Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Interview with George Fetherling

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George Fetherling

George Fetherling has played so many important roles in Canadian books and publishing it's hard to pick a headline. First full-time employee at House of Anansi Press? Writer and editor of more than 50 books? Massey College writer in residence?

You can decide for yourself by reading George's new memoir The Writing Life: Journals 1975-2005 (McGill-Queen's University Press). A veritable goldmine for CanLit junkies, the volume contains stories of George's literary adventures. Many familiar names pop up in these pages, from Conrad Black to "Peggy" Atwood to legendary publisher Jack McClelland.

Today we speak with George about the mechanics of editing 30 years of experiences, one particular night of epic literary output and Canada's changing literary culture.

Don't miss the chance to see George in person at the launch for The Writing Life, tomorrow evening, April 19, 2013, at Ben McNally Books on Bay Street. The event begins at 6:00p.m.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Writing Life.

George Fetherling:

I started keeping a daily journal in 1975 when I was 26. By that time I’d been struggling for 10 years to find a place for myself as a writer. Today, four decades later, I still keep the journal and I’m still struggling. In effect, The Writing Life, which Brian Busby put together by selecting stuff from the journals up to the end of 2005, is this story. But in another sense it’s a narrative of Canadian writing and culture more generally. With a cast of, if not thousands, then certainly hundreds. Someone pointed out that people who feature in the book run alphabetically from Margaret Atwood to Moses Znaimer.

OB:

Why is this the right time for this book?

GF:

This seemed the right moment because the book looks back on a writing and publishing environment that’s now been almost totally supplanted by the one we see around us today. It was a time when serious publishers and independent bookshops were plentiful and books sales were generated by reviews rather than award nominations. Why stop in 2005? Well, 30 years seemed a nice round number.

OB:

What were some of the challenges in putting together The Writing Life? And what were some of the most pleasurable aspect of the process?

GF:

For the most part, I hadn’t reread these journals since writing them. Looking through the entries that Brian chose was a trip down memory lane, dark as it sometimes was and full of potholes. There’s a good bit of stuff in the finished book that I find regretful or embarrassing, but I can live with that. If it had been excluded, the reader wouldn’t have a clear sense of the poor benighted author’s growing up.

OB:

You share anecdotes of some incredibly influential authors. Who are some of your most powerful influences amongst the writers you have met?

GF:

In the first half of the book particularly, many of the writers are a good bit older than me. That’s because they were my teachers, whether they knew it or not or even whether they would care to acknowledge the fact. Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee, for example, but also some much much older ones — George Woodcock, for instance. Some figures in the book recur often enough that the readers, I hope, slowly gets to know them, as one does a character in a novel. Examples might include Anne Collins of Random-Knopf and a couple of journalists — Robert Fulford and Neil Reynolds.

OB:

How would you describe the literary culture of Canada? What changes, challenges or opportunities have you recently observed?

GF:

It’s now very polarised politically. Writers who are conservative, or ones are conservative writers (not necessarily the same thing), seem to me to have a far easier time of it. We liberals have a more difficult journey because we don’t control much infrastructure. Also, official recognition, which used to come from the Crown or directly from one’s peers, has been commercialised in the form of big-money prizes funded by wealthy individuals or organisations in search of branding rights. That aside, there’s simply no longer enough money in the cultural economy to support many people.

OB:

Having written so much and in so many genres, has your process changed over the years? What would a perfect writing day look like for you?

GF:

6
I write every day to be sure, but the details vary, not from day to day so much as from project to project. I tend to draft poems on the screen (Windows is made for poetry!) but then I revise and correct again and again by hand. By comparison, to take an example, I started my novel Walt Whitman’s Secret writing in fountain pen at the kitchen table in the afternoons. Once I got going, I moved to the laptop, working all night, from late afternoon to dawn, on alternating days. It nearly killed me, but one memorable night I wrote 8,000 words of draft (though not terribly good draft). I write my journals by hand in little notebooks.

OB:

Who, in your opinion, are the Canadian writers who will still be read in 100 years?

GF:

Perhaps the best answer is to try naming ones who had canonical status a hundred years ago but are barely read now even by academic literary historians and their handful of poor students. Most of those not on such a list would be entertainers more than imaginative writers. Leacock, say, or Pauline Johnson. As for those who’ll be read a hundred years hence, all I know with certainly is that I of course won’t be one of them. Most of the time, retaining the public’s tolerance until the Thursday after next is a significant achievement.

OB:

What's next for you?

GF:

I’ve been working on the draft of another novel, one step forward and two backwards. All I know for sure at this stage is that the title will be The Carpenter from Montreal.


George Fetherling has published over fifty books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, travel, criticism and history, including the much-acclaimed Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties, and, most recently, the novel Walt Whitman’s Secret. He is former Literary Editor of both The Toronto Star and the Kingston Whig-Standard, and has received a Harbourfront Prize for his substantial contribution to Canadian letters. He lives in Vancouver and Toronto.

For more information about The Writing Life please visit the McGill-Queen's University Press website.

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

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