The 1999 Honour Roll

Pierre Berton

'I love to write, and I would do it if I were paid or not'

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 13 1999
The 1999 Honour Roll

Pierre Berton

'I love to write, and I would do it if I were paid or not'

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 13 1999

Pierre Berton

FOR A MAN SO DEVOTED to life in the past, Pierre Berton keeps a sharp eye on the future. Last February, the author, feeling tired, took a friend’s advice and went to Cuba for a holiday. On his first day, he fell ill and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. After being flown home by emergency charter aircraft, he spent two weeks in hospital and lost almost 20 kg. But when Berton, now 79, began to feel better, he says he immediately spent $2,000 on “extremely good wine” because “its always important to plan ahead.” Then, he resumed work on his 47th book, Marching as to War, a history of Canadas involvement in wars this century. With 80,000 words written, Berton expects to finish in January, 2001. After that, he says, “We’ll see what happens.”

For Berton, who can alternately be described as a writer, historian, journalist, multimedia personality and all-round larger-than-life character, that could be almost anything. The heart troubles and diabetes have slowed him, so he now relies on a cane to support his six-foot, three-inch frame. But his intellect and enthusiasm are undiminished, and he remains one of Canada’s best-selling, most prolific authors. In the past year, he produced two books—Pierre Bertons Canada and Welcome to the 21st Century. Both reflect on the relationships among Canadians, the past and the land. Although he once—paraphrasing Samuel Johnson—mischievously suggested “anyone who doesn’t write for money is a blockhead,” Berton adds, seriously: “I love to write, and I would do it if I were paid or not.” In fact, Berton is that rarest of animals: a Canadian author who has made millions from book sales and related projects such as television mini-series. Born in the Yukon, he always knew he wanted to write. He wrote his first book in 1954 and, he says, “became famous slowly” in subsequent years through radio and TV work, opinion columns, reporting for newspapers and Macleans—and a steady stream of books. In a country where books that sell 5,000 copies are considered a success, some of his—such as Klondike, his account of the Yukon gold rush— have sold more than 150,000.

Married to the former Janet Walker for 53 years, Berton is father to eight children—and grandfather to 13. They all can often be found on weekends at the sprawling family home in Kleinburg, Ont., where Bertons friends make fun of his foibles. He still writes on an electric Smith-Corona typewriter model that was discontinued years ago—so he hoards a stock of seven similar ones in case of breakdown. His longtime business consultant, Elsa Franklin, describes him as “indisputably the world’s worst driver”—and Berton responds, “This is a myth put out by my wife and others who drive with me often.”

On the professional front, Berton agrees with those who note his ability to recycle the same material in many forms: at his multimedia peak, Berton would take an item he researched for a column, turn it into a radio commentary, discuss it on his TV show and work it into a book that would then be made into a documentary. Says Berton, chuckling: “There are a lot of different ways to look at the same events in Canada’s history.” And, thanks to Bertons devotion to the field and his graceful style, millions of Canadians have taken the trouble to do so.

Anthony Wilson-Smith

'I love to write, and I would do it if I were paid or not'