fine lunch, then ho, for Halifax, and my last event. Although I did load up on local apples, Gravensteins, at a roadside stand.

Alexander MacLeod is a well-established teacher at St. Mary’s University (as well as being my friend, and a fine fiction writer, with excellent bloodlines). He had kindly arranged for me to stay at The Waverley Hotel, east on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax. It was a revelation! A traditionally furnished old Victorian hotel, where Oscar Wilde once stayed (with no comments about his room’s wallpaper ever recorded). I warmly recommend it to all literary visitors.

As for St. Mary’s, Alexander drove me to the fine old campus and established me in the room where I performed my show to about 40 kindly people, including my old friend Harry Thurston, the notable writer about the natural world. Harry, I’m glad to say, later wrote that he found my show “entertaining and moving,” which was a pleasing combination.

The next day, after a pre-breakfast stroll down the hill to where early bird fishermen were hauling dozens ( “I’ve got about 40 in the bucket here, so far”) of mackerel out of the Atlantic-facing harbour, it was time to leave that particular shore, and fly back to Toronto. But I’ll be back.

Acadian Adventures of the Idle Rich

In Nova Scotia, all highways lead to Truro. Yet a Wolfville-bound traveller with time to spare and a love of the landscape can turn off the fast highway system at Truro and drift west along the Fundy shore, winding through little towns like the magically named Maitland. Gifted with that middle name (my mother was Jenny Maitland) I was excited to find that it is a little town laced with beautiful old houses, many now being restored.

I stopped at the local store to grab a sandwich, and casually asked how the place got its name. “It’s a native name,” I was told. My comment that this would be news to thousands of Scottish Maitlands made little impression. Could this be part of the weird intermingling of Scottish and Native history in Nova Scotia, where some believe that Glooscap was really a Scottish explorer named Sinclair? An enquiry for another time.

I drove happily on to Wolfville, pausing to notice that the incoming tide, off to the right, was racing in so fast that I could see sandbars disappearing every ten seconds.

Wolfville is a university town. Just as the ebb and flow of the Fundy tides rules the landscape, so the Acadia University year rules the town. During the academic year, when the 3,500 students transform the town, the movement of young people down from the slopes of the campus into the town is almost tidal. Driving along the main street I foolishly wondered what was causing the stop-and-go traffic. Then I realised that we were obviously between classes, and scores, even hundreds, of students were casually exerting their right to drift across the street, halting cars like mine. Not a bad traffic planning principle.

It is time to celebrate the Acadia school song. It goes:

Far above the dykes of Fundy
And its basin blue
Stands our glorious alma mater
Glorious to view.

Lift the chorus
Speed it onward
Sing it loud and clear
Hail to thee,
Acadia, hail to thee.

Far above the busy highway
And the sleepy town
Raised against the arch of heaven
Looks she proudly down.

They don’t write them like that today. I’d love to hear it sung.

I’m sorry to report that nobody serenaded me when I drove up the hill to the K.C. Irving Building to meet my gracious host, Andrea Schwenke Wyile. But before we went down to the basement theatre we paused to look in at the main hall, which is arguably the most welcoming space in any Canadian University I have seen. Almost worth going back to the world of classes and papers just to get to sit and read there, and think great thoughts.

Andrea (a specialist in books for children) was able to help me with the technical set-up, but the absence of security meant that we had to baby-sit the computer once it had been set up. Her gallant husband, Herb Wyile (author of the well-known book on Canadian historical fiction Speaking in the Past Tense, not to mention Anne of Tim Hortons) brought her food from home, and I was able to slip away to the Blomidon Inn to get into my “costume.”

As usual, before the start of the show I tried to greet my audience, mingling with them and welcoming them to what I hoped would be a good time. This evening before the show I was delighted to meet Terry Fallis’s in-laws, who live in Wolfville, and who were later pleased that I incorporated a tribute to Terry (“Saint, Little Red Hen, and Prizewinner”).

When the event started, things rapidly went downhill, because in introducing me Andrea laid great stress on the role of Jennifer Knoch, a recent and fondly remembered Acadia graduate, and the editor of my book.  I went on to repeat the tributes, so that many miles to the east Jen was blushing hotly for some reason unknown to her. The Acadia students, however, were visibly pleased by all this, as an inspiring example of good things happening to Acadia graduates just like them, and in the Q and A session I was able to reinforce this piece of inspiring news.

The show went well, the Q and A session was fun (including questions from some of Jen’s old teachers), and I signed a few books. Then I followed the line of least resistance down the hill and drove back through town to the grand old Blomidon Inn. It is such a traditional Victorian mansion that when I asked for a drink they directed me to a deserted drawing room, the Rose Room. There I sat sipping my colour-coordinated cranberry juice, and thinking that Wolfville is a fine place to be. Idle rich, indeed.