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Stories About Storytellers

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/10/2011 (3965 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Stories About Storytellers

Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau and Others

By Douglas Gibson


ECW Press, 390 pages, $33

HERE’S the thing about Douglas Gibson, Scottish immigrant and Toronto publisher extraordinaire. He has a greater appreciation of regional Canada than 99 per cent of those of us born here.

Gibson: delightful volume

This genial memoir of his 40 years in the publishing racket, including 16 years at the helm of the country’s top literary house, McClelland & Stewart, takes readers from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

Gibson chides Winnipeg in his first anecdote. He recalls how the unilingual audience at the 1982 Governor General’s Awards at the Fort Garry Hotel applauded a Quebec separatist who condemned the federalist prize “by taking the winner’s cheque and stuffing it angrily in his pocket.”

Gibson was back here after he had published Don Starkell’s 1987 adventure book Paddle to the Amazon. Starkell put him in his canoe in the Red River with the idea of recreating the 20,000-kilometre journey.

“I was relieved when Don turned us around,” Gibson writes. “I wanted no part of the seas in the Gulf that swamped them with such regularity that one of his sons — the sensible one — quit and headed home, leaving the other to complete the trip with Dad.”

The memoir also finds him in Newfoundland (with the naturalist and “neglected genius” Harold Horwood), in Calgary (with Prairie hero W.O. Mitchell) and on Vancouver Island (with the magic realist Jack Hodgins).

Of the 21 chapters devoted to individual authors, the one on Hodgins is among the more provocative. Frustrated by Hodgins’ failure to become a national figure, he criticizes the Giller Prize for hogging the spotlight from non-shortlisted fiction and second guesses his advice to Hodgins to stay rooted in his home community.

“All my editorial life I fought against the idea that you need to move to Toronto to hit the literary big time, and maybe I was wrong.”

Gibson, now 68, left bonny Scotland in 1967 when he won a scholarship to do his master’s degree at Yale in the U.S. He entered Canadian publishing in the late ’60s with Doubleday in Toronto, moved to Macmillan in 1974 (in its heyday as a literary fiction publisher), then to M&S in 1986.

Luck is often the valet to talent. Gibson’s working life coincided with the explosion of Canadian writing and publishing. Despite his many self-deprecating anecdotes, he is not shy about taking credit for some of his contributions.

He reproduces, for example, a letter Alice Munro sent Macmillan, asking to be released from her contract so she could follow him to M&S.

“(Gibson) was absolutely the first person in Canadian publishing who made me feel that there was no need to apologize for being a short-story writer.”

He relates the familiar tale of how he extricated the 1999 novel No Great Mischief from Alistair McLeod by barging into his house in Windsor, Ont., armed with a bottle of Scotch.

He even credits his own skilful editing for honing Christina McCall Newman’s famous line about Pierre Elliott Trudeau: “He haunts us still.”

Gibson has worked hands-on with three prime ministers — Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin — and has useful things to say about each. On Mulroney: “He wrote his Memoirs himself. Every word. In longhand.”

Gibson joins such American giants as Michael Korda and Bennett Cerf in penning a gossipy memoir of his publishing life and times.

His delightful volume enriches the Canadian shelf beside Jack McClelland’s more selective letters, Imagining Canadian Literature (1998), and Roy MacSkimming’s stuffily comprehensive history, The Perilous Trade (2003). Anyone interested in CanLit will find much to enjoy here.

Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.

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