April 07th, 2008
PIERRE BERTON was born in Dawson City in 1920. He opted for a newspaper career while being educated on the west coast, he became a managing editor of Maclean's, associate editor of the Toronto Star and a panelist on Canada's longest-running TV program, Front Page Challenge. The kingpin of Canadian non-fiction, he is arguably the country's best known writer, averaging a book a year for three decades as a popular historian. The Mysterious North (1956), Klondike (1958) and The Last Spike (1971) won Governor General's Awards. Other noteworthy titles are The National Dream (1970), The Invasion of Canada (1980), Flames Across the Border (1981), Why We Act Like Canadians (1982), Vimy (1986) and a study of prairie settlement, The Promised Land (1984), Starting Out (1987) chronicles the first twenty-seven years of his life. His most ambitious history is The Arctic Grail (1988) about the search for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole. He was chairman of the Writers Union in 1987-88. Pierre Berton lives in Kleinburg, Ontario. He was interviewed in 1984.
T: Are there any newspapers across the country doing a good job these days?
BERTON: No. I'm really distressed by the state of the press. It's gone flabby and dull. And uninspired and unintelligent. With the possible exception of the Globe & Mail. The Toronto Star, the greatest newspaper in Canada, is so flabby and so heavy it splinters the doors. And you can go through it in about two minutes. It's all predictable. Their idea of an investigative piece is to count the number of prostitutes on Isabella Street at midnight. That's a big story for them.
T: And Maclean's?
BERTON: It's a pretty good magazine but it's not what it was.
T: You once said your magazine work with Maclean's in the fifties gave you the best training for writing books. . .
BERTON: That's absolutely true.
T: What was so special about that environment?
BERTON: The editors. You couldn't get away with a thing in Maclean's. You couldn't waffle and you couldn't hide. If you made a statement they'd want to know where you got it from. Editors like Arthur Irwin would write things in the margin like "Evidence." He'd make sure the reader knew. Or he'd write, "Who he?" -that meant tell us a bit about this guy. You'd have to rewrite your piece two or three times. You'd have to do more research. They'd check your grammar, your spelling, the way you wrote. They'd point out if you were copying Time magazine. You could never print an article in Maclean's that wasn't rewritten.
T: Then you became an editor there yourself.
BERTON: That was the greatest way to learn. Fixing other people's copy.
T: Nowadays we've got journalism schools. Would you advise an aspiring non-fiction writer to take that route?
BERTON: I think it's a waste of time to go to university for four years of undergraduate work in journalism. I think you should take a broad course, as I did, and learn a lot of different things, then finish it off with a year of journalism. The trouble with journalism school is that the best journalists aren't teaching there.
T: Do you look at the personalities of your parents to understand why you became the sort of writer you are?
BERTON: Sure. First of all, journalism runs in the family. My grandfather, Phillip Thompson, was the best known journalist in Eastern Canada during the nineteenth century. And my mother wrote all the time, as an amateur. My father was a frustrated scientist with an enormous curiosity about everything. I get my journalist's background from my mother's side and the curiosity from my father's side.
T: Were you confident at an early age that you would write?
BERTON: No. My parents didn't want me to. My father wanted me to be a scientist. And I wanted to be a chemist. I had a lab in my basement. I initially took two years of chemistry at college. In trig and calculus, I was top of my class. But I wasn't very good in physics. One day I had to ask myself why I wasn't doing very well in physics and not that well in the chern lab. And the answer was that I was spending all my time on the college paper. I thought, "That's what I like to do. So that's what I better do."
My father was upset. My mother said, "I come from a journalistic family. You'll never have a clean shirt." She said chemists made as much as eighty dollars a month, some of them. As a journalist I'd always want for money. But I said I couldn't help it. I switched to UBC from Victoria.
T: To start writing for their paper, the Ubyssey.
BERTON: Yes. One thing I had noticed was that every editor of the Ubyssey and every major writer on the Ubyssey got a job downtown. This was '37. Jobs were scarce. I thought, "That's what I'll do. Never mind the University of BC. I'll just drift through there. I'll work on the Ubyssey and learn journalism. I'll get a job at one of the papers as a campus correspondent." That's exactly what happened. I eventually worked downtown for the summer, got taken on, and became city editor at the News Herald. Because I was the only guy who knew how to write headlines. And I'd learned that at the Ubyssey. So the Ubyssey was certainly important to me. Before coming to Vancouver from Victoria I already knew the names of everybody who worked on that paper. But I didn't know that some of those people would become lifelong friends, and that I would marry one of them.
T: Perhaps your scientific leanings from your father were just strong enough to keep you from going all the way towards becoming a novelist. So you've ended up telling stories, but the stories have to be true.
BERTON: It's interesting. When I did Klondike, I thought about how I should do it. I knew if I did it as a novel I could sell it to the movies. It's a natural. But I couldn't bring myself to make anything up. I thought the story was so good. I couldn't not tell the story as a journalist. So what I did was read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. And Pilgrim's Progress. I wanted to get a slight feeling of Biblical prose because it's an allegory anyway. Klondike isn't the story of the Klondike. It's the story of man's search for himself. I never say this in the book. But you have to have that in your head when you're writing it.
T: Do you think Canada, by its nature, is more of a non-fiction country than a fiction country?
BERTON: Oh, yes. There's no doubt about that. For several reasons. First of all, Canadians have very little show business background. Our background is documentaries, public affairs and satire. You have to remember that it's much cheaper to do public affairs than high bucks entertainment. And this is a small market. Secondly, it's just the nature of the Canadian. I think it goes back to the fact that there's no blood in our history. That is, we're not a revolutionary country. You have to have some tribulation to produce some body of dramatic or fictional culture, I think. You really do. Look at the Irish. Look at the Russians. Look at the British and the Americans. We haven't had a bloodbath. We haven't had a revolution. We're not a revolutionary people. We don't rise up in a wrath and get passionately angry about anything.
T: So we favour an undramatic, nonfictional culture. And Pierre Berton books.
BERTON: Well, my approach has always been anti-romantic. Very few people understand this. People say, "You create heroes." On the contrary, I pull them down! Look at The Dionne Years if you want an anti-romantic book. I think most of my work isn't romantic. I think most of my work is epic. I love epics.
T: With this line of reasoning do you think fiction writers in Canada would be well advised to pay more attention to non-fiction and history?
BERTON: Well, look at Timothy Findley. His successful books, which are certainly brilliant pieces of imagination, are also rooted in reality. And he does a lot of research.
T: There's a general assumption that a fiction book is a work of creativity, whereas a non-fiction book is simply a matter of hard work.
BERTON: Yes. And that angers me. It's just as difficult. You can't make anything up!
T: Findley's creativity is obvious and yours isn't.
BERTON: And that's how it should be. If they perceive it, then you haven't done your job. It should all read like peaches and cream. My whole secret is to try and make it read like a novel. First of all, I try and make my books look like a novel. For instance, if I quote a passage from somebody else, and I don't do it often, I don't put it in smaller type indent it. I put in large type and just put quote marks around it. Because I don't want people to open this book and have it look like a textbook. The textbooks make it very tough for the rest of us who are writing history. History in most people's minds is like a textbook. Well, I want history to look like a novel.
Secondly, you have to do exactly what you would be doing if you were writing a movie. I think all writing really-whether it's films, radio, television, novels, even newspaper stories-is a collection of scenes. So first, what a writer has to do is get the scene right. That is, he's got to get the texture, he's got to get the background. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. If there's something missing, I've got to go out and find it. What was the weather like, for instance? Were there clouds in the sky? Once you get your scene, then you have to know will it be narrative? Will it be dramatic? How do you start? How do you finish?
The third thing is, how do you connect the scenes up? That's the hardest part. This was especially true of the war books. You're dealing with very powerful and intimate stuff. This is where the creation comes in. You can't create a character. You can't give them anything that isn't documented. I discipline myself. I put footnotes at the back. Not just for the academics, but for the readers. I hate a book that doesn't have notes. I want to know where a guy found something out.
T: Margaret Laurence has said that writing a novel is an exercise in failure. Do you feel this with non-fiction, as well?
BERTON: Oh, yes. A year later you look at the book and think, Jesus Christ, I could have done better than that. Most of my books could be rewritten. Some of them I really would like to rewrite. What separates, I think, the amateur from the professional, is that the amateur continues to go on with the same book. The professional says, "Enough! I've learned something. It's flawed. But nothing's perfect. Maybe I'll learn a little more on the next book." But the amateur keeps fiddling with the book until it's worse and worse and worse. There's such a thing as too much rewriting. There's a moment comes when you should leave the bloody book alone. The professional will know when that moment has arrived. He should build on each major book.
T: Do you have an inventory of books in your mind? the ones that particularly nag at you?
BERTON: They all nag at me. Some nag at me more than others. And I know how to fix most of them. The main secret is to hide your research. That's the hardest thing to do. To know your research so well that you can write it without the research showing. It takes a long time to learn the techniques of hiding your research. If you look at The National Dream, the research does show in that book. It's a heavy book. And the academics like it, maybe for that reason. But if I were to do The National Dream again, it would be a shorter book. I wouldn't be quoting so many documents. I'd be putting more of it into my own words.
T: What else?
BERTON: I would totally rewrite Hollywood's Canada. It's a weird book. It's a cult book. There's a class of people that love it. But for me it wasn't a successful book. I loved it as a movie buff. But I would rewrite it differently. I wouldn't take it so seriously- I got angry there. I'd have a lot more fun with it. I'd make it much shorter. I'd put in more pictures.
T: Most individual chapters in The Settling of the West could have been expanded into books. That's another thing that's overlooked. The condensation process involved.
BERTON: That's right. I cut the shit out of it. I determined to stop writing long. The problem with that particular book was putting it together in the right order. It has to start in 1896 and end in 1914. It has to move through time. But you're moving back and forth, overlapping, describing a lot of different elements. I wrote the book four times. And parts of it more than that. I think it stands as the easiest reading book I've done. Whereas the two books on the War of 1812 are over two hundred thousand words. I actually cut Flames Across the Border by twenty-five thousand words. Jack McClelland wanted three books but I said no, two's plenty. Probably one too many.
T: I was pleased to find some new material about the Doukhobors in The Settling of the West.
BERTON: Yes. I get annoyed at the academics. They always say, and it's always untrue, that there's nothing new in my books. The first way to attack that statement is to point out that there's new stuff all through the books. But another way is to point out that what they're saying is that we professional historians and academics know it all. They forget that ninety-nine percent of the people really know nothing. It's elitist. What they're really saying is that history is too good for the masses.
T: A little book of yours I like is Why We A ct Like Canadians.
BERTON: I was driving to the Canadian Club one day, about to make a speech on the subject, and I thought, "Why am I speaking for nothing to the Canadian Club when I can put this into a book?" So I went home and I knocked it off. I wrote it very pompously at first. Then I realized it had to be informal. I wrote it as a series of letters. That helped the writing. I thought it was a potboiler for me. It was fun. But that book, by God! People rave about it. It sold and it still sells. I just wrote from my own research. Talk about recycling. These were just ideas I had accumulated over the years. The odd thing is, I could have spent more time on that book, made it longer, and it would have been worse. You could have done a 250page book. Lots of material, lots of evidence. But I didn't have time. McClelland was saying c'mon, c'mon, we need the book. So I knocked it off. And it's probably better for it.
T: The line I like most in Why We A ct Like Canadians is "Canadians respect institutions, not individuals." It has occurred to me that if a person such as yourself understands and believes that maxim, they might even conclude that in Canada one should make efforts to institutionalize oneself. To do a book every year.
BERTON: Some reviewer referred the other day to "the notorious Berton book factory." As if there's something obscene about turning out too many books. I love that word, notorious. What's notorious about staying at your job? I don't set out to do a book a year. In fact, there are several years when I haven't. And other years when I've done two. It's just what I do, you know.
T: But you must realize you're respected as much as an institution, as you are as an individual.
BERTON: Oh, that's wonderful, that's great. That keeps me going. I have no objections to that. You have to publicize the book so people know it's out. A lot of people buy my books sight unseen. People come down and say, "I buy all your books. I want this one. " But if I did a couple of lousy books in a row, they'd stop that.
T: Over the years you've cautioned us to preserve the Canadian character against the domination of the Americans. Is that situation changing at all? For better or for worse?
BERTON: Well, I've changed my mind on this to some extent. I don't think the problem is so much economic domination, which I used to think, as it is cultural domination. And I think we're stronger culturally in everywhere but two fields. When I first came to Toronto, it was a cultural desert. Now, my God, you open a Toronto paper! You've got a smorgasbord of drama and music being offered to you. And about half of it is Canadian. This is true also now in radio. Radio was almost entirely American when it began here.
But there are two areas where we haven't yet come to grips with this problem. Unfortunately they're the two most important areas. The visual areas. Film and television. We've not got a Canadian film movement yet. The fact of the matter is that American and European films are still dominating the culture. And the reason is that nobody at the government level has had the guts to tell Hollywood they've got to leave some of their money in Canada for production. That's all you have to do. It's as simple as that. You just say fifteen percent of your gross box office receipts must remain in Canada to finance Canadian production.
On the television level it's worse than it used to be. This is because of the proliferation of cable and also because the CBC is not being taken seriously at the decision-making level. The CBC is getting squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. It hasn't got the resources to do what it does very well. It can do excellent drama. People watched The National Dream. They loved it. You can make high-rated programs that people like. Trouble is they only have the resources to do a little bit.
I think if you're going to have a Canadian identity then it's going to come from the culture, not so much from the economic end. So maybe it doesn't matter quite so much if the Americans own everything.
T: So you're not talking pessimistically.
BERTON: No. I think the country has a much stronger sense of itself than it did when I grew up.
T: Thirty Berton books later!
BERTON: If an idea pops into my head, I write it. The children's novel, The Secret World of Og, has sold over a hundred thousand copies. It just popped into my head one day. I've got lots of stuff to publish. I'm not a frustrated writer. I write for my own amusement anyway. I always did. When I was in the army I wrote letters to everybody. I just write. I like writing.
Essay Date: 1984