Transcending party politics

Jack Layton, said The Globe and Mail, was a “man of convictions and ideals who reached across partisan lines to work pragmatically and for the public good. He ennobled politics.”

Indeed, and Layton reminded me of two Alberta politicians who played similar roles on the provincial stage: the late Grant Notley, who also was a New Democrat, and the late Sheldon Chumir, who was a Liberal.

Notley, a former national secretary for the federal NDP, became the leader of the faltering Alberta NDs in 1968 when it was a party torn apart by ideological differences and – with no seats in the legislature – on the brink of political extinction. Some suggested he should run for a party that actually had a chance of electing members, but Notley wanted to be a New Democrat because the party represented “the most civilized approach to blending the two instincts that we all have – our desire to be individuals and our need to be part of the community.”

Chumir, a lawyer and civil liberties advocate, never sought the leadership of his provincial party because, as he said, he “didn’t have the fire in the belly for the position.” But as Liberal critic for all the important government portfolios – shadowing the provincial treasurer, energy minister, attorney general and solicitor general – Chumir garnered more headlines than the ministers whose policies he found fault with.

Both men defied the odds to win seats in a province where right-wing governments – starting with the Social Crediters and continuing with the Progressive Conservatives – had ruled supreme since the mid-1930s. Notley ran unsuccessfully three times before establishing a legislative beachhead for the NDs in the 1971 election that brought Peter Lougheed’s Tories to power. Chumir broke the Tory blockade of southern Alberta in 1986 to become the first provincial Liberal elected in Calgary in 20 years.

If ideology shaped their political beliefs, it rarely surfaced as a credo that defined them as legislators. Notley never came across as a “real” socialist because he had an uneasy relationship with the trade union movement – the traditional support system for the New Democrats. Chumir never came across as a standard-bearer for liberalism because he was more interested in dealing with the practical day-to-day concerns of his constituents – worker compensation claims, landlord-tenant disputes and so on – than in getting speeches into Hansard about the global economy.

Both men – like Layton – were taken from us far too soon. A plane crash ended Notley’s life at age 45, two years before Alberta voters sent an unprecedented number of New Democrats – 16 – to the provincial legislature. Chumir died of lymphoma at age 51, three years into his second term as MLA.  Some said the two men could have made their names as cabinet ministers if they had run for the ruling Tories. But Notley and Chumir didn’t go into politics for the prestige. They went into politics because – like Layton – they cared. They will continue to be missed for a long time.


“Leaving Dublin” video

Watch the YouTube promo video for Leaving Dublin, my newly published book of memoirs.

“Leaving Dublin” Q&A

Q: You’re not particularly well known, yet you’ve published a book of memoirs called Leaving Dublin. Why would people be interested in the memoirs of someone they never heard of?

A: It’s all in the storytelling, don’t you know? Nobody had ever heard of Frank McCourt before he published Angela’s Ashes, yet his book became an instant bestseller.

Q: Do you think your book is going to become an instant bestseller?

A: One lives in hope.

Q: What would it take to become a bestseller?

A: A review in The New York Times would help. So would a review in The Globe and Mail. Or the National Post.

Q: How about a review in the Irish Times?

A: That would help too.

Q: But what if the reviews were negative? Wouldn’t that adversely affect sales?

A: Not necessarily. Yann Martel received some stinging reviews for Beatrice & Virgil, yet that didn’t stop him from ascending to the top of the national bestseller lists in Canada. Pierre Berton used to tell young writers, “Don’t read your reviews. Measure them.” The longer the review, said Berton, the better the chance that readers will want to buy the book.

Q: Have you received negative reviews for any of your previous books?

A: Yes, a couple.

Q: And?

A: The best revenge, as one of my publishers once told me, is to forgive your antagonists, live well, and wait for the sales figures to come in.

Q: You’ve changed the working title of your autobiography a few times. Initially it was called Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Dublin Rogue. Now it’s called Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. Why the changes?

A: An editor pointed out that I had not, in fact, reinvented myself after I moved to Canada at age 23. I had simply adapted to new opportunities. My publisher suggested I put the word “writing” in the title to indicate that this is what I do.

Q: But you’ve done other things. You’ve been a professional musician. You’ve been a radio announcer.

A: Yes, I was a writer who played music for a living, and a writer who worked in commercial broadcasting. I’ve been a writer since I was a child, when I made up bedtime stories for my younger brother.

Q: Your publisher, RMB ❘ Rocky Mountain Books, puts out books about outdoor adventure, mountain culture, hiking guides, and so on. Where do you fit into that mix? Are you a climber or a hiker?

A: No, not at all. My publisher, Don Gorman, has broadened the scope of his catalogue considerably in recent years. He also publishes books of travel, biography, history and social justice. A very popular recent title, for example, is John Reilly’s Bad Medicine, about crime and punishment on a First Nations reserve where the author served as a provincial court judge.

Q: What prompted you to write this autobiography, and why did you decide to do it now?

A: Because I can still remember. I hoped that in the process of remembering things and writing them down, I might be able to make sense of my life and give it context.

Q: That sounds like a self-serving rationale for writing book of memoirs.

A: Indeed. A book about oneself is – by definition – an exercise in self-absorption. But an autobiography is also about being rooted in a particular time and place. That makes it an exercise in social history, a subject dear to my heart.

Q: You write about growing up in Ireland during the 1940s and 1950s. Why would readers in Canada, the U.S. and other countries be interested in that?

A: They have read about the Celtic Tiger and how it stopped roaring in recent years. I expect they would also be interested in what things were like in suburban Ireland before the cub was born.

Q: Then you write about coming to Canada at age 23. What makes your immigration story different from any other?

A: The fact that I came here not to find employment or escape from a repressive regime, but to get away from an Irish civil service job that was driving me crazy.

Q: Why couldn’t you have looked for another job in Ireland?

A: Because Ireland was driving me crazy too.

Q: You worked as a singer of Irish folk songs after you got to Canada. Couldn’t you have done that in Ireland?

A: As a matter of fact, I did. But there wasn’t enough money in it to justify giving up my day job. Canada gave me the chance to do it full-time.

Q: Then you worked in radio. What was that all about?

A: I wanted to try something different. I knew the manager of the radio station in Prince George and he opened the door.

Q: During your 30 years in the newspaper business you worked at a number of different jobs: police reporter, theatre critic, staff writer for the Calgary Herald’s Sunday magazine, obituary columnist. Why so many changes?

A: They were all great gigs. I enjoyed the challenges and the rewards of every one.

Q: One of the longest chapters in Leaving Dublin is about an eight-month lockout and strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999-2000. Why did you devote so much space to this topic?

A: Because nobody had told the insider story before. This was an unusual dispute in Canadian labour history in the sense that it wasn’t about wages or vacation allowances. It was about a group of journalists who wanted to be treated with dignity and respect.

Q: Do you think people will take issue with your interpretations of certain events, for example your description of what was happening at the Calgary Herald before the journalists started walking a picket line?

A: Undoubtedly. Everyone has his or her version of a story. This is my version.

Q: What other stories are you writing these days?

A: I’m working on the centennial history of the Calgary Public Library, for publication in the spring of 2012.

Leaving Dublin will be available as of Sept. 15, 2011  from and wherever else fine books are sold.

Vanity fare

Edmonton novelist Thomas Trofimuk heaps abuse on the self-publishing industry in an article written for a recent edition of WestWord, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s magazine. He does not mince words. “Any idiot can self-publish a book,” he writes. “Most self-published books I’ve read needed editing, revising or at some point needed to be profoundly rejected.”

A self-published Calgary writer, Eleanor King Byers, takes exception to Trofimuk’s remarks, characterizing them as “offensive.” In a letter to the WestWord editor, she suggests that Trofimuk should research the “art” of self-publishing before “throwing out careless comments.” She goes on to talk about the success of her own books, and says that independent Calgary booksellers have “indicated a readiness to carry any future work sight unseen.”

Trofimuk is not moved to issue a retraction. “In my experience, most self-published books are horrifyingly bad,” he repeats. “Self-published books are not subjected to an independent critic that will judge their worth on literary grounds. In short, they do not have to be good. They just have to be funded.”

Which argument is the valid one? Is self-publishing largely the domain of inept hacks with money to spend, or a legitimate literary enterprise that can sometimes produce nuggets?

In fact, there is truth in both arguments. Self-publishing does generate a lot of dross but then so does mainstream publishing. I was a judge for a national literary awards program last year and – of the more than 200 commercially published books I scrutinized – only a handful of titles were worth publishing. Some were superb. Most were, as the English literary critic Victoria Glendinning boldly said about the 2009 Giller Prize entries, “unbelievably dreadful.”

I have also been a judge for competitions in which self-published books were allowed entry, and occasionally have been pleasantly surprised. I have yet to find anything to measure up to the standards of such famous self-published works as The Celestine Prophecy or Mrs. Dalloway, but I have come across the odd self-published author (Terry Fallis is a well-known recent example) who would not look out of place in the catalogue of a major publishing house.

I have not read the work of Eleanor King Byers but I do know that her book Guardians of the Lamp – about the old Calgary General Hospital and its nursing school – sat atop the local bestsellers’ list of the Calgary Herald for many months. That suggests to me it wasn’t just her friends and family and former nursing colleagues who bought this book. Clearly, there are many Calgarians who wanted to read about those dedicated women who ministered to the sick at what was once the largest hospital in the province.

Self-publishing was once considered the basest form of literary endeavour, indulged in by mediocre scribblers who could not get their work commercially published. So desperate were they to see their books in print, they paid vanity presses to publish them. When I worked as a newspaper books editor, I could always tell from a quick glance at the covers which ones were the vanity publications. They were crudely designed with ugly artwork, deeply strange titles (Reusing Old Graves, Bombproof Your Horse) and fonts that looked as if they came out of a children’s printing set.

Nowadays, with the aid of sophisticated cover design software and inexpensive print-on-demand technology, it is possible for self-published authors to put out books that look professionally produced. It’s not just wannabe authors who are availing of this technology. Traditionally published authors like myself are also using it, to bring back old titles when mainstream publishers declare them out of print. These books have already been professionally vetted and edited so they usually are a cut above those manuscripts that have not gone through this gatekeeping process.

I sympathize with Trofimuk when he says he doesn’t want to wade through thousands of “iffy” self-published books when there are “just too many great books out there that I don’t have time to read.” I also sympathize with Byers when she says that self-publishing “does not necessarily indicate rejection by publishing houses.” It can also indicate an author’s desire for more editorial control or a greater share of the royalties. A writer I know who has published several best-selling mountaineering books with commercial trade houses did his latest book as a self-publishing venture because he wanted it out by a certain date and wanted a bigger slice of the profits. He already had an established track record so he had high hopes that his book would do well. I expect it probably will.

There is a legitimate place in the literary world for self-published books. There always has been. Mark Twain, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Beatrix Potter and a host of other well-known writers all had to self-publish at different points in their careers because they could not find publishers to take on their work. But for every self-published author who turned out to be a literary genius, there were thousands who fell by the wayside. Today, there are millions falling by the wayside, because all it takes to get published now is access to a computer and an account with Blogger. Good luck finding golden needles in that particular haystack.