Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

CBC Canada Reads Interview Series: Douglas Gibson for Hugh MacLennan

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Hugh MacLennan and Douglas Gibson

For today's instalment of our CBC Canada Reads interview series, we are speaking with publisher, editor and author Douglas Gibson, who is has kindly agreed to chat with us in place of the late Hugh MacLennan, whose iconic Two Solitudes (McClelland & Stewart) is representing the Quebec region in Canada Reads. Douglas was a close friend of MacLennan and later his editor at McClelland & Stewart.

Douglas tells us about meeting Two Solitudes' Canada Reads champion, actor Jay Baruchel, one of the great fictional families of CanLit and his personal connection to MacLennan.

Hosted by popular CBC personality and author Jian Ghomeshi, Canada Reads pits five fantastic Canadian books against one another in a (mostly) friendly competition, with each book championed by a Canadian celebrity in a series of broadcast debates. For more information about CBC Canada Reads, please visit their website. The 2013 debates run from February 11-14.

Stay tuned to Open Book: Toronto for interviews with the2013 CBC Canada Reads writers and panellists this week and next.

Open Book:

Tell us about Two Solitudes and the time at which Hugh MacLennan wrote it.

Douglas Gibson:

Two Solitudes was written during the Second World War, and came out in 1945. It tells the story of two generations of an old Quebec family, the Tallards, as they try to adapt to changes in Canada over the years between 1917 and 1939.

The first half of the book is set during the First World War, when the Conscription Crisis comes home to hit Athanase Tallard. As an MP in Ottawa representing the traditional rural Quebec riding of St. Marc he tries to mediate between English Canada, eager to see conscription imposed on every part of the country, and his Quebec homeland that has no interest in seeing its young men scooped up to fight across the sea in “an English war”. His son Marius, a fiery opponent of conscription, hides out among the farms to avoid being conscripted. He is betrayed by an English neighbour, who has just lost her husband in the war, and is caught, arrested and sent into the army.

The Tallards are forced to leave St. Marc, after centuries of living there. Athanase bitterly abandons his Roman Catholic religion, and takes his Irish-Canadian wife Kathleen, and their 7-year old son Paul, into Montreal (producing another theme of the book, the split between rural and city life). His realisation that rural Quebec can’t ignore the modern world and should welcome the dams and factories that go with industrialisation, doesn’t help him when he is betrayed by Huntly McQueen, the smooth St. James Street capitalist, who is a constant looming presence in the book (and whose reliance on his mother’s portrait for help with major decisions makes an eerie link with Prime Minister MacKenzie King).
That betrayal happens in Part Two of the book, set between 1919 and 1921, as Canada adapts to peacetime . After Athanase dies in poverty, the book concentrates on his son Paul, now being raised as an English Montrealer. We follow him through hard times after his father dies penniless, and follow the fortunes of his older friend John Yardley, a former Nova Scotia sea captain with friends among English and French Canadians, and his grand-daughters Daphne and Heather Methuen, born into the aristocracy of Montreal’s Square Mile that knows nothing of their French-speaking neighbours.

Part Three is set in the heart of the Depression, 1934. Daphne Methuen makes a brilliant marriage to Noel, an English politician in London who “rapes her” in the marriage bed (and MacLennan was criticised for having so much sex in the book), while Heather, a free-thinking artist, meets her childhood friend Paul Tallard , and they fall in love. Jobless, Paul leaves Canada as a sailor, plying his trade abroad for several years.

The final part of the book, set significantly in 1939, sees Paul return, marry Heather, and take up his great mission, to become a writer who can explain his country to the world. Here Hugh MacLennan writes passionately, and from his own experience, about a Canadian creative writer’s journey, a perfect ending to an ambitious book.


What challenges did MacLennan encounter in writing and publishing this book? And what were some of the benefits of its publication?


Hugh MacLennan’s main challenge was to find the time to write the book, while working full-time as a school-teacher. He had the advantage of having published a successful book, Barometer Rising, some years before, in 1941, but that raised expectations for the new book, increasing the pressure. Interestingly, he only came across the title, Two Solitudes, when he had written two-thirds of the book.

The book was a huge success, instantly. The whole first printing was sold out by noon on the first day, and the Chicago Sun reviewer called it “the GREAT Canadian novel”. The Globe and Mail said “Two Solitudes may well be considered the best and most important Canadian novel ever published”.

Among the benefits of its huge sales was that Hugh MacLennan was able to buy the cottage in North Hatley, Quebec, where I, having married into a North Hatley family, got to know him, and become his friend.


Tell us about the experience of meeting the panelist who will be defending Two Solitudes.


I enjoyed meeting Jay, a Montrealer who is passionate about Hugh’s book, and living proof that this book appeals to younger generations. I was pleased to present him with a copy of my book, Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau And Others. I noted with pride that my chapter on “Hugh MacLennan: Teacher, Novelist. Essayist , and Cottager” was the longest in the book, and that I had been Hugh’s friend, editor, publisher and anthologist, putting together the anthology Hugh MacLennan’s Best. After his death in 1990, I was honoured to speak as one of four eulogists at his funeral in the McGill University Chapel.


How would you describe the literary culture of the region this book is representing? Is there another book in addition to MacLennan's that you feel captures the spirit of the region?


The literary culture of Quebec is split, obviously, between books in English and books in French. One English book that I would recommend to anyone seeking greater understanding of Montreal is City Unique, by William Weintraub. Any of the short stories by Mavis Gallant that are set in Quebec are equally fascinating.


If Two Solitudes wins the competition, will you celebrate? And if so, how?


I will celebrate quietly with my wife, looking at the portrait of a smiling Hugh MacLennan that hangs in my basement study. I may even try to get a bottle of Bull’s Head Ginger Ale from North Hatley!

A major 20th century Canadian author, Hugh MacLennan was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in 1907. His seven novels and many essays and travel books present a chronicle of Canada that often mediates between the old world of its European cultural heritage and the new world of American vitality and materialism. Among his many honours, he won five Governor General’s Awards. Hugh MacLennan died in Montreal in 1990.

Douglas Gibson worked as an editor and publisher from 1968 until he retired from McClelland & Stewart in 2009. His Douglas Gibson Books was Canada’s first editorial imprint and lives on. He travels widely from his Toronto, Ontario base.

For more information about Two Solitudes please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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