Bottom shelf closeup
Top shelf closeup
Bottom shelf closeup
Top shelf closeup
A few weeks ago I picked up this book in a used book sale. It was privately printed in 1968 by the late Victoria poet, UVUC prof and wiccan priest (witch) Robin Skelton. It is titled The Hold of Our Hands and is subtitled Eight Letters To Sylvia. Sylvia was Skelton’s wife. One hundred copies of the book were printed. When I did an online search a number of copies of the book are available, all numbered and either signed by Robin or Sylvia Skelton or by both of them. This copy is neither signed nor numbered and I was just curious whi it wouldn’t be at least numbered?
Number missing for book
Touchwood Editions and Brindle and Glass Publishing hosted their latest At The Mike event at the Cornerstone Cafe in Victoria’s Fernwood district with featured writers Ian Ferguson and Mark Leiren-Young. Ferguson read from How To Be A Canadian, the bestseller he co-wrote with brother Will Ferguson. Leiren-Young read from his debut book Never Shoot A Stampede Queen, a memoir of his time as a small town reporter.
Ian Ferguson and Mark Leiren-Young
Ferguson and Leiren-Young tag team
Ian shows off his Kaleidoscope Theatre t-shirt
Ian reads from How To Be A Canadian
Mark Leiren-Young reading from Never Shoot A Stampede Queen
Leiren-Young during the reading
Crowd at the Cornerstone Cafe.
LP: You have been taking photographs for many years, what drew you to writers?
TB: Well, I’ve also been writing. My first collection of short stories was called Wintering Over, I published an anthology called Matinees Daily, wrote for many magazines, and, during a dark and busy period of my life, ghost-wrote other people’s books. I fessed up to that last bit in an article in Maisonneuve magazine called “My Life as a Ghost.” For the record, I began publishing in the late 60s. First poetry, then reviews in the so-called counter-culture magazines of the era like Rolling Stone, then fiction. Given this background, it might have been better to have asked how I could have avoided writers.
LP: Why did you include the quotation from photographer Irving Penn (“I can say that …I found pictures trying to show people in their natural circumstances generally disappointing”) at the beginning of your book since “people in their natural circumstances” accurately describes your images?
TB: Penn’s description of “natural circumstances” is actually pretty vague since he designed a portable daylight studio and shipped it to the locations of his more remote shoots. He may have meant that the idea of “natural” is actually a highly mediated one and that it can only be approached through the artificiality of staging. That, in any event, is the meaning I took from it.
LP: Was it a challenge to find a publisher for the book? Books of photographs are expensive to produce.
TB: Indeed they are. Other publishers have been enthusiastic about the project but have suddenly vanished from my In-box when they costed the project. However, Simon Dardick of Véhicule Press pursued the project with more enthusiasm, commitment, and greater skill than the others. We applied to the Canada Council and received support from both the Visual Arts section and the Writing and Publishing section. This was particularly pleasing because so much art that combines two normally distinct areas—like writing and image-making—isn’t very interesting in either area. The Canada Council’s support of both areas was a validation of the idea and of the work itself, as well as a financial necessity.
LP: Your comments on the difference between photographing men and women were interesting, essentially that women are more sensitive about photographs of themselves. Care to comment on that further?
TB: Sure, but the word “sensitive” isolates women in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable. I’ll turn the tables for a moment and say that society finds endless ways to valorize men despite the way(s) they look. Male slackers, nerds, slobs, sexual indiscriminates, bikers, and outlaws can all find a place on the ladder of sexual status that Hollywood and society in general deliver to us. The range for women is much narrower and so often refers to their sexual availability (or not). Consequently, women have to be more “sensitive” because they’re judged by a different, and less flexible, standard.
LP: You gave each writer the instructions that your photographs would be made “where they lived, worked, or played.” Why did make this request?
TB: First, pragmatism. When I was co-editing Matrix magazine, we were, like all literary magazines, broke. So I did the editorial photography when we interviewed or profiled an author. Often, that was at the writer’s home or favourite hangout. So the work developed from there. However, there was a proscriptive side to the shoots as well as a prescriptive one. Author photography operates in what I’ll call the “everyman” mode or the “frontispiece” modes. The everyman mode takes the easy, egalitarian road: a snapshot. The frontispiece mode starts to circle the author’s pate with the literary garlands of classical art. Historically, these “garlands” were a limited set of poses, many of which were derived from classical sculpture, and a familiar set of visual references that included busts of Shakespeare or Homer, staffs, literal garlands, open books, pens, and other devices. Now, we still use many of these signs of literary and social authority, but we’re also fond of bricks (the urban, the cool), books (unchanged for the last couple of thousand years) and computer screens (savvy). So, I also told each writer that we would avoid those clichés.
LP: The writers are all English speaking and you explain why. You like to talk with your subjects and your weak French would have interfered with that. It seems though that any decision to exclude one language or another in Quebec makes it a political or ethnic issue. Do you think so?
TB: Sure it is, but if we choose to look at it that way, our feet quickly become tangled in the terminology. For instance, Anglophones are, by definition, an ethnic group within Quebec, just as, let’s say, Filipinos or Moroccan are. Who would have been bothered by a book about Filipinos or Moroccans? However, I’ll stop myself from wading any further into that swamp. Closer to Home is not about Anglo writers in Quebec, and it’s not another dusty warehouse/museum/telephone book of candid author snaps, like People magazine with a lesser degree of celebrity and titillation. It’s about the representation of writers in a more general sense, and I’m most familiar with English-language traditions of representation. Also—and this is critically important—a strong sense of common ground and trust has to be created to make a shoot successful. Remember, I’m working very hard while talking. Accomplishing all this while speaking French would have been beyond my talents.
LP: The photographs in the book are all from Montreal, have you been photographing writers from other places as well?
TB: In a limited way, yes. However, if someone comes from Dublin or Chicago, stays in a hotel, reads in a public hall, and sits in a classroom, the opportunities for establishing anything but a documentary relationship between the figure and the setting are terribly limited.
LP: What do you find is the greatest challenge to a photographer creating portraits? Is it technical, is it personality, location or a combination of everything?
TB: May I just say “a combination of everything” and be let off the hook? If not, I’ll put the availability of useable light at the top of the list. Then comes personality. For instance, if the subject insists on being seen in front of a bookcase with fingertips grazing the temples in the Arcadian mode of calm repose, I’m sunk. There is, however, another element in the photographs that’s hiding in plain sight. I’m also a printmaker, and that part of me paints with light—to borrow a phrase from Ansel Adams—on the computer. The camera does not see as the eye does; that re-creation must be accomplished by the printmaker.
LP: Do you crop your images when making prints or do you print them full frame (i.e., everything that was on the original negative or digital capture).
TB: Except for tiny bits of trimming around the edges, the vast majority are full frame. There are a few exceptions—Rawi Hage and Norm Sibum, for example. The whole full-frame thing is interesting, though, because it links to a naïve notion about the authenticity of the “documentary” image. That is, cropping is associated with lying. It’s nonsense, though. One of the first principles of all art is that of selection, and a full frame is as much of a selection as a partial frame.
LP: Montreal has a great tradition of documentary photographers. Were/are any of these photographers and their work influences on you?
TB: I wonder who you have in mind. Sam Tata? Gabor Szilasi? Louise Abbott? Serge Clément? Of course, with Serge, we’re drifting quite far past the borders of the “documentary,” but if I had to make a link, it would be with his work. He’s a very fine artist.
LP: Scanning other books on the market that showcase writer portraits reveals that they are all black and white images. You photographed originally with black and white film but now shoot digital images so have files in colour but choose to print everything black and white. What is it about black and white photographs and images of writers?
TB: There are playful and speculative answers that might nevertheless have some weight. I could say that pre-20th century frontispiece portraits are black on white, or that we see Eliot or Faulkner, or Stein primarily in black and white, and that current representation wishes to borrow from that historical authority. That has some truth in it. Also true is the fact that the colour in an uncontrolled environment can be very distracting. Colour can also make it more difficult to design a coherent frame.
LP: What makes you include or exclude details from a photograph? Your photograph of Sheila Fischman has space (walls) around her but that space is filled by photographs and mirrors while in your photo of Trevor Ferguson almost half the space is taken up by a blank wall?
TB: Trevor’s wall isn’t blank! It’s filled with patterned wallpaper that works with the patterned couch he’s sitting on. The figure is then isolated by a ground of pattern. That’s one of those designed frames I was talking about. The image of Sheila is intended to speak directly to the written text, which is about memory, loss, and reflection.
LP: You include a short description of your visit and photo session with each writer. Was it difficult to keep each piece so short? I assume that with at least some of the writers you could have written several pages about the session.
TB: The short descriptions were intended to function in ways that paralleled the function of the photographs. Like the photographs, they describe a point (or points) in time. They are suggestive of personality (of the writer-photographer as well as of the subject), and they may at times contradict the implications of the image. The idea is that neither mode communicates anything like an essential truth about character, that both are representations, that the writer being portrayed is the object of different kinds of gaze. The book, as an idea, at least, is a function of both text and image.
LP: Are your personal favourite photographs based on the image or the session/relationship with the writer?
TB: On the image entirely. I left each shoot (there were over a hundred) cursing myself for opportunities missed and technical things done poorly. I cursed myself again when I saw the failures of the negatives or the digital captures. There were only a few times when I looked into the viewfinder, immediately knew I had something good, and got it. Those were the times when I knew there was something more than chance at work in this enterprise of making photographs.
LP: Will we be able to see any of the photographs in an exhibition soon?
TB: The work has been exhibited a number of times already but the show has not travelled widely. Art exhibitions face the same problems as art book publication: they’re expensive. If the book had been conceived and marketed as the kind of collection that I dismissed earlier as a “warehouse,” there would probably be more interest in another show. Viewers and funding agencies like work that claims to speak of a locale or a people. My only claim for the photographs and written portraits in Closer to Home is that they speak of representation itself.
LP: Is this an ongoing project or does the book signal the end of this group of photographs?
TB: It’s an end.
Terence Byrnes’ work can bee seen at this website: www.springfieldfolio.terencebyrnes.com
LP: Monument’s characters are heavy drinking, drug abusing, amoral, racist, violent, misogynist young men yet somehow the reader remains interested rather than simply repelled by the characters. Was this a challenge when writing the book?
PB: Definitely, I wanted people to be torn about cheering for Seth in particular. I wanted him to be an antihero, as my buddies and I always say, ‘a lovable asshole’. These guys are young, confused, stupid, immature, just like I was, and am still am a bit, it’s part of being young. But I think there’s hope for these guys, even though they seem like lost causes. They really didn’t go looking for trouble, like Seth, they just had the cards stacked against them from Day 1, and so life has made them frustrated and rebellious, and this is how they lash out back against that, by being assholes.
However I’m sure many people will read it and just straight up hate these guys and burn the book and curse me as a writer. To each his own I guess, I just hope people see past all the shocking elements and realize these guys are far from perfect, they’re human.
LP: The book ends somewhat ambiguously with the main character’s secret possibly to be revealed to another. Did you want readers to be left wondering or do you think they’ll write their own ending?
PB: I hope they write their own, but they don’t hate me for leaving it open. I think the book ends at one of the elbows in Seth’s life, and now he’s got another chance to make a choice, another chance at redemption. What happens after the final pages, I think, the reader must decide – me personally, I have my own future for him, but that’s the beauty of it, everyone will have a separate future for him, be it good or bad.
I like books that make you think past the final pages, and that also tie things together a bit in the end. I can’t stand a lot of books for that reason, they just kind of end, and you’re like ‘OK what was all that for? You did a great job at describing the characters and the setting, and then I get this for an ending.’ I always feel cheated so I wanted to avoid that.
LP: Hockey plays a big part in the book. The one commitment Seth lives up to is showing up for games, no matter what. Why that commitment to a game?
PB: Honestly hockey is one of the main reasons I’m still around today. I’ve been through some rough patches in my life, and you can always go out for a few hours a night and totally forget about all your problems on the ice, it’s total escapism. Seth is good at hockey, it’s really the only thing he’s good at, so he just naturally gravitates towards that as a bit of a bouy in turbulent waters. It’s the one place – the rink – where’s he’s in charge, where’s he good at something and feels respected.
LP: How much did you rely on personal past experiences in the book?
PB: Too much. Way too much. Pretty much every character including the main character is based directly on people I know personally. I don’t know if I will ever write a book this personal again, I didn’t expect a lot of the reactions I got from people, both positive and negative albeit. Every story, everything that happens throughout the book is taken directly from personal experience, or from a friend’s personal experience.
LP: This is your first novel. How long did it take to write it?
PB: Just over a year for the bulk of it, the majority of it was written during 10 months of sobriety, I decided to quite drinking for a year, although I only lasted 10 months, and I realized I couldn’t go out to the bar and hang out with my friends, it was impossible. So I was home alone a lot of nights and just kept writing, collecting stories along the same vein and then I just checked the word count one night and though ‘man I’ve got enough for a book here if I keep going’. So I kept going.
LP: The book’s main characters are all young. Do any of your friends who have read the book identify with any of them?
PB: All the guys in the book are based directly on friends of mine and guys I know. Some of them are simply composites, Cancer being a blend of my buddy Ryan mentally and another friend physically, and Caleb a blend of two other buddies. Some of the more minor hockey guys are basically real guys I know, with the names changed in most occurrences.
But yeah a few of my close friends have read it and they got it, they totally understood some of the themes I was trying to get across. For me that was the biggest compliment.
LP: The book is divided into chapters/books with individual titles. Why did you do this, what is the significance of the titles?
PB: It’s mostly to break it up, kind of like breathers for the reader. But each one was carefully picked, such as the car accident chapter, ‘Mercaptan’ is the additive they put in gasoline that gives it that distinct smell that Seth is comforted by right after the accident. Some are much more cryptic, not sure people will totally understand all of them, they’re also there to set a tone too for the forthcoming chapter.
LP: I found it interesting that you used brand names for many things rather than generic terms (ie instead of just noodles you use the full brand name, or a very specific brand of cigar rather than just a cigar). Why?
PB: I was drawing a lot from my own life, I have a penchant for Blackstone Cherry cigars, and so just to say ‘tipped cigar’ doesn’t really give the reader that definitive look. A lot of the references give the reader a bit of a sense of time, like the video game Cancer is obsessed with, GoldenEye, it lets the reader know we’re in the days of Nintendo 64, which I thought was a bit cooler than saying pre 9/11 or 1999-2000. It’s also not bowing down to corporate advertisements, but I hope I don’t get sued. Mind you that might be fun for me, not my publisher.
LP: This is a very much a BC book with events taking part in Vancouver and Kamloops. Is location important or could this book been set elsewhere?
PB: It’s definitely a B.C. book because that’s all I really know. I’m not good enough of writer to have set it in Manitoba or Detroit or just made up all the settings. Honestly when I first starting writing this I had no intention of publication, so for me it was just natural to blatantly place the characters in places like Kamloops and Vancouver because I was really just kind of reciting stories verbatim.
LP: The only books that any character in the novel go near are philosophy books that the main character studies, for school and in a bookstore. Do you think your novel would appeal to the type of characters who populate the novel?
PB: I hope so, other than myself, I really wrote it as a book my buddies might want to pick up and get something from, draw some parallels from. But yeah I honestly don’t care what critics or other writers say about it, I’m sure they’ll take their shots because it’s not a literary novel, the language is simple and it’s not a huge existential, flowery look into Canadiana, and I didn’t want it to be that at all. I just wanted it to be a good story. But my buddies, or regular guys who have lived this life, if they can pick it up and go ‘yeah, that’s all bang-on’ then that’s all I’m worried about.
LP: You work full time as a journalist. How does that writing affect your fiction writing?
PB: Too much maybe. It’s made me a simpler, more straightforward writer, but it also hampers creativity at times. I don’t think I could do both types of writing for a long time, I’d like to do the journalism on the side, rather than the fiction writing on the side, but fiction writing doesn’t pay the bills, so I can’t really do that. Mind you journalism doesn’t really pay the bills that well either, maybe I should just go into PR and call it a day.
LP: The book has been published by a very small press Now Or Never Publishing who gave you quite a bit of control/input over the book design. Did you enjoy that process or was it a distraction?
PB: I’d like to say it was enjoyable but it was a bit of a distraction too. I think in an ideal world a writer just wants to write, and leave the rest to everyone else. But I learned a lot about the business and am still learning. I learned the fiction game is a terrible bitch, excuse my language.
I got a lot of rejection letters before NON took the book, that’s one of the reasons I’m hesitant to write again, I don’t have enough confidence in my writing to go through that lovely rejection process and self-promotional aspect of it, it’s very draining when you’re a young writer without a lot of backing. You get told ‘no’ a million different ways, I’m still recovering from that.
LP: What’s next? Do you have another novel underway?
PB: No, no novel in me for awhile, this one was draining, and unless I stop drinking again I don’t think I’ll get that amount of time again. I have more than a few ideas for a book, but that’s way down the road in the future when I’m in the right head-space.
I have however finished a book of poetry and a movie script, but I’m hesitant to shop them around, I’ve had my fill of rejection for awhile. But I’m hoping maybe the book might open one or two doors down that road, but you never know. I’m playing it all by ear for now.
BB: The book is about a Saskatchewan farmer’s son who came to Calgary as a teenager in the 1920s to become a Bible preacher and ended up combining his calling as a radio evangelist with a successful political career that saw him become Alberta’s longest-serving premier.
LP: Writing about provincial characters can be frustrating at times as it can be tricky attracting readers from other parts of the country. Why should the rest of Canada care about Manning?
BB: He did have a national profile as director of the Back to the Bible program, which ran on radio stations from coast to cost for more than 50 years. He also served in the Senate for thirteen years after leaving provincial politics, so that gave him a national profile as well. But beyond these appearances on the national stage, Manning as Alberta’s Social Credit premier was a key figure in promoting the first commercial development in the Athabasca oilsands. Because of the international attention now focussed on the oilsands — with environmentalists accusing the companies of producing “dirty oil” — I think readers might be interested in finding out how the development all got started. They might also be interested in learning how the energy policies developed by the Manning administration in the 1940s and 1950s helped transform Alberta from a have-not province into an economic powerhouse. And, during this current period of economic turmoil, I imagine readers would be interested in knowing how Manning restructured Alberta’s post-Depression provincial debt at a time when this province had zero credibility in the North American investment community.
LP: Is Manning a sympathetic character?
BB: Easier to admire and to respect than to like, I would say. That’s not to suggest, however, that Manning was unlikeable. It’s just that for many people he was essentially unknowable. Even his son Preston characterizes the relationship as “distant but harmonious.” Manning was a very private individual who allowed few outsiders to get close to him.
BB: That, unworried about the possible environmental consequences, he once seriously toyed with the idea of detonating a nuclear bomb in the oilsands. Happily for those concerned about the potential danger of nuclear fallout, this bizarre plan never came to fruition. With countries around the world imposing bans on underground nuclear testing, Prime Minister Diefenbaker intervened in 1959 and unilaterally cancelled the oilsands experiment. But Manning still thought it was a great idea.
LP: Ernest Manning is the father of Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party. What influence did the father have on the son?
BB: All of Preston’s ideas about Senate reform (the so-called Triple-E initiative) came from his father, who decided after a short time in the Red Chamber that the institution either needed to be changed or abolished. Preston’s ideas for tempering conservative principles with the social conscience of prairie populism also came from his father.
LP: The Calgary offices of your publisher Fifth House were recently closed and operations moved to the offices of the parent company Fitzhenry & Whiteside. Did this move have any effect on you?
BB: Only to the extent that I am now working with a publicist in Toronto rather than one in Calgary because Fitzhenry & Whiteside has centralized that part of its operations. I’m still in regular touch with Charlene Dobmeier, who steps down as Fifth House publisher in November but will continue to work in Calgary for Fitz & Whit as acquisitions editor and project manager for the Fifth House imprint. Whenever I have a book idea to pitch in the future, I’ll be talking to Charlene first.
LP: You’ve got an autobiography, or at least part of an autobiography out now as well, as one of the contributors to ‘The Story That Brought Me Here: To Alberta From Everywhere’ published by Brindle and Glass. What differences are there for a writer writing biography as opposed to autobiography, aside from the obvious such as personal memories?
BB: As an autobiographer, you’re constantly asking yourself how much you should reveal. If you give away too much, will your words end up hurting those you love? That’s rarely an issue for me as a biographer, because most of what I write is taken from public records, on-the-record interviews, and so on. Telling tales about one’s family and friends, though, is a different matter. It could, potentially, border on invasion of privacy.
LP: You’re from Ireland originally and have written a biography of Irish poet Mary O’Leary. Who was O’Leary and why did you want to write about her?
BB: She was my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother, so in the first instance I did the book as an exercise in family history. I was intrigued by the fact that we had this famous 19th century Gaelic-speaking folk poet in the family, and I wanted to bring her achievements to the attention of an English-speaking readership.
LP: Do you follow contemporary Irish writing at all?
BB: To a very limited extent. I tend to be drawn more toward subject matter than to the fact that the book has been written by a particular author. If the subject interests me (I have a bias toward memoir and biography, as you’ve probably noticed), I usually make a point of ordering the book.
LP: Any favourite Irish writers?
BB: Nuala O’Faolain, Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, Peter Sheridan, Clare Boylan, Patrick McCabe. I was also impressed by the audacity of a young unknown named Jamie O’Neill when he came out in 2001 with a blockbuster novel, At Swim, Two Boys, inspired by the comic writing of the late great Flann O’Brien. But O’Neill turned out to be just a one-hit wonder, so he’s no longer on my reading list.
LP: You’re a musician, a pianist. How does one career (writing/playing music) influence the other? Any plans to write about music/musicians or are the two arts separate for you?
BB: The words have to come together in a certain way, according to a certain rhythm, before they seem right for me on the page. That’s how the music influences my writing. Paradoxically, when it comes to playing songs, I am more interested in chord structures and melody than in lyrics. Then I care more about the sound of the music than about what the words are saying. I have written biographical profiles of musicians in some of my books, but haven’t given the full-length treatment to one yet. Perhaps in the future. I like writing about musicians because I have a feeling for what they do.
LP: All of your books have been non-fiction. Any desire to write fiction?
BB: I did take a stab at writing a semi-autobiographical novel a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t very good. I sent the manuscript off to a couple of publishers, who did the right thing by rejecting it. I wasn’t offended by this. I realized that after working as a journalist for more than 30 years, I can do non-fiction better than I will ever be able to do fiction. So, a full-length non-fiction autobiography is now taking the place of the fictional one.
LP: Will you continue to write about people from Alberta’s past or are you looking elsewhere for future material?
BB: Aside from the current autobiographical project, I likely will continue to write about Albertans as long as I live in Calgary, for the simple, practical reason that I can do the research without having to spend long periods away from home. If I ever move to Halifax — not that I have any plans to do so — I guess I’ll start writing about Nova Scotians.
We at Literary Photographer world headquarters firmly believe that books as objects can be as just as important as books are to read. Gaspereau Press, in Kentville, Nova Scotia, produces some beautiful books.
See the accompanying photo of two books from Gaspereau, Tim Bowling’s Fathom and Robert Bringhurst’s The Solid Form of Language.
This from Gaspereau’s website “At the core of our philosophy is a commitment to making books that reinstate the importance of the book as a physical object, reuniting publishing and the book arts. Many of our covers are letterpress-printed, feature original artwork by artists like Wesley Bates and George Walker, and are printed on fine paper, in some cases even handmade. Most of our books are smyth-sewn & bound into card covers and are then enfolded in letterpress-printed jackets. Our house paper is Rolland’s Zephyr Antique Laid, a creamy, sensual book paper. “