April 07th, 2008
Howard White was raised on Nelson Island in a gyppo logging camp. "I grew up pitying poor city boys, " he says, "who couldn't walk a slippery boomstick without falling in the drink or tell a red cedar from a yellow cedar." After attending UBC, he returned to the Sunshine Coast and started a local newspaper in Pender Harbour. He entered magazine publishing with Raincoast Chronicles, an ongoing collection of articles about the B.C. coast.
When he decided to become a fulltime book publisher, White bought a miscellany of antiquated printing and binding equipment—everything needed for the manufacture of books in the backwoods—and set up shop in an unheated workshed that he and his father had used for fixing backhoes and dumptrucks. White and White Sr. then proceeded to teach themselves how to operate and repair all the machinery.
Since 1965 his Harbour Publishing has produced 100 titles including Edith Iglauer's Fishing with John, George Woodcock's Confederation Betrayed, Donald Graham's bestsellers, Keepers of the Light and Lights of the Inside Passage, Anne Cameron's Dzelarhons, Rudy Dangelmaier's Pioneer Buildings of British Columbia and Hubert Evans' 0 Time In Your Flight. While remaining in Pender Harbour and raising two sons, he and his wife Mary have completely moved into the computer age of high-tech production. Only one other company, Douglas & McIntyre (with far more employees), has received more B.C. Book Prizes.
For the past two years Howard White: has been the president of the 45-member Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia. As such, he's been at the forefront of decade-long lobbying efforts to ultimately win parity with other provinces for B.C.'s growing bookmaking community.
Since his teens White has been involved in dozens of campaigns to protect and enhance the coastal region. The Cheekeye-Dunsmuir powerline project, he says, was "a billion- dollar boondoggle financed with with money that could have been used to give this province the best educational system in the world."
He has been back in the provincial headlines recently in a confrontation with B.C. Liberal Party leader Gordon Wilson over a big Hong Kong-based condominium project for Pender Harbour. Wilson supports it; White thinks it's "a social and ecological disaster."
White's first book, A Hard Man to Beat (Pulp 1982), documented the life of longtime Marine and Boilermakers Union president Bill White (no relation) by using an innovative first-person narrative approach.
After a collection of West Coast poems, The Men There Were Then, he joined with pioneer entrepreneur Jim Spilsbury to write two B.C. bestsellers, Spilsbury's Coast and The Accidental Airline.
His Raincoast Chronicles First Five received the first Eatons B. C. Book Award. Raincoast Chronicles Six/Ten was also a bestseller containing articles on lighthouses, tugboats, Queen Charlotte Airlines, the cadborosaurus, mission boats and early settlers; with logging illustrations, poetry, book reviews and paintings by E.J. Hughes.
In recognition of his contributions to B.C. history, Howard White received the Certificate of Merit in Regional History award from the Canadian Historical Association in 1989. His forthcoming book this spring, Writing in the Rain (Harbour $12.95), is a collection of his coastal articles and memoirs.
BCBW: The B.C. coast has so many terrific characters. The Brother XII, William Duncan of Metlakatla, Premier Amor de Cosmos, John Jewitt.
WHITE: And Sealskin Norton. And Step-And-Half Phelps. And Sidney Sauderman and Captain Spratt and Boilermaker Bill and Bunkhouse Betty.
BCBW: Yet less than 1% of our population seems to know these people ever existed.
WHITE: You're right. People respond to it if they happen to encounter it. But so far the department of education has made sure most of us never do.
BCBW: Why hasn't someone put all these fantastic coastal stories into The Great B.C. Novel?
WHITE: Well, Jack Hodgins definitely has the bit in his teeth. And Anne Cameron is another one who has the vision for it. Itll happen eventually. Great novels don't happen on a one-off basis. They come out of a body of work and our body is still at the crawling stage.
BCBW: Growing up on Nelson Island, did you think you'd become a writer?
WHITE: If I knew what a writer was, I might have. But I never thought of writing as a career. I assumed books were tossed off in spare moments by people who drove bulldozers during the day.
BCBW: What books influenced you?
WHITE: There were no children's books so I mostly made do with Bookof-the-Month-Club selections. Tortilla Flat. Giant. The Cruel Sea. A Bell for Adano. I read great works later but none of them could measure up to the thrill of those early potboilers.
My Dad used to try and read to me from Organic Evolution and the Wealth of Nations when I was eight. In school I was nicknamed "The Professor". But I was able to keep my critics off guard by spending my study time running a backhoe.
BCBW: Many people still like to believe there's a hierarchy of sophistication in this world. It emanates from the Mecca of good taste and intelligence, New York. ..
WHITE: Well, when I first came up for air it was London. The only right way was the British way. But I've spent a lot of time in New York and in many ways it's more parochial than Pender Harbour. New Yorkers don't even like to recognize that New Jersey exists. It's only ten minutes across the river but they talk about it like it was Outer Mongolia. Torontonians are much the same way about Hamilton. These places have the media leverage so they get to pass off their localism as universalism. The crazy thing is, as you say, many of the rest of us buy it. But people who grow up in big cities aren't necessarily any smarter. Samuel Johnson came to London from a small town. And that ultimate expression of the big city psyche, the New Yorker magazine, was actually the brainchild of a guy who grew up in Aspen, Colorado back when Aspen had a population of about 300 people.
BCBW: Perhaps one of the reasons Edith Iglauer's Fishing with John has been so successful is that it offers proof that a crusty commercial fisherman can be just as sophisticated and complex as a New Yorker socialite.
WHITE: Well, John Daly had a lot of barnacles. Sophisticated was not one of the things he was aiming for. Moral strength is more the quality I would think of; "mental protein" as he put it. Edith's genius is that she was able to see that, and not be distracted by the barnacles. That on her part was greatly sophisticated. If you want to talk about hierarchies of sophistication, Edith is quite a study. She makes no distinction whether she's talking to an Eskimo seal hunter or the president of the United Nations. They are just human beings to her, and she'll call one a wise man or a fool as quickly as the other. To me, that is real sophistication.
BCBW: As the Canadian editor for Fishing with John, were you confident that book would sell?
WHITE: Yes. Farrar Strauss Giroux in the U.S. and Harbour went together on the printing and we ordered 2,000 more copies than they did on the first run. Then we reordered three times. I think we probably doubled them in the end. For me this was a case study of how a regional publisher can be better for a certain kind of book than a New York publisher. If you've got a blockbuster, you have to have the big guy. But if you're going to be mid-list with the big guy, you're probably a lot better off being top of the list with someone like Harbour.
BCBW: Do you think there's any chance the B.C. coastline will have a renaissance?
WHITE: Historically there have been waves of settlement and waves of abandonment. It's a function of the zeitgeist. In romantic, experimental periods people seek challenges in nature, and the B.C. coast is always there, shrouded in mystery and promise. We saw that in the sixties and during the expansive times following the two world wars. In times of retrenchment and conservatism, people slip back to the security of urban enclaves. That's where we're at today.
BCBW: One global trend these days is that more writers seem to be entering politics.
WHITE: Ken Mitchell in Saskatchewan. And Maria Largas Lhosa, the Chilean novelist, was really the first one to put the skids under Pinochet by beating his candidate for mayor of Santiago.
BCBW: Plus a playwright is now the president of Czechoslovakia.
WHITE: The pencil-necks are taking over!
BCBW: Let's say I'm the premier and I've just appointed you as Minister of Culture. What are your priorities for the 1990s?
WHITE: Hoboy. Where would you start? With the sole exception of film, B.C. has the lowest per-capita support for cultural activities of any developed province. It's been this way for decades. There's a staggering job of catching up to be done. I've got a pretty long list. I guess the main item would be the establishment of a B.C. Arts Council along the lines of the Ontario Arts Council which would provide arm's length administration for a whole slate of cultural support programs, the way it's done in most civilized jurisdictions. I would also like to nudge the Knowledge Network more in the direction of a local PBS, except, of course, more perfect. I'd like to see it as more of a catalyst for independent production and more of an outlet for B.C.based writing and research. I'd also like to stimulate more activity in the cable television and home video areas, by making production facilities much more accessible at the community level. But my good friend Rolf Maurer of New Star Books assures me one thing they never do in politics is put you in charge of anything you know something about and have ideas for.
BCBW: What about the publishing industry? Isn't it about time it received more than token assistance?
WHITE: Of all the endangered species in the cultural sector, books and writing are by far the worst off. Of the miserable excuse for a cultural budget that does exist in B.C., the literary arts receive something like 3% of the total. The normal literary arts share of global cultural budgets, taking the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council as examples, is something on the order of 15% to 20%. B.C. has no program of support for individual adult writers at all. And this in the province with the highest rate of book consumption and library use in the country. It's a complete scandal".
BCBW: In B.C. an author still can't get a nickel to help him write a book. Yet the government is spending millions on some very questionable film projects; plus B.C. Film recently announced even greater levels of direct funding for screenwriters.
WHITE: I've got no beef with the new $15-million film development program. If the films are schlocky, the government should look at its standards, but not back away from the idea of building an indigenous film industry. We need one. But while we venture forth in search of new cultural triumphs, we should make sure we maintain the success we've had, and the book industry has been enormously successful and remarkably efficient. According to the new Lorimer Report our book publishers have the highest average sales per title of any province. But because of the government's lack of backing we're still experiencing the highest average deficit per title.
BCBW: What about the argument that B.C.'s publishing industry probably gets twenty times less money and twenty times less publicity; but it probably does the general public ten times more good.
WHITE: Well, I can tell you that in the past ten years or so B.C. publishers have published over 2,000 widely diverse titles with sales of over three million copies. Their annual revenues are $16 million. Both the cultural and economic impact of this activity dwarfs that of the indigenous film industry.
B.C. books play key roles in education, in literacy, in creating identity and in projecting a favourable image of B.C. to the world. But the annual support budget for book publishing is under $400,00. Simultaneously one new film development program alone is worth $15 million. Just think about that! And there are other major funding sources for film as well. I am sure this isn't a penny more than the film industry needs but it's indefensible for the government to lavish care on the one cultural genre that tickles their fancy while subjecting all others to the most crippling kind of neglect.
BCBW: Similarly, does it bother you when you look at Max Wyman's Christmas book roundup in The Province and see only two B.C. books mentioned, one of which was his own.
WHITE: A little. (Laughter) I've had an ongoing argument with the Vancouver papers about this. I could be wrong but it strikes me their reluctance to adequately cover B.C. books could be the result of lingering cultural colonialism. But the Sun book coverage has certainly improved under Peter Wilson and we're hopeful it's going to be improving more under the new editor, Nick Hills.
BCBW: What do you feel are some classic B.C. books?
WHITE: Mist on the River by Hubert Evans. Tay John by Howard O’Hagan. Woodsmen of the West by M.A. Grainger. Curve of Time by M.W. Blanchef. Klee Wyck by Emily Carr. Fish the Strong Water by N.C. McDonald. Plus something by Haig-Brown, probably Measure of the Year.
BCBW: What about B.C. writers who have fallen through the cracks?
WHITE: Red Lillard seems to have collected the names of about thirty thousand of them. It's a good thing the cracks were there for lots of them. But it certainly doesn't take much for a writer to disappear, nowadays as much as ever. Look at Alan Fry. He published about seven books in the sixties and seventies, took a few years off and this year when we brought out Beating Around the Bush I had to explain to everyone all over again who he was. Rolf Knight is another one who wrote a string of excellent regional books in the seventies and you hear nothing about them. This is depressing.
BCBW: The B.C. coast is less populated today than it was forty years ago. Yet more people seem to be reading about it.
WHITE: Yes, this is something that amuses me. There never was more than about 5,000 people on the part of the coast I write about, the rural coast, and today there's hardly 500. But we publish something like Forgotten Villages of the B.C. Coast and it'll sell 10,000 copies. Obviously there are some outsiders getting into the act. But it doesn't surprise me. I always thought if you wrote perceptively about where you live, you could strike a universal note people everywhere would appreciate. You could find the universal more surely that way than going out deliberately trying to write "for the world" the way a writer like, say, John Metcalfe advocates. I don't think the world even exists on that abstract level. The world is that thing under your feet.
Essay Date: 1990