Toronto Book Sales & Politics, Conan Doyle & Ghosting

It required some juggling – lining up the cheap train tickets to coincide with the University of Toronto Victoria and St. Mike’s College annual used book sales – but I did it without dropping a ball.  I’d leave Sunday morning, arrive in T.O. mid-afternoon and browse the Vic, conduct my business on Monday,  and Tuesday morning, then hit St. Mike’s in the afternoon before getting back on the train at 5pm. 

I know Victoria College. It houses portraits of two little known 

Canadian literary

icons. Several years ago I attended Toronto Pursuits here, a super stimulating five-day program of ‘great’ reading and discussion that borrows from the Great Books Foundation method of ‘shared inquiry.’ I interviewed long time practitioner Eric Timmreck about it at the time for The Biblio File podcast. Listen here 

Also spoke with Classical Pursuits founder Ann Kirkland about Literary Tourism and tours, here

and buttonholed

Randall Speller to talk about the history of Canadian book design, here: 

You should consider attending Toronto Pursuits this July – beautiful way to while away a business week; and check out the tours Ann has planned for 2020. 

But I digress, wildly. I was here for the book sale (warning, it starts to get upsetting here). I’d scoped out the two floors and spotted two items of interest both priced at $25 – a four volume set in trade paperback of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and this:

Image result for Wind in a Rocky Country.

Wind in a Rocky Country by Alden Nowlan. I knew the Nowlan was important- – knew I wanted it. But do you think I’d pull the trigger? Of course not. I was going to play it smart and show up the next day when everything was on sale at half price. Maybe I wanted the charge of playing the odds, the thrill of taking a risk. Who the hell knows. I just knew I wouldn’t make it back until noon the next day because I had an interview lined up at 10am with Bob Rae, former leader of the Ontario NDP, and interim federal Liberal party leader.  

It was October, 2019 and Canadians were in the throes of a vile election campaign. I’d become quite engaged (translation: unleashed a curtain of hot-headed tweets) with events surrounding the SNC Lavalin affair. It had disturbed me that the Prime Minister of Canada had lied about how he and his minions had treated Attorney General/Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould (JWR), and that cronyism had taken precedence over the rule of law; that Justin Trudeau had, in fact, bullshitted the public so often with un-kept election promises, that it was hard to believe anything that came out of his mouth.

This is no way to run a country, I thought. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and add ‘political books’ to the Biblio File podcast’s lineup. Then I’d set the world straight by interviewing people with influence, close to the action, while analyzing the political book as a ‘genre,’ of course.

And of course these people would have to have written a book.

Bob Rae had, prior to the 2015 election.

What’s Happened to Politics? calls for greater political literacy and understanding and dialogue, beyond the partisan crap we’re being served up these days. I figured he still had clout in the Liberal party. His book is full of excellent advice. I wondered why Trudeau hadn’t taken it. 

Reporter John Ivison had, all packaged up just in time for the election, with four years worth of meticulously monitored misspeakings and mendacities. Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister still seems to be selling well. Of those I interviewed, John came first. Listen to our conversation here: 

JWR had just released a book – also leveraging the attention politics receives during election campaigns – and while it doesn’t deal directly with SNC (it features speeches delivered over the past decade, mostly outlining steps required to open ‘doors’ to self government) trust is an important theme. And I loved the way she’d told the truth to the nation. I met with her in Ottawa prior to leaving for Toronto (an ironic twist: just as she launched the book, Global TV reported that her spousal travel expenses as an MP were ten times that of anyone else in Cabinet. The obvious implication was that she’d abused the privilege. I thought her husband was a lobbyist for some B.C. native groups, and told her so. As you can hear, she vehemently denies this, prompting a Liberal friend of mine to say she lied to me. I just figured they loved each other a lot :-). Listen for yourself here: 

I arrived early for the Rae interview after breakfasting right across the street from the Ontario College of Art & Design

I’d been thinking about approaching their librarians to see if they’d be interested in acquiring my “evolution of Canadian book design” collection. You know, the one that doesn’t contain Wind in a Rocky Country.

I walked down to 250 University where Bob’s office is located. One of its walls is graced by this 20 ft bas-relief sculpture designed by Cleeve Horne (who attended OCAD in the 1930s!), a well known portrait painter. It was installed during the building’s construction for The Bank of Canada in the late ’50s. The relief is supposed to represent a Canadian family and, apparently, was the first public abstract sculpture in Toronto!

I had 30 minutes to kill so I ducked into Starbucks across the street to swat up a bit. Sat in the window, looked up and saw Chester Gryski walking by. He saw me and came in to tell me about the St. Mike’s book sale. I’d just interviewed Chester weeks before about his spectacular collection of Canadian fine press books. Listen here

I assured Chester that I knew about the sale.

Bob Rae and I had a good conversation about the current state of political discourse in Canada and around the world. He suggested that what we were doing – talking about possible solutions and sharing our thoughts with others – with people who can take action – was exactly the result he wanted from his book. So, if you’re reading this, please share our conversation with your elected representatives, and recommend they read Bob’s book! 

Bob also educated me on real world politics. Once you leave the stage, you’re gone – and so is your influence. Which probably explains why his book’s message has gone unheeded by the PMO.

After our talk I headed briskly, nervously, over to Victoria College. I sped in, beetled over to the ephemera table where I’d spotted Windy and started hurriedly thumbing through the pile.

Gone.

Stolen from me.

What a colossal fucking amateur mistake. All my fault, just for wanting to save a measly $12.50. Regrets? Yea, I’ve had a few. Always connected with the books I didn’t buy.

The book was designed and published by Robert Rosewarne and has been described as “among the most beautiful published in Canada in the 20th century.” Goes for $125-$150 online.

Fuck.

The Powells were gone too. I had to settle for this

for my Publishers’ Histories Collection. Little surprise that no-one else had bought it, given that Jack David and I are pretty well the only people in the world interested in these kind of books (and he already has a couple of thousand copies of this one clogging his warehouse).  

Next stop was the Toronto Public Library near Yonge and Bloor. I walked over from the College, doing my best to clear my mind, dull the pain. I spoke with Jessie Amaolo  who has recently assumed responsibility for the Library’s world-renowned Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. It includes first editions and magazines, manuscripts and DVDs, funky porcelain pipes and Sherlock Holmes figurines 

From the TPL it was a short hike up Yonge Street to 

Bar Centrale where I was scheduled to meet with “my publisher” Ken Whyte. Ken is perhaps best known as the former editor of MacLeans magazine – Canada’s Newsweek – and the first editor of the National Post newspaper, personally hired by Conrad Black. He later went on to become an executive with Rogers, and more recently, in 2018, established his own non-fiction book publishing firm, Sutherland House Books. He’s also a well regarded biographer of Randolph Hearst and, most recently, Herbert Hoover – a President I’ve always admired, but who hasn’t received the best P.R. Ken gives him his fair due.

Six or seven months ago, Ken approached me with an offer to publish some e-books of selected Biblio File interview transcripts under very agreeable terms. Here’s one of the books:

You can order yours here.

It was good to meet Ken in the flesh. He was in fine form, no doubt because he was fresh from lunch with ECW publisher Jack David, someone guaranteed to put you in a good mood if you spend any amount of time with him. Try it. Listen here.

At around the same time I was approached by Ken, I receive a glowing email from Ian Brown ‘of the Globe.’ It was quite something. Self effacing, flattering, and intriguing “a possible story,” “a possible venture.” I told him I’d be happy to connect next time I was in town. We did, and I suggested we meet at the Bar Centrale. After finishing with Ken I strolled around the block and came face to face with this

This is where they keep the beer in Toronto – at least in this part of town.  A Taj Mahal that used to be a railroad station. Pretty impressive inside too. A temple of non-temperance. 

I returned to the restaurant to find Ian enjoying a glass of wine at the bar reading the newspaper. We talked for perhaps 45 minutes. He enthused about how he knew Kristin Cochrane, Penguin Random House CEO, and that she and the books editor at the Globe were surely very interested in working with me on the Biblio File podcast. I assured him that this sounded great, but why wasn’t he working with them? With his background in television and radio, he’d be the obvious choice, no? 

Before we left he mentioned he’d recently talked with someone who’d be a great interview – involved with audio books she was, in New York. We parted company. I emailed him the next day thanking him for the drinks, mentioning that I planned to be in New York the next week (stay tuned for the back story). Could he give me contact info for said audio book woman. 

No response. 

I followed up ten days later. Nothing. 

While the practice is prevalent, I’m told, among teenagers on social media, I   was unfamiliar with it. Until then. Yes. I’d been Ghosted.

We’ll have to wait to see if anything materializes. 

 

Next morning I met Marc Cote, publisher of Cormorant Books, at his home in front of which I was greeted by these beauties. 

He delivers a spellbinding, compendious overview of the Canadian book publishing scene, past and present, and in so doing, levels some seriously controversial allegations at the Canada Council. Listen here:  

After our lengthy, excursive, absorbing conversation I headed for St. Mike’s. It was pretty crowded. Lots of books on offer. Lots of people to climb over. All I came up with however, happily, was this

signed by Graeme Gibson who had died only days earlier. It’s a follow up to The Bedside Book of Birds, which won the Alcuin Award that year (2005) for best design. At the time, I interviewed its designer C.S. Richardson. Listen here:

One more stop, to interview Jennifer Yan about the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at another branch of the TPL on College Street (check out this sweet little beat up horn book)

and it was off to Union Station, and all aboard for Montreal.

A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine

Literary Tourist on the road in the U.S. 

The destination was Richard Minsky’s place in the Hudson Valley, just south of Albany, NY. Richard was/is the founder of The Center for Book Arts in New York. I’d heard about him some years earlier thanks to a book he’d written called The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930. On the drive back north from a visit to New York City one summer I called him up out-of- the-blue to ask if he’d like to be interviewed for The Biblio File podcast. He gamely agreed, and promptly fixed up a bountiful cheese plate (and drinks) for my wife and her brother, who was travelling with us, out on his patio. The two of us then got down to business inside. He poured me one of the best Negronis I’ve ever thrown back. We then sat down together to talk about the book arts. Listen above. 

 Richard owns cattle

and wildlife can frequently be seen on his property.

Hard not to be taken with his collection of beautifully illustrated

book covers too. 

I visited again not so long afterwards to talk about his impressive career as a bookbinder, and book scholar. Listen to our conversation here  

This time round I was down to interview Barbara Slate, Richard’s better half, about her newly revised book You Can Do a Graphic Novel  (stay tuned for the audio). Here’s a shot of one of her feet along with equipment and other essentials necessary to the conduct of good interviews. 

Not only are there purple cows grazing Richard’s grass, the house is filled with a colourful, eclectic selection of art.

The decor is a charming bohemian/pop/rustic.

Because I planned the trip well in advance, and mailing costs for books from the U.S. to Canada are these days exorbitant, I had a number (okay 6-7) delivered to his place, including a monster package of fine press & related journals acquired from Pradeep Sebastian. My wife decided to avail herself of this opportunity as well, and had a honking great barbeque shipped. It barely fit into the car. Richard patiently withstood the imposition. 

From Minsky’s I drove about a half an hour north-east to interview Laura Claridge about Blanche Knopf. 

The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire is a racy read, full of detail ‘n dirt. Despite being criticized by a few as fake news, I found the book credible and very entertaining. Alfred, from page one, is made out to look like a Grade A prick, while Blanche’s importance is elevated, as it should be. Listen here:

From here I travelled east

John lives in a bright, spacious, comfortable house on a large, sloping corner lot in a pleasant residential area that reminded me, somewhat surprisingly, of North Vancouver, where my father used to live. John has been training personnel at ESPN on how to conduct interviews since 2004. He only recently ‘retired.’

to Burlington, CT where, the next morning, I met with Canadian interviewing guru John Sawatsky. It was a glorious, sunny day and I was in a good mood having slept the night before at an Airbnb apartment situated right on the water. It was late when I arrived (at the Airbnb) (basically just brushed my teeth and went to bed), and lovely to fall asleep in the dark to the sound outside of the fast running Farmington River.

I knew that following the arc of a life was a good straight-forward way to structure an interview, so I started off by asking about John’s birthplace, Winkler, Manitoba. He talked about his early years on the prairies, his move as a young boy to the West Coast, his education and his subsequent relocation to Ottawa to work as a journalist. Ottawa was heaven for a news junkie like him. He then got into investigative reporting, and started writing a book on Brian Mulroney and teaching journalism at Carleton University. When we started talking about the standardized interviewing approach he’d developed at the time, things veered off the rails.

I got impatient and started pressing for details on what kind of questions elicited that best answers, and how I could best conduct ‘author interviews.’ John’s freely offered story arc, thanks, ironically, to me, crashed into the ditch. I couldn’t seem to get a succinct answer out of him from this point forward. I wasn’t sure if it was my ineptitude or John intentionally playing possum. I did however eventually get some intelligence: that storytelling is key to maintaining audience interest – but no real detail on how to achieve this (in retrospect it seems pretty simple: just shut up).

It was up to Sheila Rogers, who I emailed about John, to tell me that it was all about asking questions that encourage stories to be told (this from notes she’d kept from a workshop of John’s she’d attended years ago). John is currently working on a book about interviewing. I will be among the first to buy it. Stay tuned for our arc-less Biblio File conversation.

Continue reading “A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine”

Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse

Literary Tourist on the road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York State

If you take the northern route between ground-zero (in this case Montreal) and Minneapolis through Algonquin Park, crossing over at Sault Ste. Marie and then along past Green Bay, there’s pretty well nothing of literary interest to see. Nothing unless you count this

in, yes, rural Wisconsin. One consolation: we came upon a coffee drive-thru that had a pretty good name.

Zinger coffee

As usual, once my wife, Caroline, had thoroughly planned out our dates and destinations, I tapped the Rolodex to solicit suggestions of bookish people on-site who might give-up engaging interviews. This time round I asked John Randle, proprietor of The Whittington Press for his thoughts. I’d interviewed John years ago at his sheep-surrounded studio near the cathedral city of Hereford (with its famed chained-library), not too far from Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh booktown. 

John publishes beautiful fine press books, and Matrix: A Review for Printers & Bibliophiles, a gorgeously printed annual. #31 had just dropped. I dug deep and bought a copy, first to commemorate my visit and our conversation (Listen here):

Second, because it contained an article by David Godine and one on Rocky Stinehour, both of whom I’d interviewed for the Biblio File podcast. The Whittington Press archive also happens to be at the University of Minnesota’s rare book library, along with an important collection of African-American literature and one of the world’s great Sherlock Holmes collections. Curator Tim Johnson is definitely on my interview hit-list. 

John recommended I interview Phil Gallo, a well regarded printer, and visual/concrete poet. Phil and I teed up a meeting at his apartment in St. Paul. We met for a chat early one afternoon several days before Christmas. The first thing I noticed – after Phil poured me a stiff shot of bourbon – was several shelves full of books on typography. A lot of them are type specimen books. 

Phil gallo books

Phil is the proprietor of the Hermetic Press, which kicked off in the mid-1960s. He purposefully doesn’t do much promotion. 

After our conversation I headed over to this little shop 

Against the Current bookstore, St. Paul

It had only recently opened. I didn’t find anything – most of the stock was geared, naturally, toward readers. I did have a good gab with the young owner however, and wished him well. 

Owner, Against the current bookstore, St. Paul

Then it was back to home-base, in Eagan, a bedroom community near Minneapolis. Our dear friends Jeff and Laura Spartz live here. We’ve visited them often over the years, mostly at Christmas time. Jeff runs a food-bank for the local crow population (you can see how successful this is)

Squirrels

Laura knows everything that is humanly possible to know about Jane Austen and the Regency period. The two are the nicest, most welcoming, well-travelled, smartest, politically-engaged people you can imagine –  exactly the kind who give Americans (most of them, anyway) a good name. We’re lucky to be able to call them, and their families, friends. 

Last time we visited, I had the opportunity to Continue reading “Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse”

Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt

Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 2

The cold (English cold I should say, not Canadian) fresh air slapped my face as I exited the apartment. I didn’t feel like walking, but nonetheless, nutted-up and strode for 15 minutes over to the Thames, where the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) fairly sparkled in the morning sunlight.

The Bookseller magazine‘s offices are across the river from it. A 15 minute walk West gets you to the Tate Britain. Twenty minutes on foot in the other direction, along the Thames, and you’re at the Southbank Book Market.

Given that it was late October, there weren’t too many vendors out. I suspect there’s a lot better selection in the summertime.

In case you’re interested M16’s HQ is a short trot up the road from The Bookseller’s offices. And just so you know, the surrounding district is called Lambeth – as in Liza of Lambeth,

Somerset Maugham’s first novel about the travails of a young factory worker who lives near Westminster Bridge, written while Maugham was a medical student. Lambeth is also the place where John Milton lands after cometing his way down from heaven in William Blakes’ Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

I was here to interview The Bookseller’s chief executive and owner, Nigel Roby.

The magazine goes way back, to 1858, when Joseph Whitaker founded it in order to inform London publishers and booksellers about the latest books, launch dates, and various comings and goings in the trade. It has filled this role faithfully ever since – even published during the Blitz – only today, the coverage is global. Listen below as Nigel (Beale) talks with Nigel about the magazine’s past, along with current topics of concern to the industry. Brexit, which came up in virtually every interview I conducted during this visit to London, was certainly one concern. The uncertainty created is agitating everyone in publishing.

As members of the EU, the Brits have for many years had the English-language market on the continent all to themselves. With the ‘leave’ vote, this could change dramatically. A potential battle looms with American publishers. Britain is currently the largest book exporter in the world (Canada is one of the largest importers). Sales are close to $7 Billion a year, half of which comes from the EU. The U.S. is hankering for an invasion.

The British book business employs 30,000 people. If the country pulls out of the EU, and walls go up, literary culture is likely to become more isolated, a shrinking economy would mean less money spent on books, and writers could lose their generous Euro grants. No wonder it comes up in conversation. There’s much at stake.

***

I’d agreed to meet Henry Hitchings downstairs outside the building. There he was, right on time. We hiked briskly back to Airbnb HQ talking all the while about theatre (Henry is the critic for the Evening Standard), Samuel Johnson, and, yes, Brexit. Listen here as we nerd out about the smell of books and stories that can be told around buying them (books not smell), and a book Henry edited called Browse: The World in Bookshops.

Continue reading “Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt”

Brattleboro and Books, Greenblatt and Fadiman, Beowulf and Bookstores

If you have to drive for five hours in a row, there are worse routes to be stuck on than the #89 from Montreal to Brattleboro, Vermont

especially in the Fall (okay, this isn’t the actual highway, it’s an image from Vermont Tourism, but you get the idea).

I was heading down to the Brattleboro Literary Festival. We’d attended last year. Caught readings by Richard Russo and Claire Messud, among others. Very pleasant little town. Plenty of granola and veggie burgers on offer, plus a very good used bookstore.

I was pumped about who I’d lined up to interview for The Biblio File.

***

Ions ago, when in my late-twenties, I came across Clifton Fadiman’s A Lifetime Reading Plan.

I’d always wanted to read the great works – had studied politics in college, not literature. Clifton’s guide changed my life. Not only did I read all of its concise, well-crafted summaries – a hundred in total – over the years I’ve actually read many of the books on the list, taking great pleasure ticking off titles as I finish reading them. Clifton’s daughter Anne has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. I couldn’t wait to tell her what an impact he’d had on my life, and to learn more about the grand old man himself. Just listen to her. Energy level is off the charts, just as I imagine Clifton’s was:

***

Among other things Will in the World suggests that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. It also details the bone-breaking cruelty that religion brings out in human beings. Heads chopped off, stuck on spikes, displayed on London’s bridges. Fascinating book, and yet considering how little can be proved about The Bard’s life, rife with conjecture. It took a lot of chutzpah to write this book, ergo, I wanted to meet its author. Stephen Greenblatt was appearing at the Festival promoting his latest book, Tyrant, about MacBeth, Richard lll, and Edmund of King Lear fame. A wicked Shakespearean cabal. None bare any resemblance to Trump of course.

Listen here as we debate this

I took this photograph of Stephen by lining myself up beside Beowulf (yes, his real name) Sheehan – using the same angle he used.

Stephen Greenblatt

Why? Because Beowulf is one of the most talented author photographers in the world. He hit it big with a shot of Donna Tartt. It graces the back cover of The Goldfinch, and the front cover of Beowulf’s beautiful new book of photographs, Author,

The writer Donna Tartt (USA), April 11, 2013, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here

***

One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?

Brattleboro Books

It wasn’t, the whole time I was here. You’d think, what with the Festival on and all, that this would be the time for them to make maximum hay. Perhaps they were busy helping the organizers? Perhaps they were the organizers. Perhaps making money wasn’t the most important thing.

Here’s some tourist information for Brattleboro and environs.