Typecasting: Free Press books editor had great mentor in writer mom
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/05/2020 (998 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Gail Cabana-Coldwell and Ben Sigurdson, writers/editors
My first ever newspaper assignment came with no byline, no actual writing by me and no payment other than spumoni ice cream.
I was around eight years old, riding shotgun with the Phantom Gourmet as she reviewed the Old Spaghetti Factory in its old Exchange District location for the Winnipeg Sun. The Phantom Gourmet was the nom de plume of my mother, Gail Sigurdson, who wore a number of writing hats at the Sun from 1983 to 1990 before moving to the Winnipeg Free Press, where she was an editor and section manager for six years before the state of industry financials saw her downsized.
As a kid, I always found visiting my mom’s work to be exciting: people everywhere hurrying to make deadline, on their way to important interviews, photographers lugging around big cameras. (My brother and I were used more than once in photos for back-to-school and Christmas articles.) The newspaper seemed so full of energy, so important — and my mom worked there, which I thought was the coolest.
I guess I had already caught the newspaper bug; I just took a much longer path to getting here than my mom did.
Prior to the Sun, my mom had little in the way of published stories, and had no formal journalism training. “I was taking a non-fiction writing class; the teacher suggested I send stuff to each of the major papers to see if they would buy it,” she recalls. “I sent it to Morley, and he bought everything I wrote after that.”
That “Morley” was Morley Walker, who was the entertainment editor at the Sun at the time. Along with my mom (who became Gail Cabana-Coldwell after remarrying in 1990) and many others he eventually moved over to the Free Press. (He’d eventually become the Free Press books editor, a job I took over in 2014 upon his retirement.)
Like my mom, I don’t have any formal newspaper/journalism schooling. I wrote for Stylus, a bi-monthly music magazine at the University of Winnipeg, before eventually being hired as a freelancer in 2005 to write the weekly wine column for the Free Press. I had been working at one of the city’s private wine stores to pay for my master of arts degree in English at the U of M when all that happened. “You were always a good writer — you had an English bent,” my mom recalls. “If anything, I thought you would probably be the one to write the Great Canadian Novel.” (Don’t hold your breath, mom.)
I bounced around at copywriting/communications jobs while writing about wine for the Free Press. “I could relate to what you were doing; I wrote wine reviews and copy for the Sun when I was there, although as with most things at the Sun we were self-taught. It was such a different atmosphere than at the Free Press,” she says. “You came from a different perspective. When you started writing wine stuff I could see you did it better than I did.” I think that’s what moms are supposed to say.
My mom enjoyed working at the Sun and Free Press for many of the same reasons I enjoy my job now. “I loved watching people in a meeting when a light bulb came on — whether it was a story, an idea, a concept,” she says. “I loved the pace of it; I was very well-suited to it. I’m a very organized person, deadline driven.”
These days I’m my mom’s boss; she’s my go-to book reviewer for all things Royal Family, curling or naval-related. “In the beginning, it was probably harder than if we were strangers,” she says of writing and filing reviews for her son. “Because I thought, ‘Unless this is really fabulous, it’s either going to be cut to crap or people are going to think I got this gig because we’re related.’”
There’s no reason for her to be concerned. My mom’s a great writer and book reviewer, with a fascinating perspective on things and a writing voice I’ve long admired. I’ve got big shoes to fill — and I’m glad to be able to pay her in more than spumoni.
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.