Authors / Literary Forebearers and Influences
April 02nd, 2008
During the historic gathering of writers and publishers at Reckoning ’07, some pivotal characters in British Columbia’s writing community received special acknowledgment. This reinforced how privileged I am to have known a few of these personages. Some I only met once or twice, and a few turned up at gatherings or events I was attending. I was even lucky enough to befriend a couple of these fascinating people. My writing also introduced me to several noted academics (not mentioned during the conference), who feature largely in my career and BC’s literary history. While biographical information is available, I hope my personal glimpses highlight the vivacity of these individuals.
Academics do not usually play a big part in writers’ lives, but they have in mine. In 1974, I was a young woman hoping to start a career as an elementary school teacher when I enrolled in Sheila Egoff’s Children’s Literature class at Simon Fraser University. I quickly realized that the instructor, for whom a BC Book Prize is now named, was passionate about books written for the young. The most demanding of our assignments was to find 10 picture books that we considered excellent and to explain our reasoning. I learned much about story telling, illustrations, and book reviewing from that exercise. I also discovered that there were not many Canadian books for children – a problem that was just beginning to be remedied. In my list, along with such American classics as Make Way for Ducklings and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I included two works that are now Canadian classics: Mary of Mile 18 by Ann Blades and Elizabeth Cleaver’s How Summer Came to Canada. Many years later, I am using the book reviewing skills Sheila instilled in her students.
In 1983, I took a leave of absence from teaching and returned to SFU to complete my English degree. I enrolled in a course simply titled Canadian Literature. Dr. Peter Buitenhuis was the instructor, and the course readings were by Malcolm Lowry. Not only did Peter challenge us in our thinking, he took us on two wonderful field trips. The first was to the Rare Book and Special Collections Library at the University of British Columbia where librarian Anne Yandle showed us pages from Lowry’s manuscripts and other items in his archive. The second field trip was to Cates Park where we trudged about on a stormy November day trying to locate sites mentioned in Lowry’s writings. I was dismayed to learn that there were no markers or any other acknowledgments of Lowry’s time on that rugged foreshore.
By the end of the course, I had read every available book by and on Lowry. I realized that researchers had largely ignored his 14 or so years in the Vancouver area and that many of Lowry’s friends and acquaintances were still alive. I was no longer his student, but I approached Peter about collecting the stories of Lowry’s friends. Though I had written nothing more than undergraduate essays, Peter encouraged me to undertake the project. I quickly realized that some historical and social context as well as maps and photographs should accompany the recollections; therefore, to my surprise, I was writing a book. Again, Peter was supportive and put me in touch with one of Canada’s most eminent scholars, Dr. Sherrill Grace. In spite of her heavy workload at UBC (where she is still on faculty), Sherrill gave me every encouragement and generously penned letters on the importance of such a book to accompany my applications for financial aid. Later, Sherrill asked me to join the organizing committee for the International Lowry Symposium held at UBC in 1987. I organized a guided bus tour to Cates Park for the 100 or so scholars attending the conference. Because of that Symposium and Sherrill’s efforts, the Malcolm Lowry Walk, a memorial plaque and a marker to indicate the site of Lowry’s last ramshackle “shack” are now a permanent part of Cates Park. The day of the bus tour we snaked our way along the beach, drank from bottles of tequila, and toasted the author of one of the world’s written masterpieces. Just as exciting, Harbour Publishing’s launch of my first book, Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days, occurred at UBC during the conference.
For a short time in the early 1990s, an eastside drinking establishment called The Malcolm Lowry Room existed on Hastings Street. One blustery evening, my spouse, Kirk, and I squeezed into Sherrill’s Subaru. Accompanied by her husband, John, and Kathy Chung (then a graduate student at UBC), we drove through the pelting rain with only a vague idea of the location of the pub. Anyone familiar with Lowry’s work knows that his motifs often include disorientation and miscommunication. Laughing at the superstitious concerns that seem to befall Lowry scholars, we passed by our destination several times before finally seeing the poorly lit sign. Once inside, we knocked back a few drinks, gaily toasting “Old Malc” and reminiscing about North Vancouver’s most famous author.
For a time, I lived near an area that is the setting for a book by another renowned writer, Sheila Watson. Sherrill needed a photograph of the Dog Creek area for research she was completing on Sheila and The Double Hook. Kirk and I took the back roads from 100 Mile House into the Chilcotin. Driving through Dog Creek, Watson’s landscape, little altered from the 1930s, came alive. Some years later, I accompanied Sherrill to Sheila’s home on Vancouver Island. Sheila’s conversations did not move from A to B, but circled back and forth – a demanding but intriguing experience. She also related a poignant tale. One Christmas when they were young, she was having difficulty finding a present for her husband, Wilfrid. She met Doris Shadbolt, who lamented that she had little money for Jack’s present. They came upon the perfect solution: Sheila bought one of Jack’s paintings, and Doris used the money to purchase Jack’s gift.
Because of my Lowry research at UBC, I came to know the head librarian in Special Collections, Anne Yandle. I can still hear her Irish “Halloos” and see her tall, thin, impeccably dressed frame sweeping through the study carrels. Anne passed away in 2006, and scholars worldwide miss her. She always felt sorry for those who, alone in study carrels, were toiling through boxes and boxes of archived materials. Anne kindly fed and housed many out-of town Canadian and international Lowry scholars when they came to Vancouver. When I was spending long hours in Special Collections, she occasionally would invite me along on the librarians’ coffee breaks or to join them for lunch. She also introduced me to visiting scholars. One, Dr. Rick Asals (University of Toronto), came to Vancouver every summer, and we often had coffee or lunch together during our brief reprieves from Lowry’s crabbed handwriting. Rick and I have now been friends for over 20 years, and always enjoy a Lowry-like debauch when he visits.
Anne also put me to work once she had decided I was “not a dilettante.” I twice mounted a Lowry display in the glass cases of Special Collections. I also accompanied her to the memorial for another of Lowry’s friends, Harvey Burt. Anne has been retired for some time but, because of her interactions with Harvey, she felt compelled to attend. When she realized that no one else from UBC was in attendance, she spoke to the assembly about Harvey’s contributions to Lowry scholars and to the Lowry collection at UBC.
When Lowry scholars were in town, Anne liked to entertain them with “Lowry dinners.” Kirk and I were often invited and enjoyed many entertaining evenings at Anne’s Dunbar home. I vividly recall the first time she invited us. I imagined a lavish dinner; instead, being a down to earth individual, Anne served a hardy meal of lasagna, a tasty green salad filled with mint and purple borage flowers culled from her garden, and a home-baked rhubarb pie. One of my most memorable evenings in her home was one that Dorothy Livesay and Esther Birney attended. Both women were elderly and cantankerous. Whatever one said, the other disagreed. Their highly animated discussions entertained us all.
After Anne retired, she used to meet Kirk and me for coffee. We live near Cambie Street, and she always drove over our way, as she loved to meet at the Liberty coffee shop at the corner of Main and 21st Avenue. As the book review editor of British Columbia Historical News (now British Columbia History), she usually brought along a few review copies and asked us each to select one. Our library grew substantially as a result. We would then spend an hour or more talking about Anne’s travels, world events, theatre, and, of course, books; we also shared a small amount of “news” regarding local literary personages. One time she related that she “love[d] Alan Twigg” because of the Malcolm Lowry Brown Bag Bus Tour he had organized. Anne knew authors, publishers, booksellers, academics, librarians — anybody and everybody in the local book world. She and I shared an interest in Canadian literature and often recommended books to one another. She also introduced me to the works of a number of Irish writers, including one of her favourites, and now mine, William Trevor.
Research for my Lowry work also caused me to cross paths with William (Bill) McConnell: lawyer, author, editor, and founder of Klanak Press. When I was just starting work on my book, Peter Buitenhuis taught a non-credit course on Malcolm Lowry at SFU Harbourside. I do not really know why I decided to attend the class, but I did. As we introduced ourselves at the first class, I was surprised to discover one of Lowry’s good friends in attendance. Bill’s wife Alice had died a few years earlier and a friend at the time, Dr. Sandra Djwa (SFU), talked Bill into attending Peter’s course. I was nervous about approaching him, but Bill was gracious and suggested we set a date for tea at his house. I knew that “tea” meant an interview that I would have to pass if I were to interview him. Not sure if Bill would be comfortable with just my presence, I asked him if I could bring my husband along. This turned out to a wise decision. Bill and I got along just fine, but Bill and Kirk particularly enjoyed one another’s company. Kirk also accompanied me on my interview sessions at Bill’s house; afterwards, and on every other occasion that we visited, we drank Bols gin (Lowry’s favourite) in Bill’s “Lowry glasses” – cocktail glasses Margerie Lowry had given the McConnells.
Bill remarried in 1990 and he and his wife Carol hosted numerous “Lowry evenings.” In attendance were local “Lowryites” and, if any were in town, Lowry experts from other parts of the world. Kirk and I spent many laughter–filled afternoons and evenings at Bill’s West Vancouver home. Any correspondence with Lowry scholars always sat on the table, waiting to be shared with us. Bill described Lowry as having “a mind like a steel trap,” but that description just as aptly fit Bill. His insights were always as sharp as his wry humour.
In his retirement, Bill gardened, beachcombed, chopped wood for his fireplace and space heater, and, a born raconteur, related stories about his legal career and other writers. Bill also finally had time to write. We were given several manuscripts to read and, on occasion, Bill read excerpts from his work to us – much like he and Lowry had done in the 1950s. He worked the plots and the particulars out in his head before sitting down to peck them out on his old typewriter; for this reason, he often wrote a short story in one sitting. One of his favourite stories about writing involved the time he found a conversation so interesting he eavesdropped on a couple as they made their way through an airport. In another humourous anecdote, he related how he exasperated a colleague during a trial: Bill objected to the other council’s questions to a witness on the basis that they were ungrammatical, and the judge agreed.
I also had the good luck of signing up for a non-credit, one-day course with Barry Broadfoot. He gave us some general guidelines for interviewing but more than anything else, stressed that interviewers must be respectful. By that, he meant even though the interviewer knows the person being interviewed has nothing of significance to contribute, one must listen attentively. The story is important to the person telling it, and that person is donating time to the interviewer. I took that advice to heart, and always hear a story to its finish. Incredibly, even throwaway interviews often yield surprises such as helpful leads or information useful to an unrelated piece of writing.
Some of the other memorable individuals I met while conducting research for my writings include such notables as, Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay, and Hilda and Phil Thomas. While Earle told me stories that he would not allow me to print, he was engaging. A signed chapbook he sent me sits among my more treasured publications.
Dorothy Livesay could be endearing or feisty. The day I knocked on her door, she opened it breathless and bright-eyed, explaining that she was fighting with (tormenting might be more accurate) the telephone repairman. An unpublished poem she wrote about Lowry sits in a frame next to my desk.
Hilda Thomas, feminist, socialist, and UBC English instructor, was not shy about her political views; and her husband Phil’s devotion to collecting and recording BC’s folk songs is legendary. I still hear their voices: Hilda on CBC radio as she gave politicians hell, and belting out her raucous version of “The Trucker’s Song”; and, Phil singing one of the historic tunes from his landmark publication, Songs of the Pacific Northwest.
One morning in the early 1990s, I found myself at an Ottawa bed and breakfast eating oatmeal with the distinguished historian and librarian, William Kaye Lamb. Besides our general chitchat, I recall that Mr. Lamb showed great interest in my research on the Vancouver photographer John Vanderpant.
Sadly, most of the people I have mentioned have passed away. I miss them but treasure my memories of our interactions. Happily, I am also still encountering members of BC’s “book world.” Some, like the emerging writer who haunts my local coffee shop, are engaging acquaintances; others are special friends. Being an author has not made me richer financially; but writing has introduced me to an array of intriguing, talented, and unforgettable individuals. I am incredibly richer for that.
Essay Date: 2007