One of my favourite things to read is a tightly packed and punchy piece of biography, or, as you might call it, biographical observation. Finding out about people who seem to have become somewhat special — it’s addictive. Maybe we think it will become instructive. I don’t know. I do enjoy it.
Some are famous, it seems, because they always knew they would be. Others won’t admit they are famous at all. (These are mostly Canadians, and over 50.) And there are rare people who just don’t notice, because they are busy all the time doing something more worthy and exciting.
Doug Gibson has met a number of these people, and tells about it in this book. He is their editor and their publisher. He tells us something about what they’re like, catching them in dire, or proud, or funny moments, when they are preparing for, enduring, enjoying, or living down whatever limelight falls on them. He’s the man who helped them to get there.
He sees them in less fateful moments, too, if they have any. He deals with them, on these pages, with lots of good humour and observes them in ways that are acute, but mostly understanding. He is not easily dismayed.
People in this book have latched onto their fame in various ways, but it’s the writers — fiction writers — that I go after. I don’t care (much) who they might be having an affair with, or who they’re not speaking to, and that’s a good thing, because in this book I’m not going to find out. What I want to know is how they manage the separation — or the lack of it — between writing and life. What about their behaviour when they’re recognized in public? The dismay when they’re not? Do public readings throw them? Or buoy them up? Or both? Do they ever feel like a fraud? Is writing competing with real life or could they not tell the two things apart? Did all of them have wonderful wives? (Yes. Yes.)
And here is a digression. I am noting that nearly all of them are of the gender that has wives, and the very stroke of my pen could get grumpy, but I have to tell you this was never Mr. Gibson’s fault. He was as determined to spot, harass, encourage, and publish a female writer as anybody could possibly be. There just weren’t many of us around.
Do I discover what I’m looking for about writers, do I get some idea of the everyday, unique person? Oh, yes. Some are bare-boned organizers, while some are ready to dance on tables, often showing that strange mix of humiliation and self-exposure that makes for a bumpy life and fine fiction.
There are the writers, of course, who go around marvellously disguised as perfectly normal human beings and are not much fun. There’s another type of storyteller, too. They don’t invent much. They pick up yarns and tales and pass them along as they go. Doug has some of them in his pocket as well. He has paid attention to the stories, the ways of life, belonging to those whose lives have meant a lot more to them than literature of any sort, who just like to tell you about something, then let it fall by the way.
A remarkable mix, this book.
And because of that, I have to break off from fiction, even though I believe it’s in every breath we draw. Even in the story sworn as true, and provided with names, about the Mean-Daughter-In-Law that I heard in Tim Hortons the other day.
We have to bow to all the non-fiction writers here as well, prime ministers and others, and to all the accounts of events that really happened and maybe even changed the world forever. And make another bow to the once-living (or still-living) amazing characters, often beyond anything you’d get away within a mere story, faithfully produced in this book. As a former bookseller I know that here’s what your father, your grandfather, or any other fiction-snooting fellow wants as a gift on important occasions. I have to say that the stories are interesting, sometimes compelling. Doug feels a powerful interest, and so will you. So do I.
Here I am, giving this book its due, and reading it with appetite and pleasure. How else would I ever know what the suave and delightful Charles Ritchie said to the thoroughly unpleasant Edward Heath?
So here is my prize read for people who are interested in books, writers, Canada, life, and all that kind of thing.