[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, running every Friday. The following is from the chapter on Islander, teacher, and inventor of words, Jack Hodgins.]
“Jack Hodgins, he got curly hair” was the first recorded comment by my daughter Meg (aged two) on one of my authors, after Jack had visited the house for dinner. (I remember fondly that at a return engagement at Jack’s house outside Nanaimo, his kids, Shannon, Gavin, and Tyler, kindly took me outside to see their pullets in the yard overhung by arbutus trees.) Jack’s hair was curly then in 1976 and it’s curly now, although it’s less springy, and a purist would notice that it has gone grey. But Jack is still impossibly boyish, lean, and active. And he’s still shy, in a stooping sort of way that allows him to rear back with a sudden smile or a laugh, as the conversation — or the instructive talk about the craft of fiction — demands it. Those who have seen him in action in a classroom know that he is that very rare blend of a shy person who is also a natural teacher.
As a writer, he arrived with a bang in 1976 with Spit Delaney’s Island. The book produced many reviews like the Montreal Gazette’s: “Jack Hodgins has done for the people of Vancouver Island what John Steinbeck did for the inhabitants of California’s Salinas Valley and William Faulkner for the American South.”
The stories in the collection were set on the Vancouver Island that he knew well, having been raised in the logging/small farming community of Merville in the Comox Valley. Like the community itself, the stories were filled with memorable characters, but Jack Hodgins was careful to explain, as he told Jack David (a promising academic soon to become a notable publisher) in an interview, “I’m one of them. I’m not an outsider looking at them and laughing at them and saying, oh ho ho, look at those funny people who live on this funny island. They’re not funny to me at all, except where they share the same feelings that I have. When I laugh at them, I’m laughing at us, all of us.”
Margaret Laurence called the book “remarkable” in her Globe review, and wrote of Jack’s ability “to convey human beings in all their uniqueness and nuttiness, and an ability to convey a sense of place — that Island which is both a vivid geographical place and an island of the spirit.” It was clear from the chorus of praise — and the resultant book sales — that an important new writer had arrived.
I had deliberately tied Jack to Vancouver Island by putting a fine Emily Carr painting on the cover of Spit, and it delighted me to see how quickly Jack did indeed become the fiction writer portraying the Island to outsiders. I was not aware that in the process I was sharpening a double-edged sword; over time a writer who brilliantly describes a region can run the risk of being downgraded to the easy description “a regional writer.”
Jack and I have worked happily together as author and editor over the years. Family legend goes that once Dianne, his wife, as his first reader, objected that a passage of magic realism went much too far, that no reader would believe it. Jack sniffily rejected her advice — until the day the same passage came back from my desk with the words “No! No! No!” written on it. More often, in my role of editor, all I needed to do was highlight a passage as being not quite right, and Jack would supply a brilliant revision that solved everything.
I am proud of the friendship that has allowed me to make many visits to Jack and Dianne’s home in Victoria. One other marvellous side benefit for me was that I got to know the Island well. I learned that as you travel from Victoria north over the Malahat to the logging museum at Duncan (where I saw a “crummy” that had rolled straight out of Jack’s writing about loggers), then up the highway to Nanaimo (where he taught high school) and beyond up to Campbell River, en route to Port Alice (a.k.a. “Port Annie, Pulp Capital of the Western World,” where his fictional hero Joseph Bourne resided) or, if you choose, west past the “goats on the roof” and the forest giants at Cathedral Grove to Port Alberni, then further west through the mountains where the roadside snow lies deep in winter to Ucluelet or Tofino, land of the surfers — why, you have travelled through the equivalent of a dozen little European countries, each with their own geography, climate, and culture. And that’s not counting the Duchy of Saltspring Island, where Jack and I once gathered and ate the best blackberries in the world, in the lineup to the ferry.
The UBC scholar and critic W.H. New went beyond Spit Delaney’s Island to look at the cumulative impact of Jack’s first two novels, The Invention of the World (1977) and The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979): “By the late 1970s then, with three books appearing in rapid succession, Hodgins seemed to burst upon the literary scene in full bloom. This was an experienced writer, writing something ‘different,’ not an imitative apprentice. Journalists trumpeted the arrival of a major talent. Interviewers asked where he’d been. Readers sat back and enjoyed.”
Bill New reminds us that where Jack had been was on Vancouver Island, apart from the spell he left to get a five-year teaching degree at ubc, where he took a creative writing class with Earle Birney. Then he taught high school in Nanaimo, and wrote and wrote and wrote, the years of rejection allowing him to become what the world calls “an overnight success.”
Visit ECW Press to learn more about Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Jack Hodgins.