Prolific book publisher launches one of his own


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Fittingly, but purely coincidentally, it is late afternoon on Thanksgiving Monday as I start this story; a time when many of you are talking over turkey, and I am doing something far less traditional.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2011 (4077 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fittingly, but purely coincidentally, it is late afternoon on Thanksgiving Monday as I start this story; a time when many of you are talking over turkey, and I am doing something far less traditional.

In fact, it’s something rare for me.

Writing a tribute, of sorts, to a living person.

Doug Gibson

Douglas Gibson is someone most of you have never heard of, much less probably care to. Although you probably should care about the iconic Canadian book publisher and editor. I care about him because in 1989, not long after he became publisher of Toronto-based McClelland & Stewart, Doug Gibson signed me to write my first and so far only book — Cowboys and Indians: The Shooting of J.J. Harper.

And I say that you should care about Doug Gibson partly because he’ll be in town Wednesday, but mostly because he’s a master book editor, and over the years it’s been my observation that while most people don’t read books, almost everyone seems to want to write one.

Yet, again in my experience, few amateur writers, and even some professionals, know how to start, much less finish a book.

Doug Gibson knows though.

Or at least knows now.

After four decades of telling others how to do it — such luminaries as Alice Munro, Peter C. Newman, Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan, Mavis Gallant, W. O. Mitchell and those twin titans of CanLit, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney — you’d think Doug Gibson would have known how to start his memoir right from the start. A task made all the easier, one would imagine, because his unique access to all these authors is the most interesting aspect of his time as publisher.

But Gibson didn’t know how to start, as he candidly admitted last month over a plate of pasta in Toronto.

That’s because, at the outset, Doug Gibson thought Doug Gibson was the centrepiece of the book. It took him months to figure out it was the writers he had worked with that readers wanted to know about. Hence the title: Stories about Storytellers.

Finishing was at least as agonizing as starting.

It wasn’t the first time that the 68-year-old, Scottish-born Canadian literary star to the stars — and other dim lights like Yours Humbly — admitted that writing a book was far more difficult than he imagined.

When, after he finally completed the manuscript, Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club asked him to say a few words about the experience, Gibson chose a catchy title for his address: “Harder Than I Thought: A Publisher Tries to Write a Book.”

How much harder?

“Well, the answer is very, very hard,” he later told the National Post‘s Mark Medley. Promptly adding the obvious, at least the obvious for writers who have heard the crack and felt the smack of his deadline whip.

“I think its fair to say there was a whole lot of pleasure,” Gibson told the Post, “that Doug Gibson was having a really hard time finishing his book.”

I have a confession of my own.

It did bring me a lot of pleasure, and also a lot of satisfaction.

You see, it’s not just the sound of Doug’s whip I recall, it’s the sting — the viciousness — of his written rebuke when I failed not only to meet the first deadline — or was it the third? — for Cowboys and Indians, but even more importantly I resisted his advice to refer to my own part in the story in the third person, rather than the first.

They were both uncomfortable choices, but in the end he was right. And after I left M&S, he eventually took me back, but only after I agreed to do it his way.

In the end, it only took me 10 years from start to finish. By comparison, Doug completed his first book in a relative blink.

There’s another reason why it’s hard to finish a book.

It’s wondering if you got it right, if you were fair and accurate and even sensitive enough to your subjects.

And, even more daunting, it’s not knowing how it will be judged. Doug Gibson’s memoir is a tribute to 21 writers, and now he has to wait for the reviews, and not just the favourable ones, like the one my colleague Morley Walker penned in the Free Press.

He talks about waiting for reviews from subjects who are still alive, and from families of those who aren’t.

As I was saying, Doug Gibson, the publisher of my one and only book is in town Wednesday at 8 p.m. at McNally Robinson’s Prairie Ink Restaurant, having chosen Winnipeg to start his performance tour of nearly 20 Canadian cities promoting his own one and only book.

Which is why writing this on Thanksgiving turned out to be so fitting.

Because this is my way of saying thanks for what Doug Gibson gave me, and so many others.

A chance to find out what only those who have done it truly understand.

How hard, and satisfying, it is to write a book.

But I wouldn’t recommend it to a mortal enemy.


Updated on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 8:38 AM CDT: The day Gibson will be in city corrected

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