[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 novelist, short story writer and Torontonian Morley Callaghan.]
On this occasion Morley phoned me at the office in a fever of excitement. He’d just finished a novella, and he was pleased with it, and could I come by his house in Rosedale and read it? Well, I argued strongly against such a visit, using words like “unprofessional.” But this was Morley Callaghan, now a widower, and around the age of eighty, and not only a legendary figure but my friend, and very insistent. So I gave in, and went that evening to the big house that I knew well.
Morley greeted me at the door, restraining Nicky, a giant poodle with a tiny brain, I’m afraid, and brought me inside and guided me to a chair in the big drawing room. He got me set up there, very solicitously, gave me the manuscript (typed on his old machine, as I recall), then retired with Nicky across the hall to where — as the door opened briefly to reveal — a tv set was blaring out a Stanley Cup final game.
I started to read. After five minutes the tv roared again, and Nicky was bounding around the room with Morley in irritated pursuit, here to ask me if the light was good enough. Yes, fine thanks, Morley.
Then another five minutes passed, and we had more tv, more Nicky, more pursuit around the room, and kind enquiries as to whether I wanted a glass of water. No, thank you, Morley, I’m fine.
When it happened again five minutes later, it all became clear to me. Morley needed — really needed — me to tell him that this new manuscript was good. Not, I want to stress, because my opinion was worth its weight in gold. No, he needed to hear it because, as a widower, he had spent so long on this work, his face pressed right up against it, that he really didn’t know if it was any good. So he needed an objective, professional opinion, saying, “This is fine, Morley, relax.”
And it was, and I said so.
That book, Our Lady of the Snows, featured a Toronto prostitute as the central character. Morley’s interview with Peter Gzowski, the host of CBC Radio’s Morningside, drew memorably from that topic. My friend Peter (whom I write about in a later chapter) was a superb, honest interviewer, and an author’s appearance on his program had a dramatic impact on any book’s sales. But his staff knew that like a good boy from Galt (and I am married to a girl from Galt, now Cambridge), he was somewhat prudish on the air — for example, made very uneasy by four-letter words. There was no danger of that with Morley, the experienced old CBC Radio hand, but he was a respected senior man of letters with a decisive on-air manner that made him very hard to interrupt. So my friend Hal Wake (who now runs the Vancouver Writer’s Festival and tells fine stories of those days) recalls being part of Peter’s team in the control booth listening with delight as Morley, asked about the book’s theme, began decisively: “Now Peter . . . you . . . know . . . prostitutes. You . . . know . . . prostitutes. And you know that . . .” And by now it was too late for Peter to make any protest or diversionary move, and the control booth folks were almost rolling around on the floor. And Morley, I suspect, was not unaware of the impact he was having.
A final story about Morley Callaghan, which also tells us a lot about Alice Munro. She was once on the Toronto subway when she saw Morley, by then a widower, tottering aboard her car, looking old and frail and ill. She went over to him and reintroduced herself, and sure enough, Morley confessed that he was sick and was going to his doctor’s. Alice was alarmed enough by Morley’s condition that she got off a stop early and took his arm to help him; and being Alice Munro, she admits that she did so with some awareness of her own kindness in the matter. And just as she was about to help the poor shuffling old man across the road, he pulled back his head, looked her in the eye, and said, “You know what’s the matter with your work, don’t you?” — and proceeded to tell her.
He was a fine, feisty fellow. When he died in 1990, the funeral at St. Michael’s Cathedral was even better attended than the fictional funeral for Eugene Shore. He had lived to a great age, and the minor slights (like the autographing session in a Toronto department store that was so ill-attended that I had to rope in a passing friend, the editor/literary agent John Pearce, to pose as an eager book-buyer) were long gone. He was now part of Canadian literary history, with several of his books ensconced in the New Canadian Library and taught in universities across the country. He had received his share of honours and honorary degrees, and was a Companion of the Order of Canada.
It was a solemn service, with all of the great, formal dignity St. Michael’s Cathedral could provide. And then, as the coffin was borne out past the silent congregation towards the great entrance doors, everyone jumped. A Dixieland jazz band stationed out of sight above the entrance had burst into full cornet and trombone and clarinet action, blaring out, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Then the tempo changed up to “St. James’ Infirmary,” (a tune with the significant, defiant lyrics “Put a fifty-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain / To show the boys I died standing pat”). Suddenly everyone was smiling and chatting, delighted by the uplifting surprise. We were all stepping lively as we moved behind the coffin through the old cathedral doors, and out into Morley’s Toronto sunshine.
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 Morley Callaghan.