Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson

Stories About Storytellers

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Plotnik

 

A while back I posted about Douglas Gibson’s  Storytellers Book Club.  At Gibson’s website, choose one of five seminal CanLit classics and read along with others, guided by discussion questions written by Gibson and enlightened by his insight as an editor and personal friend of the books’ authors.

In Douglas Gibson’s career as an editor and publisher he has partnered with some of Canada’s most important authors, including Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant and Alistair MacLeod. His knowledge of the Canadian literary scene from the sixties to the present day, and his passionate dedication to our literary culture shine through in Stories About Storytellers, which recounts his professional and personal relationships with twenty-one iconic Canadian writers.

The introduction to Stories About Storytellers is by Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. She credits Gibson with supporting her choice to continue to write short fiction as opposed to novels.

He was absolutely the first person in Canadian publishing who made me feel that there was no need to apologize for being a short story writer, and that a book of short stories could be published and promoted as major fiction. This was a fairly revolutionary idea at the time. It was his support that enabled me to go on working, when I had been totally uncertain about my future . . . his respect for my work changed me from a minor, “literary” writer who sold poorly into a major writer who sold well.

Gibson is probably right to claim that this alone would be enough to justify his entire career in publishing. But working with Alice Munro is only one of his accomplishments, and at the time that Munro’s letter was written (to the head of MacMillan of Canada explaining her decision to follow Doug Gibson to M&S), he was also working with Hugh MacLennan and W.O. Mitchell.

Gibson joined Doubleday in 1968 and worked as an editor and publisher for forty years until his retirement in 2008. In 1968 Canada had just celebrated its centenary with Expo ’67, Lester Pearson was prime minister, Margaret Atwood had not yet published The Edible Woman, Coles was the preeminent bookstore in Canada, and WH Smith’s Standard Book Numbering (SBN) system was two years old.  Today Canadian readers buy  books in stores and online, (digitally or on paper), the old nine-digit ISBN has been expanded to thirteen digits, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Margaret Atwood is a recognizable international brand. We celebrate Canadian books and writers with countless awards and prizes, and our culture (including fiction and nonfiction writing) has benefitted from a diversity of voices never imagined in 1968.

When a book “works”, the reader doesn’t think about how it came into being, and most readers aren’t aware of how collaborative an effort writing a book can be. We often imagine that an author toils away in her lonely office, polishing and honing her masterpiece in isolation until it is perfect and ready for publication. Many very talented writers probably don’t need a great deal of editing, but many more benefit from the insights of a sympathetic and supportive editor who understands both the artist’s personal vision and the marketplace. An editor advocates for the reader and the writer, identifying places in a manuscript where the writer’s vision isn’t clearly communicated and gently suggesting revisions that might help.

With Alice Munro, Gibson’s responsibilities included suggesting titles, helping source appropriate artwork for her covers, encouraging Munro to continue writing in the vein at which she excelled (short stories) and “to get her to agree that, oh all right, we really do have enough stories now to bring out a new collection [and] to stop Alice from trying to rewrite the book, compulsively polishing the proofs as they go to her for what we hope will be purely formal approval.” With Alistair MacLeod, too, Gibson says his editing role was “almost non-existent.”

Sometimes Douglas Gibson was working with someone who wasn’t primarily an author. Brian Mulroney, for example, wrote his memoirs without the help of a ghost writer. Gibson recalls,

He would write it, chapter by chapter, in chronological order, and Francine [Mulroney’s assistant] would send the neatly-typed chapters to me, usually in hard copy. . . I would edit them, making changes, shifting paragraphs, and so on, as seemed appropriate. Then I would hand these edited (and thus very messy) pages over to my trusty editoral assistant . . . and he would produce a clean copy. . . That was what went back to Brian, along with an explanation of the changes I’d made, if they were not obvious. . . As always, the author — the man with his name on the cover — had the last word.

Stories About Storytellers is filled with insights into the creative collaboration of editor and author, as well as lively anecdotes about Canadian writers of the sixties, seventies and eighties, some forgotten and some still writing today. But  what I really loved about the book was Gibson’s passion for the country, which comes alive as he recalls his travels across Canada, from Victoria to Newfoundland, and his encounters with the people who have helped create our country’s literary voice. Whether he’s describing “the endless lakes and rocks and pines outside the Greyhound bus window . . . giving way to fields and farms and maple trees” on an early trip to Ontario from Winnipeg, conversing with a drunk Newfoundlander on a plane, (“I never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like”, he confesses) or driving through the Annapolis Valley to visit a dying friend, Gibson’s descriptions of Canada are lyrical and heartfelt.

In December 2013 Douglas Gibson accompanied Alice Munro’s daughter Jenny to Stockholm, where she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature on her mother’s behalf. No one could be more deserving of the trip  as Gibson, who  has demonstrated through his life, work, and writing, a deep love for this country and its literary culture.

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