In the fall of 2011, our small family moved to London, England for a few years. There I set up office in a small dark room in a beautiful flat in Kensington, where it was easy to count one’s blessings daily. The view from our living room window was towards Holland Park, a view that later became a construction site as the Commonwealth Institute was converted into the Design Museum and its neighbouring condo towers.
I loved to take our dog for a long walk, through Holland Park, along the Duchess of Bedford’s Walk to Kensington Gardens, and home again, making sure to pass the house loaded with wisteria when in season. I’d stop to read the blue plaques that explained which historical figure did what in this building. Too many blue plaques. In fact, the literary history of London is overwhelming, and there is so much for a booklover to do, that the difficulty is in choosing.
I decided to get involved by writing about Canadian authors who didn’t live in Canada, a topic dear to my heart, not only because I was one of them, but also because I’d done a thesis on Mavis Gallant, who became famous in Canada only after publishing a book of short stories set in Canada (Home Truths) — never mind that she’d earned her living as a writer publishing in The New Yorker. Gallant’s name pops up at the end of the film, The French Dispatch, apparently for her New Yorker essays on the May 68 student demonstrations.
Not knowing anything about websites, I went off to another part of London to have a lesson from my (now) friend Barbara Richards, who recommended a kind of prefab site, which is why Canadian Writers Abroad uses a WordPress platform. She guided me through various design choices (decisions! decisions!) and basically held my hand through my first year of posting difficulties. Towards the end of 2011, I experimented with a couple of pieces.
But the first real piece for Canadian Writers Abroad was published on January 4, 2012. Fittingly, the topic was Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore in Paris that allows budding writers to overnight there provided they qualify and that they help out. The bookstore on 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, in Paris, is still open, and now offers online services. While they are not having events, they have in the past hosted conversations with the following Canadian authors: Rachel Cusk (December 2019), Margaret Macmillan (Sept. 2014), Eleanor Catton (2014), Emily St John Mandel (March 2015), Harriet Elida Lye (July 2018, former writer-in-residence there), Patrick Dewitt (September 2018), Miriam Toews (June 2019), Karen Mulhallen and Nancy Huston for a reading from Mulhallen’s Code Orange (translated by Huston), and in November 2017, the shop had several writers in to talk about Granta’s special issue on Canada, which you can listen to on the Shakespeare and Company podcast. (Was that the sound of George Whitman rolling over in his grave at the word “podcast”?) The bookstore led me to one of my first interviews, a Canadian journalist who wrote about his stay in Time Was Soft There: Jeremy Mercer.
There were moments of doubt. Canadian Writers Abroad required research and reaching out to people, and sometimes it felt like no more than glorified literary gossip. But those doubts were chased away by the gratitude of writers who were featured. In the early days of publishing in Canada, you were nobody until you were successful elsewhere, as was the case for the likes of Margaret Laurence and Mordecai Richler. After 1967 and a shift towards nationalism, however, you were nobody unless you were a darling of Canadian media, and to a small degree this holds true. I can’t help but notice, for example, that when pundits write about the meaning of home, they don’t call on Isabel Huggan, who wrote a whole book about precisely that while living in France (Belonging). Nor does our press refer, when sympathizing with long-term care workers, to the short stories of Louise Ells (Notes Towards Recovery), despite her return to Canada.
I say a small degree because media has been levelled by social media, and because for some writers, such as Patrick DeWitt and D.W. Wilson, awards garnered while living in the United States and England, respectively, have helped their careers overall. Doubts notwithstanding, Canadian Writers Abroad keeps going, out of curiosity, out of commitment to the writers who contact me, and because of all that I’ve learned, including letting go of my inherent bias that came from studying Mavis Gallant. And because I want to pull together what I have learned into a longer piece of writing.
So where does that leave us? This is the moment to thank all authors who agreed to show up in the pages of Canadian Writers Abroad, one way or another. Also time to thank our readers and followers. THANK YOU!! And that leaves us in the mood for celebration. Covid, and distance, keep us from having an actual party. Instead, we are going to catch up via the written word. Today launches the series Three Questions, answered by writers featured in Canadian Writers Abroad. We begin with Jane Christmas, who proposed this Q&A trinity.
- Jeremy Mercer talks about his time in Paris on Viking TV.
- Shakespeare and Company has published a memoir: Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.
- Rowan Moore’s review of the conversion of the Commonwealth Institute into the Design Museum in The Guardian (13 November 2016).
- Margaret Atwood has mentioned in several places the early necessity for writers to leave Canada if they wished to succeed. Here’s one.