Can the son of a Saskatoon librarian find a place among the literary greats of his country? Yes, but the dog will have to go
ON BEING MOWAT
Can the son of a Saskatoon librarian find a place among the literary greats of his country? Yes, but the dog will have to go
I was 13 and living in Saskatchewan when I became a professional writer. In those days the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix used to run a Saturday supplement for young people called Prairie Pals and I managed to bamboozle the editor into accepting a weekly column about Saskatchewan birdlife. Those were the Depression years and my stipend of five dollars a week (with no deductions) was only a trifle less than many Saskatchewan schoolteachers were getting. The discovery that, at such a tender age, I had achieved near financial parity with the official arbiters of my destiny did me a lot of good. It also made me the most thoroughly hated student at Nutana Collegiate Institute.
My career as a columnist ended abruptly when I published an article dealing in intricate detail with the mating habits of the ruddy duck, a small but active resident of the prairies. Because I was, at 13, a relatively normal youth, sex was very much to the fore of my thoughts most of the time, and I was baffled and vastly intrigued as to how ruddy ducks managed to make love while under water.
The solution to this mystery became my first scientific research project and by dint of spending many
hours immersed in the stinking saline sloughs near Saskatoon I solved the problem. I also contracted a bad dose of scabies, known locally as sevenyear-itch. The habit patterns formed in those years are still with me and have caused some embarrassment to those near and dear to me. However, I maintain, I believe with some justice, that it is better to scratch your bottom in public than to pick your nose.
The editor of Prairie Pals disliked birds and never bothered to read my column prior to publication, so it was really his fault that I got fired and that the mothers of all the reputable young maidens in Saskatoon proscribed me as an untouchable. This caused me no great hardship since the curiosity my ruddy duck column aroused among the other sort of local maidens was ample compensation. I was, after all, the only boy who could demonstrate how ruddy ducks do it under water. I had acquired a romantic specialty which I maintained as my own prerogative for a good many years. But having been banned from all Holiday Inn swimming pools around the world, I am now willing to concede that the ruddy duck caper has outlived its time. In any event, I
have gone on to better things. My current project is an investigation into the sex habits of the blue whale which, at a length of around 100 feet and a weight of up to 120 tons, is a subject truly worthy of investigation.
The abrupt termination of my column on Saskatchewan wildlife did not disrupt my career as a writer. I turned to self-publishing. With the assistance of a mimeograph machine in the Saskatoon public library, where my father was librarian, I was soon turning out a monthly magazine with the innocuous title of Nature Lore. The magazine was produced in two versions. One was for general readership and was filled with tales and poems about the little birds and beasts, mostly written by happily innocent classmates who had no idea that they were fronting for what may well have been Canada’s first underground publication. Then there was the real thing, an issue written entirely by me, dealing with much more esoteric and downright erotic aspects of animal behavior.
My father has always denied that our departure from Saskatoon for Toronto, in 1937, was in any way related to the fact that a damn fool kid, employed by
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MOWAT / FROM PAGE 24
Çan the hopeful young writer overcome his boyhood burlesque house trauma?
MOWAT / FROM PAGE 24 me as a distributor, fouled up the issues one month and delivered the special version to, among other people, a brace of clergy, a prominent bootlegger who aspired to the mayor’s chair, and the wife of an inspector of the RCMP.
In Toronto I added nature photography to my skills. Sometimes I took pictures of birds amongst the bushes at Toronto Island and at Ashbridge Bay, and sometimes — particularly on hot summer evenings — I found more interesting subjects. The bird pictures were a drug on the market, but I had little difficulty in disposing of the other pictures to my fellow students at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. My success was my downfall. One day I decided to pursue nature photography in a more urban milieu. My surreptitious attempts to use a quarter-plate Graflex (about as big as a shoe box and about as noisy, in operation, as a farm tractor) to photograph a striptease artist named Fanny La Fanny at the Casino burlesque resulted in my being pounced upon by three large and uncouth ushers, causing considerable damage to me, the camera and my psyche.
This was a horrendous experience and it severely influenced my future development as an artist. I gave up photography entirely, and when I turned back to writing I found I had a deeply implanted blockage when it came to describing anything to do with sex. This (for the benefit of any one of you who might aspire to become my biographer) is why there is almost no sex in any of the 19 books I have published. Do not be misled by the titles of any of these books. Polar Passion is not about love in a cold climate; and Lust In The Barrens is a misprint for Lost In The Barrens.
In my late teen-age years I turned to poetry and wrote masses of incredibly obscure, intensely lugubrious and inordinately bad verse about death, destruction and decay. Had I only maintained this direction into the postwar years there can be little doubt that I would now be an extremely successful poet, winner of innumerable Governor General’s medals and Canada Council grants.
World War II put me off that track. Five years in uniform crushed the budding poet in me and did little in return except to engender a blinding distrust of all politicians everywhere. Probably it was an advantageous trade. After the war I spent three years as a ward of the government, not in prison but in the Univer-
sity of Toronto as a Department of Veterans Affairs student. There are times when I suspect that prison might have been preferable. I learned nothing useful at university, but did become the victim of a serious malaise. When I again turned back to writing in 1948 I found I was only capable of parroting the stilted inanities that so clearly distinguish academic prose. The reason was not hard to find. I had taken a course in Creative Writing. Fortunately, the instinct for self-preservation, which has always been one of my strengths, came to my defense and caused me to skip most of the lectures so that the damage was not irremediable. By retreating to the Arctic for a long sojourn among a group of Eskimos who spoke no English at all, I was able to shake off most of the ill effects of a university education.
Cleansed and revivified by a diet of raw fish and caribou meat, I returned to Toronto to continue my career as a professional writer. My first short story was rejected by every magazine in Canada and by the CBC. Not even the literary magazines such as Atlantic Seaweed, The Prairie Gopher and Hackmatack would take it as a free gift. Maclean’s was the only periodical that even considered it.
At that time Bill Mitchell, justly famed for Who Has Seen The Wind, was Maclean’s fiction editor. “Farley,” he said sadly, when he had called me to his office to discuss the story, “Farley, it’s a good story. I like it. But ... it hasn’t a hope in hell.”
He paused and stood looking thoughtfully out of his sixth-floor window down into the canyoned depth of Toronto’s University Avenue. “If you want to be a successful writer in Canada,” he continued morosely, “you have two choices. Either write nothing at all — just talk about
what you someday intend to write, or . . . punch out boy-meets-girl-fivethousand-words-happy-ending.”
Bill’s advice was sound but there was another possibility which he neglected to mention. With an unerring insight into economic realities (an insight that transcends even that enjoyed by Joey Smallwood, John Robarts, Wacky Bennett and other such)
I saw that the solution to my problem was to sell to the United States. My solution was, I think, superior to that of most Canadian politicians and economists since I proposed to sell to the United States, not to sell out to that great nation.
Saturday Evening Post promptly bought, for what was then a munificent sum, my much-rejected story, even though it did not have a happy ending. It was, in truth, a grim account of how a band of Eskimos met death through starvation as a result of willful neglect by the governments and people of Canada.
Looking back on it I can see why the story was unpublishable in my homeland. In those days, it was agreed by all true Canadians that Canada took a warm, paternal and sensitive interest in her native people and treated them with solicitude and consideration unmatched by that of any other nation. This was an acknowledged fact. It is one of the reasons why I have come to place so little faith in acknowledged facts and why my personal credo as a writer is: never let the facts stand in the way of the truth.
My first book suffered the same fate as my first magazine piece. This book, People Of The Deer, was also a true account of the conditions under which our Eskimos survived or, more frequently, died. This was a subject that aroused a resounding lack of interest amongst the Canadian publishers to whom I submitted it. However,
it was received with warmth by the Atlantic Monthly, then one of America’s most prestigious magazines, and was published by Atlantic Monthly Press.
Atlantic Monthly Press books were distributed in Canada by McClelland and Stewart and, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, Jack McClelland was at the time just taking over the leadership of the company. Although he could so easily have let the book die unsung, Jack put every resource of his company behind publicizing and distributing it. He got his lumps as a result. For several years both he and I were subjected to a violent assault from the Canadian religious, economic and political hierarchy. Jack was brought under considerable pressure to repudiate the book and me. If he whimpered a bit in private, he never flinched in public. Insofar as I am concerned, he earned his right to style his company The Canadian Publishers with this, one of his first ventures into that arcane business.
My enduring relationship with Jack has been a most important element in my career. Even though we have done terrible things to each other, the relationship endures. There was the time, for instance, that he talked me into meeting him for some obscure purpose in Baltimore. At his suggestion I left all the travel arrangements in his hands and when I set out on my odyssey I found he had routed me in a gigantic zigzag orbit across most of the eastern states. Not only that, but he had shipped me via a series of so-called airlines that were still struggling, not too successfully, to emerge from the Kitty Hawk era. On one leg of the flight, I was the only human passenger in a DC-3 laden with crates of baby chickens. This would have been acceptable except that the plane had only one working engine. The other engine was barely able to turn over its propeller. The creaking old aircraft took off, flew (sort of) and landed on its one functioning engine despite terrifying blasts of flame from the exhaust and a tendency to cough itself to death. Arthur Hailey could hardly have contrived anything quite like it.
At another point I was marooned on a flat mountaintop in the Alleghenies for 17 hours in an abandoned airport, whose sole link with the outer world was a pay phone. The telephone was of no help since someone had recently fired three bullets into it from point-blank range. The pungency of the gunpowder was still in the booth. By the grace of God, I completed the flight but Jack was not
awaiting me at Friendship Airport. In fact, he seemed surprised and even a bit disappointed when I phoned to tell him I had made it. He immediately drove me to Atlantic City where he demonstrated a previously unknown facet of his character by attempting to set a new world’s speed record for automobiles on the famous boardwalk . . . at 3 a.m. He then inveigled me into attempting a nude swim to a purely mythical raft embellished with mermaids which he claimed he could see just a few miles offshore. Luckily the inveigling fluid wore off before I became the first man ever to attempt to swim the Atlantic Ocean.
It took me some time to get these odd events into perspective and to recall that, a few months before the trip, Jack had arranged to insure my life for a flatteringly large sum. The rationale had been that I was then writing a book in which his company had invested some paltry sum for research costs. It was some weeks after the expedition before I discovered that McClelland and Stewart had been badly in need of an injection of cash money; a condition, I may add, that has since become chronic.
Ah well, those days are long behind me and I must not linger over them. This year I have attained the half-century mark and it behoves me, if I am to remain true to the hoary Canadian tradition, to become good . . . and grey . . . and old.
I might consider doing so if there was any future in it but, for me, there is none. Having been a maverick all my life I cannot hope at this late date to be accepted into the herd and given a cosy stable as writer-in-residence, CBC producer, visiting lecturer, senator, or member of the Canada Council, where I could end my days as a revered if doddering symbol of the essential greatness of Canadian Literature. I can’t do it, because they won’t have me and, I have to admit, I can’t really blame them.
It seems apparent that I am going to have to go on working at my trade until I die. But, if work I must, then play I will . . . and with at least equal vigor. And if I am denied literary fame at the end of it, perhaps I will at least have acquired a little of the kind of fame that to this day attaches to the memory of my paternal grandfather. He died in Trenton, Ontario, when in his nineties, and Trentonians maintain with respectful awe that it was 30 years before the grass grew green over his grave. It took that long, they say, for all that good red rum he consumed during his long life to finally evaporate.
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