IN CONVERSATION

…with short story writer Don McLellan, who talks to himself about himself.

DM-1: Many writers have artistic or academic backgrounds. Tell us about yours.

DM-2: I grew up in a war veterans’ housing project in East Vancouver. My father was a meatcutter, a taxi driver and a union organizer. My mother, who sold shoes in a department store, didn’t finish high school, and my dad never started. He and his siblings had been orphaned during the Great Depression, and then the Second World War came along. I remember my dad struggling when he was asked to sign something; you’d think he was being tasked to perform open-heart surgery. He did read the newspaper, though, and his union sponsored him taking economics and sociology courses at the labour college. But there certainly weren’t copies of Pride and Prejudice on our bookshelves, because we didn’t have any bookshelves. My father’s people were from Cape Breton Island, a clan that included hard-drinking coal miners and the occasional Catholic priest. I always enjoyed listening to the stories when friends and relatives visited. In our house, argument was sport, and to be anything but CCF/NDP was to be an apostate. My favourite uncle, a onetime amateur boxer and baseball player, was proudly communist. Other than the newspaper, the only publication around the house was the racing form. Another uncle, too young for war, did matriculate, which made him the family Einstein. In those days there were good union jobs to be had in the mines, in the woods, on a fish boat or in a lumber mill, so some people considered dropping out of school and going to work an informed economic decision. Several of my friends became longshoremen. Rich kids get an education, it was believed, working class kids get trained. There was a very bright senior at our high school who was always referred to as the guy who went to university “for a whole year!” One year of post-secondary book-learning, you see, was all that was needed to secure a white-collar job. By the time my generation came of age, change was in the air, and a lot of people from the working class were going to university or junior college. There were student loans and scholarships and grants. Ours was a great time to grow up. Cages were being rattled, and there was much for a budding writer to draw on. My dad thought that I, a C+ student in a good year, should go to vocational school. He wanted me to become a log grader. I told him I wanted to go to university and be a writer. He rolled his eyes the way a father today might when a son says he wants to be a rap singer. But before one can be a writer, one must be a reader, and I was. To my parents – to many working class parents, I suppose – writing wasn’t real work. I always found this ironic considering the exertion required for my dad to scribble his John Hancock. My brother became an electrician. Now that, my boy, is work.  

Photo: Nalini Prasanna via Flickr.com

Photo: Nalini Prasanna via Flickr.com

DM-1: Had you ever met a writer?

DM-2: When I was a teenager a friend of mine moved to Abbotsford, in the Bible Belt east of Vancouver. I visited him a couple of times. My friend’s mother owned a coffee shop next door to the weekly newspaper. My friend’s sister started dating the editor, this Englishman who had coasted into town off the freeway one day, his car out of gas. The garage owner gave him a fill-up, but he had to leave his passport behind until he’d paid for the fuel. This journalist was a fascinating character, an adventurer and raconteur. I don’t know if he ever wrote a book, but he was the first person I’d met who could have stepped out of one.

DM-1: When did you start working at the Vancouver Sun?

DM-2: When I was in high school, as a swamper, six days a week. I was paid $21 to jump on and off a running board at the back of a moving panel truck and deliver bundles of the paper to stores, newsstands and hotels. One misstep and I would have been road kill. I had some magnificent falls on slippery floors and icy roads, but I got in great shape. A car did knock me to the ground once, some old duffer, but I was okay. Another time a German shepherd tore a chunk out of my leg. It was around this time that I started reading the newspaper regularly. I remember being in the Sun cafeteria before work one day and seeing the columnist Allan Fotheringham, the editorial department all-star, holding court. This was before he went to Maclean’s magazine. I remember thinking that being a writer seemed preferable to what I was doing, and safer, too. With the money I saved that year I hitchhiked from Vancouver to New York City and back with a pal from school, a feat I repeated a couple of years later. Plenty of young guys were doing that sort of thing. I wrote a short story, “Scram,” based on my adventures. It was published in Descant, the literary journal, in 2003, and included in my first story collection, In the Quiet After Slaughter.

Photo: Dillon Hinson  (Flickr.com)

Photo: Dillon Hinson  (Flickr.com)

DM-1: How did you get into writing?

DM-2: I bummed around for a couple of years after high school. I took my first two years of university at Vancouver City College (now Langara College).The average age of the students was about 27. There were a lot of people studying there who had worked and travelled – a different breed from the ambitious honour roll 18-year-olds who went directly to university and who now rule the world. I credit several of my instructors at this lowly community college with instilling in me a lifelong love of learning. I’m puzzled by people who attend a so-called “good school” and who, once credentialed, rarely pick up another book. A person who can read but doesn’t has no advantage over someone who can’t read at all. One of my fellow students at City College was John Orysik, who had written a jazz column in high school. He went on to become the co-founder and media director of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Another was Ian Caddell. When we transferred to Simon Fraser University, Ian became editor of The Peak, the campus rag. He encouraged me to contribute.  Once I got a feel for it I was spending more time writing for the paper than on my studies. While I was still in school I also sold a couple of pieces to the Georgia Straight, the once-alternative weekly, and to the Vancouver Sun. Ian went on to a long career as a movie reviewer with the Straight and as editor of Reel West, a film industry trade imprint. He passed away a few years ago. The West Coast film industry named an annual award after him. 

Photo: Kate Ter Haar  (Flickr.com)

Photo: Kate Ter Haar  (Flickr.com)

DM-1: Did you graduate?

DM-2: Yes, and with one mother of a debt. There was about as much demand for an English degree then as there is now. I studied Canadian literature with George Bowering, who has authored more than 100 books. In 2002 he served as Canada’s first parliamentary poet laureate. The most enjoyable course was a directed reading class with the English prof Dan Callahan. He drew up a list of 10 contemporary novels. On it were the works of writers like Yasunari Kawabata, Louis Ferdinand Céline, Gunter Grass and Carlos Fuentes. We’d meet in the pub once a week and talk about theme, plot, ideas, style. I think I was impregnated that summer with the notion that I might one day write fiction. I borrowed my way through school, but it still meant having to budget brutally. Everything I owned fit into a backpack, an iconic accessory in the ’60s Zeitgeist. Poverty was cool, man. One of the first luxuries to go was dental care. It came down to that or food. In my last term at uni a molar was giving me a lot of trouble. I’d jump out of bed in the middle of the night and have to pack cloves into the cavity to dull the pain. One day I was riding a crowded bus when the tooth started acting up again, and I didn’t have my magic spice. I hopped off the bus and ran up and down the street looking for a dentist. Miraculously, I found one. He let me pay for the extraction in instalments.  

DM-1: Did you get a writing job after graduation?

DM-2: Fat chance. I got a job making bread, and not the kind you spend. It was a factory operation mass-producing white loaves and hamburger buns. I was on call, the night shift, and the heat, when you were manning the ovens, could make you dizzy. I hated the job, it was Dante’s Inferno, but it was good money, union money. You were inhaling flour all night long, so for days after a shift you’d be coughing it up. If I had stayed working there I think I would have blown my brains out.  

Photo: Drew Coffman  (Flickr.com)

Photo: Drew Coffman  (Flickr.com)

DM-1: How did you catch on with the Sun? 

DM-2: The paper’s features editor, Mike McRanor, had liked one of my freelance pieces and offered me a job. The journalists I worked alongside were very supportive. I studied and tried to imitate the work of Sun writers like Don Stanley, Scott Macrae, Max Wyman and Lloyd Dykk, and I asked a lot of questions.  I wrote features, profiles, reviews, a little news, offbeat stuff. If the movie reviewer went on holidays, I became the movie reviewer. If the drama critic came down with diarrhea, I was the drama critic.  I even sat in on occasion for the religion page editor.  I only worked at the Sun for a couple of years, but if ever I had a lucky break, that was it. Having worked for a big city daily led to subsequent opportunities. We all have people who have greased the skids for us. Mike McRanor’s name is at the top of my list. Journalism was heady stuff for a boy from a public housing project. Like everything else, if you like it, if you try, you’re probably going to become reasonably good at it. As a journalist you talk daily to people of every stripe and persuasion – rich, poor, good and bad. Fertile ground for a wannabe fiction writer. And it sure beats working for a living.

Photo: Forester401  (Flickr.com)

Photo: Forester401  (Flickr.com)

DM-1: Did you ever meet Fotheringham?

DM-2:   He would sometimes toss me a ‘how-ya-doin’-kid’ when he passed my desk, but I doubt he ever knew my name. He was quite the dresser. He wore these Don Cherry-like shirt collars and silk ties, and he always had a smirk on his face. I once wrote a cheeky review of a Tina Turner appearance at a local club. This was prior to her comeback, and the show was more striptease than concert. I had too much to drink that night, and my review, if memory serves, went on about how wonderful Turner’s muscular black thighs looked under the strobe lights. I remember being concerned about how the story would be received – wondering if it would even be published. I found a note in my typewriter the next day. “Nice piece,” it said. “Foth.” Several of us young writers at the time were under the spell of New Journalism, which encouraged inserting oneself into stories and using fictional techniques to enliven a narrative. This was the mid-’70s; the decline of print and long-form journalism were just beginning. One day we were told our articles had to be shorter so that photos could be larger, an unsettling portent for a written product. The tone of our pieces was to be in the key of “light and breezy.” I took this to mean no more talk of sweaty black thighs. Little did we know at the time that digital loomed, which has been good for the trees, but not so good for us. 

Osaka, Japan. Photo: hira3  (Flickr.com)

Osaka, Japan. Photo: hira3  (Flickr.com)

DM-1: What was next?

DM-2: I’ve always fancied the idea of writing fiction – I never stopped reading it – and I made many an attempt over the years, but every effort ended in failure, affectation or abandonment. In retrospect, I think I lacked patience and discipline. I’d heard there were jobs with English-language papers overseas, and I knew there was English teaching jobs. I still owed a shitload of money for my student loans – I had borrowed the maximum allowable limit – but I was feeling restless, so I signed a two-year contract to teach English in Osaka, Japan. My mother’s last words to me before I left were, “Keep your pecker in your pants.” I had this fanciful plan to work my way around the world, paying off my loan along the way. The school underwrote the plane ticket and set me up in a tatami-matted apartment in Ishibashi. I taught bankers, blue collar workers and engineers at massive industrial centres owned by the zaibatsu – the country’s conglomerates. It was a real eye-opener. Most of my classes were in the evening, after my students had finished their shifts. I had a ball over there, I was drunk almost every night, but living and working in Japan was not easy. They are a remarkable people, the Japanese, I have very fond memories of the kindness shown to me, but they are also a rigid, conservative people, and I was a Goodtime Charlie. On my annual vacation I took a boat to Pusan, South Korea. Many older Koreans could speak some Japanese – Korea had been a colony of Japan for many years – so I was able to get around there on what little Japanese I had acquired. In the bus station in Seoul there was some kind of mix-up with my ticket. A beautiful girl who spoke some English appeared out of the ether and talked to the driver on my behalf, straightening everything out. 

Kang Neung, South Korea. Photo: forester401  (Flickr.com)

Kang Neung, South Korea. Photo: forester401  (Flickr.com)

She was from Kang Neung, the beach town I was trying to reach. We’ve been married now for about 37 years, and have two daughters and two grandchildren. That fateful meeting put the kibosh on my world travels, although while living in Asia I also visited China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. We honeymooned on the island of Okinawa, and I did, finally, retire my student debt. When my contract in Japan expired I found work as a sub editor at the Hong Kong Standard, the second largest of five English-language dailies in the British colony. Besides local Chinese, my colleagues on the Standard hailed from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa, Burma and Macau. It was a fabulous experience. After a year my wife became pregnant with our first child. We returned to South Korea, where I quickly found work as a copy editor at the Korea Herald. Few western journalists were keen to work there, as the country was run by the dictator Chun Doo Hwan, and there was always talk of war with the north, a short cab ride up the highway.  Before the paper could go to the printer a censor scanned the pages for treason. Chun’s photo was on the front page every day; it was mandatory. His wife’s photo was on the back page. It was the first time I had experienced the collective fear of a people, of a state terrorizing its own citizens and spoon-feeding the population what its generals wanted them to read. People would lower their voices and look over their shoulders when discussing the political situation. Many people wouldn’t talk about such things at all – no surprise, as informers were everywhere. There’s was also a nightly curfew. In 1996 Chun was jailed and sentenced to death for his role in the Gwangju Massacre; he was later pardoned.  I fictionalized my experiences there in the short story "To the Sound of Trumpets," which was published in the Windsor Review. We returned to Canada in 1982; I’d been away for almost five years. The country was in the grips of a nasty recession, and I couldn’t find a job. Mike McRanor at the Sun generously offered freelance work and a chance to do some shifts on the copy desk, but I needed something steady. After a painful dose of unemployment I landed a job writing for a weekly travel trade publication, staying a few years. I later edited a magazine for seniors and freelanced widely. I set up a home-based corporate communications operation, producing newsletters for a large law firm and an oil refinery. Several years later I started my own publication, the Killarney Times, a community news and information quarterly. I did all the writing and sold the ads. My wife and the girls helped deliver it.  Working for smaller outfits, though the remuneration was less, turned out to be something of a blessing. At large publications writers are concerned with their beat, their column; it’s easy to become a one-trick pony.  I became more versatile – and thus more employable – working for small operations, and that, I believe, allowed me to survive in an industry that was rapidly depopulating.

Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Trey Ratcliff  (Flickr.com)

Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Trey Ratcliff  (Flickr.com)

DM-1: When did you start writing fiction?

About 20 years ago. My kids were less dependent by then, so I had more free time. I also gave up cigarettes and alcohol. I had come to the conclusion that happiness served in a shot glass or measured by the gram wasn’t happiness at all. I’m so clean now I squeak. It took some years for me to realize the effect this would have on my attempts to write fiction, but I can say now that sobriety cleared my head and allowed me to commit. Maybe getting older had something to do with it as well. I know a lot of writers believe intoxicants stimulate the imagination, it’s part of the literary mythology, but it constipated mine. I wrote my stories before work, after work and on weekends. For the first few years just about everything I submitted to literary mags was greeted with a cacophony of indifference. Though there isn’t any money in it for most storytellers, fiction writing is very competitive, and publishers are swamped with submissions. Some journals publish only one or two per cent of them. In my case, the old adage that a writer could wallpaper a room with rejection slips is no exaggeration. I considered packing it in many times, but for some reason I didn’t – I couldn’t. I’m sure some friends and family members think I’m nuts, and maybe being nuts is what it takes to write short stories in a Facebook world that just isn’t that into short stories. But writing them has been the most challenging writing I’ve done, and the most satisfying. In 1999 the literary journal Pottersfield Portfolio of Sydney, N.S. accepted my story “Fugitive.” It was my first published fiction. I was 48 years old. 

DM-1: Talk to me about journalism and short stories.

DM-2: Most journalism and non-fiction is about the outside world. Literary fiction is about the inside; it goes where journalism and non-fiction can’t. I’ll put my bias up front: In some “short fiction,” a nebulous category, along with parlour game offshoots like “micro fiction” and “flash fiction,” anything goes. In place of a discernable narrative there is cleverness and word play and self-absorption. A reviewer once referred to these fictions as “pretty sentences all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Andy Warhol might well have been talking about such experimental writing when he defined art as “whatever you can get away with.” Raymond Carver wrote short stories to address his concern that life is short and “the water is rising.” Alice Munro said short stories are “about the astonishing way something happens, not what happens.” Journalism must inform accurately, and under unwavering deadlines, but it need not entertain. In fiction, Alistair MacLeod admonishes, “if the writer doesn’t staple the reader to the page, they will put down your book, go to the kitchen and make a cheese sandwich. And they won’t come back.”

Photo: Andrew Campbell (Flickr.com)

Photo: Andrew Campbell (Flickr.com)

DM-1: Why do you prefer the short story over the novel?

DM-2 It’s often said the novel is like a marathon, the short story like a dash across the playing field. But the differences are many. There’s a tremendous challenge telling a tightly crafted story. The reader is parachuted into a character’s life for a day, a few hours, a moment. The writer’s tools are nuance, subtlety, clues.  The economic history of a character can be conveyed in a single line of dialogue, which William Trevor was getting at when he referred to the short story as “the art of the glimpse.” With the short story the writer can showcase different forms, styles and voices. Novelists labour for years over a single yarn, and they can have a difficult time getting publishers to read it. Of course there are many brilliant novels being written, and I’d give it a try if the right idea came to mind, but far too many novels feature pages and pages of padding. Alice Munro said she’d rarely read a novel that wouldn’t have made a better short story. Hallelujah.

DM-1: What does this Alice woman know about writing?

DM-2: Everything.

DM-1: Why should we put down a good spy thriller or police procedural and pick up a collection of literary fiction written by an author no one has ever heard of?

DM-2: While these books have more readers than mine, I like to think my stories – at least the stories I aspire to write – get more of the reader. Dylan Thomas said that when a new poem arrives, the world is never the same. I believe this can also be true of a good short story.