Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with R.B. Fleming

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On Writing, with R.B. Fleming

R. B. Fleming talks to Open Book about the art of biography, his curiousity, his writing process and his lastest book, Peter Gzowski: A Biography.

Peter Gzowski: A Biography will be featured this week on the blog Defining Canada.

Want to hear more? Listen to Rae's September 6th interview with Anna Maria Tremonti of the CBC by clicking here.

Open Book:

What attracts you to biography?

R. B. Fleming:

I like the juxtaposition of mask and the figures behind the mask. And how the two often contrasting parts of human personality feed into each other, especially how the hidden figures enhance the mask.

OB:

How does your impression of your subject evolve during the process of writing the biography?

RBF:

The impression of the subject begins to change even during research. Especially with a public person like Peter Gzowski, who created a persona for radio, a persona which his audiences found appealing, biographers usually have an initially false idea of the person. The research, and the way the biographer shapes that research through narrative, helps to create a real human being. I was surprised by all the darkness I found in his papers, and in interviews I conducted with friends and colleagues.

OB:

What strategies do you use to really get to the heart of your subject?

RBF:

Research and much careful thought. And lots of rewrites.

OB:

Why did you choose to write Gzowski’s biography? And why now?

RBF:

I was curious. I was, and still am, a fan of the Gzowski style, and I was curious to see how it worked. Why now? Why not? Perhaps because he is dead, which is the best time to write about someone. The life is complete at death.

OB:

What was most challenging about writing Peter Gzowski, A Biography?

RBF:

Perhaps the painful realization that the great Gzowski was much more than the persona I used to hear on radio. It was a rather painful experience to realize that there was a real human being and not just the persona. I was rather naïve when I began.

OB:

What were you most surprised to learn about Gzowski? How did this affect the way you approached the book?

RBF:

I was, of course, most surprised at the extent of the darkness behind the mask. In writing the book, I had to be careful not to be too tough on the man. Biography is a careful balance of toughness and love. Too much love and biography becomes hagiography; too much toughness, and the reader is turned off.

OB:

When writing biography, are you ever tempted by Gzowski’s own wish to not let “reality stand in the way of a good story”? Where do you (or would you) draw the line?

RBF:

In biography the biographer uses the techniques of fiction — character, setting, drama and so on, while rigorously following the methodology of the sciences such as history or political science – everything written must be verifiable in one way or another. I tried to prove everything at least twice before I wrote about it. That’s why there are about 1,000 endnotes. They are the proof, so to speak, of the pudding of narrative. There were quite a few things that did not make it into this biography because I considered them pure speculation.

OB:

What advice do you have for a would-be biographer?

RBF:

Wait until you’re of a certain age before you begin. The biographer must bring a certain maturity to the subject. Don’t be surprised at what you find during your research. Take at least five years, for biography, like fine wine, must slowly age. And get a paying job while you’re researching and writing. Biography doesn’t pay but it is rewarding in all other ways. You need an income to pay for your red wine and taxes.


R. B. (Rae) Fleming’s previous books include The Railway Kings of Canada: Sir William MacKenzie, 1849-1923 and General Stores of Canada: Merchants & Memories. He is also the editor of Boswell’s Children: The Art of the Biographer and The Wartime Letters of Leslie & Cecil Frost, 1915-1919. Several of his articles, most of them biographical in nature, have appeared in The Beaver (now Canada’s History). In 2010 Rae was presented with the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Lifetime Achievement. He lives in Argyle, ON. His website is www.rbfleming.net.

For more information about Peter Gzowski: A Biography please visit the Dundurn Press website.

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

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