Monday, July 13, 2015

On Writing #66 : George Fetherling

On Writing
George Fetherling

A memoir of mine named Travels by Night, a book that could be called a story of growing up in Canadian publishing, is very much a product of its time. This defect may also help account for its surprising (to me, in fact, almost miraculous) longevity, for it has reappeared recently from Quattro Books in a 20th-annievsray edition with new material added. In his famous work Enemies of Promise, the English critic Cyril Connelly speculated about how difficult it would be to publish a novel that would still be alive in both the marketplace and its readers’ hearts once a whole decade had gone by. As though unwittingly proving the point, his only novel, The Rock Pool, failed that particular test spectacularly. Of course there are limitless exceptions to Connelly’s statement; they’re called classics.  Travels by Night is not a classic and it’s certainly not a novel, though its language and structure have certain novelistic qualities. The Quattro edition is the fourth appearance of a title that, alone among my books, has been uninterruptedly read, taught, cited, debated and denounced for 20 years.   
The tale of how Travels came into being is told in piecemeal fashion in a much more recent work, The Writing Life: Journals 1975─2005, which I rely on here for my summary. In the late 1980s, two decades after moving to Toronto from New York, I was working as a literary journalist in Kingston, Ontario. My life was in a troubled period and I conceived the idea of writing a memoir for both relaxation and therapy. Few people anywhere, certainly no one in Kingston, knew that I had grown up in violent poverty in the lower reaches of the old industrial culture that was quickly dying. Or if they did, they were too polite to remind me to my face.  I wanted to show how my early life, as described in the first two chapters, led, logically, inexorably and yet implausibly, to my life in Canada, the subject of the final three parts. Many memoirists and autobiographers who grew up someplace other than where they grew old have tried to paper over the big seismic fault that runs through their narratives. The results are not always convincing. I took the opposite tack, emphasizing the shift by showing how stark and sudden it was.
In purely literary terms, I had this temporal matter in mind all along once I began drafting Travels in Kingston and finished it later, in the early 1990s, in Toronto. But my attempt to reinforce the kind of structural seam that runs through bifurcated life stories turned out to have a disadvantage, in that many readers seemed to believe that I was writing a political manifesto. The book was and is nothing of the sort, but rather an account of a young fellow trying to find his true home, one that happened not to be the place he was born.
When I had finished, a literary agent I knew first seemed enthusiastic about the manuscript in the abstract but did an about-face after starting to read it. She stopped by my home in the middle of the night, leaving the bundle on my front porch, like an abandoned infant, along with a note stating that representing the work would ruin her business. Something similar happened with a prominent Toronto publisher who specialized in high-end non-fiction. At the beginning she was very encouraging. But after seeing the finished pages, she stridently changed her mind, telling me that she wouldn’t publish such a piece of trash even if it came with a hundred per cent subsidy. I imagine she must have been offended by the fact that the book mentions sex, as seems to me perfectly normal in a memoir of youth. She may also have been horrified to learn that I had never attended Queen’s University or McGill and may not have believed that the Vietnam War had been a noble crusade. Other Canadian-owned publishers declined politely while the big American-owned houses, for their part, turned it down smartly, one after another, even though in the two most important cases the Canadian editorial executives in charge later went out of their way to praise it in private. The orphan finally found a home in 1994 with Malcom Lester, that brave independent Canadian publisher, and shot to No. 2 on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.
It received a good many reviews, several of them almost rapturous, it seemed to me. David Macfarlane, for example, called it “a wonderful book […] by a man who, for most of his life, has been thinking about what makes good writing, and it shows.” Philip Marchand wrote of it as “everything a memoir should be—revealing, witty, erudite, beautifully written. Of more literary weight than the vast majority of novels.” Robert Fulford understood how it captured for reflection and study the most creative period in Toronto culture; he was kind enough to call it “a work of literature [and] a valuable work of history as well.” It did so well, I suppose, because people liked reading about Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Gwendolyn MacEwen and other figures, and recalling events associated with the early days of Canada’s literary renaissance—or hearing about the birth of House of Anansi or the notoriety of Rochdale College. In short, Travels seemed to speak directly to a certain generation. But it was controversial because it was perhaps the first such full-throated memoir of the arts scene and certainly the first one to deal candidly with people’s personal lives. Because of such frankness and sheer unexpectedness, as well as because of my background, it provoked unintended controversy. There was a spontaneous protest when it didn’t get shortlisted for one award or another—and then again when it did.
Only with the new edition have I had the opportunity to expand a number of scenes, shorten a few that needed shortening, and make other emendations, such as correcting small errors. To do this of course I had to read the text again. I found it an odd experience, in my mid-sixties, to look back at what I wrote in my mid-forties about events that took place mostly during my adolescent and teenage years—indeed to look back on a time that now seems downright historical. Doing so has taught me a lesson about style. I wrote the book quite carefully but was at some pains to make it conversational, with word choices and sentence patterns that deliberately mimicked the way I normally speak, almost as though I were dictating my own story to myself. Time has changed everything else about me but I still recognize the way I spoke. The effect is a little like shaking hands with one’s ghost.

George Fetherling is a poet, novelist and cultural commentator who lives in Vancouver and Toronto. Among his most recent books are The Sylvia Hotel Poems (Quattro) and the novel Walt Whitman's Secret (Random House).

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