[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 journalist, author and Maker of Rules, Val Ross.]
The byline was Goderich, Ontario, but the setting of the Globe and Mail piece was the neighbouring town of Blyth, where a fundraising dinner was being served to benefit the local theatre. The story began:
“Excuse me, but I hear there’s a famous lady writer who lives near here,” said the man in the Blyth Hall, summoning an alert-looking, sixtyish waitress to his table. “I hear she sometimes comes to this festival.”
The waitress nodded her silver curls.
“Would that by any chance be her?” The man indicated a nearby table. A woman sat alone, artistic and dramatic. Wrapped in patterned shawls, the woman held high a fine head of auburn hair.
“I’m not sure,” admitted the waitress. She sized up the woman and then, encouragingly, whispered back, “Yes, I think that might be her.”
Alice Munro, who was the silver-haired waitress, gives a guilty laugh when she tells this story.
Val Ross was the author of this famous article, which tells so much about Alice Munro, and about the standard of journalism Val Ross set for herself, reporting on the Canadian cultural scene for Maclean’s and then the Globe and Mail. She looked and wrote like an angel and every sensible publisher spent years trying to get her to write a book. That would, of course, be no problem, slipped in between her time spent raising three children with Morton, kicking people in her karate class, travelling, and leading a life full of friends, and of colleagues who were soon to be friends. How could you resist someone who came up to your desk, bearing sticks of fresh celery and saying, “I’ve decided that you deserve a celery increase”?
In due course she wrote two excellent books for children. The first was The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories, which won the Norma Fleck Award as the best Canadian book of the year for children. The second, You Can’t Read This, was even more ambitious. In Val’s words, “This book is a history of reading. But it is also about people who have been denied the power of reading. It’s about lost writing, forbidden books, mistranslations, codes, and vanished libraries. It’s about censors, vandals, and spies. It’s about people who write in secret. And it’s about people who devote their hearts and brains to learning what has been written.”
Eventually, I persuaded Val to write a book for adults: it was one of the greatest compliments of my life that she — on first-name terms with every good publisher in the land — chose to publish it with my editorial imprint. The fit was very good. Val’s year as a journalism fellow at Massey College had imbued her with the spirit of Massey’s founding master, Robertson Davies. Now she had the brilliant idea of producing an “oral biography” of my old friend and author by interviewing people who had known him.
All went well for three years as Val did her research and started the book, and I received pleasing reports of progress. Then came the events that will answer any reader of this book who wonders why a little-published author, with only one adult book — Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic — earned a place here, in this book, alongside authors like Munro, Gallant, MacLeod, and Davies himself.
Visit ECW Press to learn more about Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others.