[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 writer and voice, Peter Gzowski.]
I may have counted him as a friend, but Peter was never easy to work with, if “easy” means automatic agreement with the publisher’s plans. We sparred over contracts, where I was shocked to discover that he liked to get his own way, and he was a perfectionist over the book’s contents. He was, in other words, a pro, and I enjoyed working with him over the years. I was distressed almost beyond speech when I first visited him at the Toronto waterfront apartment he shared with the faithful Gill, and found him with his walker and oxygen tank. Some of my McClelland & Stewart colleagues who had the misfortune to be taking a relaxing cigarette break outside the building that afternoon still recall, no doubt, my explosive return by taxi from seeing Peter laid low by nicotine.
I was less outspoken when on my first phone call after a major operation, I heard him pause and make a tiny sucking noise. “Peter,” I said, aghast, “that wasn’t what it sounded like? You’re not smoking again?” There was nothing to say. His last piece of writing, for the anthology Addiction, was entitled “How to Stop Smoking in 50 Years or Less.” It was very sad.
My own interviews as a guest on Morningside were uniformly sad, dealing with the recent death of authors like Hugh MacLennan or Robertson Davies. (My Vancouver friend Alan Twigg once saw me on tv, and said, “Oh dear, Doug’s on the news again — I wonder who has died now.”) But I was glad to go through the experience of a Peter Gzowski interview that so many others have described: little eye contact, not much attempt at personal charm, all of the energy going into the questions. He was a keen-eared interviewer, but never a keen-eyed one. At the private funeral at Frontier College, a relative spoke of a moment by the hospital bed near the end when he was drifting in and out of consciousness, and his eyeglasses were put in place. They looked wrong, somehow, and one family member suggested that everyone should fix that by smearing the lenses with their thumbs. . . .
In his prime Peter was a big, bulky, shambling man, a bear-walker you might say. His rumpled appearance (the famous comparison to “an unmade bed” on bad days was unkind to some beds I have known) was no surprise to the thousands of loyal fans who lined up to meet him at book signings, including many for his wildly successful series of Morningside Papers. They were surprised, however, by his shyness, which was part of the man, and helped account for his failure on live tv. Yet he willingly undertook these tours because he was a pro who liked his books to do well, and because he relished witnessing “the Morningside effect” on his own books.
What do these books — and his others, almost all fixtures on the bestseller lists — tell us about Peter Gzowski the writer? That he wrote well about his enthusiasms – hockey, or golf, or horse racing, or journalism, or broadcasting. That he could turn his hand to an astonishing variety of subjects, from the perils of being dismasted in mid-Caribbean to the pleasures of family hopscotch. What proved to be his last book, in his lifetime, A Peter Gzowski Reader, demonstrates the range of his skills, as journalist, essayist, narrator, and polemicist for Canada, and shows us he was, always, a writer.
Sadly, what might have been his greatest book will never be written. He was at work in his final years on a book about the North, the last frontier that he knew well and loved with a passion, and he and I often spoke excitedly about its prospects. In the end he lost the race to finish it, and we all lost a potentially great book. At the private family funeral, Susan Aglugark paid an unforgettable Northern tribute to him, her clear voice rising out over the Toronto rooftops as she sang “Amazing Grace” in Inuktitut, magically linking the clouds above with those stretching all the way to the Arctic.
Others have written about the glorious work he did for literacy, raising more than $12 million (and counting, as the tradition goes on) for Frontier College through his golf tournaments. (And his old Frontier College friend John O’Leary remembers other much less glamorous times he spent doing literacy work — in prison, for example, far from the fun of the golf course.) I remember a crowded Saturday meeting at the University of Toronto where student literacy volunteers were gathered from across the country. Did he thank them, and congratulate them? No. He ended his talk with the thought: “Aren’t we lucky — aren’t we lucky — to be able to do important work like this that we love?” I like to think he would have said the same about his own life and work.
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 Peter Gzowski.