Hugh Gamer: still touchy after all these years

Wayne Clark March 19 1979

Hugh Gamer: still touchy after all these years

Wayne Clark March 19 1979

Hugh Gamer: still touchy after all these years


Wayne Clark

There he was, erupting: a telephone in one hand, a cigarette in the other and a coughing fit in between. The blaspheming of publishers is done in a special key, known only to writers, and Hugh Garner, once a choirboy, finds it with ease. “That crook. That goddamned crook,” says the voice that has been likened to a cement mixer. “He’s been gypping me out of royalties for years and now he’s trying to screw me again.”

Garner had just been told fourthhand in late January what he should have been told firsthand in early November, that shooting had started in Toronto on a movie based on his first mystery novel, The Sin Sniper. According to Garner, under the terms of a 26-page contract (or 22 pages as he describes it in a mellower mood), he and the publisher (Simon and Shuster) should have received payments at the beginning and end of shooting. Not only had Garner not received a cent but he hadn’t even been told that his book was going to be a movie.

It was 30 years ago this month that Garner first had a novel published (Storm Below) and ever since, when he hasn’t been g pillorying middle-class preg tensions, he has been taking ¿ roundhouse swings at edi01 tors and publisher: “Only the laws of libel and slander prevent me from naming the idiotic editors it has been my misfortune to write for,” he has said. “Their lack of understanding, their lack of proficiency, their disregard for writers ...” et cetera, et cetera.

Garner, on his soft and sober days, and now at age 66, says he never really meant all those terrible words, and what enmity there may have been never lasted. And so it was, like the 100th rerun of a movie, with the saga of the filming of his book.

Within days, the cheques were in the mail (the publisher had dutifully filed them away, awaiting the semi-annual royalty payment date), Garner had had lunch with the producer, been invited to see the unedited rushes and had received an apology. The man he had been calling a crook was now “at least a nice crook,” said Garner, who couldn’t help adding that “of course all publishers are crooks anyway.”

Victorious, back in uniform, the old soldier (Second World War and Spanish civil war) was chuckling. He had de-

dined the offer to see the unedited rushes but would see the final version. And if he hated it? “Well, they violated the contract. I can still pull the plug on the whole shmirks anytime I want,” threatens Garner with more bravado than accuracy.

Not that he’s likely to. Garner won’t say how much money is involved, but this is the first time the many purchases of film rights to his works have actually led to a movie.

“In fact,” says Robin Brass, a managing editor of McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Garner’s hard-cover publisher, “Hugh often jokes that he hopes they never make movies of his work so he can keep selling the option every six months. I know he’s sold a lot of them.”

The movie, directed by George Mendeluk, was made by Ko-Zak Productions Inc. of Toronto for just under $2 million and is scheduled for release in Canada and the United States in July. The cast includes Richard Crenna as Garner’s


Inspector Walter McDumont, singercomposer Paul Williams, Linda Sorenson,

Belinda J. Montgomery and Monique Mercure.

The film is tentatively called Stone Cold Dead because, according to Garner, an American distributor objected to the words “sin” and “sniper” being in the same title, unlike the 75,000 readers who bought the book (now out of print but scheduled to be re-issued in April).

Garner says that a lot of the creative fervor has gone, that these days he’s writing more or less out of a sense of duty. “With the old-age pension I’ve got enough money to do till I die. I’m not concerned with selling anything. I just sit like a goddamned spider and let the flies come to me. I don’t have to flog anything.”

Throughout 1978 the flies were loyal as they are to sticky strips of paper in summer. It had been a year of little writing and a lot of drinking. Two of his binges had left him hospitalized (as they have done some 28 other times in his life), yet he had three—or depending on how you look at it, fourbooks published: Murder

Has Your Number, which is also being published in paperback this month; Cabbagetown, his best-known novel, in a special printing for high schools and colleges; and the 752-page A Hugh Garner Omnibus, which the publisher, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, believes to be the most comprehensive collection of a living Canadian writer’s work ever produced.

Perhaps Canada’s best-known drinker since Sir John A. Macdonald, Garner never imbibes when he’s writing—and vice versa, as happened last year. However, he went months without a drop after coming out of hospital in late November and was quickly in the process of finishing another book. He drinks out of elation, often starting after completing a work: and writing, he says, is his therapy.

The new book is his fourth mystery. “They’re a cop-out but they’re fun,” Garner says. “It’s a bit like stealing money.” Although the mysteries have sold well (sales of Death in Don Mills are now over 73,000), Garner’s reputation (writing reputation) comes mainly

from his early novels and especially his short stories. His first collection, The Yellow Sweater, is the one Garner and many critics prefer but it was Hugh Garner's Best Stories that won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1963. (When Georges Vanier said he had read the stories, Garner says he couldn’t resist asking if he had read them all. Garner left the dias with a glare from Madame Vanier and without an answer.)

His first novel had come out 14 years earlier while Garner was into almost his third year of trying to sell Cabbagetown. “I don’t forget, nor will I ever,” Garner has written of that time, “the little stupid bastards who made my beginning years as a writer even harder than they would normally have been. A pox on all of them.”

Despite the curse and the cursing, publishers kept buying his work, to the

extent that the bibliography in last year’s Omnibus runs for three pages in tiny type. Altogether Garner’s output includes: 10 novels, about 100 short stories (one of which, One, Two, Three Little Indians, has been reprinted, broadcast, anthologized and translated 10 times), a collection of humorous essays {Author! Author!, which Robert Fulford, editor of Saturday Night and an admirer of Garner’s short stories, calls “possibly one of the worst books ever published in Canada”), an autobiography {One Damned Thing After Another), a trilogy of stage plays, scores of radio and television adaptations, 89 appearances in anthologies, textbooks and translations, 438 magazine articles and four company histories.

Of all Garner’s battles—they have

ranged from furiously shredding a manuscript in front of an editor to assailing another with a 15-minute drunken monologue under the mistaken impression that a story had been rejected—the biggest was with Jack McClelland who published in 1962 what Garner feels is his best novel, Silence on the Shore.

“It got no publicity and that’s what made me mad,” says Garner, “and that’s why I told McClelland he’d never publish another book of mine.” To get out of his contract with McClelland and Stewart, who had first look at his next work, Garner dumped on them a collection of stories he knew they would reject.

“Gremlins had gotten into the act,” says McClelland, “and the book just wasn’t well published. It did very poorly and Hugh’s feeling was that I had literally supressed the book because he knew I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about it. Well I’m not that stupid. I’d have been hurting myself as much as I was hurting him. I don’t blame him for feeling the way he did but I do blame him for attributing the wrong reason to it. He’s a very good writer but I just don’t think that was his best book.”

Garner himself hasn’t always followed through on promotion engagements. Three times last year alone he had to cancel TV appearances because he was drinking, or as Robin Brass at McGraw-Hill Ryerson puts it, “not free.”

“But as long as he’s between bouts,” says Brass, “he’s very good. He’s also a good businessman. He’s been making his living completely from writing and there aren’t that many people in Canada who can make that boast, and he was doing it before many of them were born.”

Although never one to doubt his judgment of his own work, Garner has also never hesitated to try to flog what he knew wasn’t good.

Robert Weaver, who Garner says has done more for the short story than anyone in Canada, is the CBC’s executive producer for literary projects on radio. He recalls Garner sending him “a lot of stories that I might tactfully describe as being out of the bottom drawer. He was trying me on. I used to kid him and say I want a good Garner story and not a bad one, and he’d take it very well.”

Like the man himself, says Robert Weaver, Garner’s writing is emotional and direct. “I think one of the reasons he’s continued to be popular is that he’s an accessible kind of writer. You have the feeling that you’re not dealing with a literary gent, but with a real writer.” <£?