Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

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Everything from abalone to Zukerman

April 02nd, 2008

If the Golden Age of BC book culture has been reached, the Encyclopedia of British Columbia, published in 2000, was arguably its summit. Here its editor Daniel Francis recounts the origins of one of the most culturally important books from and about British Columbia.

The EBC began as the germ of an idea shared between the publisher Howard White and myself during a freak snowstorm on the highway south of Vancouver. (This is my version of the story, of course; Howard will have his own.) Howard and I had been to White Rock on an errand of a completely different sort. We had been visiting an elderly union organizer whose memoirs I was supposed to be ghosting and Howard was expecting to publish. But I turned out to be insufficiently communist for the old firebrand’s liking, and the project died on his living room rug. While we inched our way down the slippery highway back to the city, we began to cook up another scheme.

At that point – it was 1990 – Howard and I were not the good friends we subsequently became. We had been students at UBC at the same time during the 1960s but had not met there. Following university, I married and moved to eastern Canada to live. When we finally did meet, it was in the offices of the Stern Gallery in Montreal in 1986. I was living in the city and Howie was there on business. I commissioned an article from him for the magazine I was then editing. When I returned to the Coast the following year, I began performing freelance editorial chores for Harbour.

As we made our snow-impeded way in from White Rock that fateful day, it turned out that both Howie and I had been mulling over a similar idea, some sort of a compendium of information about British Columbia. This kind of project seemed to flow naturally from my own recent involvement in Mel Hurtig’s various incarnations of the Canadian Encyclopedia. Meanwhile, Howie had been contemplating a sort of traveller’s guide to the province, inspired by a California guide book he had seen. From this basis, the EBC began to take shape in our minds as a one-stop guide to all things British Columbian; as Howie put it in his Foreword to the book, “everything from BC soup to BC nuts”, or, as it turned out, everything from abalone to George Zukerman.

As I say, it was 1990. Looking ahead, I calculated that in 1992 much fuss would be made about the 200th anniversary of Captain Vancouver’s arrival on the coast. The public coffers would open, I thought, to support commemorative projects, of which ours could be one. Here I made two rookie mistakes. The first was to think that BC would celebrate the great explorer’s coastal survey. As it turned out, 1992 passed with hardly a ripple of attention paid to the bicentennial. The second mistake was to think that I could compile an encyclopedia, singlehandedly, in two years. In the event, it would take ten, and the assistance of many contributors.

Naivete and hubris notwithstanding, by the time Howie and I reached Vancouver, the idea of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia was born. It threatened, however, to be a still birth. Thinking it might be nice to have some funding in place before we began, I wasted a lot of time contemplating ways of raising the cash. This was not going to be an ordinary book; it would have to be funded in extraordinary ways. We were aware that Hurtig’s company had run aground on the shoals of his encyclopedia projects and Howie did not want to see Harbour suffer a similar fate. But after months of fruitless talking and thinking, it occurred to me that fund-raising was neither my strength nor my job. That responsibility belonged to the publisher. I decided to get started on the content.

I began by treating it as a harmless hobby. As other people might play golf or press stamps into an album, I compiled brief articles about people, places and things. I had told writing students in the past, when a subject seems so large as to be intimidating begin by biting off a small piece and starting to chew. In the case of the EBC, I followed my own advice. I simply began writing entries. There was no method to my approach. If something caught my attention in the morning paper, I followed it up. So-and-so inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame? I tracked down enough information to write a biography. The latest census released? I downloaded population figures for every city, town and village. Another lumber company bought or sold? I better get going on a list of pioneer loggers. One thing always led to another and as the months, then years, passed, the pile of finished entries on a table in my office reached toward the ceiling.

I don’t really know what mixture of blind confidence and pigheadedness made me think anything was going to come of it. Somewhere along the way I read the biography of James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. The image of him pigeonholing his word definitions in the great iron Scriptorium he had built for the project seemed depressingly apt. When Murray embarked on the project in 1879, its promoters expected that the OED would take ten years to complete. Five years later he and his team had reached the word “ant”. When the famed editor died in 1915, the dictionary was still not finished. I hoped to live long enough to see the end of the EBC, but there was no guarantee.

Periodically I would drive up to see Howie in Madeira Park to have another planning session. The entries were in my computer, of course, but I made print-outs and took them along to impress him with my progress. As the number of boxes of paper I heaved out of my trunk grew, so did our realization that maybe, just maybe, the book might become a reality.

At one point I received a letter from the writer Daphne Marlatt. I had written a short biographical entry about her and had sent it out for fact checking. She wrote back with some minor corrections, but mainly she wrote to tell me that she had noticed from my letterhead that I was living in the same house in North Vancouver that she and her family had lived in when they immigrated to Canada in the early 1950s. She recalled particularly the large sawdust-burning furnace in the basement and leaping into the pile of sawdust as a kid. Daphne said that it gave her a great deal of pleasure to think that an Encyclopedia of British Columbia was now being produced in the house where she spent part of her childhood. Whenever the whole project seemed larger than my ability to complete it, I used to recall this letter, and the coincidence it evoked, and be reassured that there was an audience of people who shared an experience of the province and wanted to know more about their place.

Haphazard as my approach was, there seemed to be no other way. So long as we had no money to pay contributors, I could not bring myself to ask anyone for help. As time passed, I overcame this inhibition and discovered to my surprise that most people were more than willing to be a part of the project for nothing. Dozens of writers, some of whom were friends, many of whom were strangers, agreed to add to my own output. Then we assembled a group of knowledgeable advisors to help sort out the essential from the incidental. There was a limit to how big a book it could be and we were fast approaching it.

Finally it looked like we would be ready to publish on BC Day, 1999. But at one of the Madeira Park meetings the editorial team decided that we better take another hard look at the material. The one thing an encyclopedia has to be is dependable. There were still some holes to fill. And were we certain that the information was as reliable as we could make it? So we delayed for another year and submitted the entire text to another vetting.

Finally, in the year 2000, we celebrated the new millennium by launching the book with a huge party at the Vancouver Public Library, inviting all the people who had contributed to the finished product. The book was such a success that it made us all look like we knew what we were doing. In fact, most of the time we were flying by the seat of our pants. As I said on the night the book won a pair of BC Book Prizes, Howie and I both sensed from the beginning that if we waited to raise the necessary money, to set up the editorial committees, to consult all the experts, and to draw up the flow charts and data bases, we’d never get the damn thing done. Instead, we just went ahead and did it.

I do not recommend this as the best way, but it seems to me to be a typically BC way.

And it worked.

Essay Date: 2007

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