The Margaret Laurence Lecture Series is presented annually by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and features well-known Canadian authors discussing the theme of “a writer’s life.” Vanderhaeghe delivered the 2014 lecture last night in St. John’s. (Before which he took some time to answer questions from his fellow writers for CBC Books.)
For me, a writer from Saskatchewan, to have been invited to give this year’s Margaret Laurence lecture is a great honour because Margaret Laurence’s fiction has had such a deep and powerful influence on writers of my generation whose roots are in the West. In the toddler-years of my writing life, when I was lurching about, at every few steps snatching at anything that might keep me from falling flat on my face, Margaret Laurence was an essential literary guide, a woman whose writing helped to open my eyes to what might be done with material that lay right under my nose—if I only chose to look at it hard enough and did my best to treat it with respect. After forty years of writing, what was true for me then remains true for me now; to reread Margaret Laurence always helps to restore a little of my perennially shaky balance and sense of purpose.
Unlike many of the writers who have delivered this lecture in the past, I never met Margaret Laurence. But she did touch me in a way I have never forgotten, a steadying touch that came at a moment when I was desperately in need of it. My first book, a collection of short stories called Man Descending, had just received the 1982 Governor-General’s Award for English language fiction. It happened that that year another collection of short stories had been short-listed for the award, Alice Munro’s The Moons of Jupiter, and her book had been inexplicably passed over by the jury in favour of mine. My chagrin at this oversight was even more acute than that of a number figures on the literary scene who were strenuously expressing their outrage over this travesty of justice. What made my discomfort even worse was that Alice Munro had very generously given my book a blurb. So sweating clean through my pants, I wrote her a letter that reiterated what everybody else was saying: that a book of short stories by a clumsy, novice writer had no business getting the nod over the work of one of the finest practitioners of short fiction anywhere. Alice made a typically generous attempt to console my embarrassment with a kind, gentle reply. But I was not so easily comforted.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that some part of me was happy that I had received this recognition. I knew it would make some difference to a writer who was just starting his career because, at that time, the G.G. was pretty much the only prize in town and it carried a certain cachet. On the other hand, my pleasure was poisoned because I knew that I hadn’t deserved what I had gotten, and I couldn’t stop feeling like a cheat and an impostor. Shame was locking my writing joints rigid and making it impossible for me to get on with the next book, or even to imagine ever writing again.
Then, out of the blue, I received a letter from a stranger. The stranger was Margaret Laurence. Before beginning to write this lecture, I requested a copy of her message from the University of Calgary Special Collections so that I could check my recollection of what she had said to me. More or less, my memory hadn’t failed me. I won’t quote any of the compliments she passed about my work – even though I know that there is nothing that writers like better than to hear another writer lavishly and unjustifiably praised. I’ll merely mention some of her wise advice to a young writer. Such as: “You are just beginning now, and some … people will give you a whole bunch of bullshit about how marvellous you are,” coupled with a warning not to let anyone “cannibalize you” because “in all the ways that matter, you do not need them.” She said that Ethel Wilson had told her some of the same things and that they had proved helpful to remember. She concluded her letter with this. “I hope you will not think this is presumptuous of me. You do have the gift, and so I am concerned about you and wish to give you – from an old professional – my deepest blessing.”
So sweating clean through my pants, I wrote her a letter that reiterated what everybody else was saying: that a book of short stories by a clumsy, novice writer had no business getting the nod over the work of one of the finest practitioners of short fiction anywhere.
A blessing from the old professional, Margaret Laurence, couched in language that had a nearly Biblical ring to it, the elder’s laying on of hands, my initiation into what she always referred to as the “tribe.” Her gesture moved me very deeply and still does, the idea that someone of her eminence, someone whose path had never crossed mine could be large-hearted and generous enough to take the trouble to express concern over a young man’s future as a writer. It wasn’t that Margaret Laurence waved some magic wand that dispelled all my discomfiture, self-doubt, and anxiety. But what she did do was to remind me that nothing mattered besides getting on with the work and doing it as well as I could manage. Everything else, whether praise or criticism, was in the long run nothing but mere noise, clamour, distraction. Remember, she was whispering into my ear, you have only made a start, be aware of the pitfalls into which it is so easy for a writer to blindly topple, the snares that Cyril Connolly called the enemies of promise.
I wrote Margaret Laurence an incoherent letter of appreciation but I never got the chance to thank her face to face. Less than four years after the date on the note she sent me she was dead. So as you can appreciate, her memory is particularly dear to me, and to have been asked to present a lecture in her name is an enormous privilege.
In whittling down this evening’s topic, the Writing Life, to something manageable, I had to give myself the same advice that I give my creative writing students. Don’t try to calculate what might interest others, decide what interests you and then write it. I knew I wasn’t interested in making pronouncements about what the writer’s life ought to be, or how writers ought to work because I’m still trying to figure that out for myself. Reflecting on the four decades I have spent writing fiction, the only thing that intrigues me from the long perspective now available to me is how I came to choose the writing or, perhaps more truthfully, how I stumbled into it. In trying to solve this mystery for myself, I found myself doing very much the same things I do when constructing a fictional narrative, muddling through and tinkering with a host of details, trying to arrange them in some sort of rough draft that meanders from A to Z, then searching that draft for a through line, a pattern that will lend a series of haphazard circumstances and incidents some appearance of sense. And having performed that exercise, what now strikes me is how improbable it is that I ever ended up a writer.
Of course, in taking myself by the hand for a stroll down memory lane I have edited out the many blind alleys that I blundered into or wilfully chose. Escaping these missteps and stupidities has largely been a question of dumb luck, so what I offer tonight is a picaresque composed of unlikely coincidences and happy accidents that improbably delivered me to where I find myself today. Happy accidents such as receiving Margaret Laurence’s letter, a lifeline tossed to me just at the moment when I felt myself sinking. True, sooner or later I may have bobbed back to the surface without her kindly intervention, but who can say? At this moment, I happen to believe that I wouldn’t have.
Remember, she was whispering into my ear, you have only made a start, be aware of the pitfalls into which it is so easy for a writer to blindly topple, the snares that Cyril Connolly called the enemies of promise.
On the face of it, neither the place nor the family I was born into would seem likely to have produced a writer. My parents were not “bookish” people. Somewhere in Wolf Willow Wallace Stegner remarks that for many of the earliest settlers of the West the pioneer experience had a corrosive effect, slowly eroding whatever sophistication or cultural accomplishments might have been part of the baggage they packed along with them to the frontier. That appears to have been the case in my mother’s family. In 1891, my great-grandmother, Louise Chappell, was the 88th person to be granted a teaching certificate by the government of the Northwest Territories. She must have been an adventurous woman to have set out on her own from Ontario in search of work in a part of the country that only six years before had been convulsed by Louis Riel’s North-West Resistance. Not very long after her arrival in the tiny settlement of Spy Hill, Saskatchewan, she married Joe Davis, one of the school trustees who had hired her to take charge of a one-room school. Their marriage produced eight children who preserved a memory of a mother of genteel Victorian refinement, an amateur naturalist, photographer, painter, pianist, and owner of a considerable library of English classics that after her death her progeny consigned to a granary where they were pulped by rain and trampled by sheep, all except for her copy of William Pitt’s Orations on the French War, which survived and came into my possession forty years ago.
The educational accomplishments of my great-grandmother’s offspring fell far short of hers. Rural schools and the endless drudgery of life on a hardscrabble farm took their toll, contributed to the steady chipping away of the refinements she had put such store in. And in their turn, her grandchildren, raised in the drought and depression-stricken Saskatchewan of the 1930s, gave up on school even earlier than their parents had. Most of my uncles were working on farms by the time they turned thirteen or fourteen, or clambering into box cars to roam Canada in a fruitless hunt for work until the Second World snatched them out of the breadlines.
My father’s side of the family put even less stock in schooling. My grandfather Vanderhaeghe, an immigrant from backward and impoverished West Flanders, had little interest in much except keeping the farm he rented running on the cheap labour his children furnished. To accomplish this he had to keep them as far away from book-learning and the classroom as he could. Threats from the local School Board and harassment by truant officers over his kids’ spotty attendance record did nothing to get him to mend his ways. His kids certainly paid a price for his short-sightedness. My father is incapable of writing anything, not even a cheque. He has never read a word I’ve written. This is not a complaint, merely an observation.
Yet despite the circumstances in which my parents had been raised, my mother made a point of reading to me from a stock of five or six Thornton W. Burgess animal stories when I was a very small child. Where these books describing the perilous lives of Peter Rabbit, Jimmy Skunk, Paddy the Beaver et al. came from I have no idea. The nearest bookstore would have been in Regina, 225 kilometres away. And my parents never ventured that far afield because they didn’t own a vehicle until I was seven or eight. So someone must have loaned or given these books to my mother, or perhaps she ordered them from the Eaton’s catalogue. At any rate, they were the only children’s literature I was ever exposed to; I have no memory of any Dr. Seuss, L. Frank Baum, Beatrix Potter, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carrol, or A.A. Milne. Burgess was it, but he was enough. I had had my first sweet kiss with narrative and I fell in love with it.
My other exposure to story came via my mother’s family, the Allens. They were all great talkers, acidly funny, savage raconteurs with outlandish nicknames like Black Jack, Willis the Waltz King, Gordo, and Bàcsi. Of them all, Uncle Bàcsi was the most flamboyant and voluble. My home town, Esterhazy, as the name suggests, was originally a Hungarian settlement and it was the Hungarians who christened my uncle Ralph with the nickname Bàcsi, which, I have been told, can be translated as either uncle or elder brother and is a traditional title of respect. In my uncle’s case the implication was different. It had been sardonically applied to him back in the days when he was a 13-year-old auctioneer’s assistant strutting about at farm sales, a fedora rakishly tilted down over one eye, a cigar clamped in his mouth as he fast-talked prospective bidders, glorying in the role of pint-sized wheeler-dealer.
Where these books describing the perilous lives of Peter Rabbit, Jimmy Skunk, Paddy the Beaver et al. came from I have no idea. The nearest bookstore would have been in Regina, 225 kilometres away.
Whenever my mother’s family got together it was a no-holds-barred verbal brawl. Her brothers and sisters riffed off one another’s stories like jazz musicians, or served up set pieces that had been worked and reworked over the years until they had all the crispness and polish of a good stand-up comedian’s monologue. They had no shortage of material. All my uncles, with the exception of the youngest, Willis the Waltz King, had racketed about Canada during the Depression years and then they had racketed about North Africa, Italy, and the Low Countries during the Second World War. Their war stories were like Vonnegut’s or Heller’s, with the gruesome bits more or less expunged. I’m sure they had seen their share of horrors, one of them had been badly wounded in Italy, but they portrayed life in the army as an absurd comedy that revolved around sabotaging stupid officers; frequent scrapes with the military police; sprees in Glasgow and Belfast when they went AWOL and beat it north out of the south of England; adventures cruising the streets of Cairo, Naples, and Brussels. These stories had carefully crafted beginnings, middles, and ends and were always sharply focussed on character: the mild, naïve Anglican chaplain who could always be prevailed upon to provide a sterling character reference at a court martial; the punctilious, pedantic drill sergeant who put them through their paces with .22 single shot rifles mounted on artillery gun carriages because the Canadian Army in Britain had no field guns to train with; the fascist crone lying in wait on her balcony with a chamber pot to empty on their heads when they staggered back to bivouac after a night out on the town; the half-crazed army psychiatrist examining half-crazed shell shock cases.
I suppose that like one of Konrad Lorenz’s goslings, I was imprinted early on by these stories and, for good or ill, I have been waddling flat-footed after them all my life. A good deal of the propellant in the rockets my uncles sent up was vulgar speech, the raw language of men who had knocked about and been knocked about, the vivid slang that the great demotic poet Walt Whitman called the “attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably.” I have always suspected that what my uncles were doing was disguising and transforming the illimitable horror of war with a wild, reckless language that refused to acknowledge the polite proprieties of middle-class conversation of the 1950s. I have never lost my affection for the rude, vigorous tongue in which they expressed themselves. Many years ago, when the poet Louis Dudek dismissed me in Books in Canada as “a voice from the shithouse,” I puffed up with unseemly pride, feeling as if I had inherited my Uncle Bàcsi’s profane mantle.
In the course of time, I was sent to school. Before I went out the door to meet Dick and Jane and to be introduced to their lively suburban milieu, I was given a little coaching by my mother, a warning that there were certain words that you did not say in school. When I asked what these were, she provided me with a rather extensive list, words that I had heard my family employ as adjectives, nouns, and verbs suitable for every occasion. My mother also attempted a little academic coaching, her version of No Child Left Behind, and made an attempt to teach me my alphabet and hammer into my head how to count to ten before turning me over to the professional. But being a hot-tempered, impatient woman, she soon gave that up as a bad business and I trundled off to school blithely illiterate and innumerate. Years later, my mother confessed to me that she had assumed that I was what was then delicately referred to in polite circles as “slow,” and that she had had very low expectations for my success as a scholar. When I actually did surprisingly well in grade one, her hopes suddenly bloomed, inordinately so, and she decided that not only was she going to see that I finished high school but that I would go to university. An idea that she grimly hung on to even in later years when my academic performance went into a swift and precipitous decline.
I was an only child, my mother had been disappointed by life, and I became proxy for her own thwarted aspirations. I recognize this is a cliché, but I also happen to believe it is true. For her, an education was the way of escaping the small-town boredom and dead-end jobs that had been her lot, and she was determined I wouldn’t relive her lot in life. Needless to say, she was my biggest piece of luck.
The signal event of my first year of elementary school was learning to read. The fly in this ointment was that the summer before I entered grade one, the Esterhazy school had burned to the ground and with it whatever library it had held. Except for texts mandated by the provincial elementary school curriculum there were no books. All the town’s resources went into the building of a school. The circumstances for a new school were particularly pressing because just then a potash mine was being developed near the town, which brought in a flood of newcomers, more and more kids to be stuffed into the church basements where we were being taught. When the shiny new building opened midway through my second year of schooling, there was nothing but empty shelving in the space optimistically referred to as the library. And there would be nothing on those shelves for some time to come.
I was an only child, my mother had been disappointed by life, and I became proxy for her own thwarted aspirations. I recognize this is a cliché, but I also happen to believe it is true.
Over the course of the next few years, I became a doggedly persistent scavenger of reading material. The local druggist was my biggest source of supply. In those days, unsold comic books had their covers torn off before being mailed back to the magazine distributor as returns; the comics themselves were supposed to be destroyed but the pharmacist allowed me to carry off any of the coverless copies I wanted. Fortunately for me, the least popular comics were the now defunct Classics Illustrated series, which were intended to expose reluctant young readers to “great literature” in a form they might be persuaded to swallow. However, reluctant young readers recognized these comics were meant to be good for you and so they avoided them like Brussels sprouts, which meant I had an inexhaustible supply to choose from. The Classics Illustrated series was my introduction to Kim, Michael Strogoff, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Man in the Iron Mask, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Two Years Before the Mast, even Hamlet.
I’m sure that it sounds priggishly precocious of me, but it was reading these comics that put the notion in my head of becoming a writer. I can recall studying the author biographies that appeared in the back pages, poring over them in search of the secret ingredient that had made these women and men writers, believing that if I discovered it I might find some way to acquiring a little of the necessary alchemical agent.
Meanwhile, under the influence of Classics Illustrated I began writing little stories. My grandmother was the town’s seamstress and her days were spent making dresses for the wives of local businessmen, doctors, and lawyers, and performing alterations for a men’s clothing store. On top of that, she had to babysit me after school because my mother had landed a job clerking in the town office. When school finished for the day I would scoot over to my grandmother’s house, position myself on the floor near her sewing machine, open a notebook and begin to bombard her with pleas to spell the words I needed to write my stories. This must have been particularly irritating for her because for a time I had fallen deeply under the influence of the Classic Illustrated version of Julius Caesar’s memoirs, and I was busy manufacturing names for characters who populated my shaky notions of antiquity. Invented monikers that I imagined sounded authentically Roman, names such as Dufius, Gymnasiumus, and Auditoriumus.
At last, when I was around the age of ten, my desperate hunt for things to read ended when the frugal town fathers finally sprang for a municipal library. It was housed in the town office where my mother worked and was largely comprised of donations, the polite word for cast-offs. The library was hardly bigger than a broom closet but it had the great advantage of being unmanned. Books were signed out on the honour system and since there was no librarian supervising or censoring what I checked out, I was able to read anything that struck my fancy. My mother never raised any objections to what I was sticking my nose into because as she would have put it, reading kept me from “running the streets like a stray dog.”
My memory of my formal elementary schooling is rather foggy but I can recollect with almost autistic accuracy many of the things I read during those years, probably because of my teachers’ strenuous objections to some of the book reports I produced. There was, for instance, a minor furor over my innocently turning in a review of Eugene O’Neill’s play Desire Under the Elms when I was about ten. I’m sure the teacher had never read or seen this drama herself, but the title alone was enough to give her fits. I was even scolded for doing a report on the Reader’s Digest condensed version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel so morally uplifting that high school students all over North America have been chain-ganged into reading it. The only explanation I got for its unsuitability was that it was “too old for me.” According to my calculations, aided by Wikipedia, I would have been twelve then, hardly of such a tender age as to have been irreparably damaged by Harper Lee’s depravity.
I can recall studying the author biographies that appeared in the back pages, poring over them in search of the secret ingredient that had made these women and men writers, believing that if I discovered it I might find some way to acquiring a little of the necessary alchemical agent.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I was some precious prairie aesthete; I was simply pulling things off the shelf to devour. Accidents like Eugene O’Neill’s retelling of the Greek myth of Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus, were interpersed with Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series and Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories. My problem was that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out that book reports about dogs were a safer bet than reviewing a drama about infanticide and a son cuckolding his father.
Aside from minor book-reviewing incidents, I was a pliable and malleable pupil – so pliable and malleable that it was decided I should be “accelerated” through several grades, which only stoked my mother’s ambitions for my further academic achievement. And I continued to write my dreadful juvenilia. I even embarked on what I grandly called a novel and which my mother volunteered to type in two-fingered hunt and peck style on the manual typewriter in the town office on Sundays, her only day off. As I have already said, my mother was my luckiest break. Fortunately, I have almost no disturbing recovered memories of my first stab at novel-writing except for the fancy-pantsy name of my young English hero, Devon Malroy, who was plucky and dauntless and voyaged the high seas in a noble ketch.
All this assiduous striving was followed by my disastrous high-school years. Being so much younger than all the rest of my classmates because of my hasty acceleration through primary school, I arrived in grade nine as a beanpole-skinny four-eyes burdened with the reputation for being a “brainiac.” This, you can well imagine, put me at a certain disadvantage. Unlike the plucky, dauntless hero of my novel, Devon Malory, I did not stand up to my persecutors, I attempted to ingratiate myself with them and succeeded in becoming a mascot to a number of bad companions who furnished a cordon sanitaire against gratuitous assaults from others with a taste for punishing easy targets. Add to this the toxic stew of adolescent hormones injected by the sudden arrival of puberty and I careered wildly off the scholastic rails. By the time I entered grade ten I found myself in 10E. My school followed a rigid policy of grouping students according to their marks and 10E was the end of the academic line; there was no 10F. The inmates were enrolled in classes such as Agriculture where we lovingly swathed beans in wet blotting paper and sat around eagerly waiting for them to sprout. Aside from the bean experiment, I don’t remember the gentlemen in 10E doing much else besides intimidating teachers, devising rigged hockey pools, and exacting money from the more defenceless members of the student body who were required to make contributions to pay the liquor fines we were collecting on our carefree weekends.
Yet somehow or other, a miracle occurred. Despite my atrocious marks, infractions of discipline, and general bad behaviour, the next year a hand came down from on high, plucked me from category E and deposited me in category B where bean sprout surveillance was replaced by subjects that were prerequisites for admission to university. I don’t know how this happened. Perhaps my mother intervened with the school administration. She could be a stubborn and volatile woman, fierce as a mother grizzly in defence of her cub.
My mother never raised any objections to what I was sticking my nose into because as she would have put it, reading kept me from “running the streets like a stray dog.”
I lurched into grade twelve. The days of scribbling stories were long in the past. But then a remarkable woman, a teacher of composition, allowed me to forego the usual set essays of the How I Spent My Summer Vacation-type and suggested that I try to write fiction instead. She sent one of my stories to the Saskatchewan English Teachers’ Association’s magazine where it was published alongside the work of two young English teachers who were also writers: Gary Hyland, a poet who later founded the Moose Jaw Literary Festival, and Bob Currie, another accomplished writer who became a Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan.
Still, my mother’s hopes of me going to university were growing dimmer by the day. At that time, the final examinations for high school matriculation were set by the Department of Education; every grade twelve student in the province wrote the same tests which were marked in the capital, and these marks determined admission into the Saskatchewan university system. My chances of getting the 65% minimum average for acceptance into the University of Saskatchewan were virtually nil and I knew it. With each exam I sat, my prospects grew bleaker. Even the very best students were walking away from the examinations white-faced and wearing shocked expressions. When the ordeal of the tests was over, I headed for B.C. since my mother had told me she was sick of the sight of me. From the look in her eye, I knew it was time to get out of Dodge.
And then came an inexplicable stroke of good fortune. The exams that year had proved so difficult that the results didn’t accord with the way the bell curve was supposed to look. Radical adjustments were required to make the curve shapely again, and those adjustments boosted the marks of borderline students like me. When the results were mailed to my home address, my mother discovered that I had effortlessly vaulted the required 65% with a 65.2 or 65.3 average. She immediately filled out an application form for the University of Saskatchewan and phoned to tell me that if I managed to squeak in, I was going, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
As a matter of fact, I did manage to squeak in to university and the world opened up to me. For the first time in years I went to work with a will, determined not to repeat my mistakes in high school. A vague interest in history developed into a passion. A history professor became a mentor, one of those rare academics who could write and who cared about English prose. I remember him scolding me once, “There are so many buts in this paper that when I read it I heard an outboard motor in my head.”
A university library provided me with access to books of a quality that I hadn’t encountered before. I studied and read voraciously, not just within my chosen discipline but outside it as well. I began to seek out books by Canadian writers.
When the ordeal of the tests was over, I headed for B.C. since my mother had told me she was sick of the sight of me. From the look in her eye, I knew it was time to get out of Dodge.
When I consider it, my university years, the late 1960s and early 1970s were opportune times for someone with hopes of becoming a writer. Remarkable books were appearing or had recently appeared. Fiction writers like Laurence, Atwood, Wright, Findley, Hodgins, Munro, Davies, Richler, Kroetsch, Wiebe, Gallant were being read and talked about. There were many more, of course, but these were the ones that fell into my hands and who I was reading with real excitement and a sense of discovery. A heady political and cultural nationalism was asserting itself. And there was a regional counterpart to this too. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild was formed in 1969 and the literary magazine Grain was founded in 1973. I read its first issue when I was a graduate student and promptly sat down and wrote a short story that I submitted to it. The story appeared in the second issue of the magazine, which also carried the poetry of another fledgling writer who was to become a friend of mine, Lorna Crozier.
The summer before I entered grad school to do a master’s degree, I married. I had scarcely turned twenty-one, and what on the face of it should have proved to be one of those rash, regrettable decisions young people make turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. My wife of nearly forty years, who died two years ago, was the perfect partner. A visual artist, she understood, encouraged, and supported my aspiration to write just as I understood and supported her desire to paint. Despite the financial hardships and inevitable disappointments that devoting yourself to the arts entail, our choices were never a source of conflict or misunderstanding between us. As Mordecai Richler once put it, if memory serves me correctly, “None of us were drafted; we volunteered.” That was our attitude, we tried our best not to complain and soldiered on.
Although by 1973 I had lost interest in a career as an academic historian, my M.A. in history helped land me a job in the Archives of the University of Saskatchewan Library. I kept writing in my spare time. But after my initial success with Grain, my efforts were largely met with indifference or scarcely veiled scorn by the editors of literary journals. Yet I doggedly continued to send and resend my fledgling efforts. Eventually, most of these rejected stories made their appearance in my first book Man Descending. Like most writers, I suppose, I retain a vivid memory of the most exquisitely galling snubs. One editor, perhaps noting the unusual medley of vowels and clashing consonants in my last name assumed I was a German speaker and suggested that I should consider writing in my first language.
On the other hand, there were kind and generous responses. Robert Fulford at Saturday Night, while declining a story I had sent the magazine, was encouraging. Darlene Madott who worked there passed on my name to Morris Wolfe, a freelance writer and editor who also wrote a column for Saturday Night. He took some of my work for the short-lived annual anthology of Canadian writing, Aurora, published by Doubleday of Canada. A remarkable editor of the old school at that house, Betty Corson, after very frankly informing me that Doubleday would never publish the novel I was working on went on to offer to read it and give editorial comments because she believed I had some talent. Like Blanche DuBois I was dependent on the kindness of strangers.
By then I had made a career change, gone back to university for a year to earn a Bachelor of Education degree, and was teaching high school in a small Saskatchewan town. As a novice teacher, most of my time was spent running in place, trying to keep up with marking and lesson plans, and spending many hours coaching basketball and track. Nevertheless, I forced myself to crawl out of bed early each morning to work for a few hours on the novel Betty Corson was reading.
As Mordecai Richler once put it, if memory serves me correctly, “None of us were drafted; we volunteered.” That was our attitude, we tried our best not to complain and soldiered on.
That year I sent a collection of short stories to Oberon Press. My wife, who had grown tired of small-town life and watching snow blow past the window, decided that she would like to go back to university and study art, so we packed up and headed back to Saskatoon. There was no chance of landing a fulltime teaching job in a city school so for the next few years I did substitute teaching and marked papers for the history department from which I had not so long ago graduated. My wife and I were scraping along on our savings and the odd jobs that came our way.
One day, flipping pages in The Canadian Writer’s Guide, I saw that Borealis Press in Ottawa was looking for fiction manuscripts of less than a hundred pages. Desperate for publication, I did something I now regret. I sent them a handful of stories, which Borealis accepted. It was years before that slender volume came out. It was called The Trouble With Heroes and had a shockingly hideous cover and so many typos that I eventually had to stop obsessively torturing myself by counting them.
Meanwhile, the manuscript that had been sent to Oberon was returned. I didn’t know many people who could give me advice but those I turned to said the wisest thing for me to do was to send it to a small press that had a record of publishing short stories. Instead, I sent it to Macmillan of Canada because its stable of writers included two of Canada’s greatest short story writers, Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. Expecting the string of rejections to continue, I thought it would be better to be refused by those accustomed to publishing the best. I was looking for excuses when I failed.
Months of silence followed. It was only after Man Descending was published that I learned the strange, lucky course my book had taken. A young woman from South Africa who was working at Macmillan and who hoped to become an editor had been told that, when her more mundane office duties had been dispatched, she could then attack the slush pile where Man Descending was gathering dust along with countless other unsolicited manuscripts. By chance, she pulled my manuscript out of the stack, read it, liked it, and then began a persistent campaign to get others to read it. As I waited in Saskatoon, impatiently twiddling my thumbs, my book was slowly making its way up the publishing ladder to the desk of what George Bush would have called “the decider.”
After about nine months, I wrote inquiring about the status of my manuscript. After a long wait I received a letter requesting more time to consider my book. I waited some more. I wrote another letter. Received a similar reply. I waited. Wrote another letter. Same response from Macmillan. I was getting very twitchy. I felt that the brass ring I had been chasing for nearly a decade might be within my grasp. Finally, I phoned and was put through to the publisher, Doug Gibson. Very calmly he explained the difficulty in arriving at a decision: short stories sold badly, I was an unknown, etc. I don’t know what came over me but I snapped and issued an ultimatum. I told Doug that Macmillan had a week to make a decision. If I did not hear from him by the next Friday, five o’clock Saskatoon time, I would withdraw the book and that would be it. Under no circumstances would I ever consider letting Macmillan publish it. At that moment, I meant every word I said. Of course, as soon as I had hung up, I was appalled by what I had done. Who was I to draw a line in the sand, to set deadlines?
The next week was the longest week of my life. I hovered by the phone; I paced. It did not ring. Friday rolled around and I knew I was dead in the water. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so my wife and I took a six mile hike across Saskatoon and splurged on a cheap lunch that we couldn’t afford. I had burned my bridges and would have to start all over again. We got back home at about 4:45. I didn’t have an answering machine so there were no messages to check. At exactly five o’clock the phone rang. I believe Doug may have been making a point with the nicety of his timing. Nevertheless, he was on the line to tell me that Macmillan had decided to publish my collection of short stories.
Things turned out far better than I deserved. For most of my life I have been doing work that interests me. How many people can say the same?
Doug does not remember things in this way. But believe me, I am certain this is what happened. When the book came out it carried blurbs from many of the writers I had been reading and admiring for a decade: Kroetsch, Wiebe, Hodgins, Wright, Munro. Reviews were generally good although there were some dissenters – there are always dissenters. It was shortlisted for the Governor’s-General Award which was more than enough for me. As I have already mentioned, when it won, I was thrown into superstitious despair. Somehow I had pulled the wool over people’s eyes and I was going to pay for it. Then Margaret Laurence’s letter arrived, I took heart and went back to work, hopeful that some day I might write a better book, one more deserving of praise.
Things turned out far better than I deserved. For most of my life I have been doing work that interests me. How many people can say the same? In guilty moments, I tell myself it might all have turned out far differently. What if my mother had not been so determined to see that I got an education? What if I had not sat in so many smoky kitchens listening to my uncles tell stories? Or been given stacks of Classics Illustrated comics my parents couldn’t afford to buy me? Or had access to a library without any conditions set on what I could read? What if the bell curve in 1968 had conspired against me rather than in my favour? Or what were the chances that a young woman would pull my manuscript out of the slush pile and take it into her head to become my stubborn advocate? What if Margaret Laurence hadn’t given me the push I needed when I was overcome with self-doubt?
Of course these questions are unanswerable. Maybe they are nothing but idle speculation. Maybe they are nothing but a web of preposterous fictions that I spin to express my gratitude for the good fortune I have been blessed with. I hope you will excuse my self-indulgence. But after all, by now idle speculation and making up preposterous stories are habits, the way in which I have passed a very lucky life.