Is this book project crap?

UPDATE: There is no update. It is now August 15, more than a month since I wrote my letter to the minister, and he still has not replied.


I applied to a provincial government agency - twice — to fund my next history book project, and was turned down, twice. Why? First, let me tell you the reason I applied for this money.

You don’t make big money writing history in this country. It is the sport of amateurs. Amateurs, that is, not in the sense being inept but in the sense of loving what you do and not expecting to get rich doing it. There are some exceptions, of course. Pierre Berton was one who made good money from his history writing.  Margaret MacMillan is another. Her books are New York Times bestsellers, translated into  several languages, and the winners of many prizes. But MacMillan doesn’t start earning big money from her books until after they are published, and they take several years to research and write. How does she keep body and soul together in the meantime? Through the support of the various universities with which she is associated. In her published acknowledgments in Paris 1919, for example, she thanks Ryerson University and St. Anthony’s College, Oxford for their help.

I am not a university-based historian. I am a freelancer who relies on government grants to fund my historical research. Otherwise, I simply could not afford to do this work. As enjoyable as it is for me to spend my days conducting interviews and sifting through the valuable historical resources of the Glenbow Library and Archives, I still have to pay the utility bills.

A writer’s work is never done. I propose to devote my full attention to the history book project after I finish the rewrites for my current autobiography-in-progress, scheduled for publication in the fall of 2011. The history book will be a sequel to my 2002 title, Scoundrels and Scallywags, which became a Canadian bestseller and was nominated for a few prizes. As successful as that book has been, however, the total returns from it have been far less than what I would have earned in a month working — say — as an executive assistant to Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett (pictured above).

Mr. Blackett, you will recall, is the politician who made headlines across the country in June for dismissing much of the film and television projects his government funds as “shit” and “crap.” He didn’t say anything about the book projects his government funds, but you have to wonder about them as well. He obviously likes his constituents to know what’s on his mind because he posts regularly to Facebook and Twitter.

When I began formulating plans for my proposed history book project in the fall of 2009, I applied for funding from this agency that reports to Minister Blackett. I had received funding for the other seven books I have published about the social history and colourful characters of Alberta, so I did not imagine there would be a problem with this application. However, much to my surprise, my funding request was denied. Minister Blackett said in a letter that my research was “unlikely to provide new understanding or add to the knowledge base of Alberta’s history.” I found this explanation a bit hard to take, so I resubmitted my application in February 2010.

In my second application, I referred to the original research I would be conducting to add to our collective knowledge of Alberta history. Again, my request for funding was denied. “The proposed research is still unlikely to result in new knowledge about Alberta’s history,” wrote Minister Blackett.

This time, I  decided I would not take the rejection lying down. I wrote a letter to the minister spelling out exactly how my research WILL result in new knowledge about Alberta’s history. Here are two examples:

In  my chapter on Winnifred Eaton Reeve, a hugely successful romance novelist of the early 20th century, I will use material obtained exclusively from her grandson. How did I get this material? By travelling from Calgary to Toronto and conducting an extensive interview with him. The government did not pay for this trip; I did. The material I obtained will add to our collective knowledge of Alberta history, because no other historian has focussed on the years Reeve spent as a leading figure in Calgary theatrical and writing circles.

Similarly, in the case of the Peace River vaudeville pioneer, Hal Sisson, I have done a number of interviews with his daughter to fill in the many gaps in his story. I was drawn to his story initially when he published his own obituary in the Victoria Times Colonist. He did so, I discovered, because he simply didn’t trust the media to get his story right. His daughter helped me correct  the misinformation about him that had been published in newspapers prior to his death.

There are many other examples, but you get the picture. Each interview will bring forth new information about the subject that will add to our collective knowledge of Alberta history. It disturbs me greatly, therefore, to be told that my funding applications are being rejected because some unidentified government appointees reporting to Mr. Blackett have told him my project will have no value as a contribution to Alberta history. I will prove them wrong, of course, when the book is published, three or four years from now. In the meantime, I find myself wondering if the minister’s much-publicized remarks about “shit” and “crap” have been interpreted by his minions as a directive to stop giving money to people who have proven they can popularize Alberta history and put it on the Canadian bestsellers list?

I wrote my letter to Minister Blackett on July 10. I am still awaiting the courtesy of a reply.

Where I write

If they ask me, I will do it, of course, especially if they want me to do it for money. If the editors of a magazine or newspaper want me to write a piece about the place where I work, I will be happy to comply: it’s what used to be the master bedroom of  a smallish two-bedroom condo, which I quickly claimed for myself when I discovered it was the largest upstairs room in the house. I didn’t want to work in the basement, because that smacked of being sentenced to life in a dungeon. I moved up my desk, my computer, and my books before my wife had an opportunity to object, and now here I sit, happily scribbling away, only vaguely aware of the unremitting sounds of hammering and sawing that mark the ongoing transformation of my Calgary inner-city neighbourhood from a sleepy community of Second World War bungalows into a trendy habitat for people who make a lot more money than freelance writers.

OK, so that’s where I write, but why would anyone want to know all this? I ask the question when I look at today’s edition of The Globe and Mail, and see that  George Fetherling works in a “miniscule” home office adjoining a larger room in his house filled with books. Any surprise there? Not to me. All writers fill up their available flat surfaces with books. Sure, we can Google like anyone else, but we also like to dig through the stacks in our home libraries to reconnect with old friends. So that’s where I left that book of modern Irish short stories with that wonderful preface by Anthony Burgess: “Any man, whatever his nationality, has a right to admire and to propagandize for Irish literature, but it helps if he possesses Irish blood or a mad capacity for empathizing with Ireland …” What a wonderful way with words that Englishman had.

As a writer, and a reader, I am interested to know about the books George Fetherling  keeps around him for inspiration and pleasure. They would not necessarily be my choices, but then why should they? The books that inform George’s writing are different from the books that influence me, and that’s only as it should be. We write very different kinds of books. His latest is a novel about Walt Whitman. Mine is an autobiography-in-progress.

But is the reading public really interested in where we work? Is this something that engages the attention of Globe and Mail subscribers? I can understand why a publication such as Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, or WestWord, the magazine of the Writers Guild of Alberta, regularly features pieces from writers describing the places where we work. We all want to know what works best for our colleagues. Does a nice view out the window help or hinder the creative process? For me, I prefer to keep the blinds drawn.  No distractions, I say. Others seem to be stimulated by the sights of trees, flowers, passing elk, or great bodies of water. I like a window but it has to be screened. To each our own.

I haven’t seen any comments yet on George’s piece. I’m a bit surprised by that, because I felt sure there would be at least a few readers out there — aside from his fellow writers — who would like to know a bit about his reading habits. But I didn’t think they would want to know about the room itself; this “place of sun and silence” where he does his reading and writing. Their interest, surely, would be in the end results, not in how they were achieved.

The one thing we do all need, most writers would agree, is an isolated place where we can be alone with our thoughts. But I look at some of those places, and I can’t say many of them would help my writing. Harry Bruce describes a few of them in his book, Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers. Raymond Carver, for example, says he did his best writing in his car, on a pad propped on his knee. David Bergen, the Winnipeg novelist, did the same. Where did they spread out their pages? Across the dashboard? Along the back seat? No thanks. I’ll settle for the big brown wooden desk I bought for a pittance when the Calgary Herald moved from downtown to its current location near the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial.

William S. Burroughs, Maya Angelou and Susan Sontag did their writing in hotel rooms, ordering up room service whenever they got hungry. That would appeal to me, but I don’t think any granting agencies in Canada would fund such extravagances. Erskine Caldwell wrote on night boats between Boston and New York, thinking “the rhythm of the water might help my sentence structure a little.” A nice, romantic idea but, again, where did he spread out his research? Or, more to the point, where would I spread out my research. A nonfiction writer always has to be surrounded by research. If you don’t have the fixings, you can’t make the meal.

My book-lined upstairs office provides me with the perfect space for thinking and writing. If I want to shut out the world, I close the door and draw the blinds. It’s my most compelling reason, as I have often said, for never wanting to go back and work in a crowded newspaper office again. But it’s not the only place where I write. I write everywhere, in the shower, on the bus, in the supermarket produce department, and at my Tai Chai class. Writers are always writing, in our heads when not putting pen to paper. I almost never take the music  iPod with me when I go for a walk, because it would interrupt my writing. I wrote the first part of his blog post in my office, on my computer, with a copy of Harry Bruce’s book close at hand. I wrote this last bit, in my head, during a casual morning stroll around the neighbourhood. So there you have it; that’s where I write. But I don’t expect anyone, apart from fellow writers to be really interested in this.

Ian Brown at the Banff Centre

Taking a break from his current cross-Canada, eating-in-strange-places (including a nudist resort) routine, author Ian Brown told a sold-out audience of 120 at the Rolston Recital Hall, that the four elements of a good nonfiction story — after you have satisfied the five journalistic Ws (who, where, what, why, when?) and the H(ow) — are the scenes you create, the dialogue you capture, the details you provide, and the point(s) of view expressed by the principal character(s). He said his toughest challenge writing his latest book, The Boy in the Moon, was his inability to give voice to the main character -his mentally disabled son-who cannot speak and who cannot communicate anything beyond what he is feeling right now. Like any small child, Brown’s son laughs when he is happy and cries when he is frustrated or suffering physical pain, but he has no way of indicating how he feels about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow.

What does this thirteen-year-old boy, Walker,  know and remember? From what they can tell, maybe little more than who his parents are, who his nanny and group-home caregivers are, and what they bring into his day-to-day life. He is like a beloved domestic pet who knows who provides the food, shelter and daily exercise, and the rules they expect to be obeyed: where to sleep, when to sit, where to poop, and where not to piss. Walker remembers the same things, except that there are fewer rules. His parents and caregivers try to enter his world and grant him the freedom to be himself, not bring him into their world and expect him to conform.

What does Walker remember from times gone by? Hard to say. He had a close friend in the group home who died some months ago, but he may have forgotten him by now. Does he have regrets? Probably not. With the mind of a two-year-old (in the body of a seven-year-old occupied by a thirteen-year-old), Walker has no way of judging the rightness or wrongness of his actions. His parents don’t judge or discipline him. Neither do his caregivers. They just allow him to be. He will never grow to adulthood in the mental sense, so no point in trying to teach him adult behaviours.

Brown said it took him 10 years to write the book, and for the longest time he never believed anyone would want to read it. He wrote it mainly for himself, trying to come to grips with the mystery of his son; a mystery he knew he would never solve.  He did not think many people would want to buy the book, because books about severely disabled people are usually downers; because his son is one of only about 150 people in the world born with this rare genetic mutation; and because a story of illness without a miracle cure -without a happy ending -is bound to leave readers feeling unfulfilled. Even his mother had doubts about the project. “Why don’t you write a successful potboiler?” she said.

But still Brown persisted, because he believed his son’s life had meaning, and he wanted to learn about that. What was the value of a life like Walker’s; a life “lived in the twilight and often in pain”? Brown filled his notebooks with the observed details of his son’s life from babyhood onward, the scourges of diaper rash, the autistic-style behavioural traits, the cocktails of prescription drugs with names sounding like those of Russian cosmonauts, the struggles with severe constipation followed by spectacular bathroom explosions, the highs, the lows, the joys, the sorrows. He talked to geneticists and medical experts of all stripes, made contact with parents around the world who had children with the same condition, and put all that he learned down on paper. Brown characterizes himself as a reporter, constantly asking questions, constantly seeking answers, and usually finding out along the way that there many more questions still to be asked if one is somehow going to get to the truth. He was not interested in giving some kind of objective meaning to Walker’s life; he was not interested in imposing his view of life upon the life of his disabled son; he simply wanted to understand. What goes on in that mysterious place, in that place most of us would classify as a damaged mind?

The result of Brown’s 10-year quest is an acclaimed book that has already won what Banff’s literary arts maven Steven Ross Smith describes as the Triple Crown of Canadian nonfiction awards: the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction, the 2010 Charles Taylor Prize, and the Trillium Book Award.

“You have invented a new business model for nonfiction writing in this country,” quipped Walrus magazine editor John Macfarlane, who joined Brown for an on-stage conversation after the author’s one-hour talk. “You don’t sell a zillion copies, you just win prizes.”

“Ah, yes,” laughed Brown. “But it’s not sustainable.”

iBooks Canada

The Canadian iBookstore was launched on Canada Day, which seems fitting, but where are the Canadian authors? Sure, you can find the ghost-written biographies of Theo Fleury and Rick Hillier, and a book of recycled columns by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente. But where are our big writers? Where is Margaret Atwood? Where is Alice Munro? Where is Yann Martel?

Yes, you will find Lawrence Hill represented by two titles here. But neither of them is his best-selling The Book of Negroes.  And you can find seven titles by Malcolm Gladwell. But he seems more American than Canadian these days, given that he has been living and working in the States since the early 1980s and is published most frequently in The New Yorker.

The problem, it seems, is that Canadian publishers, for whatever reason, have yet to strike a deal with Apple to have their digital titles available through iBooks. In the meantime, the American publishers are making hay because they now have their titles in the Canadian iBookstore as well as the American iBookstore, and goodness knows where else. There’s something wrong with this picture.