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.)
As we recall from school, lessons can be taught but not always learned. Such was the case with Canada’s involvement in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. Canada was taught four lessons.
The Canadian government claimed neutrality in the war, but we were not. We sold an average of $370 million a year in war material to the United States for use in Vietnam – over $2 billion annually in today’s money. We manufactured and sold ammunition, guidance systems, armoured vehicles, napalm, agent orange, and more. Over 130,000 Canadians complained about the war while watching it on television each night but then went back to jobs the next morning that were linked to supporting it. We learned that we were quite willing to swap principle for profit.
Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam nine years before the Americans came in great numbers and they remained there two years after that iconic helicopter pushed down the ladder and lifted off from the American embassy roof in Saigon. We were traffic cops trying to get sworn enemies to play nice. We were the stereotypical Canadians trying to punch above our weight and persuade those killing each other to see the immorality of their actions and be more like us. We were right and both sides were wrong but it didn’t matter. We learned that we were big enough to be independent but small enough to be ignored.
Canada welcomed about 30,000 young Americans who opted to run rather than fight and over 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian families who saved their lives by suffering the indignity and danger of boats and camps to escape. Polls at the time indicated that the majority of us did not want either. But we changed. When we dusted off the principles and procedures we had invented for the Vietnam War to welcome Syrian War refugees in 2015, the majority of us supported the effort. We also finally acknowledged and helped those 20,000 Canadians who enlisted with the Americans to fight in Vietnam. It took a long while but we learned that despite race, religion, nationality and other ways we artificially divide ourselves that we are all, in the final analysis, human.
Along with assassinations and race riots, the Vietnam War came into Canadian living rooms every night with the evening news. It was ugly. At the same time, stories about us were being offered by a new generation of Canadian authors and songwriters – we didn’t want no war machines and ghetto scenes or tin soldiers and Nixon coming. Universities created more Canadian-based courses taught by Canadians. The growing patriotism was deeper than just celebrating Expo ’67. Pro-Canadianism became about more than anti-Americanism. It was as journalist Peter C. Newman observed: the Vietnamization of the United States brought about the Canadianization of Canada. We learned to be not British, not American, but finally, and proudly, Canadian.
Treaties are signed and memorials are built but wars never truly end. Canada is still being shaped and tested by the lessons offered by the Vietnam War.
(If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my eighth book The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War. It’s available at bookstores across Canada, Amazon, or at the Chapters link below.)
Admirers called Claire Culhane the One-Woman Army. In May 1967, the 48-year-old hospital administrator read an article about a tuberculosis hospital being built by Canadians in the South Vietnamese coastal city of Quảng Ngãi. She was so moved that she signed on with external affairs and within weeks she was there, right in the middle of the Vietnam War.
The small Canadian hospital, run by Canadians, saw 150 patients a day. Those suffering from the area’s TB epidemic were treated along with victims of the war, many wounded by American bombers. Most were women and children, weak with malnutrition and ghastly wounds. Culhane and the Canadians worked tortuous hours with their lives always at risk. They were evacuated during 1968’s Tet Offensive but were soon back; the hospital now a fortress.
Culhane respected the hospital’s first director but his replacement was officious and cleared the hospital of all non-TB patients. She was angered upon discovering that he regularly gave copies of her meticulous patient records to the CIA. Its agents used them as part of its counterinsurgency program that saw teams descend on villages to interrogate male adults and kidnap, torture, or kill those suspected of hiding information or being Viet Cong.
It was the last straw for Culhane. Six months into her one-year assignment, she left. Upon her arrival back in Canada she met with external affairs officials and wrote a detailed report of all she had seen and learned. She was ignored. But she persisted.
With help from Canada’s only national anti-war organization, the Voice of Women, she trained a searchlight on Canada’s secret involvement in the Vietnam War. In newspaper editorials, magazine articles, letters to politicians, and speeches delivered across the country she addressed the twisted irony of the Quảng Ngãi hospital helping a few while Canada was complicit in the death of thousands.
Culhane explained that Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, were producing and selling to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, air craft engines, grenades, gun sites, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts, and more. The war boosted by 54%, Canadian exports to the USA of oil, aluminum, and ores. For example, the majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.
In September 1968, Culhane drew international media attention with a ten-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill. Among the politicians who stopped by to chat was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s powerful minister of citizenship and immigration Jean Marchand. They were soon in a heated debate. Marchand snapped: “Do you want to be the one to tell 150,000 workers that they’re out of work if we discontinue producing war material for the U.S.A. under the defence contracts we hold with them?” Marchand had expressed the essence of the national conversation.
On the fast’s last day, Trudeau invited Culhane to his office. As the prime minister left their brief meeting he whispered, “You have no idea the pressure I am under.” Culhane replied: “Why do you think I spent ten days out there, if not trying to bring on another set of pressures?”
Culhane represented Canada’s anti-war efforts at a conference in Stockholm. In France, she met two North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris Peace Talks. In Britain, she was feted by the London press. Back home, she earned national attention by chaining herself to a House of Commons gallery chair and tossing leaflets on the unsuspecting parliamentarians below.
On Christmas Eve 1969, Culhane established a camp at a church near Parliament Hill and told reporters that she would endure the sub-zero temperatures to bring attention to Canada’s complicity in the war. Trudeau came by in his limo and cracked the window a little but they only spoke past each other for a moment.
Culhane refocussed her efforts on Canada’s involvement in the research, development, and sale of chemical weapons used in Vietnam. She spoke of helping to treat napalm victims at the Quảng Ngãi hospital who were wrapped so tightly in Vaseline and gauze that she could not tell if they were men or women, alive or dead. She spoke of napalm-doused children dying slow and agonizing deaths. Culhane explained that napalm was among the chemical agents manufactured in Canada and sold to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam.
Another was Agent Orange. It was a defoliant sprayed by planes to clear jungle to better attack the enemy. The problem was that exposure caused cancers and genetic damage resulting in terribly ill or disfigured children. Agent Orange was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario and shipped to Vietnam.
Culhane did not stop until the war stopped. She forced Canadians to admit their involvement in the Vietnam War. She forced a reckoning by asking the difficult question of whether it is immoral to profit from an immoral war.
(Culhane’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)
An interesting part of being an author is being invited to address groups about one’s books. You shake off the office, library, and archive dust and meet those who share an interest in books and ideas. Sometimes, though, you meet folks who are not curious but angry. They seek not to learn but profess. Last week, I encountered one such gentleman and wish I had handled him differently.
Last Wednesday I addressed a group of 60 or so folks about my book, Last Steps to Freedom, which addresses the history of racism in Canada. I said that at racism’s core is the belief that in creating some people, God made a mistake. I explained the book’s idea that racism is like a ladder we ascend, climbing the rungs of stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, state-sanctioned discrimination, and, finally, genocide. In Canada, I explained, we have been on every rung, including, with respect to Indigenous peoples, attempted cultural genocide. I illustrated the point with stories of Ukrainian-Canadians, thousands of whom were locked up during the First World War, and Black Canadians who endured slavery and then discrimination that persists today.
The two most important rules in public speaking are to be brief and be seated. I did both. Then came the question period which is always my favorite part. But last Wednesday was different.
He thrust his hand in the air. I nodded his way and he leaped to his feet. The slight man, in his late sixties, asked if I knew the meaning of a hate crime. I began to answer when he cut me off and said that it was hateful to attack another person’s opinions. He then said that according to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, all slave ship captains were Jews. There was a gasp in the audience. I began to respond when again he cut me off asking if I had heard of Ernst Zündel. Yes, I began to reply, when he said that, according to Zündel, the Holocaust never happened. How can I prove, he asked, that the Holocaust happened and that 6 million were killed?
A microphone is a good thing. You can pull it close to increase your volume while moving toward a speaker. All but the truly crazy usually fall silent. He did. I said that, yes, I had heard of both Farrakhan and Zündel and knew them both to have been rejected by all real historians. He began to speak again but I kept going. As for those men and you holding opinions, well, in my opinion, I am Robert Redford’s virtual twin. But no matter how fervently I believe it does not make it true.
He began to speak again but I said he had made his point and now it was time to allow others to pose their questions. I pointed to a gentleman in the back and as he started his question, our friend huffed from the room.
The questioner continued but I was only half listening, noticing the heads turning to watch our angry friend go, and seeing the nudges and whispers. With the question posed, I said thanks but paused. I said, now that was interesting. Opinions and facts are not the same and are seldom friends, I said. There were smiles and shoulders sank back down as people relaxed. I then answered the second question, well, really the first question.
There I was, having written a book about the horrors of racism and speaking about how we need to atone for our collective crimes and ignorance to work together in building an egalitarian, non-racist society and yet I had allowed an obvious racist to hold the floor for what I believe was too long. I should have challenged him sooner, harsher. I should have said more directly that his sources were known anti-Semites and that the bile he was spewing was anti-Semitic hooey. But I didn’t. Was I too polite? But then again, would my moving more aggressively have simply employed the same ugly weapons as his hate-based tribe? We must always confront racism and I should have done so quicker, firmer, perhaps ruder – polite be damned.
We are now enduring a moment in which too many people see political correctness as weakness, compromise as lacking principle, and critical thought as elitism. This challenge to the post-1960s liberal consensus has invited racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist, bigoted talk to be dragged from the shadows and waved like a flag. Those confused by complexity find solace and community in dividing the world into me and you, us and them. Facts can then not be sought to learn but cherry-picked to confirm. It’s sad and dangerous, but I sincerely believe we’ll be OK.
History used to evolve in spans but now leaps in spasms. This moment will pass. It will pass quickly. The racists and bigots will return to their shrinking circles of confusion and fear. Love will trump hate and that which gave rise to Trump will fall. The better angels of our nature will again sing.
I believe it. I have to. The alternative is too frightening. Next time, I’ll do better.
If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. If you wish to read the book that brought the folks together on a cold, snowy evening and made one gentleman so angry, you can find it here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html
My first book was published a number of years ago and I am now working on what will be my eighth. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the publishing industry over that time but the most essential element remains the same as it’s been since Gutenberg invented the printing press. An author sits alone with the seed of an idea and a reader sits alone enjoying the fruit of that idea. It’s only the middle bit between those solitary acts that has changed. Here’s what I have learned.
If you want to write, then go ahead. It’s like Yoda said, “No try, do. Do or don’t do. No try.” There are many ways to get started and the easiest is to set up a free WordPress webpage and begin blogging. Write about what you know. Develop a theme. Forget how many people click to read it, that’s not what it’s about.
You are writing not as a sprinter on race day but a marathoner in training. Build writing muscles and skills by using them. Read authors you admire. Then read those you don’t. Treat them as teachers. Then write more. Someone who is not writing is not a writer. They are someone who either has written or someone with a dream but no plan.
(Iconix Brand Group Inc)
Printing and Self-Publishing
Printing is often all many people want. For example, if you want to write a history of your family that no one but your family will probably read then find yourself a printer. They will help design, and then print and bind as many copies as you wish of whatever you give them. Be sure you have at least five people proof-read your work or even hire a professional editor to save yourself the embarrassment of errors that will live longer than you.
Self-publishing is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s tough as you must essentially become your own publishing company. It demands a lot of work which means hours away from your writing. However, if willing and able to take the risk and do the work, the reward could be your book appearing on Amazon and other online sites and generating sales.
Publishing houses understand that they are making art and making money but if they don’t do both then they can’t do either. Accept that. Many small houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts – over the transom, as the saying goes. Larger houses, and there are fewer of them as they have been shuttering or swallowing each other, will only accept manuscripts from agents. Agents and houses will not be interested in a whole book, just a proposal.
If you want to write a book, then don’t write a book. That is, develop your idea for a book into a proposal for a book. It is a two-page sales pitch. Be succinct in explaining why anyone would want to read your book and why a publisher will make money by publishing it. A novel’s proposal is more straight forward but a non-fiction proposal’s subtitles could be: Elevator Pitch, Argument, Market, Author, Table of Contents. If you are a first-time author you will probably also need a sample chapter. Have a couple of people read and edit your proposal. Be sure it is not someone who loves you or will not be harshly critical for you want unburnished opinions now, not later. Then find yourself an agent.
Get an Agent
Scan the web and you will find lots of agents. Or, go to a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at the acknowledgement pages of books like yours and see which agents are being thanked. You only want to approach an agent who specializes in your kind of book. An agent is the liaison between you and the publisher. If your proposal is any good, an agent may take you on as a client. A contract will be signed in which the agent will get around 15% of everything you make.
She will then be like your best friend, supporting you or kicking your backside depending on which you need most at the moment. She will help to hone your proposal and make it better than you thought it could be. She will then approach publishers attempting to have them take it on. She will negotiate an advance on royalties and contract with them. Meanwhile, you concentrate on your writing.
The Publishing Contract
Famous people sell a lot of books and so they get huge advances that can sometimes be in the millions of dollars. First-time authors, however, can expect between $5,000 and $20,000. You should not get too excited, though, because the money is there to pay for expenses incurred while writing the book and it is later deducted from royalties earned from sales. Most authors will earn from 8% to 12% of the book’s sale price. The contract will establish when the finished draft manuscript must be submitted. Now you must actually write the thing.
There is always time. I am up and writing each day at 5:00 am. The sane world is still asleep so there are no emails or calls, just me, tea, and the muse. Even if the muse doesn’t show up some mornings, I am there doing what feels like a punch-the-clock effort but at least I’m there. I run and take long walks without music and it is there the real writing takes place. When in my office, I am usually just typing what I have already written in my head. The best secret as to how to get words on a page is to get your ass in a chair.
Kurt Vonnegut once told students that anyone can write. To be a writer, though, is to write something then rewrite it, and then rewrite it, and then re-write it again. Then, when it is absolutely perfect, re-write it three more times. You should do this before submitting the manuscript. When you do, you will be assigned an editor. This is your other best friend or perhaps like your best high school teacher. He will take your manuscript and mark it up noting where the structure should be improved or grammar fixed. You will go back and forth a number of times until finally, you are on the phone or in an office going through the entire manuscript one sentence at a time. It will then be sent to a proofreader who will, hopefully, find all the little mistakes left for you to fix.
It’s a glorious feeling. A box will arrive at your front door and inside are the dozen or so books that your publisher sends you for free. There it is. After two or three years of solitary work and then months of editing it is finally a tangible thing. The verb has become a noun as your writing is a book.
Your publisher will assign a publicist. She will do all she can to sell you and the book. You may be interviewed on radio or TV, do speeches, or appear at literary festivals. You must be ready to explain your book in twenty seconds, or ten minutes, or an hour. You must never be ashamed by shameless promotion. You are no longer in the business of writing. You are now in sales. This will involve your engagement in social media for you must take on a lot of the marketing work yourself.
You will need to grow the hide of a rhinoceros because there will be those who will not like your book. You may get trashed in a review. You may have no one show up for an event. Your book may be ignored altogether. All you can do is your best and keep smiling.
Dividing Your Brain and Time
Usually, several months or even a year may go by between your having submitted the final draft manuscript and the publication date. While editing that one, you will be writing your next one, beginning with the idea and proposal. You will then be in the odd position of talking about your first book while all your brain really wants to focus on is your next one because your first one, to you, is already two or more years old. It’s an interesting dance.
About five to ten years ago, it was predicted that book sales would plummet. They did not. There are actually more people buying and reading books today than ever before. Even the sales of physical books have become relatively stable year to year. Even if physical and e-book sales are combined, the sales of nearly all books are relatively low. There are only a few HarryPotter like hits each year. They allow publishing houses to publish all the others. One can have a Canadian best seller at 6,000 – 8,000 copies. That is why nearly all writers have other jobs. Most teach or are journalists but there are a lot of writing waiters.
Like in the music business, there are a lot of people doing it but only a few making a good living. That said, if all you are interested in is the money then forget it. You probably won’t make much and you will probably not be much good because you are in it for entirely the wrong reason.
Writers understand and live for the warmth of a well-written sentence and cogently constructed argument. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are writing in July about a winter scene and then after an hour lost in creative thought you look out the window and wonder what happened to all the snow. Good luck. I’m pulling for you.
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I don’t know about you, but I always just skim a book’s acknowledgments. They are usually akin to a bad Oscar speech: a list of names of people I don’t know. My latest book, Sir John’s Echo: The Voice for a Stronger Canada, was released last weekend. It’s my seventh book and this time I tried something a little different for my acknowledgments. I thanked some folks, of course, but also tried to consider what really inspired me to write. Let me know what you think.
Acknowledgments: Sir John’s Echo
Dividing and defining our Village is a river that, as Lakefield resident Margaret Laurence once observed, runs both ways. It does, you know. It really does. It is on long, slow runs along the river that I wrote this book. Oh, certainly I typed it in my office but the genuine work, the tumbling and juggling of ideas, the real stuff of writing, came accompanied by the falling of footsteps and washing of water.
And so, odd as it may seem, I would like to acknowledge and thank the river for its uncaring but profound inspiration. It reminded me that somewhere beneath its gently flowing surface, at the heart of its magic, hides the metaphor for our country. The truth and what truly matters lay not in the surface sparkles, gleaming as diamonds in the sun, but with the rocks and roots and weeds below that roil all above, offering resistance and form.
The river urged me to take a broader view, to consider more expansive ideas, deeper concepts, and to think not of passing fads and fancies that capture clicks and headlines but what really matters. Power. The power to shape, inspire, speed up or slow down, to move while lifting or, sometimes, pulling below.
That’s what this book is all about. Power. It’s the power of perpetual motion, of rugged beauty and gentle grace lying comfortably with the awful potential to direct or destroy. That is the river’s power. That is Canada’s power. That is the power we owe ourselves to contemplate; relentless power that moves even when we don’t notice, while we sleep, flexed and expressed and occasionally challenged, and while appearing to be heading in one direction in a natural, linear fashion, sometimes, flows both ways. I thank the river for encouraging my contemplation so that I might invite yours.
And what of Margaret Laurence? I thank her for being among those who taught me a love of words and a respect for the power of ideas powerfully expressed. There were others: Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ralston Saul, John Prine, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Gwynne Dyer, Paul Simon, and John W. Boyko, Sr. I thank them all.
This book began with a conversation between Patrick Boyer, Steve Paikin, and me – three men insatiably entranced by books, politics, ideas, and Canada. Patrick invited me to contribute a book to Dundurn’s Point of View series as part of the commemoration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Make it controversial, Patrick urged, stir readers’ passions and propose notions to spark debate. Thank you, Patrick, for inviting and trusting me to write and for your valuable suggestions on an early draft. I hope I have not let you down.
Thank you to the Dundurn team who embraced me so thoughtfully and supported me so professionally. I am grateful for the vision of president and publisher Kirk Howard, and for the editorial skills of Dominic Farrell, Cheryl Hawley, and Michael Carroll. I thank the talented Lawrence Martin for his constructive suggestions and fine forward.
This is my seventh book and I have lost count of the number of editorials, articles, and blog posts I have written. My dear wife Sue has read and edited every word. She brings to all I do an unparalleled editorial precision and skill and sense of when something is going on a little too long or needs to be fleshed out. She knows what it is about my work that works, and doesn’t. Her kindness, care, tenderness, wit, and love, makes all I do better, possible, and worthwhile.
I am grateful to Craig Pyette and Ann Collins of Penguin Random House Knopf who lent me to Dundurn for this project and to my literary agent Daphne Hart who encouraged me.
Being a father is one thing but being a grandfather is something else altogether. Grandchildren teach you to love all over again. Without trying, my two sweet granddaughters remind me of all that truly matters, including the country in which they will be making their lives. Canada was not inevitable and is not immutable. All that is great about it, from its stunning physical beauty to the strength and marvel of its complexity, must be not just celebrated but protected. You won’t protect what you don’t love and can’t protect what you don’t understand. Without understanding, we can sing about standing on guard but not really do the deed. It is the future of my grandchildren, and yours, even if you don’t yet know them, that renders the striving to understand, in order to protect what is worth protecting, worth the effort. I thank my grandchildren for inspiring my contemplation of the home they deserve.
Thank you for reading my thank yous. Please share them with others if you wish. I am now on the road promoting Sir John’s Echo, doing TV, radio, and print interviews, as well as speeches. It is the business part of the book business. I’m also hard at work on my 8th book. Writing is fun.
I have always loved reading. I recall my Mom telling me to put the book down and go outside and play, and my sneaking it out with me. I was an active, sports-loving kid but she later told me that, despite being a voracious reader herself, she was sincerely worried about me reading so much. My first job was delivering 139 Burlington Post newspapers every Wednesday for which I was paid $1.39. (It was a while ago.) I used to save up, and every two weeks buy a bottle of coke and Hardy Boys book. It is my fascination with reading and books that led to my becoming a writer and, lately, to forming the Men’s Book Club.
I have always liked the idea of book clubs. To get together once a month to discuss a book seems like a grand idea. My dear wife belongs to a book club. I see her reading away, we talk about her current project, and she always arrives home from her book club meeting invigorated by the discussion; whether she particularly liked the book or not. But there were a few problems, in my estimation, with most book clubs. Around here, anyway, they involve only women, hosting meetings at your home with carefully considered drinks and snacks, and the reading of novels. The first left me out and the next two left me cold.
I spoke with a number of men in my Village who felt the same way. Hosting seemed like too much work and we agreed that we are fundamentally lazy. Like me, they read ten non-fiction books for every novel. Don’t get me wrong. I think novels are important and great and there have been many that I have truly enjoyed – springing to mind are The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Lottery, and my John Grisham junk food. But non-fiction is different. Non-fiction books feed my insatiable curiosity. To me, non-fiction books are like speaking with the smartest people around about the most fascinating events, people, and places. Others agreed and so we made a decision.
Our first Men’s Book Club met in February. Eleven showed up. We met at our local pub, the Canoe and Paddle, on a Sunday evening. No one had to tidy up their house and if you wanted something to eat or drink, the bar was right there. (We agreed that if there is beer involved, men will do just about anything, even read.)
After the pints arrived, we discussed the rules we should play by and it was established that the first rule of book club was that there were no rules. Perfect. Our second decision built on the first. Instead of us all reading the same book each month, we established themes. Our first month would be music, then the environment, and then, for the 100th commemoration of Vimy Ridge, war. Near the end, one gentleman said that he loved the idea of meeting for beer and chatting once a month but wondered if he really had to read a book. He was referred to rule one.
Our first Monday in March meeting was terrific. I had enjoyed Robbie Robertson’s Testimony. Others read books about or by Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, Bruce Coburn, Sting, and more. It was fascinating to learn how many talented singers and songwriters came from parents either physically or emotionally absent or abusive. It was revealing to see how long and hard they had all worked to become successful. It was also interesting to see that behind the sensitive lyrics, some are not really nice people. We wouldn’t have been able to make the connections if we’d all read the same book.
For our next meeting, I am now reading Wade Davis’ TheWayfinders. It is not really about the environment. It’s more cultural anthropology. But it’s close enough to the theme. If anyone complains, I’ll refer them to rule one.
If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more at http://www.johboyko.com or even some of my non-fiction books, available online through Chapters and Amazon and, as Stuart McLean used to say, at sensible book stores everywhere. (Miss you Stuart.)
A man should never look at a woman’s breasts. Never. A man should never, ever look down a woman’s cleavage and under no circumstances for fifteen straight minutes. Never. Ever. No how. But I did. The red-faced moment occurred during one of the many interviews I have done as the author of six books supporting the rocky marriage between art and commerce.
A print journalist once began an interview for Into the Hurricane: Attacking Socialismand the CCF with the question, “What does CCF stand for?” The back jacket explained that the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was the Canadian democratic socialist party and precursor to the NDP. I tried not to betray surprise with my realization that far from judging a book by its cover, she had read neither.
I understand that interviewers are busy folks often armed with nothing but a list of questions prepared by others. Some are so shackled to their list that I could respond, “Gee, my pants caught fire!” and hear nothing but, “I see, now my next question…” I accept those interviews as a challenge to stir interest and I sense success with the first follow up question that hints at a wandering from script.
An American print journalist once told me she had read Blood and Daring, which was about Canada’s role in the American Civil War. That, I thought, standing in my office, cradling my phone, fighting my ADD and trying to stay focussed, was a good start. She then said, “I’ve never heard of this Sir John A. Macdonald, but he seems like kind of a big deal. Perhaps for my American readers you could you sum him up in one sentence?”
With apologies to my high school English teachers, this was my one sentence stab: “Macdonald is like your Thomas Jefferson because he provided much of the philosophical underpinnings of our democracy; he is like America’s James Madison because he was the main architect and author of our constitution; he is also like your George Washington because he was our first chief executive and fully cognisant of the fact that everything he said and did would be precedent to his successors – so, Canada’s Sir John A. Macdonald is like America’s Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.” Damn, I was proud of myself. The article based on the interview was a well-written piece but the run-on Macdonald explanation was absent. Rats.
In-studio radio interviews are fun because many studios are cramped and chaotic. The interviewer is often hidden behind microphones and equipment or glass, making eye contact impossible. Assistants and producers are often scurrying about. During one interview the news and weather person was scribbling madly away beside me, tapping an I-Phone, and leaving and returning. It was a challenge to focus. Other studios offer Zen-like calm. Like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
Live radio over the phone is often interesting. I recently attended a good friend’s retirement party in Chatham, Ontario and expected to be back at his house in time for the 8:00 pm interview with a gentleman broadcasting from Montreal to affiliates across Canada. The party ran longer than I had expected. So, at 8:00 I was shivering in my dark, cold car, beside a parking lot dumpster, answering questions about John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, while hoping beyond hope that a police officer or ne’er-do-well would not rap on my frosted window.
Live radio hates dead air. You must talk without time for thought. The funniest live radio question came at the end of a long interview about my biography of R. B. Bennett. The gentleman said, “Now you have read a lot about Canadian prime ministers so tell me, which one would have made the best NHL hockey player and why?” Later, my wife Sue, who is much smarter than me, said that Lester Pearson was a great hockey player or maybe I should have said Jean Chrétien because of the Shawinigan handshake. The best I could muster was, “Sir John A. because in the Gordie Howe tradition he was the best of his era and not above throwing an elbow.”
Television is fun. I once did a live interview for the East Coast CBC from a studio in Toronto. I was made up, wired up, placed on a swivel chair but told not to move, and then instructed to look at the screen six feet before me. I heard the producer count down and the interviewer’s voice through my ear-piece but the screen remained dark. I had expected to see him as he and viewers were seeing me. I know I was thrown for the first question or two wondering if there was a malfunction. I carried on and tried, as always, not to say anything too stupid.
One of the best in the business is TVO’s Steve Paikin. He has interviewed me three times and in each instance he has carefully read the book and prepared questions but then the interview becomes a conversation. For those interested, here is my most recent interview with Steve Paikin so you can see how very good he is.
And then there was the cleavage. It was an interview for my Bennett biography. For some reason, it was decided that the taped radio interview would be done outside. The interviewer was an attractive woman about eight inches shorter than me clad in a red, low-cut top. I had begun to respond to her first question when the sound person stopped us and said that because of the height difference she would lower the wind-socked microphone and I would need to look down and keep looking down throughout the interview. “OK,” I whispered, realizing straight away that I was being asked to break the cardinal rule and look where a man should never look. Never. A cleavage is like the sun, I’ve been warned, more than a glance can hurt you. Yet, for fifteen long minutes, I was Icarus.
Interviews are all fun and nearly all interviewers are well read, intelligent, articulate, interested and interesting. Like the folks I get to meet at speeches and festivals, I feel honoured to share ideas with them. I never forget that I am lucky to have written and published books and, through them, to have met so many great people and seen the places I’ve seen and done the things I’ve done. Even when the interviews get a little funny, crazy, or embarrassing, I never take for granted how truly blessed I am.
If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice. You can check out the books I was talking about at your local bookstore or here http://www.amazon.ca/John-Boyko-Books/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A916520%2Cp_27%3AJohn%20Boyko
When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.
You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?
Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?
Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.
I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.
Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.
I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.
Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.
Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.
However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.
I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.
The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.
So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?