I became a published author in 1974, when my first novel Lonesome Hero came out with Macmillan of Canada. It was quite the buzz. I was twenty-two, and I think I’m accurate in saying that authors that young were a rarity then, perhaps more than today. At any rate, I was reviewed all round the country and got quite a bit of other publicity, and even won a book award: the inaugural Canadian Authors’ Association Fiction Award—a beautiful pewter ookpik medal that I still have.
I grew up on a farm (cattle and grain) in southern Alberta, and Lonesome Hero was about a fellow who grew up on a farm in southern Alberta. It really wasn’t me, and the parents weren’t my parents, etcetera, but I was writing for a contest deadline, and I felt that using our exact house and farm, and surrounding landscape, would save me time. This caused endless confusion. My mother, who seemed quite all right with the book when it came out, suddenly said one day as she washed the dishes, “I never once suggested you become a priest.” That sort of thing happened with neighbours too, one of whom sidled up to me at a party and said, “I thought you really got old Sam. I could just hear his voice clear as could be.” He walked away, his mission complete, and I never had a chance to say, “But it wasn’t Sam at all.”
My affection for writing came from reading, as it should, I think. I had read my share of children’s books but remember feeling more disappointment than wonder. I hasten to add that I didn’t read Wind in the Willows or Winnie the Poo until I was an adult, when I found them remarkable. In any case, I had pretty much ground to a halt as a reader by the time I was fourteen, and my older sister decided to introduce me to some adult titles. She gave me Red Sky at Morning and Catcher in the Rye, and they instantly sparked in me a voracious desire to read more—and to write as well.
The reception giveLonesome Hero was very pleasing to a young fellow. I naturally believed that I would write more books and they and I would get the same nice treatment. I tried gamely to write these new books, but was not very successful for a long time. I was trying to do what I had done, and this can be amazingly hard. One can easily feel that the part of the brain that wrote the first book has somehow been fatally damaged. Other existential thoughts pour in as well.
While not getting anywhere with my fiction, something else happened that kept me writing. I got started as a documentary film writer. Alberta was booming at the time, and opportunities were everywhere. I wrote documentary films and videos and articles about subjects I knew nothing about: First Nations and Metis history, oil and gas exploration, safety, bio-medical ethics, diseases, horses, mounted policemen, teaching—and the result was that I learned at least a little about all of it. A reliable freelance career developed.
Though I had quite a few short story publications in my twenties, and even won a national award for a Saturday Night Magazineshort story called “Arlene,” I did not get anything between book covers for a decade after Lonesome Hero. That next book was called Three Times Five, three authors with five stories each, and featured Bev Harris, Gloria Sawai, and myself. Gloria Sawai was one of the best writers I have ever known and, whenever we both read somewhere, she would blow my doors off. Outstanding writer and performer. She had one other fiction book in her life, a novel with stories called A Song for Nettie Johnson, which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2002. She died a couple of years ago and I miss her greatly.
Whatever had stopped me from publishing books for a decade seemed to let go. I had three more books in the 1980s: two non-fiction titles and the novel Last One Home.
Things went well after that, and I wrote documentary films and books in about equal measure. The 1980s was a productive decade in other ways too. My two children Ted and Kate were born, a powerful pleasure no book will equal.
In the 1990s , I published three non-fiction books and two collections of short fiction: Working Without a Laugh Track and Teeth. For a few months, I was convinced that Teeth would be my first bestseller. Its first edition went out like a shot, and the poor press, Coteau Books, had to consider the unusual expense of a second printing. Then NHL players went on strike. For the only time in my life, I was working in a bookstore that fall and was eye-witness to the abrupt cessation of sales of all hockey books.
All the stories and novels I had written up to the ‘80s were humorous. I was addicted to writing humour, and I enjoyed a nice reputation for it. I loved to do public readings, because there is little doubt when a humorous reading is going well Laughter at readings is seldom false.
But the writer friends I had back then, playwright Gordon Pengilly, short story writer Merna Summers, and short story writer Leslie Bell, led me to think hard about writing in broader ways. It was not as if I restricted myself to funny fiction when reading. I read widely. But when I wrote…
In one of those conversations, Gordon Pengilly said that he often advised writers he mentored to “write against the grain,” and this comment clicked with me. I needed to try this, and I sat down and wrote sixty pages of something completely different. The impetus was the research I had been doing for a non-fiction book called Rocky Mountain House, a guidebook to a National Historic Park of that name, dedicated to the fur trade. I had often thought while researching this book that the material would make great fiction. But I had never seriously considered myself as the person to do that writing. But there were the sixty pages and that was what they were about: dark, detailed scenes and dialogues rooted in the 19th century Hudson’s Bay Company world. When I was done I was very excited because I knew the work was entirely different than anything else I’d ever written, and, though it must sound arrogant to say, I knew it was good.
Starting then, in 1985, I worked on this fur trade novel. The sixty pages I wrote to begin with survived almost exactly intact in the final version but they kept moving around. At first, they were the beginning, then they were the middle, then they were… It took a very long time (fifteen years) and more drafts than I cared to count, but it did finally become a novel. Nor did everything go smoothly when it was finished. I sent it to an agent who turned it down. I sent it to an editor I had met at the beginning of my career, and he turned it down. I sat on it and brooded.
In the fall of 1999, I was working as a mentor at a writing studio at The Banff Centre for the Arts (now known as The Banff Centre). The director of the studio was the great short story writer Rachel Wyatt, assisted by another great short writer Edna Alford. One of the other mentors was Matt Cohen, who I had never met before, though we’d been in the same writers’ union for decades. Part of the studio was for mentors and participants to have public readings. When it was my turn, I read for the first time from the book I was now calling The Trade.
The next morning, Matt and I had coffee, and he made a suggestion. He said that his partner Patricia Aldana was in charge of adult fiction for Douglas & McIntyre, as well as running a children’s literature press. Matt was exceedingly careful that I know that he had no sway over Patsy’s decisions and had nothing to do with editing or publishing at the press. But he did have an agreement with Patsy that he would alert her to any promising work that he found along the way. I jumped at the chance to send the manuscript to D&M; Patsy Aldana wanted the book; it was published in 2000.
Spending fifteen years on one book, all the while having no idea if anyone would be interested in it but me, was hard on the head and hard on the career. Why did it take so long? Because it was complex; because I had never written historical fiction before; because I could not feel satisfied with draft after draft. I often wondered if the book would turn out to be my Alamo, the project on which my career passed away. The reverse turned out to be true.
The Trade was nominated for the Giller Prize in 2000. The Giller is still a powerful event in the Canadian literary year; still the most important prize with the power to make a career overnight. Some things have changed about the prize since 2000, and the most significant is that it is now a two-stage affair. First there is a long list and, after a few weeks, a short list. In 2000, there was only a short list, and what a short list: Michael Ondaatje, David Adams Richards, Elizabeth Hay, Eden Robinson, Alan Cumyn, and myself. That I was the dark horse in the field is an understatement. At the press conference, when my name was announced, people were looking at one other quizzically. Who the heck was that? The agent Anne McDermid, who I was at the time working with on a ghost written book, knew my opus and filled them in.
The Giller got a great deal of publicity that year. Both Ondaatje and Richards were acknowledged masters. Even the judges were superstars: Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart and Alistair MacLeod. The press was extremely excited, and every newspaper in the country had front page stories about the nominations. There was my face along with the rest. Some said that it was my bad luck to be nominated in such tough company, but I always saw it as the reverse. What better luck, for a dark horse, than to be nominated in a year when the press attention seemed boundless.
I did have some not so positive thoughts about being a dark horse but those had nothing to do with the competition. Rather, it was the fact that after a career spanning twenty-five years, I had made such a meager ripple that the press and the publishers of the nation were left saying, “Who’s that?” when my name popped up among the nominees. That was sobering. But at the very moment that occurred, it ceased to be true. My career rose into visibility. I’m not trying to say that I am a big deal or wheel in the literature of this country; that is not true. But I am visible. My career since 2000 has been entirely different than it was before. It has been easier. I have been able to spend much more time on my fiction. I have more opportunities generally.
Returning to that year’s Giller, I did not win. I had a nice noisy cheering section at the awards gala (transplanted Calgarians mostly). Both Daniel and Noah Richler were rooting for me. My wife Pamela was with me and so was my beloved Torontonian nephew Charles Johnston, my editor Jennifer Glossop, my publisher Scott McIntyre, and the novel’s godmother Patsy Aldana.
That was the year the jury chose two novels for the award, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children and Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. Forced into a quick and very public decision, Jack Rabinovitch, inventor and sponsor of the award, offered a second $25,000 cheque, rather than splitting the award—and also proclaimed he would never accept another tie.
There is a sad postscript to this happy story. Matt Cohen died in December 1999, long before the book was published.
In its publication year, The Trade won three awards: the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s George Bugnet Novel Award, the City of Edmonton Book Prize, and the inaugural Grant MacEwan Author’s prize.
When I first began The Trade, I was imagining a cycle of historical novels, one for each of the economic eras of post-contact western Canada. The idea was somewhat derailed by its taking me fifteen years to write the first one; life is only so long. But the cycle idea did spawn the second book of what would turn out to be a historical trilogy. Lightning (published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2003) is rooted in Alberta’s open range ranching era. The first big cattle drive into southern Alberta was to stock the Cochrane Ranch in 1881. The cattle for that ranch were gathered in southern Montana’s Beaverhead Range, and my fictional hero, Doc Windham takes a job on that drive with Lippy and Dog Eye, two cowboys with whom he has wintered in Dillon. The story moves forward with the cattle and backward through Doc’s rocky life. In his early days in Montana, after arriving with a herd of cattle in 1866, Doc meets the love of his life, Pearly, a waitress and billiard shark in Virginia City. Doc is wintering as a pin setter at the bowling saloon next door to Pearly’s billiards saloon, and the two of them strike off together as pool and billiard’s hustlers to the gold towns of Colorado. By 1881, Doc has lost Pearly and worn himself out looking for her. He is after a new beginning.
Many of the novel’s locations, Ft. Macleod, Ft. Calgary, the Porcupine Hills, the Waldron Flats, are places I grew up around and hold dear. When I started work on Lightning, I was living in Calgary, soon after it was published, Pamela and I moved to Cochrane, Alberta. Our house is near an escarpment that looks down on the outlines of the original Cochrane Ranch big house. It feels like fate to be here.
The third novel in the historical trilogy is The Great Karoo (published by Doubleday Canada in 2008). Most of the story happens in South Africa, in the Great Karoo Desert, the prairies of the Orange Free State, and the high hills of the Transvaal, but it is a southern Alberta story nonetheless. It is about three Alberta cowboys who take their horses to southern Africa to fight on the British side against the Dutch South Africans, the so-called Boers.
There was a time when I was a fast writer, when I would write all night. Here, so much deeper into my career, I am not like that. The Great Karoo took five years to write and publish; my new novel Who By Fire (Doubleday Canada, 2014) has taken six years.
When I was a child on the farm, we had the misfortune of having a sour gas plant built on the farm’s upwind side. It was less than a half mile away, with its huge flare and smoke stacks, its shining vertical and spherical vessels—and its sickening smell. Since all this started happening when I was five or so, I had no great amount of life with which to compare it. The plant was simply part of the fabric, something you looked past when you looked at the mountains. The flare that used to balloon in size whenever the plant was “upset”—and it was upset a lot—was like a great violent lighthouse, allowing me to see for a whole mile at night, up to the top of the hill where there was a Catholic church my grandfather had constructed when he was a green immigrant.
This is the opening scene of the novel, its prologue: a child awakened by the shaking of the house and the night lit to brightness outside his window.
When I think of how to talk about this novel, I’m reminded of a joke Paul Quarrington used to tell when he was out on the road doing publicity for his novel The Ravine. He said it was about a musician who drank hard and took drugs and cost himself his marriage. He said that someone had called this novel autobiographical, but that was wrong. After a pause, he said “The character’s name is Phil.”
That is how it will feel to talk about Who By Fire. It can’t be autobiography. The character’s name is Bill. But it is not autobiography. The main character is not me. The sisters are not my sisters. The parents are not my parents. I chose not to write about us for craft reasons and for dramatic reasons. I have tried to write stories about my life, and there is a problem that must be hurdled when you do that. There is a tendency not to let your life-borrowed characters fail or exceed the success of the original. We are protective of them or even jealous if they get ahead of us.
The dramatic reason for not portraying our own story is that, though we were good and thoroughly poisoned by the sour gas plant, and though our livestock died, events that happen in the novel, we in other senses had a measure of satisfaction. We and other families in the community brought a lawsuit against the gas plants (there were two) and, after more than a dozen years of fighting and paying, we won an out-of-court settlement. What occurred to me at the outset of writing this novel was that we had been an exception. No one else got this far in the direction of justice, and yet there must have been many who had the same experiences with Alberta’s plants. I decided to write about a family that does not have a community that acts together; a family that can’t get away or get satisfaction either.
Half of the novel takes place in the present day, in Ft. McMurray and in an upgrader in the oil sands, where the youngest child of the farm family is now a seasoned gas processing engineer, a specialist in sour gas. The past that he drags along with him will never let him go; his techniques for escaping it and killing the pain are killing him.
In my non-fiction work, I have written about the oil and gas industry many times—and not as an activist fighting it but as a person trying to translate the information from the patois of the engineer into accessible English. That does not make me an expert; certainly not an engineer. But hopefully it has allowed me to inhabit an oil industry engineer in the same way that I have inhabited fur traders and cowboys and soldiers.
The art of fiction is not to stand on the outside looking in; it is to get inside and look out.