Having worked closely with many of the most significant and influential writers of the past half-century, Douglas Gibson is a literary treasure and a wealth of knowledge about Canadian literary and political figures. In his new book, Stories about Storytellers, Gibson recounts a hilarious and touching set of anecdotes about authors and literary figures whose work he has edited and published. The list reads like a Who’s Who of Can-lit: Harold Horwood, Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Jack Hodgins, Pierre Trudeau, Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, and many more. In fact, it seems there is hardly a Canadian literary icon in the past decade with whom he hasn’t had some form of professional connection.
Gibson is utterly at ease in front of a crowd and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious. He began the talk with a silly story about picking his grandson up from school. On the designated day each week when school gets out, Gibson raises his arms in a “V” of excitement to see his grandson. He welcomed the audience with the same gesture. It’s hard not to like him.
Armed with a PowerPoint slideshow of caricatures of these authors, as drawn by Anthony Jenkins of the Globe and Mail, (“The funny thing about Anthony Jenkins is that once he’s drawn you, you look more and more like the illustration every year”), Gibson told a series of short vignettes. For me, this was a fascinating look into the nuts and bolts of writing and editing, and the specific writing processes used by these famous authors. Alistair MacLeod for example, has a very deliberate style of composition – slow and diligent – which, as Gibson recounted, can be quite vexing for a publisher anxious to meet a press deadline. Sometimes he told a story about how he had met an author, other times he spoke about a particular writing style, and other times he spoke about how they developed their rapport as writer and editor. A great many of these stories ended in hilarity, while others still were poignant or sad. In the case of Alice Munro, for example, Gibson claims his greatest literary feat: keeping her writing short stories. As he tells it, Munro’s debut book of short stories was brilliant and, before long, everyone was clamouring for her to follow it up with a novel. But, try as she might, she couldn’t do it. Gibson, recognizing the fact that writing novels wasn’t her thing, encouraged her to go back to short stories and forget about novels completely. He promised to keep publishing her short stories and never mention it again, and she has continued to churn out terrific collections and become one of Canada’s most acclaimed living writers, indeed a modern-day Chekhov.
Gibson also dove into some descriptions of his own editing process. Upon receiving a manuscript, he reads it through in its entirety without making a single mark. Upon completing it, he takes some time to think about it – the plot, the characters, the pacing, etc. Only then, once he feels that he has digested its minutiae, does he go back to the beginning with a pencil and begin making changes. It’s a technique that has served him well.
Much like the myriad authors he has edited, Gibson himself is a wonderful storyteller. It is clear from his own comfort recounting stories that he has made contributions to the work of many of these seminal figures. Gibson’s final story was one of goodbyes. W.O. Mitchell, another renowned Canadian author and inveterate joker, passed away in 1998. When Gibson went to visit him for a final time, they shared their time together and, as Gibson was readying himself to leave, Mitchell casually mentioned that his memory wasn’t as good as it used to be, and he found himself making mistakes. Finally, as they were saying goodbye, Mitchell sprung his punch line, the wrong name: “Goodbye, Bill” Gibson said. “Goodbye, Jimmy,” Mitchell replied. It was a fittingly memorable end to their long relationship. Gibson finished the story with a crack in his voice. His connection to these great and celebrated authors was touching, and his experience and contributions to the canon are invaluable. All in all the evening provided a brilliant portrait of Canadian literature, and Gibson made a compelling case for the wonderful power of storytelling.