he recently passing of Jack McClelland signaled that an era in Canadian publishing is beginning to pass. McClelland was famous for his steadfast devotion to new and unknown Canadian writers. His name is synonymous with an era's approach to writing and publishing.
Last Sunday I met another member of that era of publishing and writing—Pierre Berton.
Berton was at BookExpo Canada—a tradeshow for Canadian publishers—to sign copies of his books and to be honoured at the Libris awards sponsored by Canadian Bookseller magazine.
Berton had graciously given me half an hour of his time for an interview. I was a little nonplussed to see the great man in a wheel chair. But his mind was sharp as were his views.
I began our conversation by saying that I was a little intimidated to be asking him questions. He responded "Oh you mean because I am in the business." No, I felt like saying, because you're bloody Pierre Berton who has probably asked every question and heard every response. But I smiled said 'Yes that was the reason'.
Prisoners of the North is Berton's latest book—his fiftieth. In his book Berton writes about various explorers and adventurers who travelled the North and whose experiences eventually defined who they were to the world. In his book Berton writes about: John Boyle the self-made millionaire explorer; Vilhjalmur Steffansson an explorer who boasted about finding blonde Eskimos and controversial Canadian poet Robert Service—known for his verse and adverse behaviour. Interestingly, a woman is also a part of Berton's storytelling. Lady Jane Franklin was a Victorian explorer who accompanied her famous husband on his various expeditions. When he disappeared, her fame was added to due to her devoted searching for her husband in the North.
My conversation with Berton began with a conversation about his youth. More than once during our time together Berton reminded me of my father. Both were tall, lanky, powerful men who knew a part of Canada that was still rough and ready. Berton told me about working ten hour days for three years in the gold mines of the North. My father, during Prohibition in the United States, had worked as a rum runner and had raced motor cycles. Both of these men were well known for their story telling. My father's, however, I always took 'with a pinch of salt' to borrow an expression of that era.
When I asked him about his approach to writing, Berton commented "I am a writer for our people. I write for an audience of Canadians. I write about a place they know. I write for a people that I don't have to explain where Saskatoon is". Berton said these words with great passion and emphasis.
Eventually our conversation got to a matter close to Berton's heart—Berton House in Dawson City. Berton House is Berton's childhood home that has become a year round writer's retreat for professional writers from any field of literary writing. To date authors such as Luanne Armstrong (B.C.), Yvonne Harris (Yukon), Micheal Kusugak (Nunavut), and Russell Smith (Ontario) have stayed there.
Although Berton House was modernized for its new purpose—gone is the washroom facility dug into the basement floor. It needs new repairs. As well the mortgage needs to be paid off. Berton hopes that a sponsor will step in to ensure Berton House's continuation.
"Berton House is a place for professionals to dream and think and prepare". The writer in residence receives $2,000 a month, which doesn't go that far in Dawson City, and the house has a desk and a computer for the writer in residence to work on. All that is required of the writer is that they give a few public talks. While staying at Berton House a writer will find him or herself living on the same street where Robert Service lived and Jack London wrote at certain points in their careers. Berton calls 8th Avenue "writers row." Berton has focused on professional writers as he feels that there is already a lot of financial support for new writers.
For those professional writers contemplating a stay at Berton House here are few dry facts about Dawson City and the Yukon. The average temperature is –26.7 in January and 15.6 in July. A record low was recorded in January of –55.8 and a record high of 34.7 in July. The Yukon's total population is 29,960 of which nearly 2,000 live in Dawson City. That number swells with the tourists to 60,000. Tourism and gold mining are Dawson's major revenue draws. Air access to Dawson City is by Air North and Alkan Air. A little known fact about the Yukon is that it has its own tartan. It was designed in 1965 and became official in 1984.
In the summer of 1997 author Andrew Pyper stayed at Berton House. While there he worked on his novel Lost Girls. It was his first taste of the North and he was hooked. He has been back to the Yukon three times since then. His new book The Wildfire Season is almost entirely about the Yukon.
"Berton House provides writers with exactly what they need to write—that is the opportunity to just write", Pyper told me. It also, he continued, "exposes writers, from wherever they come from, to the rest of Canada. My idea of Canada has been altered forever. I am very grateful for that. Berton House is a great thing that he [Berton] has done."
Berton is hoping that a sponsor will come forward to help out with Berton House's current financial difficulties.
At the end of the interview I watched Berton being wheeled away in his wheel chair with a sense of an era passing. Berton house is a generous and sensitive gift to Canadian writers. It is fitting legacy to Canadian writers that I hope will be around for many generations to come.
Information about Berton House can be found at: http://users.yknet.yk.ca/dcpages/bertonhouse
Information about the Yukon can be found at: www.touryukon.com
Information about Dawson City can be found at: www.yukonweb.com/community/dawson