#108 Brian Fawcett
February 02nd, 2016
LOCATION: Prince George
In the early 1970s, Brian Fawcett first notably wrote about his hometown of Prince George and its environs in Cottonwood Canyon (Caledonia Writing Series), a nine-page piece described as a speech “meant to be given to the Prince George Chamber of Commerce.” The Caledonia Writing series was a Prince George-based imprint managed by poet Barry McKinnon in the days when New Calendonia College was the forerunner of the University of Northern B.C.
Born in Prince George, B.C. on May 13, 1944, Brian Fawcett grew up in Prince George and left at age 22 to attend Simon Fraser University where he was influenced by R. Murray Schafer and Robin Blaser, among others. He received his B.A. in 1969 and remained as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in 1969-1970. An avid hockey and softball player, he has also taught in prisons and operated a small SFU-based publication called NMFG, meaning No Money From Government.
Having been at the forefront of another literary magazine called Iron during his time at Simon Fraser University, editing most of the issues, Fawcett rejected the process of publishing his own poetry in the early 1980s. He worked as a community organizer and urban planner in Greater Vancouver until 1985. Ever feisty, Fawcett has been prominent in literary politics within the Writers Union of Canada and as an editor of Books in Canada.
Since moving to Toronto, Fawcett has published his intentionally provocative opinions in a Globe & Mail columm and within his internet zine Dooney’s Cafe, a named based on a real cafe where he often writes in Toronto. The electronic publication has also featured the opinions of Stan Persky who has remained an intellectual colleague of Fawcett’s ever since Persky produced the Georgia Straight Writing Supplements. The title of Fawcett’s compendium of essays from Dooney’s Cafe, dedicated to Robin Blaser and introduced by Stan Persky, was originally advertised as Local Matters: What I’ve Been Thinking about for the Last Ten Years.
Fawcett’s work has been much admired and also subjected to shrewd criticism, as if his insights are not worthy of trust due to some faults in his personality. “…when Fawcett wants to be snotty,” once wrote reviewer Maggie Helwig, “he can be really snotty.” Helwig suggested that whereas Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow was a scary, important book, it’s follow-up, for a larger publishing house in Ontario, Public Eye, was an imitative work that had less to say. Fawcett, it seems, wasn’t allowed to get too big for his britches being, after all, only a British Columbian.
Brian Fawcett moved to Toronto where he married Leanna Crouch, a former producer of the TV-Ontario program Imprint, and where esteemed pundit John Raulston Saul compared him to Socrates. In this more heady intellectual milieau, Fawcett received the $15,000 Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2004 for Virtual Clearcut (Thomas Allen, 2003).
Fawcett was keenly focussed on Prince George in Virtual Clearcut: or, The Way Things Are in My Home Town (Thomas Allen 2003), in which he examined how the logging industry had ruined both PG and the hinterland. Globalization was not the only theme; Fawcett makes a prodigal return to speak and rub shoulders with the locals.
In Virtual Clearcut he describes going to a coffee shop with Prince George Citizen reporter Paul Strickland. Fawcett recalls the gist of his explanation to Strickland as to why he has been fascinated with explorer Alexander Mackenzie and why he’s on his own exploratory, intellectual mission in a chapter called Alexander Mackenzie’s Supermaket.
“I want to make people angry,” says Fawcett, “but the danger is that I’ll only get them pissed off at me–some outsider coming around to tell them what’s wrong with their lives… The only reserve of anger left in Prince George that hasn’t been diluted with business propaganda and fear-mongering about lost incomes and jobs is over the remoteness of the corporations. They just don’t give a shit, and people sense it…
“What I want to tell people is that this corporate remoteness isn’t new. It’s been with us since Mackenzie’s time. He was a partner in the North West Company, so he was a corporate explorer; a shareholder interested in profits rather than places. His curiosity was shaped by his commercial ambition, despite the force of character and the will he backed it up with.
“I’m going to argue that he’s a contemporary guy, and that we ought to be seeing his behaviour as a precursor to the corporate behaviours that have gutted the resource here… Mackenzie was a man who wanted to trade goods, and to trade means to want to have the advantage in whatever transaction is occurring. If we cut out all the noble explorer crap, Mackenzie wanted to make a large profit so he could go back to Great Britain and live like a gentleman. Sort of like Conrad Black.”
Brian Fawcett’s The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie and Other Stories (Talonbooks 1985) had first examined in fiction the exploitation of B.C.’s hinterlands and identified the ‘global village’ invasion in psychological and economic terms.
In 2011, Fawcett again took the route of fellow B.C.-born writers Brian Brett and Patrick Lane to revisit his roots for a memoir, Human Happiness (Thomas Allen $24.95). “Like most people in North America during and just after the Second World War, I grew up without the faintest curiosity about the people who’d brought me into the world, and even less about the ancestors who had gotten them to our staging grounds. Toward the end of my parents’ lives I began to understand that this lack of curiosity was a serious mistake, and in part, this book is my attempt at restitution: this is about them, but it also for them.”
Friends (Georgia Straight. Writing Supplement, Vancouver Series #4 / New Star, 1971).
The Opening (New Star, 1974)
Permanent Relationships (Coach House Press, 1975) – poetry
Creatures of State (Talonbooks, 1977) – poetry
Aggressive Transport: Two Narrative Revisions, 1975-1982 (Talonbooks, 1982)
My Career with the Leafs and Other Stories (Talonbooks, 1982)
Capital Tales (Talonbooks, 1984)
The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie (Talonbooks, 1985)
Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow (Talonbooks, 1986)
Public Eye: An Investigation into the Disappearance of the World (Harpercollins, 1990)
Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times: And Other Impolite Interventions (New Star, 1991)
The Compact Garden: Discovering the Pleasures of Planting in a Small Space (Camden House, 1992)
Gender Wars: A Novel and Some Conversation About Sex and Gender
The Disbeliever’s Dictionary: A Completely Disrespectful Lexicon of Canada Today (Somerville, 1997)
Virtual Clearcut: or The Way Things Are in My Hometown (Thomas Allen, 2003)
Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney’s Café and other Non-Globalized Places, People, and Ideas (New Star, 2003)
Human Happiness (Thomas Allen 2011) $24.95) 978-0-88762-808-5
The Last of the Lumbermen (Cormorant 2013) $21.95 978-1-77086-287-6
Let’s Keep Doing This: A Sounding in Honour of Stan Persky – edited with Thomas Marquard (Cormorant 2014) $24.95 978-1-77086-361-3
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015]
BRIAN FAWCETT (1985) from STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)]
BRIAN FAWCETT was born in Prince George, BC in 1944. In 1965 he came to Vancouver to attend Simon Fraser University. He founded a small magazine called NMFG (No Money From Government) and published seven books of poetry. His first collection of short stories, My Career with the Leafs and Other Stories (1982) mined his memories of boyhood in Prince George. Capital Tales (1984) explored violence and a range of storytelling techniques. The Secret journal of Alexander Mackenzie and Other Stories (1985) reports in fiction the exploitation of BC’s hinterlands and identifies the “global village” invasion in psychological and economic terms. Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow (1986) contains one inclusive essay and thirteen wide-ranging stories that reveal the importance of history and memory in the face of increasing global violence and mass communications systems. Brian Fawcett lives in Vancouver. He was interviewed in 1985.
T: Reading your stories it occurred to me I could put together a book of interviews that uses the premise that I’m an undercover government agent, filing reports, with mug shots of each writer. As if good writers are necessarily enemies of the state.
FAWCETT: Good idea. I think it’s appropriate.
T: Perhaps all good fiction writers are in some sort of undefined Resistance.
FAWCETT: Yes. And it’s a very peculiar Resistance, isn’t it? It’s interesting you bring that metaphor up because the first real world topic I became fascinated by as an adolescent was the Spanish Civil War. I always regarded those big battles in World War Two as somebody else’s war. I preferred armies like the Spanish Loyalist Army, which was undermanned and being attacked by forces that were much more powerful. This may have something to do with what got documented in The Secret journal. I see the area that I grew up in around Prince George as being in essentially the same historical position as the Spanish Loyalist Army. The people who lived and live there who ought to be in charge, aren’t. And they’re losing. They’re being defeated every day.
T: In a nutshell, if you had to identify the enemy for you as a Resistance writer, is it the global village?
T: Have you read Marshall Macluhan?
FAWCETT: Oh, yes. Where I really began to understand how far it had gone was when I went to Cassiar, BC, an asbestos mining town of about twenty-five hundred people up near the Yukon border. It’s been there for about twenty-five years. It’s a settled and peculiarly urban community, all in trailers. They have a satellite dish hooked into Atlanta, Georgia.
When I went up to Cassiar I saw what was going on and I decided I would play the role of the Martian anthropologist. It’s one of the devices I use quite a lot, pretending I’ve just landed from Mars. I started by going to the local supermarket to see what the hell was going on. It had all the latest tapes and posters of Michael Jackson and Boy George. All sorts of international, Los Angeles, global village paraphernalia. I wanted to buy a Cassiar souvenir. The one thing they had was a T-shirt saying WHERE THE HELL IS CASSIAR, BC? The T -shirts are made someplace else with the words WHERE THE HELL IS already on them. Then they stick in the place name. I’ve seen the same T -shirts in other small towns. It’s like these people have a built-in contempt for where they are.
T: Why were you in Cassiar?
FAWCETT: I went up there to do a reading, ironically, for National Book Festival. At the public library I found they had three thousand hardback American novels. And not one Canadian book. Nothing. Then I went to the school library to read. It took the kids forty minutes to realize I wasn’t Michael Jackson and that I was okay even though I was from BC. Because they’d been watching television from Atlanta for the last four years, they didn’t understand what I was or what I was supposed to be. I noticed there weren’t many books in the school library but the librarian said I was missing the point. “Come and see our video library.”
The video library was larger than the book library. I said, “Can you show me any materials on Cassiar?” I wanted to see what they taught their students about the place they lived in. The librarian looked at me like I really had just landed from Mars!
T: And how did your reading go?
FAWCETT: It was during the NHL play-offs and there was a game that night. None of the locals came. But all these miners came from isolated mines that didn’t have satellite dishes. They’d heard a real writer was coming. They put on this big spread with twenty-five bottles of wine and what they thought was a fancy Vancouver-style cheese platter. There were maybe forty people there and it was one of the smartest audiences I’ve ever read for. Then, at the break, they drank all twenty-five bottles of wine in fifteen minutes. Not one person touched the cheese. I had fun that night. I liked these people. I sold about fifty books. It wasn’t because I was particularly brilliant. I think it was because I was real. I had a material body. There was a party afterwards. When we got there a big Newfoundland dog bowled me over and started licking my face. The Newfie ended up getting the cheese platter, actually.
T: Do you worry that your Martian anthropologist ends up editorializing too much in your stories?
FAWCETT: Waving my hands in the reader’s face is a long-time weakness. I get pressure from both sides about this. People wanting me to go straight, and other who recognize why I’m doing it. There’s a conventional expectation that eventually real writers have to write a novel and of course if I write a novel I can’t be waving my hands in the reader’s face constantly. But I don’t want to write a novel. Because I don’t want to allow my readers into the fantasy of fiction. Then they lose the world, which is full of authors of one sort or another, hiding behind the sets and manipulating people. It’s time literature stopped doing that.
T: Michel Tremblay says the same thing about his plays. You always have to remind the audience that in fact they’re sitting in chairs.
FAWCETT: And that’s partly why I don’t want to write a novel. If you look where the novel comes from, it’s was meant to be read to semi -literate people in the nineteenth century. When there was nothing else to do. It was written to stretch out the story. Well, we have more efficient forms of entertainment now. Also, when I started writing stories seriously in 1981, I’d spent fifteen years as a poet. I had no narrative skills. I acquired them quite fast but the truth is I don’t think I have the skills to write a conventional novel.
T: You’d done at least seven books of poetry. Then you switched to exclusively writing fiction. What happened?
FAWCETT: I bought a computer! And just before that, I’d written the title story to My Career with the Leafs. That story came directly from a dream I had. It was one of those dreams that told me something about my personality and about the power of invention. I sensed I’d stumbled onto a goldmine.
T: What about the part of that story where you’re being interviewed by Howie Meeker between periods and you confess to him you’re really a poet?
FAWCETT: That came later. That was a conscious invention. But the walking into Maple Leaf Gardens and not being able to skate, and not hiding it at all, that was dreamed. That dream didn’t make myself me out to be a superstar. I wrote the first draft and I thought, holy shit, I’ve told the truth here in a very peculiar way. The reason it works is because it follows the logic of dream. A part of me said, hey, I can make up stuff! Until that point I didn’t think I could or should. I didn’t think I was allowed to. So I discovered something about writing. I also discovered I really enjoyed it.
T: But why did you allow yourself to trust the Maple Leaf dream enough to bother writing it down?
FAWCETT: Because I was tired of the horrible seriousness of poetry.
T: Stan Persky is another writer who made a decision to stop writing poetry. Because he questioned his effect on the world.
FAWCETT: Yes. There’s absolutely no audience for poetry. We live in a country that has created an amateur poetry. It’s amateur in that it makes no attempt to come to terms with its readership. As a result it has destroyed its audience. For me, though, there was also a purely personal dimension. I was thirty-eight or thirty-nine and I’d spent fifteen years in the laboratory of poetry storing up experiences to write about, and sometimes creating them so I’d have something to be sad about. I was exhausted. I realized I couldn’t do this forever. I also realized I was becoming suspicious about why I was doing it-for the self-drama of howling at a bad world. And I realized the character that my poetry presented was not really very much like me. I came off as the most serious poet in human history.
T: Well, I think you’d have a few competitors.
FAWCETT: Well, the point was, or is, that the way I see the world and the way I am as a social being is not terribly serious. I’m a joker. Somehow I just couldn’t be that way with poetry. The stories suddenly gave me a more true range of expression. To exercise my sense of humour. To exercise my sense of absurdity. To exercise my love of facts.
T: You were teaching in prisons around that time.
FAWCETT: That’s another important factor. I was trying to communicate out what civilization was to people who had no idea that they were living in a civilization with meaningful traditions and values. I regard civilization as those procedures by which we avoid violence. I was trying to find some way to communicate civilization to these guys who really just wanted to talk about their feelings. I felt vulnerable because I realized I had spent fifteen years myself trying to talk about my own feelings-in a slightly more sophisticated way perhaps but nonetheless it was the same. .I would get up at 5:30 in the morning, drive to Agassiz, teach a four-hour class, teach a three-hour class in the afternoon, drive back to Vancouver, walk in the door, turn on the computer and start working for three or four hours. It was an insane schedule.
T: It’s interesting because so many of your stories are so clearly intellectual responses to violence.
FAWCETT: Yes. A lot of them do begin with the fact of violence. I try to discover where the violence came from and where it leads to. I grew up in a very violent environment and I think I understand violence instinctually. I spent most of my youth avoiding punches thrown at my head.
T: One story, “A Brief Romance,” examines violence and infers there’s a sexual element to a fistfight. What’s the story behind that story?
FAWCETT: God knows how many fights I’d seen up there but that one stuck in my head. It struck me as a paradigm of a whole range of activity. I mean, of repressed homosexuality and authority. As far as I’m concerned homosexuality is just fine. But repressed homosexuality is a big problem. Because what it leads to is authoritarian behaviour. And to violence.
T: So backtracking a bit. My Career with the Leafs was basically going back to your past, scratching the surface, finding gold back there.
T: And the second book, Capital Tales, seems like an in-between book, one where you’re feeling your oats, figuring out what you can do.
FAWCETT: Yes. Capital Tales is really an investigation of fiction. I was figuring out how to sort out the categories of fiction. Some of the stories succeed and some of them don’t. I’m really fond of that book because of that. I have a sentimental attachment to it.
T: And then you seem to be hitting your stride in The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie. You know more what you’re saying and why you want to say it.
FAWCETT: Yes, I wanted it to be a psycho-economic history of the northern interior of BC. There was a history of Prince George done in 1944 and the last history of northern BC was written back in the twenties or something. So in a certain sense my book is a psycho-economic history from 1793 to 1987. It’s tracing the consequences of Mackenzie’s vision as the first white explorer.
T: So Alexander Mackenzie triggered all this?
FAWCETT: No. The book has a very, peculiar genesis. I went up with my father to Northern Alberta where he grew up. We were trying to find a number of sites like the coal mine he had worked in 1929. That sort of thing. We had an incredible winning streak. Everything we looked for, we found. We found the site of the sawmill he had worked at in 1923. My father had left home to work at age fourteen. We were also looking for this place called Fawcett, Alberta. It turned out the name had nothing to do with our family but watching my father’s face as he found all these places, well, I think that started the book. He had both a hunger for meaningful history and a contempt for it.
T: Your father eventually became a ‘businessman in Prince George?
FAWCETT: Yes. I grew up in a solid Social Credit background. I grew up in
the back of an ice cream plant, actually ice cream and soft drinks. The incident in my book about the dairy owner being forced out of business by a larger corporation is pretty closely based on some events around 1964-65. Not to mention names, but a well known dairy corporation came into Prince George and told my father they were going to bury him if he didn’t sell to them. My father did, because his view of it was that progress is progress.
T: Whereas your view is that often progress isn’t.
FAWCETT: We’ve lived through the period of the most astonishing wealth in human history, and probably the most astonishing levels of material wealth the human race is ever going to experience, and what have we done with it? Not very much.
Most people are leading lives of comfortable misery. Yes, they’ve got their television sets. Yes, they’ve got the amenities of the global village. But the quality of life hasn’t got that much better. I do not see this as a happy culture. And rather than be bitter or cynical about it, I’m angry. Mostly at the misuse of wealth.
We can’t just run around ripping off our resources. We’re running out of timber, you know. And we can’t say let’s save everything either. Logging is a necessary activity. That’s how we make money in this province. So how do we renew that resource? How we live in this province for the next two hundred years? There, I’m getting angry.
T: Most people might not be comfortable with these issues being reflected in fiction…
FAWCETT: Right. My response to that criticism is Christ, if all you want out of literature is that nice, brief, warm feeling, why don’t you just go and pee the bed? First-rate literature comes from first-rate content. In other words, take the most difficult, most important thing you can find which is rarely going to be the way you feel about the sun and the moon and the stars-and take a grab at it. That’s what I tried to do with Secret Journal.
T: Are you writing from any particular ideological base these days?
FAWCETT: Not really. It seems to me that ideology will simply generate problems and confrontations in a binary fashion. I’m trying to look at problems and work out problems as a situationalist. I’m a social democrat, politically. I believe in social democracy. But more because it’s inevitable than because I think it might guarantee social justice. We’re stuck with it as the only humane alternative open to us. As opposed to continuing along with the capitalist jamboree. The capitalist jamboree is simply going to get us all killed. Or else separate us all so far from each other that we’ll never get back to community.
When it comes right down to it, I guess, once again, what I’m basically trying to do is avoid violence.
Brian Fawcett wins $15,000 Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize
Press Release (2004)
(TORONTO, March 4, 2004) – Brian Fawcett has been awarded the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize for his book Virtual Clearcut: Or, the Way Things Are in My Hometown (Thomas Allen Publishers). The $15,000 award was presented last night at the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s third annual Great Literary Awards ceremony in Toronto.
“Literary prizes are usually awards for conventional behavior, and since I’m not quite capable of conventional behavior, I’m very surprised to receive this,” Fawcett said in his acceptance speech. “I can only conclude that the jurors recognized that my attempt to document the destruction of my hometown bears witness to a deeper shift in human values that is afflicting virtually every hinterland community across the planet…so I accept this surprising award because it will help to draw more attention to what has happened to a town of good and decent people in North Central British Columbia, and with the hope that others will recognize that the troubles in Prince George are structurally similar to what is occurring across human settlements everywhere.”
The finalists for the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize were:
Mark Abley for Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages
J. Edward Chamberlin for If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground
Brian Fawcett for Virtual Clearcut: Or, the Way Things Are in My Hometown
Taras Grescoe for The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists
Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle for Sahara: A Natural History
Career with the Leafs
Brian Fawcett has designs for the future. This summer he married artist Nancy Boyd, jacket designer for his recent fiction titles such as Cambodia, A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow. Very shortly after signing with the Colbert Agency in Toronto, Fawcett had a second reason to celebrate. Cambodia will be released in the U.S. by Grove Press. Earlier this year the title story of Fawcett’s first fiction collection, My Career with the Leafs, appeared in a Russian literary magazine.
[BCBW Spring 1987]