Interview for Pierre Berton's book 'The Joy of Writing'

This is the transcript of an email interview long-time Pierre Berton associate Elsa Franklin conducted with Stephen Kimber as part of the research for Berton’s book, The Joy of Writing (Doubleday 2003).

How old were you when you knew you were going to beome a writer?

I was in Grade 3 so I would have been eight years old. But my story is not especially edifying or suitable for a classroom primer on how writers become writers… I became a writer because I was a too-successful plagiarist!

My cousin Doug, who lived across the street from me, went to the Catholic school a few blocks south of us while I attended the Protestant "and others" school one block to the north. (That was just the way it was in Halifax in the fifties.) My cousin’s class had just completed an assignment to write a poem. He showed it to me. I thought it was pretty good. So, when our class got the same assignment a few weeks later, I decided to hand his poem in as my own. My teacher liked it so much she read it out loud to the class. Perhaps because it was the first time I’d done anything worthy of note in my three-plus years of elementary schooling, the teacher then showed it to the principal who read it out to the entire P-9 school over the P.A. System. It was later included in the school yearbook’s literary section. I loved the attention. And I quickly decided that if my cousin could write poems people liked, well, so could I. So I began to actually write my own. Though they never quite managed to attract as much attention as that first "borrowed" poem, I knew from that moment on that I would be a writer.

My cousin Doug grew up to be a rock band drummer and then a lawyer and then a government deputy minister. I never wavered in my determination to be a writer.

When did you start using a computer? Age? Date?

I bought my first computer — a Radio Shack TRS-80 with 48K of memory, big floppy, floppy disks and a very expensive dot-matrix computer — in 1980. I was 31. I like toys (I also spent $1,250 sometime around then for the privilege of owning one of the first video cassette recorders) and being the first on my block with the latest. I managed to convince myself, though not necessarily my wife, that spending $7,000 for a computer and a printer was a good investment for a freelance magazine writer. I estimated, on the basis of not very much, that it would pay for itself in three years. I was wrong. For one of the few times in my life with an investment decision, I turned out to be right in my favour. The computer paid for itself in increased productivity and efficiency in a year. I’ve never been without a computer since.

Who were your influences?

My biggest influences were magazine writers of the late sixties and early seventies, people like Joan Didion, Gay Talese, David Halbertsam, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thomspon and others who wrote for Esquire, Saturday Evening Post and Rolling Stone. But my favourite magazine was Harper’s under the brilliant southern American editor Willie Morris. Reading Dan Wakefield, Garry Wills, Larry L. King, Norman Mailer and Morris himself made me want to write like each of them.

My favourite Canadian magazine was the Star Weekly under Peter Gzowski. Probably because of his radio successes, many people have forgotten what a brilliant magazine editor Gzowski was. And the Star Weekly under his editorship was a wonderful example of not only his eclectic interests but also his truly Canadian world view.

In those days, the Star Weekly, while available for free to readers of the Star and selected newspapers across the country, was sold only on the newsstands in Halifax (apparently the Dennis family, which owned the local Halifax Herald, refused to pay to carry such Upper Canadian filth in its Saturday editions). I remember it was part of my Monday night ritual to go up to Crocker’s. the neighbourhood candy store, to buy a Coke, a Joe Louis cake and the latest Star Weekly.

One of my writing heroes as a kid was Harry Bruce, the magazine writer and personal columnist whose pieces appeared regularly in Gzowski’s Star Weekly. I loved the way he wrote about ordinary events and personal experiences — from an overnight train trip from Toronto to Ottawa to the break up of a friend’s marriage — and made them universal. Later, when Harry and his family moved to Halifax (another theme in his writing that attracted me was his obsession with Nova Scotia), we became friends. I still think he is a brilliant writer and only wish this country supported its brilliant writers in such a way that would have allowed him not to have spent so much of his time and talent writing corporate biographies and histories (as good as those books all were!).

My other important influences were the Canadian authors whose new books I asked for every Christmas: Pierre Berton (his Comfortable Pew inspired me to see writing as a way to question the world around me, and his histories gave me a sense of the country that is still with me today), of course, and Peter C. Newman (who made politics human and fascinating for me and added to my interest in nonfiction storytelling).

When you start work on a new book, do you stay out of circulation? Are you anti social?

During the research phase of writing, I tend to be very much in circulation. Interviewing people. Asking questions. Musing aloud on what I’m finding. Boring people at parties with the latest tidbits I’ve accumulated. Once I start to write, I tend to withdraw. And then I find myself resenting the inevitable need to resurface to do additional interviews to flesh out sections I’m working on.

How do you go about putting a book together? How do you organize your research? Do you rush to get everything on paper or do you polish as you go along. How many drafts do you do?

My last two projects — a book on the Swissair crash off Nova Scotia in 1998 and life in Halifax during World War II — have involved inter-connected parallel narratives, essentially telling the overall story chronologically but through the individual stories of a number of different characters, each with a personal stake in the outcome. The benefit of that from a writing point of view is that I was able to write the story in "chunks," ultimately stitching the overall narrative together out of the bits and pieces. That allows me to write as I research, and to jump around in the writing, focusing on one character for a while and then switching to another as information or inclination strike me. I tend to polish each section as I go along, returning to revise the whole thing when I finally have all the pieces together. I can’t tell you how many drafts I go through because, thanks to computers, I can revise what I’ve written every time I open the file of a particular section using that process as a kind of exercise to gear me up to move forward with the rest of that section. And then, at the end, when it is all together, I do one or two more complete drafts before I send it off to the editor.

Ideas: How do you get them? Does one book subject lead to the next? Examples?

One of the joys of writing for me is to take on new — and very different — projects. I’ve written about the hundred-year history of a fish company, the sexual assault allegations against a premier, the aftermath of an airline crash and what World War II was like in Halifax. I’m not sure what is next but I’m guessing it won’t have anything to do with any of those — unless it is fiction.

I am interested in trying a novel again. (Like every writer, I too have an unpublished, unpublishable novel in my desk drawer.) If I do, it will probably be on a subject that will allow me to explore some of the subtle issues that I couldn’t penetrate, often for legal reasons, in my nonfiction — like the peculiar political culture in Nova Scotia that created the climate for both the fish wars and sexual predator scandals of the seventies.

Where do the nonfiction ideas come from? Some, like Swissair, essentially just happen in front of you. Others, like Sailors, Slackers, emerge from natural curiosity: as someone who grew up in Halifax in the fifties, I was always intrigued by the cone of silence that seemed to surround discussion of the VE-Day riots. I wanted to know why no one seemed to want to talk about what happened. So I started to ask questions…

Do you have trouble sleeping after a book is out.Does it keep running through your head.How do you handle this.Do you rewrite certain passages many times?

I suffer from what I think of as a writer’s variety of post-partum depression in the days and weeks after publication. Rereading passages to prepare for public readings, you’re inevitably struck by the reality that the whole thing could have used at least one more rewrite (sometimes I even do a little minor rewriting before I read from the finished book!). At the same time, you inevitably feel like the publisher isn’t doing enough to promote what you also consider a masterpiece (probably seconds after you’ve dismissed the section you’ve just reread as third-rate). Why aren’t you on a cross-country tour like Writer X? How come the publisher invested in such a big ad for him/her when your book is so much better and would sell so much better if only that ad was for you. Eventually, this feeling dissipates but it’s all consuming for a few weeks. (I’m in one of those weeks now, I think.)

How much time do you take off between books?

Having only recently turned to books as my primary writing outlet and having passed the big 5-0, I have a fear of time off. I want to get going right away on the next project. But it usually takes a few false starts before I really get into a project. (Before I settled on the World War II book, in fact, I spent a whole summer and fall immersing myself in a junior hockey team for what I thought would be a book on a year-in-the-life of a bunch of kids with professional hockey dreams. Unfortunately, I couldn’t interest a publisher, so I moved on.)

How many words a day do you write?

I try to set a goal. Five hundred when I’m teaching (my day job is as a university journalism prof), 1,000 when I’m not, 1,500-2,000 when I’m deeply immersed in the project. I try to set realistic (perhaps even easy) goals so I can meet and perhaps exceed them. I try to trick myself into believing I’m doing better than I probably am. I’m easily fooled.

How old are you?

I was born August 25, 1949, which makes me 53.