Next morning I road the rails to Michael Torosian’s Lumiere Press in the West end of Toronto. He has a workshop in his backyard where he produces the most impeccable fine press photography books. (Here’s a look at his latest:
and his immaculate shop reflects it
After our Biblio File podcast conversation (listen here
I jumped in a taxi – the driver was a big Dire Straits fan (he liked it very loud) – and travelled back downtown to spruce up for the Grad ceremony.
All went smoothly. Eleanor copped her diploma, and Marie Campbell (author of Halfbreed) got her honorary doctorate
and delivered a harmless enough convocation address – mostly birds, bees, flowers, motherhood about mother-earth. I’d have preferred something a bit more substantive and inspiring, but it was what it was – an important message that shouldn’t – lest we fry – continue to be ignored.
After champagne, cake and photos, I boarded the trolley bus West again, this time for Michael Lista‘s place, where steaks and wine awaited. I first met Michael a decade ago in his Montreal apartment, right before his first book of poetry, Bloom, was published; one which I think will, over time, come to be recognized as truly important. More people should read it. Given its nuclear content, it will blow your mind, guaranteed.
After perusing his skillfully stacked, wrap-around bookshelves – they carry all the books I first saw in Montreal, and many more I’m sure –
we set about talking. You can listen to what was said here:
Let’s just say $120 a night doesn’t get you much in the way of a hotel room in downtown Toronto these days. Crack-houses – that’s what the customer comments make them sound like. So I dialed up Airbnb to find a place – near Ryerson University – and got a lovely one-bedroom apartment for the same money. Clean, quiet, central, just what I needed. Turns out it was less than a block away from the old Maple Leaf Gardens
The first was at the home of award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar. We talked about her book The Handover (Biblioasis, 2017).
It concerns the increasing concentration in and foreign ownership of Canadian book publishing and how this has choked off writers’ options and advances, and readers’ choices. More precisely it explores in detail the convoluted and disingenuous sale by Avi Bennett of McClelland & Stewart to Penguin Random House via the University of Toronto, and how millions in government grants and tax credits were purloined along the way. Reads like a detective story and reveals much about how the Canadian establishment works.
Listen here to our conversation:
After the interview, and a quick perusal of Elaine’s artwork, I jumped in a taxi and headed for Le Paradis
where author David Gilmour and I were to dine that evening. It’s weird. I was in the taxi, and although I didn’t know exactly where I was, at one point the street suddenly seemed familiar. Contact Editions bookshop is located along here somewhere I said to myself. And damned if we didn’t pass it about 10 seconds later (on Davenport). Here, some years past, I’d bought a first edition of the first book ever published by Coach House Press, Man in a Window by Wayne Clifford.
David is famous among Biblio File listeners for being the only guest ever to have told the podcast’s august host to Fuck Off on-air. His blast was delivered after bridling at my nervy criticism of several of his well-turned similes. It happened during one of the early episodes of the program. You can listen to the fireworks here if you like:
We ate outdoors. The evening was warm and pleasant. Save for water, we didn’t drink anything. The pepper-steaks arrived as the subject of concentrated ownership surfaced again. More and more award-winning authors, I remarked, are resorting, out of necessity it seems, to working with smaller independent publishers, pretty well all of whom have shallow pockets. Despite caring deeply about giving voice to Canadian-told stories, the advances they can muster are pretty pathetic. This isn’t to say however that Canadian authors can’t make money with them. It’s just that it’s not as easy and upfront as it once was with the big boys.
Talk turned to literature. I raved about the class of young students I’ve encountered at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College while sitting in on some Great Books courses (stay tuned for Biblio File interviews with the profs). They, the students, are filled not only with enthusiasm, but also smart questions and answers. It’s clear they’ve actually done the readings. Close readings. I mentioned how lucky I felt to be able to participate (thanks to Director Mark Russell). Then I remembered that David does me one better. He gets paid to teach this stuff every week at the U of T.
After some discussion of Plato’s contention that it’s a blessing not to be cursed with a ravenous libido in older age, we turned-in early, two Autumn chickens. Plucked alouettes.
Actually, it’s Sophocles who’s credited with the libido remarks in Plato’s Republic via Cephalus, who in turn tells Socrates. When asked about love, and if he was still capable of it, Sophocles replies, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and it feel as if I have escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ This has also been translated as ‘like escaping from bondage to a raging madman;’ and my favourite, ‘like being unchained from a lunatic;’ there’s also from ‘an idiot,’ ‘a demon.’
Before heading off to Wales for a sneak preview of what that principality had in store for literary tourists the following year (2014), I took an inventory of what I knew about the place: Dylan Thomas of course: grew up in Swansea, lived in the coastal village of Laugharne, baritone, had a tempestuous marriage, died in New York, drank a lot. Tom Jones, baritone, drank a lot, tempestuous marriages, hairy chest. Richard Burton, baritone, movie idol, Taming of the Shrew, tempestuous marriages, drank a lot. Hay-on-Wye, leeks, and the Gregynog Press.
The team at Visit Wales did a superb job touring us around, rounding out my limited knowledge of the territory. Part of that rounding involved my interviewing people about Dylan Thomas for The Biblio File podcast. Annie Haden for instance.
She’s a tour guide who specializes in the poet. With over 20 years experience in the tourism sector, she uses an easy to listen to story-telling technique which keeps her charges both awake and informed.
I also interviewed George Tremlett an author, bookshop owner, and former politician. After leaving King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon he worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1957 onward as a TV columnist and pop music reviewer. In the 1960s he became a freelance rock journalist and in the 1970s wrote a series of paperbacks on pop stars, including The David Bowie Story, the first bio of the musician.
He’s also a biographer of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. In Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas he argues that the poet was the world’s “first rock star.” In 1997 he published a book with James Nashold, The Death of Dylan Thomas, which claimed that Thomas’s demise was not due to alcohol poisoning but to a mistake by his physician prescribing cortisone, morphine and benzedrine when it wasn’t called for, because Thomas was actually in a diabetic coma.
Tremlett runs the Corran Bookshop in Laugharne, Wales – has since 1982. The shop is located right across the street from Browns,
the pub that Thomas frequented (frequently). In addition to a selection of used books, his shop offers tourist information and it’s where I met George to have this conversation:
It was a tough trek. Way longer than I expected – from the American University of Paris to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore along the Seine. I was lugging my laptop too, and the books Daniel Medin had given me after our conversation about translation, plus this
Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Predictably I wasn’t on time for my interview with its editor, Krista Halverson. It wasn’t that I was winded, or, despite the heat, sweating too much; no, I was annoyed because I was unnecessarily late. Krista quickly shooed this funk away, assuring me that she hadn’t noticed, inviting me to join her for a beverage at the store’s adjacent cafe (there on the left, all dressed in white).
Yes, Shakespeare & Co. has its own cafe now! – a luxury that long-time owner George Whitman could only covet. The store, and cafe, are now owned by his daughter Sylvia – as in Beach – who I had hoped to interview. Unfortunately for me, she was off on maternity leave, nurturing the next generation of bibliophiles.
I ordered an espresso, Krista chose some sort of energizing berry-carrot concoction. Of course that’s what I should have had – being hot and tired and late and all. We moved to the outdoor patio to plot out how our conversation would go. Krista couldn’t finish her drink and offered me what remained – looked like half the glass. Perfect.
She showed me through the shop, which, thanks to various adjacent rooms and apartments coming on the market and being bought or rented at different times , really does
resemble a rabbit warren.
You need to pay attention to details if you want to get the full bookstore experience. Floor tiles
overhead signs, biblical
(City Lights in San Francisco is a sister store, and sports a Shakespeare &Co. sign above its door), and I really liked this window full of flowers
and, at least in my world, the literary agent. We were looking for Pierre Astier’s house, and knew that it was located next to a cemetery in Moutiers-au-Perche, 80 kms east of Le Mans (two hours’ train ride south of Paris). Countryside villages don’t come much prettier than this, with its charming tile-roofed cottages
We’d found an old church, with it’s extruding drainpipe-tongued gargoyles,
and yes, there was a cemetery attached to it. Two choices: up the hill toward a forest (where Emma kills herself), or around the side of the church. We chose the road more travelled, and found the house down a ways, first thing on the right.
I was here to interview Pierre and his partner Laure about their literary & film agency for my Biblio File podcast. They invited me into the garden and poured me an espresso. The terrain was a bit wild. The two of them had spent the previous afternoon together trying to tame it. While doing so Pierre had been bitten by a tick. He had to go to the hospital (not wise to play around with these things), but was kind enough to engage in conversation with me for about 20 minutes before leaving Laure
to fend off the rest of my questions. You can listen here to our discussion:
Among other things we talked about french publishers’ resistance to literary agents, the differences between pitching book publishers and film producers; translation, author/agent relations and Andrew Wylie.
After the interview, Caroline and I headed for Mortagne-au-Perche where we had lunch, here
Sitting beside us was a man with a Quebec accent. We soon learned (biblio-coincidence alert) that he,
Louis Duhamel, had spent his entire working life as a librarian at the Ottawa Public Library, and that his father had been Queen’s Printer under prime minister John Diefenbaker, appointed in the late 50s, and unceremoniously dismissed from this supposed (according to Louis) lifetime position, by Pierre Trudeau.
Louis was touring the region researching his ancestors. Many from here are known to have emigrated to Quebec in the 17th century. And another thing: Louis’s father collected The Pleiade, a uniform series of world classics put out by Gallimard, starting in the 1930s. As it happened, several weeks later I was in Bordeaux where I visited the oldest independent bookstore in France, Mollat, and they just happened to have what looked like a full run of the series for sale: