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“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.

Where the heart is

“Would you ever consider moving home again?” asked the cab driver as we made our way out to the Dublin airport after a short holiday in Ireland.

Home? I’ve lived in Canada for almost 45 years. I spent just 23 in Dublin. Much as I still love it, I haven’t thought of it as home in a very long time.

It is quite a different Dublin now from the city I left behind in 1966. The restaurants are more appealing, the public transit system more efficient, and the place is crawling with tourists, even in rainy June. They crowd into Bewley’s Oriental Café and convince themselves the coffee served there is better than the caffè misto brewed at Starbucks. They have their pictures taken with the statue of “Molly Malone” at the bottom of Grafton Street just like they have their photos taken on the Spanish Steps in Rome or with Eros at Piccadilly Circus. The Irish go to Bavaria for their vacations while the Germans come to Dublin. Go figure.

Molly Malone is the tragic heroine of a popular Dublin anthem called “Cockles and Mussels.” It’s not known if a real person by that name ever existed. Doesn’t really matter. She lives on in song and story like the heroes of renown. The locals, in typically irreverent style, refer to her statue variously as “The Tart with the Cart” and “The Dish with the Fish.” Dubliners love to give catchy names to public monuments. When a bronze statue of Anna Livia (representing the River Liffey) was unveiled in O’Connell Street in 1988, they dubbed it “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi.” Even the sculptor got a kick out of the name. The “Floozy” has since been relocated to make room for a singularly unprepossessing monument called “The Spire of Dublin,” which stands on the site formerly occupied by Nelson’s Pillar. Nelson was blown to kingdom come in 1966. The IRA claimed responsibility but charges were never laid. Nobody expected they ever would be. There was cheering in the pubs the night after the old admiral was finally toppled from his perch.

I climbed the Pillar once. Dubliners used to let the visitors indulge in that sort of activity, like kissing the Blarney Stone or riding in a horse and trap around the Lakes of Killarney. But I wanted to see the view from the top. Joyce used to say that if the British ever bombed Dublin, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from the descriptions in his books. I wonder if Joyce ever climbed the Pillar.

The Pillar and the Theatre Royal are gone, as are the Metropole Cinema and the venerable “Bono Vox” advertising sign on O’Connell Street from which the lead singer of U2 famously derived his stage name. But some things remain the same. The eyeless Bank of Ireland still has bricked-in windows all around, the locals still feed the ducks in Stephen’s Green with stale bread crumbs, and the traditional musicians still jam nightly at O’Donoghue’s Bar in Merrion Row hoping to follow in the footsteps of Christy Moore and Ronnie Drew.

Drew was an unlikely pop star, a basso profundo ballad singer who performed as front man for The Dubliners and knocked the Beatles off the Irish charts with his gravelly renditions of “Nelson’s Farewell” (celebrating the demise of the iconic Pillar) and “Seven Drunken Nights.” The Clancy Brothers did the same, topping the charts with such rebel songs as “The Rising of the Moon” and “The Foggy Dew.” Both the Dubliners and the Clancys wrote the soundtrack of my life during the 1960s and gave me a greater sense of my Irish identity than any of the historical propaganda drummed into me by the Christian Brothers through 12 years of schooling.

Dublin in the 1960s was a sleepy provincial backwater on the western outskirts of Europe. Dublin today is connected, cosmopolitan, and aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world. I like it better now than I did when growing up.

Would I ever consider moving “home” again? In a way I have, by writing about it. My memoirs will be published this fall by RMB. But my true home remains in Canada, in Calgary, where I have lived most of my adult life. Dublin bore me but Canada made me. It calms my nights and invigorates my days.

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.”