When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’m one of those lucky people who knew from the time I was seven or eight that I was going to spend my life as a writer of one sort or another. The process of coming to that conclusion, however, was anything but edifying. For a journalism prof, in fact, one might even describe it as embarrassing.
In Grade 3, I had a school assignment to write a poem. Not having much inclination to write one myself — I was probably too busy playing street hockey at the time — I submitted a poem that my cousin, who went to another school, had written. The teacher loved it and read it aloud to the class. She then showed it to the principal who read it during assembly. It even ended up featured in the school’s annual Gestetenered collection of student stories, essays and poems. As my work. I think we call that plagiarism today
What I learned from this experience was that writing offered me — an otherwise indifferent student — at least the possibility of praise. Since my cousin was, after all, a year younger and therefore a year less smart than me, I decided this writing thing couldn’t really be so hard. I figured if he could I could do it myself.
I haven’t stopped.
My cousin? He was smarter than I thought; he grew up to be a lawyer and is now the Deputy Minister of Justice in Nova Scotia.
How did you end up as a journalist?
Growing up, I don’t think I ever registered much of a distinction between “writing” and journalism. My parents did. While my father really would have preferred I become a plumber — “time-and-a-half on Saturdays, double time Sundays and holidays” — he knew I didn’t have the requisite measuring or mathematical skills.
So workaday journalism was the practical second choice, certainly preferable to the uncertain life of a “writer.” Which was fine with me too since I didn’t still didn’t make fine distinctions about fact and fiction.
Like a lot of wannabe journalists of my age, I never went to journalism school. At university, in fact, I spent so much time hanging around the campus newspaper I never got my degree, but I did manage to parlay that campus journalism experience into a $65-a-week job at the proverbial 5,000-watt radio station, and then spent the next decade or so wandering from job to job — sometimes of my own volition, sometimes because I’d been fired — learning the ins and outs of radio, television, newspapers and magazines. I sometimes tell my students it took me 10 years to discover what they learn in journalism school in eight months.
You mentioned being fired. Did that happen often?
Often enough, though always over some sort of an issue that seemed, at least at the time and at least to me, to be important.
You also, at least once, quit over an “issue.” What was that about?
That was my 15 minutes of fame. In January 2002, I resigned as a columnist for the Halifax Daily News over what I regarded as censorship by the paper’s owners, the Asper family of Winnipeg. I’d been a weekly columnist for the paper for 15 years, writing about whatever struck my fancy from political scandal to taking my son to his first hockey game. It was a great gig, or at least it was until the Aspers bought the paper — along with most other dailies in the country — and began imposing their will on what appeared in the opinion columns of their newspapers. Local editors were required to run “national” editorials, which had been written at head office, and they not only couldn’t publish editorials that contradicted the head office view but they couldn’t even allow freelance columnists like me to stray far from the company line. Some issues actually became verboten: you couldn’t say anything positive about the Palestinians, for example, or much that was negative about the Aspers’ friend Jean Chrétien, the prime minister.
This was happening all in newsrooms across the country, of course, and there were occasional brave protests by journalists at individual papers but the company threatened to punish, even fire, anyone who spoke out.
Since I was in the enviable position of having a day job, which meant I wasn’t dependent on the Aspers to pay my mortgage, I decided to quit and do it publicly. By writing a column I knew my paper wouldn’t run — a column about the fact that they wouldn’t run columns containing dissenting opinions, if that’s not too convoluted.
My resignation — among a number of other incidents that were happening across the country at the time — helped trigger a public debate about growing concentration of media ownership in Canada.
All of which made me — however briefly — in demand. I was invited to testify before an Australian parliamentary committee investigating media concentration and played “canary in the coal mine” for a coalition of American union, media and public interest groups who were attempting to challenge plans by the Federal Communications Commission there to deregulate media ownership rules.
I’m not sure how useful or productive the debate turned out to be — the Aspers did eventually sell the Daily News to Transcontinental Media and I’m back as a columnist — but it was, in a weird way, fun to have David Asper denounce me in a speech. And it was gratifying when people I didn’t know would tell me how “courageous” I’d been to quit.
I knew better. The truth, of course, was that I wasn’t courageous at all. I was just lucky enough to have the luxury of a job that allowed me to speak out when others, for very good reasons, couldn’t. The truly brave ones — and I met a lot of them through this — were and are the journalists who continue to go about the business of producing good journalism every day in spite of all the obstacles put in their way.
How did you end up teaching journalism at university?
I am an accidental academic. As I said, I dropped out of university without a degree (there is some question whether I even legitimately earned my high school leaving certificate). In those days, degrees didn’t matter much to journalism employers, or to journalism schools, which were still new and naïve enough to value experience over academic credentials.
George Bain, the legendary Globe and Mail columnist, had just been hired as the new director of the then-new School of Journalism at the University of King’s College and was casting about for people to teach courses. Since I was then making my living as a full-time magazine freelancer, he asked me to teach a course on magazine writing. One course led to another — having worked in most media by then, I guess he figured I could teach anything — and soon I was juggling my freelance career with three full courses. While I loved it, part-time teaching paid even more poorly then than freelancing did. And it was time-devouring.
Luckily for me, the school’s fulltime broadcast professor unexpectedly got offered a job as executive producer of As It Happens. This was in August and school started in less than a month. The only way he could get a leave of absence was if the School could immediately find someone to take over his job. I was around. So they gave me a contract to cover off his leave of absence. Although his stint at As It Happens didn’t pan out and he returned to his old job two years later, I just kept my head down, hoping no one would notice me. I guess they didn’t. I’m still there nearly 25 years later.
Still without a degree?
No, I did finally get a degree — an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College in Baltimore — in 2001. I was 52. Going back to school at that point was probably a symptom of some midlife crisis I’d rather not think about.
I didn’t need a degree. Despite my lack of formal academic credentials, I had long since been granted tenure and was director of our school of journalism.
But I’d become fascinated with the evolving field of “creative nonfiction” — using novelists’ techniques (plot, character, scene, dialogue, etc.) to tell real-life stories. That’s what I’d been trying to do in my own writing, including Flight 111, a nonfiction book about the crash of a Swissair jet off Nova Scotia in 1998. But I was eager to learn to do it better, and in a more organized, thoughtful way.
Which is why — after I plugged the term “creative nonfiction” into my computer’s search engine on a whim one night and discovered that the first link that popped up was Goucher College — I decided to go back to school.
It was a wonderful and worthwhile experience. I learned a lot that I was able to apply to my nonfiction writing and teaching, but what I learned also turned out to be even more valuable when I finally sat down to write Reparations.
Why a novel? Why not another nonfiction book?
I won’t kid you. Like any journalist I know, I’d thought about writing a novel. I even had the requisite completed, unpublished manuscript sitting in the bottom of my desk drawer. Still do. That said, I was happy enough as a nonfiction writer. I still am.
But there was this true story I couldn’t seem to find a way to tell in nonfiction. I’d written a nonfiction book called Not Guilty: The Trial of Gerald Regan about the sexual assault case against Nova Scotia’s former premier, who’d been accused of assaulting dozens of women over 40 years, including when he was premier. The book was supposed to be about the criminal case but also about the culture and politics of Nova Scotia during the sixties and seventies.
I grew up in Nova Scotia. I’d been a reporter during Regan’s years as premier. It was a fascinating time and place — reminiscent more of the American South of the time than most other parts of Canada. Corruption was a casual, accepted, almost open part of everyday political life. So was the sense of entitlement. There was racism but, again, it was more like the pre-civil rights South. Everyone knew their place and played their understood role in the society; few questioned the rules.
I’d hoped to try and capture some of that in the Regan book. When I began researching and writing the book, many people — including me — assumed he’d be found guilty. He wasn’t. Which changed the playing field.
By the time the lawyers were done with my manuscript, the most common word in the book after “the” was probably “alleged.” One chapter and a large chunk of another ended up on the cutting room floor.
Over the years since, I’d tried to figure out how to tell the stories that got left out, which, in fact, had less to do with the criminal allegations against Regan and more to do with the political and social culture of the era.
Finally, I decided to try and tell the tale as fiction.
Somewhere between that decision and the final manuscript, however, Reparations really did turn into fiction. I’m not really sure how; magic, I guess.
The reality is Reparations isn’t about Regan, or about the literal, factual truth of what happened during those times. Even though the novel loosely tracks the chronology of the Regan era — a government elected in 1970, re-elected in 1974, defeated in 1978 — the premier character isn’t Regan. And there was no such person as Ward Justice. Or Ray Carter. And the incident that triggers the chain of events in the book didn’t happen.
Reparations is, in the end, a work of fiction.
As a nonfiction writer, I struggled with the discovery that I could now make things up! Some incidents in the book — the “Halifax 2000: Facing the Future” conference that became a turning point for Ray, for example, and the protest over the hiring of a racist police chief — are loosely based on real events. At first, I worried I had to get the “facts” right. But eventually I realized I wasn’t trying to achieve literal truth but literary truth. That was incredibly liberating for me.
In the end, I hope that what I’ve managed to do with this book is to use fiction to paint a “true” picture of what I think of as an especially interesting time and place — and, of course, to produce a page-turning yarn for people who just want a good read.
Some of what you write about did happen though. Africville, for example?
What happened to Africville is a blot, not only on Nova Scotia but also on Canada and Canadians as well.
Africville was a poor but proud black community of about 400 people on the edge of Halifax. It had been around for 150 years when it was razed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal and “progress.”
From the outside, Africville’s gerry-built homes and unpaved streets did create the impression of a shanty town. To make matters worse, the City had refused to provide the residents with even basic services like sewer and water. And Africville had become the dumping ground for all those enterprises — a dump, a slaughterhouse, an infectious diseases hospital, a jail — no one else wanted in their own neighbourhoods.
Which was one reason it was so easy for a combination of land-hungry bureaucrats — Africville sat on valuable industrial land — and integrationist do-gooders to convince themselves the best thing for the people there would to plow their community under and move them all into newly built public housing projects. No one at the time paid much attention to all the attendant social problems such dislocations almost inevitably create.
That all happened back in the late sixties, but the Africville issue reverberates today. The former residents have gotten together to sue governments to get real reparations for their losses instead of the pittance they were paid at the time. Many, in truth, would rather have their community back than any amount of money. In 2004, a United Nations report into what happened to the community even called on the Canadian government to pay reparations to the former residents of Africville for what had been done to them.
So, yes, the story of the destruction of Africville is certainly real and happened in much the way it is outlined in the novel.
One of the key characters in the novel is Ray Carter, a black man from Africville, and you often write from inside his head. Doesn’t the fact that a white author is writing from the perspective of a black character inevitably raise the issue of cultural appropriation?
For some people, I’m sure it will. But I think that that is what writers do. I was never a trawlerman’s son from a small Nova Scotia fishing village either, but I use what I know (I covered a fishermen’s strike similar to the one in the book) and what I can imagine and whatever empathy I can bring to try and see his world from his point of view.
I did grow up in the north end of Halifax, not far from Africville, so I went to school with kids from that community. As a journalist, I covered the evolution of the community’s long fight for compensation and interviewed plenty of residents over the years.
Perhaps most importantly, one of the fundamental points of the book is that, beneath our skin colour, we are more similar than different. So, in that context, a white writer writing from the perspective of black characters isn’t that much of a stretch.
Having tried your hand at fiction, will you now return to nonfiction?
Yes. But not just nonfiction.
I’m currently in the middle of researching a nonfiction book on the early history of the tiny community of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, which was briefly the fourth largest city in North America and, after the American Revolution, longed to become a bigger, better and, of course, more loyal version of New York City.
At the same time, I’m also working on another novel.
I enjoy the inherent power that comes with telling a true story but I also value the freedom to create a world that only fiction offers.
In the end, I guess for me it’s all about trying to tell different truths in different ways.