Breaking the Writer’s 4th Wall

Writing and reading are solitary pursuits and yet, somehow, the written word creates a special bond between a writer and reader. I have written eight books and enjoy the part of the process that takes me to launches, speeches, clubs, and festivals – even, more recently, over Zoom. It allows me to conspire with readers to smash our solitary fourth walls. Many readers also breach that wall by sending me an email. I welcome them. Allow me to share a few, without breaking the implied privacy, to suggest how special that connection can be.

I wrote a biography of Canadian prime minister R. B. Bennett who led Canada through the Great Depression’s darkest days. One reader wrote that he was surprised that so many of Bennett’s policy initiatives would today be considered left-wing. I deserved praise, he said, for legitimizing Canada’s progressive political orientation, especially given the right-wing drift of the current Conservative Party. Another reader, though, called me a “mindless fascist.” He wrote in rather blunt terms that in praising Bennett’s creation of the Bank of Canada, I was a “stupid right-wing toady” who was ignoring that the institution was unconstitutional. I was a plaything of a “capitalist cabal” that rules Canada and is destroying the working class. I should be ashamed, he wrote, for promoting the extreme right-wing viewpoint.

Blood and Daring is a book about Canada’s involvement in the American Civil War. I received a number of moving emails explaining how readers had been motivated to look up ancestors who had gone south to serve in the war. I received photographs of old family gravesites they had visited and told of family members with whom they had reconnected. Another correspondent, though, said I should be ashamed of myself for glorifying war.

My most recent book, The Devil’s Trick, is about Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Probably because so many of the issues discussed in the book are relatively recent, I received a great number of emails. Many were gratifying. Some spoke of the book rekindling old memories of having fled the United States as draft evaders, having been welcomed by Canadians, and becoming Canadian themselves. One draft evader told me of having a disturbing conversation with his father-in-law who later became a prominent member of the Reagan cabinet and who simply could not understand the morality in refusing to fight in an immoral war.

The most moving email was from a woman whose parents had fled the war’s chaotic aftermath as Vietnamese refugees. Like many Canadian soldiers who enlisted with the American military to fight in Vietnam, many refugees were traumatized by their experiences. Many shared little with their children. My correspondent said that the book stirred memories in her mother and for the first time the old stories were shared. A deeper mother-daughter bond was forged. I confess that the email brought me tears.

So, write away dear readers. The emails are welcome distractions as I’m at my desk tapping away on my next entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia or Op. Ed., or even my next book. Even if you write just to call me names or tell me of mistakes I’ve made, the emails are a welcome reminder that I’m not alone. You’re out there.

(Thanks for reading this. Send a response along, if you wish, and perhaps consider checking out one of my books and then sending me an email about it. Let the fourth wall tumble down.)

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