Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with John Goddard

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John Goddard

John Goddard’s seventh book, Inside Hamilton's Museums (Dundurn Press), tells the stories behind seven heritage museums in Canada’s steel capital — a city fast evolving into a medical, educational, and cultural destination.

We're pleased to welcome John to Open Book today as part of our Lucky Seven series, which gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their latest works.

John tell us about Hamilton's connection to the Royal Family, how Bob Dylan figures into his writing process, and what defines a great book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Inside Hamilton’s Museums, and how it came to be.

John Goddard:

I was sent for abdominal surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton even though I live in Toronto. The specialist said, “Do you want it done in Toronto or do you want the best?” When the operation went well, Hamilton soared in my affections. During the same period, I also took a tour of Whitehern Historic House and Garden, which astounded me for the richness of its collection, and I decided to write a companion volume to my Toronto book, Inside the Museums: Toronto’s Heritage Sites and Their Most Prized Objects. The new book tells the stories behind Hamilton’s heritage museums.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


The first questions to myself were: will I find interesting characters, will I find interesting stories? From the Toronto book, I knew that good characters and stories could unite the museums thematically and tell Hamilton’s early history. Almost immediately, I discovered Sophia MacNab of Dundurn Castle. At the age of thirteen, she was enjoying a life of privilege almost unequalled in British North America, except that her mother was dying slowly and painfully of a lung disease. Sophia kept an intimate journal of the process. She later married a British nobleman, producing a line that includes great-great granddaughter Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. Museum stories don’t get much better than that.


Did the book change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The writing took only eight or nine months, but I started visiting the museums and reading histories before that. Looking back, I feel a sense of the book having fallen easily into place, maybe because I gained so much experience writing the Toronto book.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


As a long-time journalist, I like to think that I can write anywhere under any circumstances. The main thing is having something to say and a desire to say it.


What do you do if you’re feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Sometimes when I’m stuck I feel a pent-up sensation in the chest. My first reaction is to push harder, to drive ahead, but I’ve trained myself to recognize the sensation and pause. The New Yorker writer Edith Iglauer once told me to “send the dumb waiter down to the basement.” Instead of writing from the head, delve into yourself to write from a deep, still place. I have developed several ways of getting there. One is to listen with attention to Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” The mood and rhythm of the song, and my history with it, can sometimes centre me almost instantly. The phrase “inside the museums” comes from that song. Another of my strategies is to read a few pages of If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. “We are all original and talented and need to let it out,” she says, and reading a few pages helps me restore my core sense of self.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


Truth defines a great book. My hero is Robert Caro, author of four volumes of a projected five-volume biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Caro’s every word rings with authenticity. Nothing he writes sounds false. Most readers can differentiate between the genuine and the fake, but sometimes people can be fooled. Farley Mowat once told me that when he was writing his Arctic books he would sit at his typewriter and imagine a scene, building tiny details in his head, “until I was almost sure it had happened to me.” He would then write the scene so persuasively that readers would believe it, like somebody beating a lie-detector test. Mowat was a fraud but most false writing is not deliberate. It comes from trying to impress people, or trying to get published, or simply trying to sound like a writer. I know, because I’ve strayed into all those areas.


What are you working on now?


I’m beginning to look at Niagara’s heritage museums, such as the Laura Secord Homestead and the William Lyon Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum. My next book would complete a “Golden Horseshoe Trilogy” covering the small museums of Toronto, Hamilton, and Niagara.

John Goddard is a former magazine writer and Toronto Star reporter with a curiosity for little-known Ontario wonders. His books include Inside the Museums and, with TV’s Richard Crouse, Rock and Roll Toronto, a cheeky guide to the city’s rock and roll historic sites. He lives in Toronto.

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