BETWEEN COVERS

Write, drink and be merry

IN A SPECIAL SECTION, MACLEAN’S TOASTS CANADIAN BOOKS

DIANE TURBIDE December 9 1996
BETWEEN COVERS

Write, drink and be merry

IN A SPECIAL SECTION, MACLEAN’S TOASTS CANADIAN BOOKS

DIANE TURBIDE December 9 1996

Write, drink and be merry

BETWEEN COVERS

IN A SPECIAL SECTION, MACLEAN’S TOASTS CANADIAN BOOKS

DIANE TURBIDE

Two years ago, Guy Vanderhaeghe applied to the Bank of Montreal for his first mortgage. When the manager asked the Saskatoon fiction writer about his assets, Vanderhaeghe cited his car, a 1978 Ford Fairmont Futura. ‘What’s that worth, about $150?” was the bank manager’s reply. Vanderhaeghe, recalling the exchange in a Maclean’s interview, said he shot back: “No way—$250 at least.” The manager “looked at me sort of dully, then turned to my wife, hoping, I’m sure, that she’d say she was a registered nurse. When she told him, ‘I’m a painter,’ the poor guy’s face just fell.” Vanderhaeghe, 45, laughed at the memory. He did get his mortgage after all, and eventually sold the Ford for $150.

Vanderhaeghe confided that story to his fellow writers at a gala dinner given by the Bank of Montreal last month to honor the latest winners of the Governor General’s literary Awards. He was picking up his second Governor General’s Award for fiction, for his novel The Englishman’s Boy (his first, in 1982, was for the short-story collection Man Descending). The awards—administered by the Canada Council—honor books in two languages and seven categories: fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, text and illustration for children’s literature, and literary translation. After receiving their prizes from Gov. Gen. Roméo LeBlanc at an afternoon ceremony, the laureates gathered at the bank’s posh Montreal headquarters for a dinner that featured champagne, individually monogrammed menus and a fourcourse meal. It was part of an exhausting but exhilarating three-day blitz of TV, radio and print interviews, receptions and public readings that moved from Montreal to Ottawa to Toronto, and included a firstclass train ride. The hoopla was a far cry from Vanderhaeghe’s usual routine—as it was for most of the writers, many of whom earn more critical praise than money.

Despite the explosion in Canadian writing in the past 25 years, there are probably at most a dozen people in Canada who make a

decent living by writing serious literary works. But while the Governor General’s prize money—boosted from $5,000 to $10,000 seven years ago—is hardly enough to live on, the attendant publicity does help to sell books. The privately sponsored $25,000 Giller Prize for Fiction has also increased the glamor quotient around the season’s fiction lists, and proved a boon to sales.

But just as important as the money, say the authors, is peer recognition. In Vanderhaeghe’s case, The Englishman’s Boy, a historical tale with two narrative strands set in 1920s Hollywood and 1870s Saskatchewan, is a significant departure in subject matter and style from his previous works. Getting the award was “a validation,” Vanderhaeghe told Maclean’s. And once he had digested the good news—the Canada Council’s head of writing and publishing, Gordon Platt, informed him in person in late October that he had won—Vanderhaeghe held up his foot to Platt. “I told him I was wearing the same dress shoes that I’d bought with the money from my 1982 award.” Vanderhaeghe was wearing new shoes—Dack’s black calfskin, to be exact—when he showed up in Montreal for the awards ceremony on a sunny Tuesday last month. He joined famed Québécois writer Marie-Claire Blais, this year’s winner of the French-language fiction award for her novel Soijs (Thirsts); essayist John Ralston Saul, whose book The Unconscious Civilization won for nonfiction in English; and nine other laureates (Colleen Wagner, who took the top drama prize with The Monument, was too ill to attend, while no French-language book was honored with an illustration award this year). And despite differences in language, writing genre and place of origin, a polite friendliness among the winners soon gave way to easy camaraderie. “It’s rare for so many writers to be together like this,” said Blais, 57. “And it’s high time that we are, because we are artists, and artists are universal forces.”

Blais, a legendary figure with more than 20 novels to her name, rocketed to fame at age 19 with La belle bête. Such works as Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel, and Les manuscrits de Pauline Archange have been translated around the world. The slight soft-

spoken author—who winters in Key West, Fla., and travels extensively abroad—describes Soifs as a novel about survival at the end of the century. Blais says that she can’t imagine giving up the writing life, despite its material and psychological difficulties. “I’m very touched when readers tell me that a book of mine helped them. Fiction is not just fiction, it’s a work of art that goes from soul to soul.”

In their acceptance speeches at the Monument National in downtown Montreal, several writers expressed pessimism about the future of the arts in Canada. Ralston Saul drew loud cheers from the audience when he denounced the sacrifice of the public good and the eclipse of culture in the face of an overwhelming neoconservative grip on the public agenda. E. D. Blodgett, an Edmonton professor whose Apostrophes: Woman at a Piano took the poetry prize, defended non-utilitarian writing and quoted German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to illustrate the very special “nothing that poets do.” Some made more personal statements. Eric Beddows, whose superbly evocative illustrations in The Rooster’s Gift beguiled the Governor General’s jury, told the audience that two important people had died in the middle of his project. His longtime partner, playwright Elliott Hayes, had been killed in a car accident, and the author of the tale, Pam Conrad, had died of cancer. Wryly noting that

A rare opportunj~foj diverse a~~rs to talk shop and bask in the irneIight

while the book was not War and Peace nor the Sistine ceiling, Beddows said: “In those dark days, it never seemed like a trivial activity to climb the stairs to my studio to spend time with the smallest hen and her pompous rooster friend. It was, rather, a welcome escape into a happy place.”

Amid the pomp and ceremony of the official events, there were some decidedly unofficial moments. On the way to a morning rehearsal for the ceremony, some of the writers walking down St. Laurent Boulevard found themselves dodging a staggering transvestite who posed provocatively against the brick wall—a scene that could have been lifted straight from a Michel Tremblay play. Later, after LeBlanc had presented the authors with leather-bound editions of their books, there was a reception backstage. Among those nibbling canapés and sipping wine was an interloper, a tall man dressed in a shabby overcoat, a large woolly tuque and filthy runners. “Hey, where can I get some more sandwiches?” he asked a waiter, who politely pointed down the hall.

Not all the surprises came from strangers. That evening, at the bank’s dinner for the winners, Quebec children’s author Gilles Ti-

After a two-hour train ride from Montreal to Ottawa the next day, some of the authors were taken aback by the sight of two stretch limos waiting to deliver them downtown. Ralston Saul, a man who believes in the power of images, refused to be photographed in front of them, saying that it conveyed a false message about writers’ lives. Considering that they were spending the night at the serviceable but hardly luxurious Travelodge Inn, perhaps Ralston was right.

bo found himself being offered advice about investing his prize money by two bank employees at his table. (“I can’t remember a thing they said,” Tibo noted afterward. “Something about mutual funds.”) After the dessert, McClelland & Stewart owner Avie Bennett startled the 120 or so diners by denouncing the absence of cultural officials from the federal heritage ministry at the day’s events, calling it “a bloody shame.”

At Ottawa’s National Library that evening, some 420 people had paid $10 to hear the authors read from their works. Montreal translator Linda Gaboriau read a moving passage from Stone and Ashes, her English version of a play by Daniel Danis, which chronicles a family’s attempt to survive after the random murder of the wife and mother. Afterward, Gaboriau said she was touched to be approached

by a 15-year-old girl for an autograph. It wasn’t the first time that Gaboriau has been surprised by a younger person’s reaction to one of her endeavors. Her 25-year-old daughter, Melissa Auf der Maur—a member of Hole, the grunge-rock group headed by Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love—recently saw the Genie-winning movie Lilies in New York City. Gaboriau, whose translation of the play by Michel Marc Bouchard formed the basis for the screen adaptation, said her daughter loved it. Referring to the work’s themes of moral and sexual ambiguity, Gaboriau said: “I think she was surprised to find her mother involved in worlds that speak to her generation.”

Later, the authors met up in a bar. They traded anecdotes about book tours, and shared horror stories about cultural trips organized through Canadian embassies. The next morning, on a flight to Toronto—the last leg of the tour—an attendant pointed to the copy of The Englishman’s Boy that Vanderhaeghe was holding. “Is that any good?” she queried. “Don’t ask me, I wrote it,” Vanderhaeghe replied. The woman blushed before congratulating him.

A second Governor General’s Award, it seemed, hadn’t turned him into a celebrity. He was on his way back to Saskatoon, where he would mark assignments by his creative-writing students. He would start figuring out what to write about next, play some hockey with his friends and prepare himself for some “unmerciful teasing” from them. Maybe the call his agent got from director Norman Jewison’s office about optioning The Englishman’s Boy for the big screen will pan out; maybe it won’t. Vanderhaeghe shrugged. Whatever happens, he knows that he’s in for the long haul. “Most writers are obsessive, they’re driven to do what they do,” he said. “But I know good writers who gave up, they weren’t stubborn enough. You have to have a kind of pig-headed stubbornness.” □