Harder Than I Thought: A Publisher Tries to Write a Book

In theory, it should have been easy. After all, in a career of over 40 years, I had edited well over a hundred books, and published thousands. In the role of midwife/cheerleader (“Push! Push! You’re almost there, Alistair!”) I had been involved in the creation of hundreds of books. I knew all of the best tricks and techniques for planning then writing books. Indeed, I was such an expert that I had been known to express impatience with authors who were slow in completing their manuscripts. What the hell was the matter with them?

In 2009 I had even edited and published Harry Bruce’s comprehensive Page Fright, about the devices that famous authors down through the years have used simply to keep the words coming, and writer’s block at bay. So, theoretically, I was perfectly prepared, fore-warned and fore-armed.

As a writer (and people behind the scenes in publishing do a surprising amount of writing about books) I had over the years produced many newspaper articles, including obituaries of “my” more famous authors. Even better, I had created some lengthy magazine articles, and had contributed whole chapters to books of essays devoted to authors I knew well, so large-scale writing was no mystery to me. As for deadlines, in my ancient role as movie reviewer for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning I had written more than 100, and never missed a deadline. What a pro. You could count on Gibson.

So when my retirement produced many friendly enquiries along the lines of “Doug — you’ve had such an interesting career, dealing directly with so many famous authors, I hope you’re going to write a book about it,” I would shrug it off politely, saying, “Maybe someday.” Behind the casual response was my belief that it was just a matter of deciding to get down to it, then, voila!

When “someday” arrived, at the repeated urging of booksellers and other writers, it turned out that I had fallen into what you could call “the surgeon’s delusion.” We all remember Margaret Laurence’s dissection of a surgeon who told her at a party that when he retired, and had enough time, he planned to become a novelist. “What a coincidence,” said Margaret, and went on, very quotably, to talk about her own plans to become a surgeon. I knew the story, but somehow believed that for me, writing a book would consist of sitting down at a cleared desk, with time on my hands, and transcribing the words sent down from heaven as the book wrote itself.

This did not happen. In fact, as I sat there, full of zeal and ambition, I had a sense of betrayal. After all of my years of apprenticeship in the book world, and my hundreds of hours spent giving excellent advice to authors struggling to write the book in hand, as I crouched at the desk, preparing to write my memoirs, nothing happened.

To be more precise, all sorts of other things happened. Suddenly it became urgently important to water the lawn, or to read every section of the papers through with care (reading, I discovered, is a great enemy of writing) or to check the contents of the fridge. This, I gather, is known as “avoidance activity,” and I found it hard to avoid.

“Well begun is half done” is appropriate to any writing project, but especially a memoir where a whole life provides an alarmingly wide range of potential material . “I take up my pen in the year of . . .” worked well for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jim Hawkins. “I was born to poor but honest parents” is a fine traditional start. “Bang, bang, bang — three slugs ripped into my guts, and even as a four-year-old I knew I was in real trouble” has much to recommend it as an attention-grabber. But how do you begin a publisher’s memoir?

I sat and pondered and achieved nothing, apart from a well-watered garden and a well-stocked fridge. Then my publishing doppelgänger came to my rescue. I started to ask myself the same questions that I had posed to other writers starting out on a book. “Who is this book for? What is the most interesting aspect of the story, the one you want to emphasize? And because titles dictate a shape and direction for a book, do you have a title?”

The answers were instructive. I realized at once that the book was for readers who were interested in Canadian authors — as opposed to the life story of a Canadian publisher, fine fellow though he might be. So the poor but honest parents stuff, the boyhood in a Scottish village, the school prizes in English and General Knowledge and Phys. Ed. (a useful trio for an embryonic publisher), were all  dispensable. Experience with other memoir writers warned me that I risked writing 200 pages before I got out of high school; a trick of memory brings the details of distant days into surprisingly sharp focus.

No, the key here was to skip over all that — and the university days at St. Andrews and Yale — and get right away to “the most interesting aspect of the story,” which is, of course, my dealings with the prominent Canadian authors that I was lucky enough to get to know. I had great behind-the-scenes stories about working with people like Hugh MacLennan, Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell and . . . and . . .

Stories! That was surely a key word. And if I was trying to find a title that would shape the direction of the book, “Stories” was surely a good start to the title I was groping towards. What did all of these writers — and Mavis, and Morley, and Alistair, and Jack, and Alice — have in common? They were all, let’s see . . . storytellers! Stories About Storytellers . . . not bad!

But did that mean that I could only write about the fiction authors I’d edited? Surely people would be interested in my tales of working with Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin on their memoirs? I answered that to my own satisfaction, noting that successful politicians — like successful lawyers making their case in court — have to get people to believe their version of the current situation, in effect “their story.” Politicians have been accused of much worse things than being “storytellers.”

And several of the other non-fiction writers I wanted to include — such as Harold Horwood, or James “Igloo-dweller” Houston, or Bob “Greenpeace” Hunter — had also written fiction, so would be proud to be called storytellers.

So the book was starting to take shape. No writing, you’ll notice, but real progress. Stories About Storytellers should be about the most interesting authors — of fiction and non-fiction — that I’d encountered. But should it be about all of the authors I had published in my 25 years as Publisher, first at Macmillan then McClelland & Stewart? There were so many, and so many were so interesting. How could I do them justice  . . . unless I restricted myself only to those authors that I worked with directly as an editor? (I ended up fudging this slightly by including Charles Ritchie, where my encouraging semi-editorial role proved to be a harmful one.)

This was a key decision. Only authors I had edited. Aha! And only those famous ones who were familiar by surname alone, or those who were especially fascinating people, around whom great stories clustered. That brought me to about 30. Too many. Much painful weeding brought me down to 20, a good round number. Still no writing, however.

But if this was going to be a unified book, not just a series of short, unconnected biographical sketches, how was the linking narrator, me, going to appear? I couldn’t start Chapter One on Hugh MacLennan by casually mentioning that he and I were friends long before I became his editor and publisher. Readers would feel entitled to be told who this narrator was, and where he came from, and how he came to be doing this editing work.

I had spent unproductive weeks, even months, wondering how to get into the story — and equally important, how to get myself into the story — when Stephen Leacock rode to my rescue. Leacock, you see, was the very first Canadian author I ever read. Since my career was going to be spent working with Canadian authors, it was an auspicious moment when I came across Leacock’s funny books while sheltering from the Glasgow rain in my high-school library. I liked reading Leacock so much that I volunteered as an Assistant Librarian, arguably the wobbly first step on a ladder to a literary career. And I read lots of Leacock.

So much, in fact, that when at St. Andrews I attended a film night featuring the NFB’s cartoon version of Leacock’s “My Financial Career,” I knew it off by heart. And I was so impressed that Canada would put public money into celebrating a humorous writer that I decided that I should go and check out this remarkable country.

So Chapter One of my book is on “ Stephen Leacock (1896–1944): Professor, Humorist, and Immigration Agent,” and the opening line runs: “It was Stephen Leacock who brought me to Canada.” The way life goes, you won’t be surprised to learn that when I came to Canada in 1967, and soon got a job in publishing in Toronto, the very first book I was given to edit was, of course, a biography of Stephen Leacock.

With an assist from Leacock my writing was finally off and away. Thereafter the order of the book was fairly simple. I would deal with the authors in the order that I had met them in my career. If that meant that there was a series of dramatic leaps from R.D. Symons the Saskatchewan cowboy to Harold Horwood the Newfoundlander-turned- Nova Scotian, then to the old Vancouver newspaper guy, Barry Broadfoot, that was all to the good, and reinforced the theme of my discovery of Canada.

So the order was becoming clearer. But a chapter on Robertson Davies (and how much, I wondered, could I assume the reader will know about R.D.’s life and work, and how soon should I jump in with specific reminiscences of what happened between us?) would be followed by a chapter on W.O. Mitchell, requiring a total desk-clearing of books and other research materials. In gloomy moments I would realize that I had undertaken the equivalent of 21 miniature biographies.

There were many gloomy moments, as the writing went painfully slowly. As word spread in the writing and publishing community that Gibson-the-fierce-wielder-of-deadlines was having trouble writing his book, the reaction, even when sympathetic, tended to be tinged with amusement. In such times of trouble I was delighted to make use of my honorary membership of the Writers’ Union of Canada, where I learned the astonishing truth that only other authors really understand what writing a book is like. And friends were very kind. My Vancouver pal Alan Twigg even persuaded me to ask Alice Munro if she would write an introduction, and to my delight she did.

But even as I made progress, chapter succeeding chapter in something like a growing rhythm, I found that I lacked something essential to a real writing professional. As I have explained, I spent many painful months trying to find the “ON” switch that would allow me to start writing, in the tone and voice that worked, and could be sustained.

But once I had found that switch, I discovered there was no “OFF” switch. Until a chapter was finished (and the research books dramatically swept off the desk) I was mentally “writing” 24 hours a day. No hour during the night — midnight, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 — did not see me rise and start to write in the dark for several hours. During meals I would find myself answering questions from Jane, my wife, in a dreamy way, while constructing new paragraphs in my head. All of the author’s Acknowledgements that I had published over the years, paying tribute to the author’s “long-suffering” family, began to make alarming sense.

Finally, noticing my disturbed sleeping patterns — at least until the current chapter had been wrestled to the ground — Jane tentatively used the big “O” word.

“Don’t you think this is becoming obsessive?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “But I think that this is the way that books get written.”

She was right, of course. But maybe I was right, too.

Now that my book is coming out on October 1, I am a sadder and a wiser man, much more knowledgeable about the craft and graft of writing a book. The final chapter consists of the Awful Warnings that I routinely sent to my authors who were being published for the first time, in a book world where Murphy’s Law rules supreme. I should stress that I have been very well treated by my publisher, ECW Press. Yet after my humbling, horrendous difficulties with the routine business of writing a book, I assume that a dreadful fate lies in store for me, the know-it-all former publisher, as he heads out to promote his book. Watch this space . . .




12 comments on “Harder Than I Thought: A Publisher Tries to Write a Book

  1. Joanie McGuffin says:

    What a marvellous, marvellous article by a great Canadian writer! A great encouragement to all of us who struggle to put pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard.

  2. alastair moir says:

    Well done! Top of my reading pile for the summer. I’m looking forward to a few chapters in particular.

  3. […] Douglas Gibson BooksDoug Gibson: Cartographer of Canadian StorytellingHarder Than I Thought: A Publisher Tries to Write a BookThe ShowEventsReviewsNews and Dispatches Bookmark the […]

  4. damourwriting says:

    After reading this article, I want to read your book. I have enjoyed reading many of those Canadian authors over the years, it will be fun to learn what happened behind the scenes.
    I went to a reading by Mavis Gallant in Cape Breton once. I was a huge fan and was excited to meet her. I promised my husband if he would babysit so I could go to the reading that I would speak to her. (I was a bit shy.) Mavis was fantastic reading Speck’s Idea. I was star struck and couldn’t open my mouth. At one point, during the coffee break, I offered her a chair, and that is all I said all night.

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