Stories about Storytellers with Douglas Gibson
There is a large screen at the front of the room displaying Globe and Mail cartoonist Tony Jenkins’ caricatures of various Canadian literary icons. They are united on screen because all have been edited and/or published by Douglas Gibson at some point or other during the past 50 years.
The first book Douglas edited after emigrating to Canada in 1967 was a biography of Stephen Leacock, an author he’d read in his youth at home in Scotland. Another early important editing job was on R. D. Symons’ Where the Wagon Led, a book essential to the understanding of cowboy life in the Western provinces. Harold Horwood, who worked with Joey Smallwood to bring Newfoundland into Confederation is called a ‘neglected genius’, and his book Dancing on the Shore our Walden.
Gibson is an engaging, endearing - at times ebullient – animated storyteller, and a talented mimic. His voice of John Crosbie complaining about cheapskate publishers – picking up nickels with their arses – is rich and accurate. Barry Broadfoot’s Ten Lost Years, which told anonymous people’s stories of the depression and established Broadfoot as an important oral historian, sold half a million copies, gained Gibson a ‘publishing whiz-kid’ moniker, and got him a job as editorial director at Macmillan while still in his twenties. This put him into contact with Hugh MacLennan, a man who, says Gibson, epitomizes the word ‘courtly’; shy and humble, he greatly forwarded the cause and practice of Canadian literature. His novel Barometer Rising was was one of the first to be set in Canada. It contains one of the most important sentences in Canadian literature, according to Gibson, one that invented a ‘satellite view’ of the country. MacLennan was also, Gibson informs us, a great, influential, ‘engaged’ essayist.
Gibson started editing Robertson Davies in 1974. Davies apparently, at that point, thought himself a failure; an ugly duckling who wanted to be the great Canadian playright, instead of what most saw him as – a swan-like novelist. His persona was, according to Gibson, an act…Davies was always nervous before going on stage, despite delivering brilliant performances.
Gibson on editing: First I read a book straight through with my hands tied behind my back. Then I sit and think. Only afterwards do I return to read every word again closely, to begin a dialogue with the author in the margins: is this the right word? Should we include this? Are you giving too much away? The process is not a win or lose, not a zero sum game, rather it’s a series of suggestions, some followed, some not.
Jack Hodgins wrote a classic book on how to write fiction, one which if read, even if you don’t write, will make you a better reader.
James Houston is a most interesting ‘group of people.’ Without him, and his northern sketching trips, it’s unlikely there would be any Inuit art. Recommended read: Confessions of an Igloo Dweller
The fact that Gibson spoke at so many of his authors’ funerals, says, I think, a lot about the man’s charm; his ability to work with others toward a common goal, and his capacity for friendship.
Diplomat Charles Ritchie could have been a very good spy. Recommended read: An Appetite for Life, which paints a good portrait of the at times brutal Brideshead set.
Trudeau tested Gibson, grilling him before agreeing to make suggested changes to his Memoirs, and got his name wrong on stage while launching the book in front of 1100 people. Mavis Gallant once had to sell some of her clothes in order to eat. After Updike she is the author that has most often been published in the New Yorker magazine. Gibson convinced her to publish a book of short stories ‘she’d already written,’ Home Truths. It won the GG, and raised Gallant’s previously neglected status at home, in Canada.
Brian Mulroney was a very hard worker who felt betrayed by Peter Newman and had to survive terrific financial insecurity as a child, which, surmises Gibson, might explain the unsavoury Schreiber scandal. Paul Martin was very capable, but as a politician, too excited by ideas.
Alice Munro was also a hard worker, with no fancy airs, who equated showing off with criminal behaviour. Everyone kept urging her to write novels. Gibson claims to be the one who kept her writing short stories. You write them, I’ll publish them. Her work, he quotes other as saying, is the most likely of all contemporary writers’ to be read in 100 years. There are two Alices: the one who cares, and the one who is very funny, filled with Huron County humour. No-one has a bad word to say about this fine person.
Gibson ends his talk with W.O. Mitchell, a man he loved. Mitchell, who taught him much of Canada, had a wife named ‘for Christ’s sake Myrna’ or so it seemed. W.O. died of prostate cancer, but not before turning a hard farewell to Gibson into a ‘brave joke.’
Read Stories about Storytellers. It’s delightful fun. And if Gibson delivers his one man presentation of it at a Festival anywhere near you, run to it. It’s even better. Complete with music, it’s an event worthy of Stephen Leacock. Charles Dickens even.