Carmine Starnino talks to Nick Mount about his new book
WELCOME TO THE PITCH, a series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino talks to writer and editor, Nick Mount, about Arrival: The Story of CanLit, scheduled for publication in September 2017 by the House of Anansi to mark their 50th birthday and the country’s 150th.
CARMINE STARNINO: Please tell me about your new project.
NICK MOUNT: Canada experienced a literary explosion in the 1960s unlike anything the country had ever seen before or will again. The long decade between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s saw the emergence of what are still the best-known names in Canadian writing, including Margaret Atwood, Marie-Claire Blais, Leonard Cohen, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy, Mordecai Richler, and Michel Tremblay. My book aims to tell the story of when and why this happened. It’s a story about readers, publishers, and writers. And it’s the story of the culture that created and sustained them all, a society that after several centuries of swatting bugs and cutting trees suddenly found itself with both the time and the need for their own books.
STARNINO: You’ve taught, and written about, Canadian literature for many years. Did the book come out of a felt lack—frustration that an important part of the story remained untold?
MOUNT: At this point, we have many excellent biographies of the Canadian writers who emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s. We also have some good histories of the publishing side of the story in both English and French Canada, and a great many books about the social context of the time—things like Expo ’67, the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the role of the Canada Council. What we don’t have is a book that puts all those stories together. This is the first book to try to do that, to tell the whole story for both those who know parts of it and those who know none of it. I’m an academic, and the book builds on existing scholarship as well as many new interviews and many hours in many archives. But it’s not an academic book. Mostly, I just want to tell a story, or rather to bring together many stories for the first time between a single set of covers.
STARNINO: Without giving anything way, is there anything in the book that readers will be surprised to learn?
For most readers, I suspect the surprise will mostly just be how interesting, how exciting and varied, were the lives lived by the people in this story. These are the people who made writing and publishing a profession in this country, but they weren’t yet themselves professionals—many of them lived larger and often riskier lives than their inheritors.
For those who know some of these stories already, I think the surprise will be more how they fit together, especially the French and English stories that we’ve become very accustomed to telling as separate stories. They weren’t.
STARNINO: Why do you think that “literary explosion” won’t happen again? What made it a singular event?
MOUNT: Mostly for the very simple reason that the numbers were so small before the ‘60s—the number of good books and the number of books, period. When Canadian Literature began publishing in 1959, it set out to review every book of poetry published in Canada. That year it found twenty-four books and reviewed them all. In 1971, the journal predicted that between 250 and 300 books of poetry would be published in Canada during the year, and announced that it was abandoning even the pretence of reviewing them all. We have seen and will see again better books than came out of the ‘60s, but we’ll never again see more books, a larger increase in such a short period of time.
I’m still sorting this out, but I also think it can’t happen again because the economic conditions that made it possible—the massive boom of post-war prosperity and post-war readers—now appear to have been unique to their time. By far the largest market for fiction in these years, for example, was housewives who turned to books to fill in the hours between the babies and the laundry. Those women are mostly working today, while still doing the laundry. They don’t have time to read.
Excerpt from Arrival: The Story of CanLit:
Gwen MacEwen dropped out of high school to become a writer when she was eighteen. At the time, her mother was in an insane asylum, and her alcoholic father was sleeping where he could. Gwendolyn lived with her aunt and uncle and a changing cast of foster children in an old house on a hill in Toronto’s west end and worked part-time in a library.
Nights, she wrote. She had been writing poems since she was twelve—she still had the pencil with which she wrote her first, sealed in a small white envelope. She taught herself Hebrew, then modern Arabic and ancient Egyptian, all in the service of poetry. She wrote fiction for poetry’s sake, hoping to make enough money as a novelist to live as a poet. In October of 1963, a small New York press published her first book, a short novel about Christ’s return to earth as a travelling magician. It earned her $400, plus another $71.23 for a Canadian edition that spelled her name “MacEven” on the title page.
She read her poems publicly for the first time in August of 1960 at an upstairs jazz club, where cars now park at the Hudson’s Bay Centre. That summer, a coffee shop called the Bohemian Embassy opened on St. Nicholas Street. Nineteen-year-old MacEwen became an Embassy regular, meeting other young poets and reading her work for them and others. She read with confidence, pulling audiences together through the talk and the smoke. Most who heard her read were captivated, even those who didn’t much care for the poems themselves—because she read well, because she believed in what she read.
In February of 1962 she married another Embassy poet who believed his poems. Milton Acorn was from Charlottetown, a World War II veteran with a metal plate in his head, a socialist chip on his shoulder, and a serious case of chronic depression. He came to Toronto in the summer of 1960 and soon became an Embassy idol, shouting poems at the rafters, scaring the college kids, letting lawyers and housewives imagine themselves part of the revolution for a night. He was nineteen years older than Gwen, a cigar-smoking caveman to her Isis reborn. The marriage lasted eight months, ending in Gwen’s affair with the man to whom she dedicated her first book, a painter who conducted séances on Ward’s Island and claimed to be from another planet.
NICK MOUNT is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and the fiction editor of The Walrus.