Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Oh, The People You'll Meet!

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By Dennis McCloskey

In my last blog I extolled the virtues of travel and how I’ve gotten so many story ideas by visiting Europe, North Africa, and the four corners of the North American continent and a thousand points in between.

British novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West described travel as the most private of pleasures. “There is no greater bore than the travel bore,” she wrote. “We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong Kong.” I disagree with her 100%. I love hearing of the travel adventures of my friends and fellow writers. When they describe the fascination of walking along the Great Wall of China or the seeing the wonders of Prague architecture or Australia’s outback, it only makes me want to experience it first-hand.

The special bonus of travel is the people you’ll meet. In the six decades that I’ve been taking up space on this planet, I have met thousands of people and written about many hundreds of them. Everyone who lives has a life story worth writing about. I truly believe that and I will continue to write about the fascinating people I meet for as long as I can. James Thurber complained about turning 60, but I don’t share his sense of pessimism. He wrote: “With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs.”

Everyone I meet is a potential character in a novel or worthy of profiling in a magazine or corporate newsletter. I spent a day with the late William Gaines when he was Editor of MAD Magazine on Madison Avenue in New York City and it resulted in a full page article in the Toronto Star. My wife and I have been fortunate to take 13 Caribbean cruises and I always came back with enough stories in my head to sink a ship! And, oh, the characters I’ve met. Here’s just one: In Nassau we dined with a wonderful couple from New York who invited us to their city to experience the finest eateries in the Big Apple. The rotund gentleman related a true story about a day when he and a client had a noon hour lunch at one of Manhattan’s best restaurants. They ordered a bottle of wine, some appetizers, a salad, their main course, dessert, coffee, and a liqueur. Later, and to their astonishment, they noticed it was 5:00 p.m. and time for dinner. They called the Maitre d’ over and said they realized they had been there all day but they’d like to order dinner. The Maitre d’ did not want to embarrass the two gentlemen by serving them at the same table, so he ushered them to a corner table where they enjoyed another fine meal at the same restaurant. Now, you tell me that’s not a scene that book readers would gobble up!

I have written about hundreds of people in my freelance writing career and I am always on the lookout for the next interesting person to feature. I found such a person on January 3, 2009, at the New Smyrna Beach Speedway in central Florida. I have not met her, but I was in the stands when 5-year-old Katlyn Clouser was interviewed by the track announcer. Kaitlyn’s father, Rich Clouser, was one of 31 race car drivers preparing to start the “Red Eye 125” race for Super Late Models. To the delight of the crowd (and this writer) Kaitlin was asked to name the best driver on the track.
“Daddy!”
“And who will win the race tonight?
“Daddy!”
After pointing out “Daddy” in Race Car #29, Kaitlyn was given the honor of shouting out a variation of the most famous call in all of auto racing: “Daddy and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” The roar of the approving crowd was deafening and only exceeded by the thundering sound of 31 race car motors. Now, tell me that Kaitlyn wouldn’t make a darling character in anyone’s novel.

Sometimes, you don’t have to go far to find intriguing characters in your next book. Just look around you. I produce corporate newsletters for a multinational insurance company with offices throughout North America. On Tuesday, October 1, 2008, I was asked to talk about my writing to 50 members of Toronto Insurance Women’s Association (TIWA). My main topic was about the young woman I wrote about in my 2008 biography, “My Favorite American”, because Valen Cover’s fulltime job is with an insurance company in York, Pennsylvania. I was given an hour to speak, so, besides telling the group about this inspirational woman, I also talked about the captivating people I have met in the insurance industry. I gave a capsule comment about some of the employees I profiled in the corporate newsletter who work in the insurance business. They included a former Olympic athlete; an accomplished artist; a woman who gave up her vacation time to help build Homes for Habitat; a male triathlete; a woman who volunteers her time to TIWA and will become its President in 2010; a woman who supported her husband and family for seven years while her husband waited for a kidney transplant; a 50-year-old broker who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro; a runner who successfully completed the Boston Marathon...and many more.

People are forever telling me that I should write their life story. I am flattered, of course, but I tell them they should write it themselves. After all, who knows more about their life than they do? Sometimes I respond by reverting to humor; we are presently renting a vacation condo in Florida, and the delightful people who live next door are a retired couple from Michigan who’ve been married nearly four decades. When he said I should write the life story of him and his wife, I said I don’t write steaming, hot, romance novels. He laughed so heartily, I was afraid he would have a heart attack. Now wouldn’t THAT be something to write about!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page