5 lessons I've learned from Canada's great writers
From Alice Munro: Always tip the waitress
The question I’m usually asked about Alice Munro is 'What is she really like?' And I answer that by saying, 'You know what Alice Munro is really like.' She's the author of Who Do You Think You Are?— she's straightforward, modest, no fooling around, no fancy stuff. Ordinary nice person. And it's very unusual to find artistic genius, which is precisely the word for Alice Munro, genius. Other writers don't know how she does what she does, but that artistic genius to be allied with this genuine ordinary niceness, it's just extraordinary.
"I’ll give you an example of the niceness with the following story. An American tourist was in Alice Munro country, in the little town of Blyth. He was at a chicken supper which was to raise funds for the Blyth summer theatre festival. And like all little theatre festivals, it runs on volunteer time, and chicken suppers, and raising funds. He had enjoyed his chicken supper and he said to the waitress, a grey-haired woman: 'Now I understand that there is a very famous woman novelist who lives nearby, could that possibly be her over there?' And framed in the window was a very dramatic looking woman with great coils of auburn hair, and she looked wonderful and very very impressive. So the harassed waitress clearing off the dirty dishes looks in that direction and says: 'I'm not sure,' she leans closer to the picture, then, 'Yes... maybe, that might be her...' And then, Alice Munro, the waitress, clears the dirty dishes away, takes him back to the hot kitchen where the other volunteers are hard at work. That's Alice. A part of the community, literally getting her hands dirty in a good cause, but also with that wicked sense of humour."
From Robertson Davies: If you're not "there yet," change the destination
Robertson Davies was interviewed in my office at McClelland & Stewart in about 1990 by a wonderful journalist named Val Ross, who later wrote a terrific book called Portrait in Mosaic about Robertson Davies. But in this case she asked a journalist question: 'If you were an animal or a bird or a creature of some sort, what would you be, what would be the most appropriate?' And he said: 'The ugly duckling.' And she was amazed, why the ugly duckling? He explained that he had spent his adult life trying to become Canada's great playwright. And he'd written lots of plays and he was OK as a playwright, but he wasn’t a great playwright, he was an 'ugly duckling.' Then in his late fifties, he brought out the novel Fifth Business and it was revealed that he wasn't a duckling at all, he was a swan—he was a great, world-famous novelist. He spent the rest of his life gliding along not as an ugly duckling, but as an elegant white swan."
From Mavis Gallant: Never, ever, interrupt a reading
Mavis Gallant was honoured by having a QWF award named for her, the Mavis Gallant Non-Fiction Prize. She came back to Montreal, and an event was held in a hotel and it was really just a bare-bones event: stacking chairs, a microphone, no drinks, no food. I was there; I came from Toronto to be present and to help introduce her. In the preliminary meeting it was agreed that, Ok, we’ll start at 6 but we have to be out of the room by 7. All right, all clear? Out by 7. And that was fine. I was introduced and I talked about Mavis' important role in the world of literature as one of the recognized great short story writers in the English language.
Then I introduced William Weintraub; he’d worked with Mavis in the newspapers in Montreal. He introduced her affectionately and then Mavis gave me her purse, and went up on stage and said: 'Because this is a non-fiction award I thought instead of reading a short story, I would read non-fiction. So I’m gonna read my diary for the year 1991. January first, a dull day, go to dinner...' etc, etc. Now this is at 6:20 and we have to be out by 7. At 7:40 she reads the words 'July 1st, Canada Day.'
And it's clear at this point that she's going to go on and read the entire year. Bill Weintraub and I are in the front rows, I say, 'She's going to read the entire year,' and Bill's wife Magda is saying, 'You've got to stop her!' and Bill is going 'Aaahhh...' So I foolishly try to stop her; I went up to the podium and I said, 'Excuse me Mavis, but I think people are very keen to have the chance to ask you questions.' Not bad. Mavis might have said 'Oh my goodness, twenty to eight is that... oh yes! Let’s go straight to questions.' What she did say was: 'Questions? Questions? But I’m in the middle of my reading!' I tried again, and I said: 'Yes I know... But time is going on and I think people really are very eager to be able to ask you questions.' And with this Mavis went over my head literally, she appealed to the crowd and said: 'Aren't you enjoying my reading?,' and they, bunch of cowards, applauded.
So I slunk back to my seat defeated and produced the best line of my life to Bill Weintraub, I said 'Well, I think that went pretty well, don't you?' Mavis now was furious and was reading with terrific energy and went on until about 8:10, and then the question period did not go well. But it was a dramatic moment, and it took Mavis a long time to forgive me; in fact, her instant response to Bill Weintraub was 'Doug Gibson, I’ll kill him!'
From W.O. Mitchell: If you need to rally a nation, bring in a writer
People see W.O. as the crackly-voiced funny old Prairie guy. Great joker. But in 1972, when Pierre Laporte was murdered, Canada was aghast. It changed the country. Nobody knew what to do, nobody knew what to say. A CBC producer in Toronto knew what to do. He said: 'Let's find out what W.O. Mitchell has to say about this.' And they flew him to the Toronto studio and he went in front of the camera and spoke to the nation and he began with the words: 'There's been a death in my family'. And then spoke about what this meant to him, crackly-voiced man from the Prairies. And, at the end he said, “So that's why I said 'There's been a death in my family.'" And every eye in the CBC studio hall right down to the hardened cameraman, everyone was in tears. W.O. pulled the family together that day."
From Alistair MacLeod: Stay light on your feet
Alistair wrote two great collections of short stories, now collected in one volume, Island, and one great novel, No Great Mischief. And I recall that this one novel won prizes all over the place, including the International IMPAC Dublin Prize (in 2001), given that year in Dublin, and I was lucky enough to be among the people at the great event. It was a very formal event; we went into Dublin Castle, and there was a Canadian flag and an Irish flag at the entrance. And all the MacLeods and I went in together, and it was grand. There was a very formal dinner, preceded by a string quartet playing in a huge drawing room.
Then when we came out, after the formal dinner, the string quartet had been replaced by a group of young Irish folk musicians, and they were playing folk music. And young Kenneth MacLeod, Alaistair's third son, is a professional fiddler, and had brought his fiddle along just in case. So he tore off the tie from his black tie outfit and sat in with them and started to play, and before you knew it, the group had struck up a Cape Breton reel. The MacLeod family cleared the space in the middle of the carpet, and they hauled in all the wives and girlfriends and so on, and before you know it, they're dancing the reel. And all of the assembled European literati are gathered around clapping and clapping and I was hopping, and it was just terrific. I was with the English PR guy who runs IMPAC Prize events and he was amazed; he said, 'You know what, in future years, people will say, yes yes, this was jolly pleasant evening, but others will say, 'Ah... but you should've been here the year the Canadians came!' It was great, Alistair dancing. It was lovely."
Editor and publisher Douglas Gibson has spent over 40 years steering Canada's great publishing houses, from Doubleday to Macmillan of Canada to McClelland & Stewart. Gibson has worked with a slew of Canlit legends including Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callahan, Alice Munro, W.O. Mitchell and Guy Vanderhaeghe. His authors have won every major Canadian book prize. Gibson is now the president of his own imprint, Douglas Gibson Books. For more of Gibson's superb stories about Canadian authors, read his book, Stories About Storytellers.