JACK THE MAC
My very own publisher thought I was half-crazy, it seems.
Yes, I know I’ve been negligent. I should have been writing more missives from the Writing Burrow for you, letting you in on The Secrets of Genius Composition or else tearing a strip off the latest corrupt land and power grab in my immediate vicinity (“Now Douglas! Now King John! I did warn you that this wouldn’t go well for you, but did you listen?”) I’ll check in on the two delinquants later, I promise.
However, I got sidetracked. I began sorting through eight decades of photos —ten or eleven or twelve if we count the ancestral pictures. Here for instance is one that’s over a hundred years old by now. It’s my father --aged six, I estimate — and his younger brother, from about 1911 , taken on a backwoods farm in Nova Scotia. Can that much time really have passed? It has.
Once you start you get sucked down the photo hole. I let the snapshots out of their boxes, and now there are heaps of them all over the tables and floors… Where was that? When was it? Do I really need a picture of myself with a bird’s nest on my head? Or in a T-shirt that says Pink Freud? Don’t say yes, you’ll just egg me on.
Among the photos there was a sheet of paper that looks as if it came from a page proof. Here it is:
That’s my handwriting in the margin; for those who can’t read it, it says — of the proposition that I am semi-mad – “Ha! First I knew of it!” The “Jack” in question was Jack McClelland, publisher of McClelland and Stewart.
He was affectionately known among writers as Jack the Mac, and sometimes as Jack the Knife, in reference to the ruthlessness ascribed to publishers by writers whose manuscripts have been rejected by them. He published all my novels and collections of stories through 1985, beginning in 1969. The above memo appears to date from 1977 or so; thus it followed a conversation I had with Jack in 1975:
Jack: We’ll publish your novel in May.
Me: But Jack, I’m having a baby in May.
Jack: Great! We’ll film in the delivery room!
Me: What if I die in childbirth?
Jack: Fantastic publicity!
Jack was only half-joking. He’d been the captain of a torpedo boat in World War Two, and like a lot of men who came back from that war he was a risk-taker on a grander scale than was usual. He gambled on Canadian writing at a time when people thought there wasn’t any: he was one of those who conjured it into being.
He invented the author book tour in the 60s because Canada lacked any central authority such as the New York Times; it was local papers and local radio and TV stations, and indie bookstores. Jack cooked up the Kill-An-Author tour, starting us in Halifax and skipping across the country, a city a day, until we reached Victoria, on the west coast. He went in for splashy publicity stunts that were not always in good taste. In fact, they almost never were. Miniature jock straps were sent to reviwers along with a book on football; a tome on snakes was mailed in a box with air holes in it, so the recipients thought there had been a snake inside, and it had escaped. Screams, clamberings onto desks, calls to the Humane Society… As you can see, I’ve remembered those books, even though I never read them.
In those days in Canada, writers and publishers were making it up as we went along. Jack was always scrambling, searching for the next angle. It was he who put me up to writing my first children’s book. This was at a time when children’s book publishing hardly existed in Canada, but Jack thought it ought to. The book was called Up in the Tree. It was for the very young; it rhymed; it was hand-drawn and hand-lettered entirely by me –cheaper to hand-letter, you didn’t need typesetting - and it had only three colours: blue, red, and a peculiar shade of purple-brown made by mixing the two. We could only afford two colours, you see.
Another of Jack’s gambles; but strangely, it’s still in print.
I myself was a gamble of Jack’s, too. Before taking me on, he invited me for a drink – this was 1967, so I was wearing a little apricot-coloured A-form dress with a big zipper up the front. I had a drink, and Jack had four drinks, and then he said, “We don’t publish books, we publish authors. I’ll publish your book.” Me: “Have you read it?” Jack: “No, but I will.” This, despite the less than glowing readers’ reports on the book. (Yes, I got my mitts on those eventually, and I know where you live.) Jack bought the international rights for a ridiculously low sum – there weren’t any agents in Canada yet, nor any Writers’ Union, so who knew? – and then sold the book to England and the States. He was an accomplished pitch man with a dash of con artist, as he would have to have been.
That book was The Edible Woman, which ends with the heroine making a cake in the form of herself. This was not the usual ending for a novel of that era: no wonder Jack thought I was half-mad. But he threw the dice anyway, and neither of us lost.
Thank you, Jack. You rascal.