Category Archives: Authors and books

Meet Your Local (Calgary) Authors

This Saturday, October 4 2014, is Meet-Your-Local-Authors Day at the Parkdale Community Association, 3512 5th Ave NW, in Calgary. Here’s a link to the Facebook Page publicizing the event. We’ll be there between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., 45  of us, talking about our books, selling and autographing copies.

I’ll have six of my titles available for purchase. They are:

Songs of an Irish Poet: The Mary O’Leary Story. The biography of a 19th century Irish folk poet, with translated editions of all her known poems. I’ll be giving away free copies of this book (a $20 value) to everyone who buys one of my other titles.

Building a Province: 60 Alberta Lives. My first published book. Biographical sketches of 60 remarkable Albertans who helped make the province what it is today.

How the West was Written: The Life & Times of James H. Gray. The biography of a great Prairie social historian whose best-selling books included Red Lights on the Prairies and Booze.

Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. My autobiography, published three years ago when I was 68. The story of how and why I gave up a well-paying job in the Irish civil service to establish a life for myself in a country where I had no friends and no family connections.

Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn & More. A collection of stories about various individuals who came to the Rocky Mountains to explore, climb, take photographs or make movies.

The Good Steward: The Ernest C. Manning Story. The biography of the Alberta premier who served the longest (25 years) and oversaw the evolution of the province from a farming region into one of the western world’s most significant suppliers of oil and gas.

 

Time-capsule journalism

I’m writing a new arts column for the estimable Facts & Opinions: Journalism Matters  journal, recalling interviews I did with celebrities during the 15 years I worked as a newspaper entertainment reporter. I was inspired to revisit the interviews after a recent conversation with a friend, during which I happened to mention casually that Tennessee Williams once complained to me that the Russians were ripping him off to the tune of thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties.

“You talked to Tennessee Williams?” said my friend.

Yes, and I talked to Kenny Rogers and Tammy Wynette and Sally Rand and Chuck Berry and dozens of other well-known individuals of that period. Revisiting those interviews now is an enjoyable exercise in time-capsule journalism for me, particularly in light of events that have occurred since. I call the column Brief Encounters because many of the interviews were conducted in haste, in green rooms and hotel rooms, when the publicists gave me 15 minutes or less to fish for pearls of wisdom.

I talked to Kenny Rogers after he had tried rockabilly, jazz, folk, country and psychedelic rock, and was unsure where he was going to go next. This was long before he recorded “The Gambler.” I talked to Tammy Wynette when she was finding it difficult to reconcile being a married mother of four with being constantly on the road. Later that month, she got divorced for the fourth time. I talked to fan dancer Sally Rand when she was still taking her clothes off in public at age 71. I talked to Chuck Berry when he was refusing to talk to other reporters because of all the bad press he received over his troubles with the law.

Jay Silverheels as Tonto

Jay Silverheels as Tonto

When B.B. King played for President Obama at the White House in 2012, I recalled that he once told me he thought the blues was dying. When Randy Bachman reinvented himself as a CBC Radio host, I recalled that I had talked to him about his career choices after he had seemingly committed artistic suicide twice, first by walking away from The Guess Who and then by leaving Bachman-Turner Overdrive. When Johnny Depp played Tonto in the 2013 big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger (a flop, by all critical accounts), I recalled that I had talked to the original Tonto, Jay Silverheels, about the racism he encountered in Hollywood.

My first column is about Silverheels. Check it out by clicking here. I hope you enjoy this journey down memory lane with me.

Stories removed

You will notice that a dozen of the biographical profiles I had included in the “Life Stories” section of this site have now been removed. The reason: These profiles will be included among the 31 in my next book, tentatively scheduled for publication in the spring of 2015. Stay tuned for further details.

Alistair Macleod RIP

Macleod

Many of us in the writing game have a story to tell about Alistair Macleod. This is mine. It happened at the annual meeting of The Writers’ Union of Canada in Ottawa in 2003. Alistair was the writer picked to deliver the annual Margaret Laurence lecture, talking about his life as a writer. He gave his presentation at the National Library of Canada.

He didn’t have a prepared text. He had a stack of yellow foolscap pages filled with handwritten notes, and he leafed back and forth through them as he spoke.

I didn’t take notes. But I remember two things he said that have stuck with me ever since. One was that a writer should have a plan of attack. Random words,  sentences,  paragraphs and scenes would never end up as a story, he said. It would be the same as a woodworker aimlessly sawing, nailing and hammering, and expecting to have a birdhouse or a patio deck at the end of the process.

The other thing he said was that a certain point in the composition of every story, one should write the last sentence on a Post-it note and stick it on the computer screen as a  reminder of  where the story should end. I haven’t used this technique with Post-it notes, but I often remind myself that what I write must carry as strong an ending as its beginning. As for having a plan of attack, that’s certainly a must when one does journalism and other kinds of narrative nonfiction. I could also see it applying to fiction.

When he finished his speech, which was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation, Alistair joined a few of us for drinks at the Library bar. There was a piano in the room, a vintage nine-foot Steinway once owned by Glenn Gould. I couldn’t resist. I pulled off the quilted vinyl cover and started to play “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” During the chorus I looked across the room and there, singing and dancing a reel with fellow Maritimer Deborah Windsor, was Alistair Macleod. He looked as happy as a bird in spring. ‘Tis a memory I will always cherish.

Conrad Black Creates Controversy in Calgary

Bob Blakey and I raise a glass to the memory of Bob Edwards at his grave in Union Cemetery

My fellow “gangrenous limb” Bob Blakey (left) and I raise a glass to the memory of Bob Edwards at his grave in Union Cemetery

I was one of the “gangrenous limbs.” That’s how Conrad Black characterized my fellow locked-out Calgary Herald employees and me in March 2000 when he came to Calgary for a bank shareholders’ meeting. Black at the time was chairman and chief executive of Hollinger, the company that owned the Herald. My Herald colleagues and I had been walking the picket line for four months. Union leader Andy Marshall asked Black why he was insulting his once-valued employees. Black responded: “We’re not. We’re amputating gangrenous limbs. If they have the grace of conversion and want to function as employees instead of staging an NDP coup d’état in the newsroom, they’ll be welcome.” Later Black told The New York Times he expected the labour dispute to drag on for two more years “and then we won’t have to keep their jobs anymore.”

The dispute continued for another three months, until 30 June 2000, and ended with the decertification of the union. Of the 93 employees left on the picket line, only eight opted to return to the newsroom. The rest, including me, accepted buyouts. We couldn’t see a future for ourselves in a non-unionized newsroom run by anti-union managers.

Since that time, this former media baron, Lord Black, has left the newspaper business, served a three-year jail sentence in the United States for mail fraud and obstruction of justice, and written a few books. I, too, have written a few books. That’s why both of us were invited to attend the Bob Edwards Award Gala in Calgary this past week. It’s the largest literary event held annually in Western Canada; a fund-raising dinner organized by the Calgary Public Library Foundation. The event is named after Calgary’s first media celebrity: Bob Edwards, the early 20th century publisher of the Eye Opener, a scandal sheet that broke all the conventional rules of journalism by running humour, gossip and satirical commentary instead of news. Black was invited to the gala to be recognized for his outspoken views, most recently as a critic of the American justice system. I was there to hold court as one of the 37 table hosts.

Some of my writer friends were appalled when they heard Black would be the recipient of this year’s Edwards award. Why would the Library Foundation want to honour this Montreal-born Anglophile who renounced his Canadian citizenship to qualify for a seat in the British House of Lords? Why would the foundation want to add Black’s name to a list of distinguished Canadian recipients that includes Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Mordecai Richler? The gala was sold out so there was no way the foundation could disappoint its paying guests by cancelling the event. But my friends hoped the foundation members would eventually come to their senses and acknowledge that choosing Black was a mistake.

The Herald’s Stephen Hunt had an article in the paper before the gala, documenting the annoyance of those who felt Black was a poor choice for the award. The most vocal and most articulate critic was Drew Anderson, editor of FastForward Weekly, who wrote in a blog that Black was the kind of individual who would have been “squarely in Bob’s crosshairs.”

I did give some thought to declining the foundation’s invitation. As a former Herald staff writer, I felt that a totally avoidable labour dispute in 1999-2000 had caused lasting and irreparable damage to what was once one of Western Canada’s finest dailies. But after further deliberation I decided to attend the event because I’m a huge supporter of the Library, and because I could write about the gala afterwards. And I’m glad I did because at one point in his speech Black was booed. But I’m not putting what I have written on the Internet. Instead I am making it available privately to interested readers for $3.99. You won’t read about it elsewhere because Black’s 34-minute speech wasn’t reported on in the Calgary newspapers. Mine, which I title “Conrad Black: A Man of Too Many Words,” is the only account you will find anywhere. Just click on the “Buy Now” button below and I will have it digitally delivered to you.
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