Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Edmonton Journal: the one that walks the dog

I've been at this forever. Writing, I mean. Writing for print/the public or whatever you want to call it. More than 25 years ago, I lived in a small hamlet (actually, more of a teeny-tiny town) called Hinton, Alberta, in the foothills of the Rockies. There wasn't much to do there, so I wrote. Wrote feverishly, tried to write novels, fell short. My letters to the editor were ubiquitous. Then I had this idea:

What if, instead of being sandwiched in with all the other tirades from Hintonites upset about the smell of the pulp mill (wet garbage and horse manure) , I had my very own column? You know. Something with my picture on it, and all that.

I sent in some ideas to the local paper, and waited. Nothing. Months later, one of my columns actually ran, but with no name on  it.

I got on the phone.

It took a while to straighten things out. The column, called Between the Lines, mostly consisted of domestic comedy, with now and again something more weighty.

I had this gig for a year before somebody said to me, "Gee, I like your column. How much do they pay you for that?"


I did a little digging and found out that all the other columnists were paid ten dollars a week. Not a princely sum, but still. So I sent them a friendly letter, and I got this (paraphrased) message.

"Since you signed on to do it for nothing, you will continue to do it for nothing. The other columnists signed on to do it for money, so they will continue to do it for money."

"Signed on"? No one signed anything in that place!

Alrighty then.

I guess I kind of went off the deep end, starting a campaign to make the bloody ten dollars like everybody else. Embarrasses me now, and the paper cut me off forever, but meanwhile somebody I knew in the actual news business said something like, Your stuff is good enough to be paid for, but not at the Hinton rag. Try a real newspaper.

I thought of the one we read every day. So I tried the Edmonton Journal.

How could I have known then that I would form a sort of marriage with the Edmonton Journal, that it would weave in and out of my writerly life like love's old sweet song? 

I think my first piece was an editorial about AIDS, which was then new and a very hot topic. Don Braid was the editor of a new section called the Eye Opener, which ran stuff that was on the edge of subversive. I was in! and extremely excited, but as with everything I have ever done in my life, momentum died and I had to start all over again. All my subsequent attempts at editorials bombed, but meantime I was writing to columnists and asking "how do you do this?"

This isn't supposed to happen - in fact, it has only happened once in 28 years or so - but somebody gave me a break. Somebody said, "Will you review my book?", and handed it to me.

Thus I reviewed Judy Schultz's toothsome collection of food stories, Nibbles and Feasts. An enjoyable book, and fairly easy to review, though I did nitpick about a few things, thinking, what have I got to lose?

I was astounded when the reviews kept coming. Kept coming, that is, until I left Hinton in 1988, and it all stopped. I had to start all over again, building a column in the Tri-City News which ran on and off for six or seven years (and this time they paid me, because I asked for it, though I still didn't sign anything). I trudged around, mentally speaking, and eventually placed book reviews in other papers: the Montreal Gazette (for whom I was briefly - don't laugh, now - science editor!), the Vancouver Sun (who initially told me, after one review, that they would never use me again), and even the much-vaunted Globe and Mail.

But eventually, perhaps with the advent of computers and the ability to send things by a method other than snail-mail, the Journal re-entered my life. Not sure when or how, but suddenly I was on again (with a different editor - this is another amazing thing, because inevitably a change of editor means you're toast). My cheques came on the button, there were never any problems, and for the most part (incredibly - this is really rare) my pieces ran unedited.

Fast-forward to my first novel coming out - oh Jesus, the lifelong dream fulfilment, and then the horrific letdown when it was in the stores for about six weeks! And the on-line magazine I was working for (for free - I must have been desperate) telling me, "We can't run a review of your novel because it would be nepotism." I accepted this, and it didn't hit me until years later that all the other publications I had ever written for didn't feel that way at all. The Montreal Gazette ran a slightly dotty but overall favorable piece, the Vancouver Sun likewise, and the
Journal. . .

I can't tell you how good this made me feel, especially in light of the record poor sales that sank my book (and I still don't know why it didn't generate that mysterious "buzz" that makes it all happen). When Better than Life came out in 2003, the Journal decided to go all-out for its longtime contributor. I got a full-page spread, a rapturous review, and was named one of the Top Ten books of the Year. This was a bandaid on the wound, or at least until I learned the reality of publishing in Canada.

The reality being: we are all part of a vast pyramid, with the huge majority at the bottom. There's not much room at the top (the "top" meaning that somebody reads your book). Books DO disappear, regularly. Authors disappear. I don't know, maybe they commit suicide or something (or no - that's poets). But you don't hear from them again. Publishers considering your next book glance at at the glowing reviews and rich promotion from your last book and say, "Nope, it didn't sell".

I can't fault them for that, because they are in the business of selling books. Hey, I want my book to sell too, even more badly than they do. But when the second one suffered a similar fate, well then. . .

My local column went belly-up when the editor left. After six or seven years, I was not allowed to write a farewell column. So, battlescarred, I took whatever work I could find. I couldn't write another novel, not yet anyway. It was like dating after a divorce. But still there was a thread, something holding the whole thing together. Though there would sometimes be gaps as long as two years, eventually I'd end up back with the Edmonton Journal. Incredibly, they actually seemed to want me.

Sounds a little sad, doesn't it - sounds Sally Fields-ish: "They like me, they really really like me!" But do you know how rare it is to receive that kind of treatment in this business? I sometimes think shabby treatment is the norm (either that, or being ignored). Writers are almost non-entities, except when they miss their deadlines, and then they get hell for it.

I had a low spot with "a" paper - I won't mention the name, even though I am sure they've forgotten me by now - in which my deadline was March 25 or something, so I emailed it in at 4 p.m. on March 25 and received a shrill call saying, "You missed your deadline."

"No, I didn't. It was March 25. Today is March 25."

"But I wanted it first thing in the morning so I could edit it and go home by noon."

She then went on to tell me everything that was wrong with the piece, which was why she was going to "kill" it (no kidding, that's the term - and way back then, though not now, you got something called a "kill fee"). I managed to place the review elsewhere and somehow, just, well, incidentally, let the author of the book know about it, and he wrote back and gratefully acknowledged it as one of the better pieces he had seen.

Then I , oh-oh. This is what I shouldn't do, like campaigning to the Hinton paper for $10. It just made me look bad, and the editor sounded like one of those squirrels flapping its tail and chattering up a tree. I sent a copy of his letter to her. It was a sort of nyah-nyah. I was so sick of being trampled on, and being expected to just take it all with a smile.

I don't know if any of this is interesting or not. I had a hiatus from reviewing, frankly sick of the whole enterprise (including hearing from one editor, a honcho from one of the Big Papers, after I pitched a book they'd already covered. He said, "Not paying much attention, are you?" Writers are not allowed to make even one mistake.)

But somehow, I guess I needed to come home. I contacted my alma mater, with a new (to me) books editor, Richard Helm. And the answer was yes. And now they offer books to me, so I don't have to jump, and jump, and jump. And I can even turn books away!

In my long long long long long career as a reviewer, approaching 30 years now, I have covered something like 400 titles, a total which I used to be proud of but now makes me groan. People don't take it well. They look at me as if I've said, I used to work in the Barnum and Bailey Circus as a fire-eater. It's weird. It's too much. Why do I want to do this so badly, anyway?

I want to tell them: OK, let's do the math. If I do 2 reviews a month, which for a long time was my normal output, that's 26 reviews a year. Times ten, it's. . . times twenty, it's. . . You see, it all adds up.

Columns, well, I wrote literally thousands. Some paid, many not. I kept them all and they molder, yellow and gross, in binders downstairs. I was afraid of disappearing, and still am.

What is wrong with me? I have a disease. I can't help it. I have big ambitions and they are never fulfilled. I get treated badly and just swallow it, and if I hit back at all, I am immediately yanked up short. Or so it seems. But one paper has been like the best bud who always shows up during the worst times (like when somebody dies), not with a casserole but with rolled-up sleeves to do the dishes and walk the dog.

It's like someone is saying, not "go away" (the usual response I get to everything), but "More, please."


What with ever-shrinking books sections and more and more canned reviews, this gig will eventually end, but what a ride it's been, especially during the many rotten times I've lived through bashing my head on cinderblock walls.

To all the snarlers and grouches, I'd like to say this. It IS possible to treat writers well. It IS desirable to be respectful and even polite, and it doesn't cost you anything. See, there's one paper that's been doing it for years and years.The rest of you: come on, guys! Get with it.