It was a simple idea. A group of guys who read decided to get together to discuss books. We came from a diverse background: architecture, fundraising & development, theatre & drama, international education, financial services, preservation and medicine. Over 15 years later we continue to meet on a fairly regular basis to catch-up, provide the latest news on family and friends, to have a drink and to discuss our latest book, although the reality of life events, both happy and sad have had an impact on who continues to join in.
We take turns suggesting books to read, which has led to an eclectic list. Mysteries, high seas adventures, biographies, world events, CanLit hits, Canada Reads winners, “New York Times” lists and others have all made contributions.
One of the universally enjoyed selections was the first novel published by Terry Fallis, author of “Best Laid Plans”, a book that went on to be a best seller and winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 2008 and proclaimed to be the “essential Canadian novel of the decade” in 2011 by Canada Reads.
Greg Wanless, founder of the Thousand Island Playhouse and a keen supporter of Gananoque, contacted fellow Book Guys to tell us that Terry Fallis was on the programme at the Gan. Literary Festival. How could we not go to meet with the person who had made us all laugh, without any accompanying malice, at the foibles of political life in the not-too-thinly disguised capital?
We joined in with fellow readers at the Gananoque Inn on a beautiful Saturday morning, overlooking the sparkling river, a delightful location for quite an intimate chat. Terry introduced himself and provided some details of his life and the influences that have helped his formation as a writer.
It became obvious that his life has been one of engagement, starting at an early age with encouragement from equally engaged parents. A fascination with making things, particularly with hovercraft, steered him towards studies in engineering. He graduated from McMaster with an engineering degree and went immediately into... politics. While not specifically relying on anecdotes, from his years in that arena, the exposure has provided him with a profound understanding of human nature in that world that is reflected in his work.
When asked what influenced the development of his humour, Terry related an incident from his early working life. As a young 25 year-old working in politics, he was presented with the opportunity to attend a world youth conference in Europe. A keynote speaker was South African journalist and editor Donald Woods, a man banned from his home country for his support of Steve Biko and for his anti-apartheid views. Despite the very serious nature of the issue, “Within 3 minutes he had us literally rolling in the aisles with truly side-splitting laughter”, demonstrating a truly powerful way to puncture the ludicrous through humour.
It is the combination of humour and pathos that is so compelling in the books. They are views of life through a gentle, satiric filter that reflect a kindness towards the human condition, a kindness that was often at the core of Stephen Leacock’s work as well.
There was some discussion about the relationship with Leacock. Terry has twice won the Leacock medal, the second oldest literary award in Canada. It was an irony, not lost on the group, that Leacock is no longer part of the canon of Canadian literature, despite being an international ‘rock star’ at his peak and perhaps the best known Canadian of his time. His books now seem to be found only in rare book stores.
Terry provided a quick overview of his novels to this point and confirmed that his fifth is complete and soon to be issued. He let slip some of the detail and I admit to being intrigued with one of his hints. “Running with the Chihuahuas” is a feature that conjures up a number of images, including the ultra-macho Pamplona event but perhaps on a lesser scale. He is working on his sixth.
For the Book Guys, this was a very enjoyable event. The Literary Festival has proven itself to be off to a good start, bringing together readers and authors in the Thousand Islands. When choosing our books, we also anticipate a suitable location to meet that ties into the theme of the book. The Perfect Storm? We met in Portsmouth Harbour. Cold Mountain? In a remote cottage.
There is a good chance that our next read will see us congregating on a small island on the St. Lawrence. Whatever the venue, it is important to keep in mind the words of Salman Rushdie – “novels take you out of your own experience, they provide you with the opportunity to experience the other and to help you think.”
By Barry Keefe
Barry Keefe has been involved with international education for over 16 years. He has been the Director of International Education at St. Lawrence College, a Director of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, a Canadian Director of the International Consortium for Education and Economic Development and President of the Frontenac Foundation. His first on-water experience in the Thousand Islands was as a crew member on a Swedish freighter, the MS Pacific Ocean many years ago.
Editor’s Note: The Festival Committee is to be commended for assembling a most impressive group of authors, who in turn, attracted an impressive audience for each event. On Friday evening Peter C. Newman, the Honourary Patron of the Festival, gave an overview of his life, both personal and professional.
A more complete list published works and author bios can be found on the Gananoque Literary Festival website.
As an “end note,” attendees agreed this must be an annual event.