I live outside of Toronto and so combine as many meetings I can into each trip down the Don Valley Parkway. And so, the day of my photo shoot at Hart House, I had also booked a meeting with an archivist at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. I went from sitting for Mark Raynes Roberts, to sitting in that magical library talking about my life’s work. I didn’t realize at the time how closely related these two activities were.
Twenty-three boxes. That’s what I got it down to – from forty to twenty-three. Two men in a University of Toronto truck came to pick them up in the Spring. Everything I had saved from over twenty years of writing and publishing. There were boxes full of literary magazines, stories of mine published across Canada. Boxes full of publicity material – photographs, posters, sample covers of my books. Many boxes of edits – manuscripts scribbled on by some of Canada’s (and the U.K.’s) top editors. Boxes of PEN Canada correspondence and all of the newsletters I edited. Writers’ Trust.Writers’ Union. Boxes of reviews, good and bad. Boxes of interviews. And boxes of correspondence, notes and cards from people congratulating me, warning me, supporting me, helping me.
Mark compiled one hundred and fifty photographic portraits of some of Canada’s finest writers. He captured the beauty and intelligence, the thoughtfulness and quirks of 150 writers. Just last week I rifled through all of them and it felt, to me, as if I were once again going through my boxes.
There is Leon Rooke. Leon and Connie were the first people (not related to me) to tell me I was a writer. There is Joe Kertes, the man who edited my first story collection. Antanas Sileika, trusting me as a mentor for his students at Humber. Kim Moritsugu, who took a writing class with me in the early days and became my friend and supporter. Susan Glickman, my creative writing mentor at the University of Toronto. Nino Ricci is there, I worked with him at PEN Canada and he was always available to read my work and make comments and blurb a book if I begged. Rudyard Griffiths, who interviewed me for the Dominion Institute’s anthologies. Russell Smith, Sheila Heti, Andrew Pyper, Catherine Bush, Michael Helm — all the launches and parties we’ve been to.
Catherine Gildiner, whose book I reviewed. Elizabeth Ruth, who kept me company on a tour of Edmonton and shouted down people who were talking too loudly at a University cafeteria reading. Charlotte Gray, who let me stay in her lovely house for a night. Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds, who have always been brilliant – from our connection through PEN to the Writer’s Union. Charlie Foran, my friend and confidant and coffee-mate. The man who, when he found out I was moving to his city, said, “I’ll go check out your new house,” and disappeared from email for about twenty minutes only to get back on and say, “It’s great! And really close to my house!” And Robert Rotenberg is there. My very successful student. The torch passed.
All of these writers and more. They inspired me through their own technique, through their dedication to their work, through conversation and argument. They supported and uplifted me and slapped me with the reality of writing a few good times. Their imaginations poured onto pages and pages of books and sustained me as I wrote, showing me that, yes, Canadians have voices. Strong voices. Eclectic voices. Varied, distinct and special voices.
I counted. I can count 32 out of the 150 as good friends and mentors. Another 20 as people I’ve read with, toured with, met at book launches and parties, taught with, been on panel discussions with and watched play hockey (Dave Bidini!). Elizabeth Hay took my arm on a busy Montreal street one year and guided me carefully through the traffic. Lawrence Hill helped me find my car in a Toronto parking lot when I was locked out and 8 months pregnant. Lynn Coady and I read to about four people in a deserted shopping Mall in Victoria, B.C. one year and then went back to my parents’ house for cake and wine. This kind of commaraderie is important to a writer. Years spent in solitude, with only your warped mind for company. And then you emerge with a book and are thrust into the public, into publicity stunts that are sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrific and embarrassing. But you are there with your peers and your mentors and your heroes. They make you feel that what you are doing is okay, that they have your back. That they support you.
Although we push our words and our visions at our reader, although we stand up and shout, “look at me,”we writers are all fragile and sensitive, our egos bruise easily. We’re bombarded by criticism and critiques. We are told we are not good enough or that our characters aren’t engaging or that what we’ve slaved over for years needs something else – perhaps a new plot? And so, looking back at all these faces and compiling my boxes of archives has, for me, given me a perspective I didn’t have before. I am not alone.
Mark Raynes Roberts has taken these powerful portraits of authors to give us a glimpse into their inner lives, but he has also, unknowingly, given me a retrospective of my life. He has taken intimate photos of people who have made me who I am. This collection is my life. It is as momentous and as memorable to me as those twenty-three boxes buried somewhere at the Thomas Fisher library.