OBIT: Brian Fawcett (1944 – 2022)
March 07th, 2022
By Alan Twigg (with notes from BCBookLook staff)
In the early 1970s, Brian Fawcett first notably wrote about his hometown of Prince George 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 Caledonia College was the forerunner of the University of Northern B.C.
McKinnon, who hadn’t grown up in Prince George did not at first see the northern city as “poetic subject matter.” But he could see that Fawcett had begun to sense “that Prince George would be the central metaphor and subject for his writing life. His place.”
Although Fawcett left Prince George in 1965 to attend Simon Fraser University in Vancouver with his high school sweetheart, the gifted poet Sharon Thesen, and later relocated to Toronto where he married Leanna Crouch, the environs of his hometown would prove to be a central focus for his Virtual Clearcut: or, The Way Things Are in My Home Town (Thomas Allen, 2003), for which he received the $15,000 Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2004, as well as his novel The Last of the Lumbermen (Cormorant, 2013) about hockey in small towns like Prince George.
Born in Prince George 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.
Barry McKinnon says that Fawcett described NMFG as being “playful and disrespectful” and a “recalcitrant counter attack to much bad writing of the day.”
McKinnon described the young Fawcett and his gang as “Prince George toughs in the big city out to cause a literary stir, which they did with great intelligence, seriousness and humour.”
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, as an urban planner in Greater Vancouver (until 1985) and an English instructor within the Matsqui prison.
Ever feisty, Fawcett became prominent in literary politics within the Writers Union of Canada and as an editor for Books in Canada.
After 1985, Brian Fawcett moved to Toronto where he married Leanna Crouch (a former producer of the TV-Ontario program, Imprint, about books and authors), and where esteemed pundit John Ralston Saul compared him to Socrates. In this headier intellectual milieu, Fawcett received the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2004 for 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 Prince George and the hinterland. Globalization was not the only theme; Fawcett made a prodigal return in the book 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 was fascinated with explorer Alexander Mackenzie and why he was on his own exploratory, intellectual mission in a chapter called Alexander Mackenzie’s Supermarket.
“I want to make people angry,” said 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. When Prince George held public events in 1993 to mark the 200th anniversary of Alexander Mackenzie’s arrival in the region, he returned to his hometown to cast a critical eye on the proceedings.
This was quickly followed by arguably his most provocative and original non-fiction book, Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow (Talonbooks, 1986), in which he not only provided an alarming account of the so-called Killing Field atrocities in Khmer Rouge Cambodia in the late 1970s; he also offered an ahead-of-its-time analysis of how modern media was increasingly trivializing political news and dumbing-down political analysis.
Fawcett’s forte was provoking critical thinking–as he also attempted to do in a lesser-known work, also from the West Coast, Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times and Other Impolite Interventions (New Star Books, 1991), concerning what he called “excessive professionalization” in the work place and the sorry state of late twentieth-century architecture.
His publisher at New Star Books, Rolf Maurer says Fawcett’s warmth of character caught him off guard. “I worked on a couple of books with Brian around the turn of the century, and so got to know him long enough to get past the carapace, and get to know a writer who was (surprisingly) affectionate and generous, and endlessly, voraciously curious,” said Maurer.
“I also knew him long enough to experience what inevitably happened to anyone who knew Brian long enough: a serious falling out over something or other that seemed permanent at the time.
“Brian took writing, and not just his own, but writing in general, seriously. When he wrote something, it was never intended as the last word, but as a way to think about something. He never wrote the same book twice, and they all have interesting things to say. For a long time, my favourite Brian Fawcett book was The Compact Garden [Camden House, 1992].”
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.”
Poet and blogger, rob mclennan (http://robmclennan.blogspot.com/) who knew Fawcett as somewhat of a mentor for more than two decades, says he will miss the elder writer’s “humour, his engagement and his fierce intelligence. I shall miss the ways in which he challenged my thinking. I shall miss his endless array of literary gossips and tall tales. I shall miss his kindness.”
About a dozen years ago, the Ottawa-based mclennan found himself spending more time in Toronto where he would stay in either Fawcett’s spare room or out back in the coach house.
“In August 2010, I arrived to house-sit for a week or so, with only Brian on-hand to hand over keys. Before he left, we had dinner (from whence my photo of Brian emerges), and I was provided lengthy instructions on how to daily water the dozens of varieties of tomato plants that surrounded their yard, up the fire escape and across the rooftop deck of the coach house: a barrel of yesterday’s water to feed the tomatoes, and another barrel to fill (because the temperature out of the hose would have damaged the plants). It took more than an hour, each time. He’d managed to secure seeds from numerous places, including some he said were near impossible to find. He was working, he said, on a book. At one point, he made me a toasted tomato sandwich, slathered with mayonnaise and sprinkled with sea-salt, something I never would have considered (disliking tomatoes and mayonnaise, for example). It was perhaps the finest sandwich I have ever had, and I say with no exaggeration that it was a sandwich I still think of.”
Brian Fawcett’s long-time associate Paul Strickland produced the first, full-length obituary for and about Fawcett in the Prince George Citizen. In it, Strickland describes Fawcett as a poet, forester, teacher, urban planner, national newspaper columnist, fiction writer and architecture critic. Strickland quotes long-time College of New Caledonia English professor and poet/friend John Harris, who certainly knew Fawcett better than most: “Prince George and environs is more than just a setting of his stories; it is a character in them, its personality changing through a lifetime, from the days of Alexander Mackenzie to the days of Hartley Fawcett [his father]. As Brian grew more popular, moving from Vancouver publishers to publishers in Toronto and New York, a lot of people got to know our town. And we got to know it better.”
Brian Fawcett’s combative, critical smarts will be much-missed in the increasingly constrained and cautious world of Canadian letters.
He was the son of Rita Surry and Harley Fawcett, a soft-drink salesman who started his own ice-cream factory, Roses Ice Cream until he was forced to sell out and the family re-located, in 1967, to Skaha Lake in the Okanagan. As described in Human Happiness, Brian Fawcett’s three children are named Jesse, Max and Hartlea.
Brian Fawcett died February 27, 2022 from a condition called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which he was diagnosed with in 2018.
BOOKS by Brian Fawcett:
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 Cafe 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: 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.
BRIAN 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 McLuhan?
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.
[from STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour Publishing, 1988)]
Along with his many accomplishments, Serious Gardener must be on the list. His many tomato plants are listed here, but I am remembering his book Guerilla Gardening.