This interview was posted in the Winter term of 2013; however, Gibson regrettably was obliged to re-schedule the event. We repost this interview in light of his forthcoming visit, next Thursday, November 7, 2013, in the Cleghorn Common Room at 5 pm.
MHRS – You’ve worked with some very big names in Canadian Lit. I suspect it’s not as simple as any one thing but in your mind, speaking to your experience, what defines a “Great Canadian Author” and what sort of pressures have you encountered in your partnerships with such iconic voices?
DG – First, what defines a “Great Canadian Author”? This is harder than you might think, since there is some argument about what makes someone “a Canadian Author.” Clearly, someone who writes books and was born and raised in Canada qualifies. But do they still qualify if they move elsewhere and take up citizenship there (and even, in one famous case that may occur to you, actually renounce Canadian citizenship)? This is not merely a rhetorical question since many “Great Canadian authors” were born and raised elsewhere, before coming to Canada and becoming writers, although they may choose to continue to set all of their writing in the country of their birth. Clearly, we have decided to be expansive in our welcome to writers born elsewhere and in our continuing inclusion of expatriate writers. So the summary definition would seem to be “anyone with links to Canada that causes them to describe themselves as “Canadian.”
As for the “Great,” ask me to write a book about it. Thousands of others have tried to define greatness in a writer, but the question is still open. What sort of pressures have I encountered in working as an editor with such iconic figures? Surprisingly, no greater than working as an editor on any piece of writing. It’s always a professional job, whereby the editor coolly tries to do his or her best. Ironically, I always found that the truly experienced professional writers – people like Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro – actually welcome the active involvement of an editor…even a young ( possibly bumptious) editor like me, if I was willing to put blood and sweat into making their book as good as it could possibly be
MHRS — Stories About Storytellers has been adapted into a stage show and you clearly have a love of performance. What, for you, is the value of taking your stories to the stage? What is it like to go from the relatively solitary position of a writer imagining his audience to engaging with one so directly?
DG — The difference between writing for a book and saying the same words on a stage is exactly as you would expect. I find the instant response both fascinating and delightful. Every audience is different, every evening a new experience. I was discussing this with my friend, the great actor R.H. Thompson, and he said, “Yes, you get to where you can hear them thinking!” The book author is so isolated and distant from his or her readers that, in my humble case, a letter or an e-mail from a reader saying, “Hey, I really liked your book!” can set me beaming for hours. So if you’re ever tempted to thank or congratulate an author, by writing to the book’s publisher, do it!
MHRS – If I’ve learned anything, self-editing is an important but difficult and even painful part of being a writer. You are accustomed to the role of publisher, which complicates that process. That said, when you were writing Stories About Storytellers, did you have to take a few steps back from Douglas Gibson, the Publisher in order to freely and fully engage with Douglas Gibson, the Author?
DG — As for your last, very interesting question, I’d agree that a good writer has to become an expert self-editor. I think I have that ability. If it slows up the process of getting words on the page, I firmly believe that it speeds up the over-all process, because the self-edited words that make it through the process don’t have to be totally re-worked.
I think that I was unable to drop my Publisher role even as I wrote. Two examples: I could have called the book something personal like “My Fascinating Career as a Publisher.” The Publisher in me knew that such a title (and such a focus) would have sold only a handful of copies. So I built the book around the interesting part…the authors I encountered in the course of my publishing life. So the essential shape of the book was dictated by me as Publisher.
A second example: When I had finished the book— before I had sent it to a publisher— I approached the brilliant caricaturist Anthony Jenkins of the Globe and Mail. I gave him the list of authors to whom I had devoted a chapter and made a private arrangement with him to buy the right to use his drawings in my book and in promoting my book (I was even at that early stage thinking of doing unusual things on stage with his brilliant portraits). Only then did I approach the publisher saying, “Here’s how the book should look.” I knew, you see, that my written descriptions of these authors made an illustration obviously appropriate. But what kind of illustration? A photograph would be too formal, even dull, and might make my book seem academic. So, with Tony’s lively caricatures I was sending an important message about this book being lively, even, I hope laugh-out-loud funny.