[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 W.O. Mitchell.]
But there is no doubt that W.O. was the opposite of the typical author, who likes the quiet, private life of a writer, but has to be pushed to do any promotion. W.O. so loved the promotion tour that he gave the impression of doing the troublesome writing stuff just as a preliminary for the real thing, the promotion tour, the interviews, and the readings.
His public performances, of course, are legendary. All of the doubts that he associated with the lonely act of writing (“like playing a dart game with the lights out,” he once famously observed), were removed by the instant response of the audience. As a one-time actor, he loved “the immediate thrust of a live audience as it responds to story magic,” and it showed. His performances were immaculately professional: voice husking or thundering, fist raised, white hair flying, mouth creased in a foxy grin, or eyes wide in innocent astonishment at a double entendre raising a laugh. His performances, now fortunately captured on audio cassette, were unforgettable, and he himself was perhaps the most outrageous character he ever created.
He was such a stellar presence — and such a mischief-maker — that anyone introducing him before a speech had an impossible task. I learned this, to my cost. If I gave him a well-deserved reverent introduction (“a man whose work has altered the course of Canada’s writing, one of Canada’s cultural treasures”), he would get to the lectern, lean on it, look around, then say, with impeccable timing, “Aw, horseshit!” So if the next time around I gave him a funny, irreverent introduction, using his own “folksy old Foothills fart” description, would come up, look over his glasses, and gravely give us ten minutes on “the role of literature in society,” while I squirmed, and people wondered why that rude lightweight had been asked to introduce this fine, scholarly old gentleman.
Another irony: This larger-than-life performer, not short of ego, valued selfless work. A couple of years before his death, when his health was failing, I asked him what, looking back on his long career, had brought him the most satisfaction. He thought hard and then said, “The teaching, I think.” Grateful former writing students who had learned from “Mitchell’s messy method” at Banff, Calgary, Toronto, Windsor, and elsewhere, will know why. Perhaps the fact that both of his sons, Orm and Hugh (the juvenile fire starters who alarmed the neighbours), grew up to become teachers, is not an accident. It’s interesting to note, too, that he was a fine judge of talent. He was proud to be the first professor to use in his class the stories of a young author named Alice Munro. Throughout his life he remained a fervent admirer, putting “Sweet Alice” in a special category. Very late in his life Alice sat by his Calgary bed, holding his hand and talking gently to him till Avie Bennett, observing this, was overcome, and removed himself from the room.
My own relationship with him was almost uncannily close.
But we were not on the same wavelength when Bill was rushing to deliver a new novel in time for fall publication. The final chapter had to be in my hands by the end of May. Through the winter he would deliver chapters, and I would rush to call him back to tell him the new stuff was really good, well done, keep going!
At the end of May he called to say he had done it, the book was finished, and the final chapter was in the mail. At great, congratulatory length I told him what a pro he was, and how delighted I was.
Until I read the final chapter.
It was terrible. Sloppy, slapdash, with a vital scene recounted “off stage.” How do you tell the legendary W.O. Mitchell that his work is no good? Carefully. With great difficulty. I lost sleep over having to make the phone call, which eventually went like this.
“Bill, you know I’ve been very pleased with all of your chapters as they came in?”
“Yeah.” “And you know I’m no use to you if I don’t level with you?”
“Well . . . I have to tell you that this final chapter is no good.”
“What do you mean you know?”
“Oh, hell, I was just rushing something off to you by the end of the month because I promised I would. But it’s no good. I’ve started rewriting it already.”
“Why, you son of a . . .”
I expressed myself vigorously, and he laughed, and I put it down to working with a wonderful, terrible, larger-than-life character.
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 W.O. Mitchell.