When I was three, I ran away from home with a tea cosy on my head. That was in England. A few months later I ended up in Canada. I like to pretend that these two events were connected; that somehow this intrepid three-year- old made it all the way to northern British Columbia in his gray flannel shorts, red tie and open-toed sandals. The thing is, I don’t know what my destination was that spring day, let alone what my motive for leaving might have been. It is not really my memory but a piece of family lore.
We were staying with my mother’s parents at the time. They lived in a grand house called “Ravensheugh.” It stood on the Spital Road in the town of Bromborough, Cheshire. Many years later, reading a book about Cheshire, I would learn that the Spital Road was named for an eleventh century leper’s hospital (ho’spital) to which it led. I don’t think that was where I was heading.
Probably I was angry. We were staying with my grandparents because we were about to leave for Canada. A few days before my flight in the tea cosy, I was sitting in the upstairs window of our own house, “Just Home,” a few miles from Bromborough in the village of Little Sutton, when my next-door neighbor, Nicky, came over to play. I opened the window and called down to him.
“I can’t come out today,” I said. “We’re moving to Canada.”
I remember Nicky nodding in an “Oh, I see” kind of way and then heading home. It was as if I had said, “Sorry, today we’re moving to Canada but I’ll see you tomorrow.” A few days later at Ravensheugh maybe the penny dropped. We were never going back to Just Home; I would never see Nicky again. That would be a pretty good reason for running away. Saying goodbye to Nicky is my only real memory of England.
We came to Canada on a Cunnard ocean liner, the Ascania, my four sisters, my mother and I. My father had gone on ahead. He was always going on ahead. He was an engineer. Whatever it was he was building always had to get built right away and so Mum was left with the task of packing and closing up house.
My one memory of the Atlantic crossing is tomato soup. My family was seasick and bedridden. I remember going to the dining hall all on my own. The place was almost deserted and I was asked to join the Captain at his table. It was like something from an Edward Ardizzone picture book. I was Brave Tim!
I had tomato soup. It was sweet and rich and creamy and perfectly satisfying. Everything tastes better at the Captain’s table. In my picture book Zoom Away, Zoom the cat and Maria stop in a snow covered sitting room on their way to the Arctic and have cups full of piping hot tomato soup. It had stayed warm all those years in the thermos of my memory.
Kitimat was a little boy’s dream come true. It stands at the head of the Douglas Channel, south east of Prince Rupert and less than a hundred miles south of the southernmost tip of Alaska. The town, such as it was, was named after the Kitamaat Indians, the “people of the snow” as the Hudson’s Bay Company traders had dubbed them a hundred years earlier. The Kitamaat were still there. My father and I went hunting with them. Well, Dad hunted and I plucked feathers.
I remember one hunting trip. We had stopped in an abandoned, roofless, log cabin. It was raining. It’s always raining on the northwest coast. We strung up a tarp and waited for a break in the weather. I played soldiers with shotgun shells while the men chatted and smoked their pipes. Mum had sent along egg, onion and tomato sandwiches. Her thinly sliced homemade bread was soggy from the tomatoes, but then everything else was soggy, too. The sandwiches were just like the day.
What few houses there were in Kitimat had been shipped by barge all the way from Vancouver. We bought our supplies at the Hudson’s Bay Company. There was a place called the “town site” that became what is present-day Kitimat. So, here we were, living on the edge of a place that didn’t yet really exist. We had come from a place where the houses had names to a place where there were so few people nobody even bothered with numbers. We had come to a pioneer town from a city founded by King Alfred’s daughter, Aethelfred, in 912. Maybe Bromborough seemed like Kitimat to Aethelfred. There were probably tall trees in England back then and bears, too. But no Mounties.
My older sisters tell me what they expected to find in the new world: giant green trees, big black bears and tall red-suited Mounties. Miraculously, that’s exactly what we did find. I once got paid for painting the rocks around the Mounties headquarters. I painted the rocks white.
Bears would wander down into the settlement now and then. I remember one scratching his back against the side of our house. The house rocked! I also met a bear once with my mother. (Actually, the bear wasn’t with my mother, I was.) We were walking on a path through the woods. The mama bear had a cub with her. That usually means trouble, but I think the two mothers came to some kind of unspoken agreement. It was kind of like Blueberries for Sal without the blueberries.
As for trees, you couldn’t see the forest for them. A few years ago I wrote a radio piece for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about my memories of that time. I talked fondly about the twig huts we built in the steep woods, huts that looked exactly like Ernest H. Shepard’s ink drawings of the house at Pooh Corner. My sister Wendy wrote to me after hearing the radio piece. She and her friends had built those twig houses, she explained, not me. She must have been right. After all, she was nine and I was five. Which brings up an important point: memory is untrustworthy; it is like a not-so-real estate magnet confiscating the territories it desires.
I spent a lot of time with a tugboat operator and his wife. The Douglas was a deep channel, deep enough for ocean-going freighters. There was a gigantic aluminum smelter at Kitimat. It was the tugboat captain’s job to bring those freighters into harbor. And it was my job to help in all the many ways a five-year-old can. I remember eating fresh apple pie cooked right on board. But an even better memory than the pie was an American destroyer.
I didn’t question why an American destroyer was parked in the Douglas Channel. When you’re five the world is just one miracle after another. I remember boarding the war ship from the tug and a sailor showing me around. He sat me in the seat of a turret gun. I remember swiveling the gun so that it pointed towards our house. What a surprise for Mummy!
The firing mechanism, as I recall, was made of red rubber and was roughly the shape of the squeezer at the end of a turkey-baster. I remember firing off a few imaginary rounds, the sailor laughing as I blew up Kitimat. Kitimat kind of looked bombed out, anyway, a series of prefab houses on a bulldozed scarp. I realize now that the destroyer must have been over from the war in Korea. Maybe the sailors needed a little down time building twig houses.
I started school in Kitimat but I don’t remember going very much. I distinctly remember playing hooky one day and discovering an enormous shark washed up on the beach. It was already rotting and fabulously stinky. Sharks seldom washed up on the shore of my classroom. Only Ritz crackers and apple juice. But it was in that classroom that I first performed in a dramatic role. I was cast as a stalk of celery. I still remember my line.
“Celery from a seed. That is what you need.”
Presumably, my teacher had discovered like the RCMP officers before her my gift for the arts.
We were only in Kitimat three years but it holds enormous sway over my life. Though I am a city guy in many ways, Kitimat created in me a love of nature that many years of urban life never rooted out. It would be thirty-four years before I would escape to the country where I now live but the yearning was in me from those days onward.
I might have grown up more of the outdoors type if my father hadn’t started to suffer from gout, a painful affliction he endured on and off for the rest of his life. He sold his hunting rifles and shot guns. We fished from time to time but didn’t get out into the wilderness together much after Kitimat.
Children, who have read my novel The Maestro, often ask if I was an abused child. I wasn’t at all. But, having said that, I did model Burl’s father on my own dad to some degree. I just exaggerated a lot. It’s what fiction writers do. My father was large – stout – and gruff at times. He had been a major in the British Army and was used to giving commands. He could be the life of the party, wickedly funny, and a singer of bawdy songs. But when he was angry, he was pretty scary, although he never hit me. I gave Cal Crow some of these characteristics. Fictional characters seem livelier when they are modeled on real flesh and blood people and my father was a man of considerable flesh and blood.
But I also gave Burl some of my good memories of my father. The soggy hunting trip mentioned above, for instance. Burl talks about a time “when he could still get close to the man.” Though my father was around all the years of my growing up, he was moody and consumed by his work. It couldn’t have been easy keeping a big bunch of children clothed and fed.
The Greek Titan, Prometheus, stole his father’s fire. I stole my father’s Welsh moodiness and his love of awful puns. But the best thing I got from him was words. He was not university educated but he spoke wonderfully well, and he sang and told stories.
I did not set out to be a writer. From the age of eleven I was bound and determined to become an architect when I grew up. I leaned towards the visual arts, in any case. I drew all the time. I drew on the cardboard sheets the drycleaner put inside my father’s starched white shirts. I pestered my mother: “What should I draw now?” I would ask.
“Your last breath,” she would reply, exasperated. My mother is pretty handy with language, herself.
No, I did not set out to be a writer, but you use what building material you have. And so the buildings I was destined to design were made, not of mortar and steel, but of language. I wrote a picture book called Architect of the Moon (retitled Builder of the Moon in the U.S.A.) The moon was the kind of thing I tuned out to be okay at building. In my first novel, the adult thriller, Odd’s End, the house is one of the main characters. And in my young adult novel, Stephen Fair, the Fair family live in a wonderful ark in the middle of the woods. It is not just a house, of course, but a metaphor of Stephen’s journey into his own disturbing past. Metaphors are the nails that hold up my buildings.
My home was always littered with books and vibrant with conversation and song and jokes. Diana would sing duets from Gilbert and Sullivan with my father. Jennifer would do her very regal impersonation of Queen Elizabeth. She once stood on the table to do it! If things really got out of hand, my father would say, “Kindly contain your hilarity with a modicum of restraint.” And we would all roar with laughter and pay no attention.
Story telling was expected in my family. Indeed, we younger children were not allowed to sit at the dinner table until we were “suitably interesting enough.” I remember the supper-hour banishment to the TV room with my younger sister and brother, where we sat, gloomily, at little tray tables watching television and eating dinner, wanting only to join the grown-ups chatting and laughing in the dining room. Is that why my favorite memories are so often connected with food?
Our family grew to fullness in Kitimat. Giles Philip was born there. There were now six children: Jen, who was nine years my senior; Di who was two years younger than Jen; Wendy, who was two years younger than Di; then me; and then Bryony, three years my junior and finally G.P., as we called him. This was the troop my mother hauled off to Vancouver in 1955. My father was already there. There was a bridge to build.
By the time I graduated from high school I had lived in twelve different houses and never in any one of them longer than three years. I don’t know how my mother coped. But I know how I did. I learned to make friends quickly and not to expect to keep them. I am jealous of people who still know childhood friends. Perhaps that is why many of my stories feature sturdy friendships: Fletcher and Shlomo in Tashkent, Carrie and Sam in Lord of the Fries. But equally present in my writing are difficult friendships: Burl and NOG in The Maestro or Jim and Ruth Rose in The Boy in the Burning House, for example.
The golden dream of childhood continued for about another year. We moved into a wonderful old house, 2212 Bellevue Avenue in West Vancouver. It seemed a mansion to me but anything would have seemed palatial after living in a prefab. There was an upstairs. I played in a little nook underneath the first floor landing.
I fell down the stairs once. I remember it vividly. My mother holding me, while I bawled, then my father arriving and saying how sad he was to have missed my fall and would I consider doing it again. He made me laugh and I hated him for it.
The house was right on the sea. There was an overgrown path, sharp with black berry bramble and alive with garter snakes that led from our back garden down to a rocky beach. All the children who lived along Bellevue owned parts of that otherwise inhospitable shoreline. We each claimed a boulder that was our very own pirate flagship. When the tide came in you could get stranded on your boulder. It was like being at sea without the fuss of going anywhere. It was a brilliant time. I had good chums, a huge and verdant garden, the Pacific Ocean. Life was grand.
Then my father had a fall and it wasn’t down the stairs. He was working on the construction site of the Oak Street Bridge and a girder crushed his leg. He was put out of commission for a year. He had no insurance; there was no workman’s compensation. We had to leave Bellevue Avenue. When I returned there some twenty years later, the house was gone and in its place stood a pink apartment building with semi-circular windows. They had taken away the raging ocean of my pirate-youth, as well, and replaced it with some tame inland sea.
“As one door shuts another one closes.” One of my father’s favorite expressions.
The year of my father’s injury we lived in a basement. My mother divided up the space into rooms with sheets on clotheslines. One day, baby G.P. ate a pound of butter left on the back step by the milkman. I remember my mother crying in her curtained room like a patient in a hospital. My mother’s greatest gift to this day is patience.
When my father recovered and got back to work, we moved to a little house on Haywood Avenue just a few blocks away. It was half the size of Bellevue but luxurious after living in a cotton-walled labyrinth. Several important things happened there. I entered grade three at Irwin Park School and met Miss Schultz, the world’s best grade three teacher. She let me and another boy named Graham stay in at recess and draw. She gave us tons of paper. We drew nothing but war scenes, mostly Indians and cavalry. Graham was good at horses. I specialized at dramatic deaths: soldiers shot through with arrows. The painter of rocks had graduated to gore.
It was while we were at Haywood that I got my first bicycle. It was a green Raleigh three speed and I burst into tears when I saw it.
But the gift that outshines all the rest was the day my father brought home the collected children’s writing of A.A. Milne. Four books in a boxed set: Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six. It wasn’t for any event I can recall. It must have been my father’s way of trying to make up for the hardships of the previous year. In any case, to this day, The House at Pooh Corner ranks among my favorite books, right up there with A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Golden Compass.
Were I to list all the books I have read that have moved me and all the sad songs I have ever loved, it would make a pretty good autobiography all by itself. I’m sure that when science finally has good enough equipment they will find that the universe is really made out of music.
If Miss Schultz was the epitome of a kind and inspired primary teacher, the following year at Pauline Johnson School I met the archetypal bully of a principal. His name was Mr. Egbert. We called him Eggbeater. I remember Eggbeater hanging over me while I scrambled the alphabet and simultaneously peed my pants. The boy who sat next to me was the only one other than the principal who saw the steaming puddle at my feet. That boy spent an eternity of recesses tormenting me, threatening to expose me. Bullying begets bullying.
I recall another incident where a Vancouver classmate beat me up because I said “garage” in the English way as if it rhymed with “carriage” instead of with “barrage.” Which only goes to show that the inspired bully always finds a reason to pound you out without even resorting to things like race, creed, or color.
As a sub species, bullies figure prominently in many of my stories. I delight in thinking up imaginative ways of dealing with them. I’m not into Stephen-King-like revenge, but it is never the less true that writing is a great way of getting back at someone!
The ultimate bully of my childhood was Howie in grade six. I got him back but good in “The Clark Beans Man,” (in The Book of Changes.)While Howie’s fictional stand-in straddled poor weak Dwight, the hero of my story, drooling spit on his face, Dwight suddenly let loose. He started quoting Wordsworth’s poem, “The World is Too Much With Us,” in the voice of Donald Duck. What defense would a bully have for that?
When did I begin to write? The answer varies. My first published book came out in 1977. The oldest manuscript I have in my possession is from 1970, The Fable of the Lady on the Hill, a painfully sentimental little love story. I was twenty-two when I wrote and illustrated it. I had just failed out of architecture school. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. It was a scary time. I know I started several novels around then and never got farther than fifty pages. There is a quotation from Peter London’s No More Second Hand Art that my wife calligraphed and put up on her studio wall. “Reflect upon that quality of yourself without which you would no longer be the person you take yourself to be.” I suppose, in a way, that was what I was doing in the early seventies. I sang in a band. I drew a lot. I started writing stories. Writing and drawing and singing – that’s who I am.
I began to write song lyrics at that time, both for the band and for a “folkie” friend with whom I ended up forming a singing duo. The duo, Raffi and Tim, played cafés and college pubs around Toronto. Raffi went on to a fabulously successful career as a children’s performer. I ended up back at school. Art school. I still didn’t take my writing seriously.
But writing lyrics was a good start. Since we were going to perform the songs live I remember thinking that the words really mattered, which is a pretty important step in becoming any kind of a writer. Mark Twain puts it this way: “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and a lightning bug.”
The difficulty in saying exactly when I began to write is that there are various component parts to the process that have to come together. I was always imaginative. But if imagination provides the impulse for artistic creation, there still has to be an opportunity for that impulse to kick in, to pick up momentum. There has to be a condition in which the germs of ideas begin to shape themselves into stories. And those story-making conditions began for me a long, long time before I actually put pen to paper. This condition, which marks the beginning of my life as a story came the summer my family moved from Vancouver to Ottawa, Ontario. It was 1958. I was ten. I knew no one.
I was bored out of my mind.
The nation’s capital. Big deal! What good are parliament buildings when you haven’t got a friend to parley with?
We lived in a particularly peaceful neighborhood called the Glebe (an old-English word referring to land granted to the church.) We lived on Clemow Avenue, a wide, tree-lined street of brick houses. In Brian Doyle’s wonderful novel Easy Avenue, I’m pretty sure the title refers to Clemow. I had my green Raleigh, so off I rode to explore the dappled avenues of the Glebe, busy Bank Street, the Rideau Canal, which winds through the heart of Ottawa, and Lansdowne Park where the stock cars used to race on Wednesdays. You could get into the races for six bottle caps if your Dad took you. My favorite car was “Duff’s Taxi.” It was yellow.
There were ponds in the Glebe where you could catch tadpoles and then leave them frying in the sun, we had a dog to run, a milkman you could ride with in his horse-drawn cart, and there was always a ball to bounce against a wall. It was the most boring times in my life!
Boredom, however, has its up side.
I am not by nature a solitary person. But solitude, finally, is the necessary state for creative writing. (I mean, if you’ve got a life, why bother making one up?) Anyway, acute, sluggish, what-do-I-now boredom is like a kind of bargain-basement solitude. And I had a lot of it that summer of ’58. I have tried to recapture something of the feel of that time in my story “Hard Sell” (in The Book of Changes). That’s where the story making began. Observing the games you are not a part of, eavesdropping on other people’s fun, manufacturing events out of borrowed experience and a story out of a shapeless summer day.
Mercifully there was the library. I was a reader. In fact, when we unpacked after the move east, I found a library book from West Van. It was an adventure story set in the Yukon with dogs in it. I lived in real terror that the Library Hit Squad would track me down. Now I wish I still had that purloined book. My daughter lives in Vancouver; I could get her to take it back for me. It would be so cool. I can see Maddy approaching the librarian with her perfect ballerina poise. “My dad asked me to bring this back,” she would say. And then pulling out her purse, she might add, “How much will the fine be?”
My greatest joys were the various adventure series written by Enid Blyton, and the Freddy the Pig stories of Walter R. Brooks. They weren’t good literature. But whenever I get uppity about bad children’s books, when my critic’s hat gets too tight and cuts off my circulation, I try to recall the sheer comfort and exhilaration of Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars or The Mountain of Adventure.
One Sunday morning wandering about the Glebe with nothing to do, I ran into a schoolmate who was on his way to Saint Matthews Anglican Church where he sang in the choir. They got paid! So I went, too. I ended up singing in that choir for four years. I didn’t get rich, but under the guidance of Gerald Wheeler, Saint Matthews became the best boy’s choir in Ottawa and I eventually became the head boy. I won at the Kiwanis Music Festival three years in a row as a treble soloist.
Success can make you giddy. Too much of it is intoxicating. I have won some awards as a writer and that has been very gratifying. But you have to write what you want to write, not what you think people expect you to write. My worse writing comes when I try to write like Tim Wynne-Jones.
But when I was eleven, how great it was to win at something. What a confidence booster. Later, when I was plagued by adolescent insecurity, there was always buried inside me the idea that it was possible to do better. That it was possible to come out on top.
I am terribly competitive. I realized just how bad this affliction was when my eldest son, Xan (Alexander) was playing a lot of soccer. I coached his teams for a number of years and the nastiness of my winning-is-everything attitude shocked me. At its worst, my rabid competitiveness seems a needy kind of thing. I think it might stem from always being the new boy. One reaction is to make yourself invisible. Not me. My approach was to stand up and shout, “Hey, look at me. Quick! I won’t be here long.”
There were other better lessons I learned singing in the choir: the way a lyric rides a melody line, the hard work it takes to excel at anything, how to entertain yourself through a mind-numbing sermon, and this important safety message: when you have just carried a tall candle in a procession around the church, don’t let a tall boy blow it out!
But perhaps, best of all, at Saint Matthews I experienced the thrill of singing in harmony. Neurologists have done test and apparently your brain lights up all over the place when you sing in harmony. I believe it.
And choir was fun. The hockey broadcast scene described in my story “Fallen Angel” (in Lord of the Fries) really happened.
Choir also added a note of continuity to my life. In the four years I was at Saint Matthews my family lived in three different houses in three different suburbs of Ottawa and I went to four different schools.
My favorite school year ever was grade eight at Connaught Elementary in the west end of Ottawa. I made a best friend, Danny Sigler; became a champion receiver at schoolyard peewee football, got the role of the romantic lead, Frederick, in The Pirates of Penzance, and fell in love with Mabel, the other romantic lead. I even got pretty good grades.
We started going to Ocean Park, Maine for summer holidays. All eight of us and a dog in one car. Those sixties cars were big.
I loved Ocean Park. We would rent a cottage for two weeks. One cottage had a piano. I remember coming home from the beach, one day, and hearing someone playing the piano. Really well. My mother had come up earlier to fix dinner and, to my great surprise, it turned out to be her. Who knew she played? When she realized I was there, she blushed and immediately retired to the kitchen. Apparently, she had done her grade ten musical exams back in England. But nothing more was said about the matter. My mother kept her ego in close harness. My father’s ego took up a lot of room. And when, as a teenager, my own ego started to emerge, all gawky and full-of-itself, I remember thinking how little space there was – how little air there seemed to be around our house.
I read my last Hardy Boys book in Ocean Park, Maine. For a couple of years, I was a big fan of Bayport’s famous detectives, gobbling up the stories as fast as I could lay hands on them. There was a little lending library in Ocean Park. I remember arriving at our cottage one summer, changing into my beach clothes, and racing to the library. The Missing Chum. Perfect.
But it was not perfect. I didn’t get past page two. A profound lack of interest swept over me like a wave and just as devastating in its own way. Suddenly, I didn’t care if anyone ever found Chet. I didn’t care if the Hardy Boys crashed their new coupe and burned to death. It was over between us. Sadly, I retuned the book and perused the shelves for something to fill the void. Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck looked okay. I had never heard of Steinbeck but the story had a dog in it. And so I spent the summer of 1966 reading nothing but John Steinbeck. As far as I know Chet is still lost at sea.
That summer I stayed on in Ocean Park working in the kitchen at the Bassett Guest House. It was the first time I had ever lived away from home. Now, I thought, I’ll get to do what the cool teens do: party on the beach, hang out ‘til all hours of the night. Mostly what I did was spend a lot of time reading Steinbeck.
When I got to high school, I had one ambition: I wanted to be in with the in crowd. It seems pretty fatuous, but I have tried to forgive myself. It wasn’t really me, I tell myself. An alien took over my skinny body. I was transmogrified into a joiner of clubs, a desperate poseur, and where girls were concerned, a heat-seeking missile. I had no beliefs beyond girls, parties, button-down, madras shirts and the Beatles.
I was part of the Ridgemont Rubies, a commando cheer-leading squad prone to raiding assemblies and cheer-leading competitions dressed in drag. Put that way, it sounds like we were anarchists. We weren’t. We were just having fun. I think I was having fun. I’m not sure. I know I spent a fair amount of time watching myself from the sidelines. I think a lot of teens feel that way.
For a long time I have been contemptuous of my teen years, how superficial and supercilious I was. It wasn’t me, I protest. I was the pimply host of some alien whose greatest care in the world was whether his jeans were as tight as the Beach Boys’ jeans.
Why the denial? Was I really so absurd? Why this betrayal? Why is my adult self, now almost as stout as his father, trying to distance himself from that skinny boy? Meanwhile, the boy in me feels like a kid alone in a room with a broken teacup. “I didn’t do it,” he shouts. “Honest.”
There were good times at Ridgemont High. There were parties and girls and madras shirts. Then the English wave came along led by the Beatles and we all became mods. For the first time ever, I actually got to stay at the same school right to the bitter end. True, my parents moved to the States but I stayed on. I had lots of friends. At least, it seemed that way. Strangely, when I returned from university for commencement, I didn’t go to any parties. Maybe my old friends didn’t recognize me behind the beard I had grown that summer. Or, maybe the guy behind that beard failed to recognize them?
In my last year of high school,1966-67, my family split in two. My parents didn’t separate, but my father’s business collapsed and, when the dust had settled, he and mum and Bryony and G.P. were living in Radnor, Pennsylvania, while the rest of us were still in Ottawa.
The Vietnam War was on and I would have been eligible for the draft had I moved. My father tended to tell funny and exciting stories about World War II but he kept a lot of bad stuff to himself. I learned much later that he had been among the first troops to arrive at the Bergen-Belsen Death Camp. As a Royal Engineer, it was his job to clean the place up. How those experiences must have haunted him. In any case, as poorly as he and I were getting along at the time, he was in no hurry to see me going off to fight in somebody else’s war.
Wendy had been the first of my sisters to marry. I moved in with her and her new husband. The arrangement lasted less than three months. Who could blame them? One of the least favorite wedding presents you can give a young couple is a teenage brother. So I moved in with Jen and Di in their apartment downtown for the rest of the year. They were single and fun. If I cramped their style, they were kind enough not to mention it. I, myself, had no style to cramp. But I sure was working on it.
One last important footnote about high school. I failed English. I got 46% on my final exam. Ironically, my science marks were high enough that the school bumped my up to a pass so I could go to architecture school.
But what is more ironic is that I loved everything we read in English. It took me years to understand what my problem was. I just can’t stay on the outside of a story.
One day in Mr. Partridge’s senior English class, a crow flew into the room. How keenly I tried to convince the teacher that this was an event of real importance, that it was apt, somehow, considering we were discussing Hamlet.
“Don’t you get it, sir?” I wish I had been able to say. “Elsinore is in Denmark, right? And in Norse mythology, two crows – well, ravens, actually -- sit on either shoulder of Odin, the God of war and culture. One of those crows is Hugin, which means thought; the other is Munin, which means memory. Maybe this crow knows something we don’t?”
Of course, I didn’t know anything like that. What I knew but could not articulate was that when I am reading, the story is happening to me, just like the crow. Or the air, for that matter.
Later, in my twenties, I read all of the works of the British novelist, Graham Greene. He refers to his first memoir as “a sort of a life” partially because he has, as he says, “spent almost as much time with imaginary characters as with real men and women.” I know the feeling, both as a reader and a writer. When I am in the middle of writing a novel, my characters are with me all the time. I am always listening for what they are going to say next. When I see something, I wonder what Burl or Stephen or Jim or Declan might make of it. They don’t see things from the same point of view, as me. How could they? Not with the mess they’ve got themselves into! In writing, finally, I am allowed to live inside the story without flunking!
An autobiography can be many things. This one is almost three quarters done and I have barely gotten out of my childhood. But since I have made childhood my profession, so to speak, for the last twenty odd years, maybe that is as it should be. When I say profession, I don’t simply mean my livelihood; I mean that I profess to this renewable resource called childhood. I affirm my faith in it, my allegiance to it. I guess in some ways I’m still trying to get it right. Maybe it’s my way of hanging out indefinitely at all those schools I merely visited while passing though my childhood.
Entering the University of Waterloo in 1967 I was still ten years away from publishing a book and thirteen years from writing anything half good. How did I get there? How did the painter of rocks, the celery boy, the angelic chorister, the flunking English Lit senior, the would-be Master Builder end up pushing a pen for a living?
The last stage of the journey began, I guess, with a grumpy, troubled, but brilliant English professor.
You have to study all kinds of things to be an architect: design, systematic layout planning, structural physics, math, psychology, sociology, and, mercifully for me, cultural history. I had two fine instructors in that wide-ranging subject, but I credit the first of them, Murray MacQuarrie, with getting me to think. My classmates and I were a bit of an experiment, the first year of architecture students at the University of Waterloo. The faculty weren’t quite sure what to do with us. Professor MacQuarrie wanted to ring our necks. He was astounded at how stupid we were. So, he gave us a monumentally long reading list. The Bible, for beginners, and then Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Dante’s Diving Comedy, Machievelli’s The Prince, and so on and so on, ending up some twenty books later with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. All to be read in one term.
He made us watch movies, too. With subtitles. Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, Renoir’s the Rules of the Game, Fellini’s 81/2. I fell in love with the films of Ingmar Bergman, especially with Liv Ullman, who was featured in many of Bergman’s movies. My friends and I would go around pretending to speak Swedish.
To use a phrase coined around that time, MacQuarrie blew my mind. Structural physics didn’t stand a chance. The writing, as they say, was on the wall.
Though I managed to stave off getting kicked out of architecture for a couple more years, I eventually left Waterloo and went to Toronto where I sang for a time in a band called Boogie Dick. We were hippies, outrageous, irreverent. We burned things on stage, I painted my face paisley, played electric baseball bat. Don’t ask. For a while, we had a regular gig at a club called the Paramount on Spadina Avenue, until an enterprising journalist wrote a piece about us in the Globe & Mail, revealing what we thought of the club’s management. The article got us fired and we took our mad act on the road.
Writing kept me sane. Which, in Boogie Dick, was no mean trick. We were all crazy, some more than others. One of the band ended up a few years later in a hospital for the criminally insane.
I left Boogie Dick one cool summer morning, after a gig in Pembroke on the Ottawa River. It was a long way from Toronto, my new home, but only a couple of hours from my old home, Ottawa. I stole away without saying goodbye. I hitched to Ottawa to my sister Diana’s place. Her baby daughter was frightened of me with my afro and my bushy beard. I think I was a little frightened of me, too. I hurried back to the safety of Waterloo. The following fall, I enrolled in visual art.
Back in Waterloo, I moved with my buddy Doug Jamieson, another ex-architecture student now a composer, into a house full of nutty musicians. Nutty isn’t the same as crazy. Nutty is fun.
The house was called the Toadstool. One morning I counted sixteen guitars in that house. Sometimes there were that many people. We were all in bands or between bands. We were all in school or between schools. We all read Herman Hesse and Richard Brautigan. We listened to everything from Bach to the Beatles. We listening to Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats” and Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” We pretending the New World Symphony was the score to a movie and made up the story to go along with it. The story changed with every listening.
I got a new band, Alabaster: a good band, a sane band. We didn’t burn things on stage. We enjoyed each other’s company. We played all over South Western Ontario and I earned enough from that, plus working in the university library, to pay my way through school. Our drummer, Klaus Gruber, is to this day a great friend. I dedicated Some of the KinderPlanets to him and his wife, Margie, “two of the kinder people you could ever hope to meet.” When you are licking your wounds it’s nice to find a nice safe, friendly place to do it.
I kept writing. My lyrics were pretty pretentious. My biggest problem was in trying too hard to be clever. Growing up on Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, I was attuned to patter songs and so I piled way too many words into my lyrics.
Meanwhile, a new professor arrived in the fine arts department. He was from Chicago. Virgil Burnett was a graphic artist who worked primarily in pen and ink. So did I. (Rapidographs—my drafting pens from architecture. I had to use them for something!) Virgil was something of a surrealist. Me too. He wrote stories as well. It hadn’t occurred to me you could get away with doing both!
I suppose Virgil became something of a father figure for me. I seldom saw my parents after they moved to the States. They kept moving: to Dover, Delaware; Dallas, Texas; Ridgewood, New Jersey. Virgil and his wife Ann were worldly and sophisticated. Ann taught at the University of Chicago and “commuted” to Stratford, Ontario. They had a place in France as well, in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where the movie Chocolat would later be filmed.
It was while they were in France, in the summer of 1974, that I stayed in their beautiful home in Stratford to look after the dog and cat. Virgil also had a horse, which he kept at a stable out of town. He asked if I would mind sharing his Volkwagen bug with a girl who was going to groom and ride his horse. How could I refuse? The girl, as it turned out, was an acting student at York University, working backstage at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival that summer while also working in her grandmother’s beautiful bookstore and, of course, riding Virgil’s mare. She thought I was a friend of Virgil’s from Chicago, which made me seem a lot more exotic than I really was. Her name was Amanda Lewis. It still is. We’ve been together ever since.
I think introducing you to your future wife goes well beyond the duties of a first-rate mentor, but that was what Virgil did and was. He gave me a glimpse into a world I had only imagined existed. People who wrote and drew and acted for a living.
I moved with Amanda to Toronto that fall where I found work in a small publishing company as a book designer. I didn’t know anything about book design but PMA Books was a very small company. We were all kind of making it up as we went along. Besides, as luck would have it, Amanda’s mother was a very good book designer for the University of Toronto Press. So my introduction to the book world was from the other side of the table, so to speak. I worked on manuscripts for several years before I sent one off with the hope of getting it published. I knew a little bit about what drives editors crazy. That’s useful information.
I left PMA after a year and a half, the longest day-job I ever held. Amanda and I traveled to Europe and upon returning I set up a graphic design company with a friend from Waterloo, Michael Solomon. He is now one of the truly great children’s book designers in Canada.
Amanda finished theatre school in 1978 and I decided it was time to go back, myself. I went to York to do a Master in Visual Arts. I didn’t much enjoy it but there were several good teachers there, especially Toby McLennan, a performance artist. She asked me to be in several of her pieces. It was great – even better than being a stalk of celery. It was art and music and theatre all rolled into one.
Nobody at York much liked my drawing. So I started writing my own performance pieces. My performances tended to be weird little fanciful narratives with scores and furniture. I think that is when the final puzzle piece fell into place. A performance piece, you see, doesn’t have any particular structure. It can be anything you want it to be. So, if there are words involved, they just have to be the words you need. I realized, for the first time, that this was exactly what all writing should be: whatever is needed, no more, no less. It seems a simple enough idea. It had taken a long time to get it.
Upon graduating from York, I gave myself the summer off. That’s a big gift when you have no money. I had been offered a part-time teaching post at York the next fall, so I got a bank loan to tide me over, rented a little Smith Corona electric typewriter and wrote a novel. Amanda was away. She was driving across America to visit relatives in California. I was all alone.I had no responsibilities, no deadlines, no one to have to be nice to or to feed. I wrote a mystery thriller called Odd’s End. It only took six weeks to write the first draft. I loved every moment of writing it, climbed right inside the story—lived it. I scared myself silly, but it was good scary.
I entered Odd’s End in the Seal First Novel Competition run by Bantam Books and McClelland & Stewart. And it won.
The prize was fifty thousand dollars and a three publisher book contract which saw Odd’s End come out inCanada, the United States and England. It later came out in Germany as well, and was made into a movie in France many years later. The movie is called, The House that Mary Built. Don’t go out of your way trying to find it. Maybe it’s better in French than it is in English.
Nowhere in that original book contract did it say anything about having a baby. But that’s what we did. Amanda and I call Xan, the Seal First Baby Award. He just seemed to come right along with the prize. If we had hoped to have a family before then, we knew it wouldn’t be for some time. Amanda was acting and directing; I was teaching art. Who could afford children? The Seal Award changed all that, although it must be said that fifty thousand doesn’t last long when you start buying things like a house and a car and, most important of all, a washing machine.
Xan turned out to be such a good idea that we had Maddy and then Lewis. Since Amanda was an only child and I had come from a family of six, we split the difference. Mind you, we didn’t plan it that way.
One morning, when Amanda was already pregnant with Xan but only guessed that she might be and hadn’t bothered to tell me about it, I sat at my kitchen table in our first floor flat on Sackville Street in Cabbagetown, Toronto and wrote Zoom at Sea. I was watching our cat Montezuma playing in the sink with the drops of water that fell from the tap, batting them back up the spout. Zoom, as we called him, loved water. And that’s how I began my story about a cat who goes to sea in a miraculous house. When it was done, I showed it to an artist I had met who worked at the art gallery in Stratford. He had never illustrated a book but I had a feeling he would be good. His name was Ken Nutt although he later changed it to Eric Beddows. We did three Zooms together over the years.
In retrospect, Zoom at Sea made a bigger splash in my life even than Odd’s End. It was my first children’s book and while I went on to write two more adult novels, I became, over the years, a dedicated writer of children’s books. Picture books at first and then, increasingly, short stories and novels. People wonder if I wrote for my children, but that isn’t really true. I wrote because of them. I wrote because they reminded me of my own youth.
The titles of all those books appear on the bibliography that follows. But such a list represents only the barest facts of a working life. This story, so far, has been about the part of my life that launched me into a writing career. I like to think of it like that, as a launch. The first part of one’s life is the rocket, the huge energy-packed vehicle that strains against the tug of gravity to get you up there, then falls away, used up in having released its tiny payload. But that makes it sound almost as if life after writing one’s first book is some kind of effortless floating orbit. Not so. In truth, every book is a new launch. Gravity is always around.
There have been many professional highlights. In Canada I have won the Governor General’s Award, twice: for Some of the Kinder Planets in 1993, and for The Maestro, in 1995. I have also won the Canadian Library Association’s Children’s Book of the Year Award three times and the CLA Young Adult Book of the Year Award once. In 1997, I was given the Vicky Metcalf Award from the Canadian Author’s Association for my body of work. In the United States, I am most proud of having won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, for Some of the Kinder Planets; and in 2002, The Edgar Allan Poe Award presented by the Mystery Writers of America, for best young adult crime fiction, for The Boy in the Burning House. My books have been published in all kinds of languages all over the world.
My love of music has resulted in writing the book and libretto for an opera called A Midwinter Night’s Dream, the score for which was written by the preeminent Canadian composer, Harry Somers. With my good friend, John Roby, I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical based on my book of poems, Mischief City. Mischief City is the only thing I have written directly about my own children and family life in general. It isn’t all true, mind you. Family life is far too complicated a business to be represented by something as formal and proper as the truth! The Truth is about what happens. Fiction gives what merely happens some kind of shape. That’s what I like about fiction. Life, after all, can be a pretty messy business.
I was fortunate to co-write sixteen songs for the Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock. I worked with composer, Phil Balsam, filling in for the wonderfully zany poet, Dennis Lee, when he got fraggled out for a bit.
Amanda and I lived in Toronto for fourteen years. She did theatre and I wrote books and a dozen or so radio plays for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I love radio drama. Like books, so much of it is up to the listener to imagine.
Now and then Amanda and I worked together. She directed a play of mine called Death of a Mouth in the Rhubarb, Rhubarb Theatre Festival. I performed in the George F. Walker / John Roby musical, Rumors of Our Death. Amanda was the assistant director. I got to play a punk terrorist. In those days, terrorism was something you could poke fun at, something that happened somewhere else.
We lived, by then, on Winona Drive in a tiny house in a lovely neighborhood with good friends and a good school but the city was beginning to get me down. I found, increasingly, that I was noticing the bad side of it rather than the good side: the desperate street people, the lost people, the angry people.
Kitimat loomed large in my memory. I had no particular desire to move back to northern B.C., but I wanted my children to experience the country so that when they grew up they would know there were choices a person could make. In 1988, a job offer came along, to be the writer in residence for ten months at a library in the little town of Perth, Ontario. I accepted, we rented out our home in Toronto and moved. We never left.
It is not dramatic countryside around here. No mountains, no ocean. No destroyers or sharks. We live on the southern end of the pre-Cambrian Shield, the oldest mountain range in the world. Those mountains are pretty well worn right down.
We live fifteen minutes from Perth in Brooke Valley on seventy-six acres of mostly scrubby, swampy bush land, of cedar and ironwood, tall white pines, and, in the meadow, juniper and prickly ash. There are deer and coyotes, and pesky porcupines. Lately, a black bear has been knocking over our composter. We think it’s a sow. I should get my mother to have a talk with her.
But if the countryside isn’t dramatic, the change it has brought to our lives certainly is. Amanda left behind professional theatre but has gone on to create a wonderful children’s theatre camp here. Lately her theatre work has taken her to Ottawa, as well, both to teach and direct. But she has over the years concentrated more on her visual art and also her writing. She has written five books mostly on calligraphy and crafts. We wrote a book together, Rosie Backstage, an exploration for children of the theatre and how it works in the form of a story. The book is set at the Stratford Festival where we met. We are currently working together on turning two of my short stories into oneact plays.
The last book I wrote in Toronto was the dark and gloomy adult novel Fastyngange. The first book I wrote in Brooke Valley was Some of the Kinder Planets. No two of my books could be more different. Ironically, the advance copies of Fastyngange arrived by courier at my door on Winona Drive just as my friend Doug Barnes was helping me pack up the van for the three hour trip to Brooke Valley. Amanda and the kids had gone ahead. (A reversal of the way my dad did things!) Though the book received some critical success and went on to be published in England and Spain, it was not a high point in my life. Typically, by the time I finish writing a book I am glad to be done with it. In the case of Fastyngange, I could hardly believe I had written it! “Who is this guy?” I would ask myself, later, flipping through the pages. “What’s his problem?” Well, whatever the problem was, writing the book got me over it. Writing is a great form of therapy.
And ridding myself of all that darkness evidently cleared the way for Some of the Kinder Planets, my happiest writing experience ever. It was in writing Planets that I became my favorite writer. That might sound conceited; let me explain. I came to realize when I was working on Planets that I would never be anyone else. That’s an important thing to figure out. I was able to happily concede that I would never be John Le Carré or Graham Greene or Jane Austen or Timothy Findley or any other of my literary heroes. It is important to emulate writers you respect; they are like trainer wheels on your bike. But at some time the trainer wheels have to come off. I felt, when I was writing Planets, that I was riding on my own at last.
I owe a lot of that feeling to Brooke Valley. It is a very special place. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace as soon as we moved here. Driving into the valley in the rental truck that very first time, we came to a low swampy area and a blue heron flew across our path. It was like a sign. I’m not sure of what, but an elegant one.
Our lives centered around little Brooke Valley School for several years. It is a co-operative one room school house built in the woods with a student enrolment that varies but never gets much above sixteen. All the parents were involved – the whole community was involved. That was the best thing about Brooke Valley. Community was something I had yearned for in all the restless years of my youth without even knowing it.
Roots. A sense of belonging.
I still play rock ‘n roll from time to time with my favorite band ever, The Usual Suspects, sometimes known as Louis the Dreamer. With Franc van Oort and Jack Hurd and Cam Gray, I’ve written forty songs or so. I still pack to many words into my songs. Sometimes there are so many, I end up writing a story instead.
I like to cross-country ski. There are old logging roads through our property and that’s where Amanda and I go, out to the high meadow and the swampland. Sometimes there are coyote tracks in the snow.
The winters are long here. We heat with wood; there’s lots of it. I like to cook and do crossword puzzles or read in front of the fire. It is so quiet you can hear yourself think. I like that best of all. That and the full moon. You can see the shadow of chimney smoke on the snow.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem quite far enough away. So we have bought a cabin on the Lake of Many Narrows, a couple of hours north of Sudbury, Ontario where the only human sound you are likely to hear is the train to White River or the occasional float plane. Our good friends the Mason family introduced us to the lake. We have spent quite a few summers there now with them. There are no roads. You have to fly in or take the “Budd Car” and ask the conductor to stop at the trailhead. Then it’s a half hour hike. The trail is ten thousand years old. I kind of feel that old myself after carrying in a heavy pack!
I designed the house we live in here in Brooke Valley, so my three years of architectural training were not a waste of time. But nothing you do in putting a life together is truly a waste of time. That would suggest there was some designated path you were supposed to be traveling and if you had stuck to it you would have arrived at your destination more quickly. There is no such path. There is no destination. This is where I am now and happy to be so. It would be a very good life indeed if one could say the same every step along the way. But if that were the case, how would you know when you had arrived somewhere just right?
Maybe you will understand why I am a person who doesn’t really like to travel. But I wonder if you could explain to me why I often wish that I were somewhere else? I guess I just never learned how to unpack properly. As a writer I have traveled all over North America. I’ve done readings as far south as Miami and as far north as Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. I’ve been to Bologna, Italy for the Children’s Book Fair, to Melbourne Australia for their International Writer’s Festival and to Cambridge University in England to deliver a talk. I could imagine living in any of those places. In your imagination you can travel light and you don’t need a passport.
Where next? There’s only Lewis at home, these days. He’s in grade ten as I write this with dreams of becoming an actor. Amanda sometimes daydreams about us moving to Manhattan where she was born. I talk about England, a little cottage on the coast somewhere. We both kind of like Toronto all over again. Who knows? As glad as I am to have landed somewhere, there’s still a part of me who wants to run away. I keep a tea cosy near at hand, just in case.
Oh, yes, and I did see Nicky again. On television. And then, many years later, for lunch when I happened to be in London. It was good to be able to explain to him, after forty-seven years, that moving to Canada had taken longer than I expected. He understood. He had been pretty busy himself becoming a successful actor.
And on another trip to England with Amanda and the children in the spring of 1997, I visited Little Sutton one afternoon and found Just Home. No one was home. But there was a lady next door tending her roses. She had lived in the same house all of her eighty plus years. Just as I was about to explain who I was and why I was there, she got a startled look in her eyes all of a sudden. “Why, you’re Sid Jones’s boy,” she said.
What a shock. Was it my gray flannel shorts, red tie and open-toed sandals? Hardly. But I was just about the age my father must have been when they left for the new world. She graciously thought to invite me into her house where she led me to the landing of the stairs. There was a large window there looking down on the back yard of Just Home.
“You’ll want to see your garden,” she said, smiling. It was as if she knew something about me I didn’t know myself. I wonder…