Extract from “Forty Years in Canada”
“Forty Years In Canada”, published by Heritage House Books in 2007, is a memoir–not a novel and certainly not an autobiography–of Jack Whyte’s first four decades as a Canadian immigrant. By and large, though with some personal digressions, it is a collection of anecdotal comments focused on some of the seminal events and occasions that occurred between 1967 and 2007 and shaped his Canadian perceptions and perspectives, usually by prompting him to write a poem commemorating or commenting upon it, sometimes humorously, sometimes less so. The extract that follows here is taken from his musings in the book.
Some thoughts about Writing…
One of the questions I am asked most frequently is, “How did you get into writing in the first place, and was it difficult?” Unfortunately, my answer often provokes raised eyebrows, because people don’t expect to hear what I tell them, and their skepticism is sometimes obvious. Be that as it may, my answer remains unchanged: I became a writer almost by accident. True, the inevitability of my eventual career seems obvious now. But during my first few years in Canada, the thought of becoming an author never even entered my head. I did write poetry then, but for my own amusement. It was mainly narrative verse, as that’s the poetic form with which I grew up in Scotland, my love of it having been fed and nurtured by a society that still clings to the oral Celtic tradition within which everyone, irrespective of rank or station, has the right to stand up and perform.
It wasn’t until 1975 that I made the serendipitous discovery that would launch me on what I thought of at the time as a “writing binge.” I had an idea in my mind to write a story that would provide a feasible explanation of the central mystery of the legend of King Arthur, because I had suddenly become convinced that I knew how the drawing of the sword from the stone by the young king-to-be had been arranged and carried out. In my mind, it was clearly one of the greatest promotional coups of all time, carefully staged and brilliantly managed, and there was not a modicum of supernatural magic involved in it. And so I set out to write the story, secure in the knowledge that I had a great ending.
What I had not yet realized, though, was that I didn’t have a feasible beginning. I had yet to find a starting point from which everything I was postulating could develop logically and naturally, and that quest for an opening eventually took me back more than four generations, to the world of two men called Publius Varrus and Caius Britannicus, professional Roman officers in the 20th legion of the army of occupation in Britain toward the close of the fourth century A.D. Perfectly content with the elements of my tale then, I settled down and wrote in every spare minute I could find for the next 14 years, observing with mild surprise that as my research grew more extensive and specific, I was left with more and more fascinating bits and pieces that cried out to be included in the unfolding tale.
I called the book The Skystone, because it was the story of what happened to a stone that fell out of the sky. In writing it, I studied the role of meteoric iron throughout history and learned, in theory, how to make a sword. I also became engrossed in, and almost obsessed by, the various elements and dimensions of the Arthurian legend, fascinated by the serendipitous ways in which even the most disparate elements could come together seamlessly—for me, at least, as a writer—in the fifth-century collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. I soon had to cut the expanding story into two halves, which became the first two novels of my series, A Dream of Eagles—and I still had two and a half generations to go.
The Legend of The Skystone
Out of the night sky there will fall a stone
That hides a maiden born of murky deeps
A maid whose fire-fed, female mysteries
Shall give life to a lambent, gleaming blade,
A blazing, shining sword whose potency
Breeds warriors. More than that,
This weapon will contain a woman’s wiles
And draw dire deeds of men; shall name an age;
Shall crown a king, called of a mountain clan
Who dream of being spawned from dragons’ seed;
Fell, forceful men, heroic, proud and strong,
With greatness in their souls.
This king, this monarch, mighty beyond ken,
Fashioned of glory, singing a song of swords,
Misting with magic madness mortal men,
Shall sire a legend, yet leave none to lead
His host to triumph after he be lost.
But death shall ne’er demean his destiny who,
Dying not, shall ever live and wait to be recalled.
Copyright 1980 Jack Whyte, Calgary, Alberta
Even then, though, and as late as 1988, when I had three complete 1,000-page manuscripts in hand and was busily working on the fourth, I never thought of myself as an author who would be published. I was writing a story, certainly, but it was a minor obsession of mine and a private, personal thing that only my wife and a few close friends were aware of—a story that was inside me and just had to come out.
The truth is that in writing that story—and the entire A Dream of Eagles series is really one huge novel—I was continuing a process that had begun when I was in grade school in Scotland, where I first developed my lifelong devotion to the mechanics of the English language. Some kids are natural mathematicians. Others are natural athletes, and still others are born with an affinity for the sciences or for music. I seem to have been born with an intrinsic love of language, and I was fortunate enough between the ages of eight and eleven to have a series of devoted teachers in grade school—all of them maiden ladies of a certain age, part of that generation of women whose lives were unalterably blighted by the cataclysmic loss of eligible men in the Great War. Long dead now, they would all have been in their late 50s and early 60s and approaching retirement when I was one of their pupils, but they all delighted in the way I sucked up everything they taught me.
They were all “Misses”—Miss Callaghan (Big Mary) Miss Gibson (Wee Betty) and Miss Hughes (Big Aggie)—and for three consecutive years, passing me along from hand to hand, they taught me to revere and enjoy the wonder and logical majesty of syntax and analysis, of scansion and prosody. They taught me to love and appreciate the way language works, how all the various pieces come together to create the magic of great stories and exciting poetry. And they taught me that this love was a gift that I was never to lose. It was a gift, in fact, that I value more highly with each day that passes and with each great book that I read. But even then, before I was eleven years of age, my love of language was real and abiding. Syntax was my overriding passion as a preteen boy: for the sheer fun of it, I would open a book at random—any book—and parse a paragraph or an entire page, identifying and defining the various structural properties and parts of speech in every phrase and sentence, and the various clauses of a compound-complex sentence would leap up off the page to demand my attention.
Although it may appear as though I have had several different careers, everything I have done in my adult life has had a direct connection to storytelling in one form or another, and to what I was taught in those early years. It began with singing in folk clubs in the early Sixties, morphed into teaching English through Speech and Drama, went on to entertaining as a ballad singer, and then to playwriting, acting, scriptwriting for television, designing and implementing advertising campaigns, and eventually working as communications director for a number of corporations, both public and private. All of this work involved storytelling and writing, getting the message across effectively, seamlessly and convincingly. And yet, in the end, when my books were published, my audience, to my great chagrin, was confused, even if it was a confusion caused by the Marketing people at my US publishing house.
The original Dream of Eagles series comprised five novels, but the last of them, the Sorcerer, came in at 1,100 pages and was too large, I was informed, to be published as a single book. And so it was split into two volumes, two exact halves, because that was how it had emerged; two halves, of almost equal length. The first half was to be called The Sorcerer—Book One: The Fort At River’s Bend, while the second half, to be published no more than three months later, would be The Sorcerer—Book Two: Metamorphosis. The publisher of the Canadian version got it right, but the American publisher produced the first half with no mention of The Sorcerer, calling it merely The Fort at River’s Bend, and the confusion caused by that has plagued me ever since, to the point where I will never again consent to having one of my books divided arbitrarily. I just won’t write any more that are that long!
So how did I become a professional writer? Given my lifelong love of stories and the rules and syntax of the English language, I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up writing full-time, but the fact that I have done that still surprises me sometimes, even though I know I have an ear and an eye for a good story. God gave me a gift and saw to it that I had a magnificent and unending series of teachers and mentors to guide me along until I could hitch up my pants and strike out on my own, even if I remained blind to what I was doing and where I was headed.
At any rate, I had been writing for thirteen years—going on fourteen—before I even thought about approaching a publisher, because my “story” was not yet finished. It was a project, a work in progress, and something that I just had to get out of me and onto paper. And it was a private thing, for the most part. I didn’t talk much about it, except with my closest friends, and even they reached the point of wondering whether it was kosher to ask me if I was still “buggering about with that thing in the basement.” I mean, thirteen years is a long time.
But then Beverley suggested that I think about getting the work published, since, irrespective of the fact that the Opus was incomplete, I nonetheless had three 1,000-page manuscripts sitting on my shelves. And so I decided to give it a go, despite being terrified that someone would come back to me and say, “Sorry, but you’ve just wasted thirteen years of your life on an unpublishable pile of garbage.
Although few people had even known I was writing The Book, the moment I decided to try to have it published, hundreds of people emerged from cracks in the woodwork and gaps in the walls, all of them wagging their fingers and shouting, “You can’t do that! Who do you think you are? You can’t come up out of your basement after thirteen years and blithely expect to get published, just like that!” They gave me a thousand perfectly valid reasons why I was living in a fool’s paradise and why I should prepare to be annihilated by the critics of the publishing world. One silly woman, whose name I have long forgotten but who had served in some supernumerary capacity on the outskirts of the Canada Council for the Arts, even sat down next to me at a dinner party and said of my novel, with a condescending smirk, “Well, it’s hardly Literature, is it?”
I was working in Vancouver, BC, at that time, for Johnston Terminals, and I had met and become friends with Alma Lee, who was just launching her hugely successful Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival. She put me in touch with a remarkable lady called Marion Hebb, now legal counsel for the Writers’ Union of Canada. Through Marion, I was able to present my material to Doug Gibson, who was then the publisher at Macmillan of Canada and only coincidentally a fellow Scot. Doug tried diligently for an entire year to persuade his editorial committee to publish the books, but they were intimidated by the scope of the project—at that time four novels and by a completely unknown writer. In the end, he advised me to take the series to a major international publisher, as the Canadian market was too small for what I was hoping to achieve.
I took his advice and approached Penguin Books. I wrote to a gentleman called Brad Martin, who was at that time vice president of sales for Penguin Canada. I sent him a brief letter, introducing myself, a one-page synopsis of the overall work, and a one-page synopsis of each of the four novels, along with a single written chapter as a sample of my writing. He wrote back almost within the week, inviting me to send him what I had, and I fired off all three manuscripts.
I was very lucky—some people would say unbelievably lucky. I had found the right man, with the right interests, at exactly the right time, and he decided that my work should be published. Be that as it may, when young writers approach me nowadays, careworn and discouraged by the shortcomings of the system, I encourage them to keep going, and to keep rewriting, because I firmly believe that if a book—any book—is written well enough, it will find a publisher somewhere. And that even applies to narrative verse, that outmoded, outlandish poetry left over from another era.
Narrative verse is, of course, rhyming verse—an old-fashioned poetic form, strict and rigid in its construction in accordance with the disciplined rules of rhythm, prosody and scansion. Even the words “prosody” and “scansion” look alien nowadays, seldom seen and certainly never mentioned in polite company. But I learned them in school, and not that long ago. They deal with the rhythmic synthesis of verse and rhyme, and they are as exact as hundreds of years of growth and tradition in the English language can make them.
It annoys me intensely when I hear people refer to rhyming verse—always dismissively and scathingly—as doggerel. Writing verse is hard work, and the better the verse, the more intense the effort to produce it. Its construction requires a thorough working knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling and poetic structure—skills that are seldom or little taught in modern schools. Verse writing also requires discipline and a vocabulary of more than 200 words. When it is successful, the result is delightful and pleasing. Good, strong, fluent verse is invariably a pleasure to read and hear recited. Doggerel, on the other hand, is plodding, weak, rhythmically unsound, sloppy, predictable and usually embarrassing. Not all verse is doggerel, but all doggerel is, by definition, bad verse.
What I love most of all about narrative verse is that it’s fun to write, and this sense of fun is communicable: it shines through, strong and unmistakable, in the finished pieces. Since boyhood, I have had a triumvirate of guides within the world of narrative poetry, one of them a Brit, the second an Australian and the third, and by no means the least of them, a Canadian—well, he was a Brit, actually, but he personifies the Canadian North. They are Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson and Robert W. Service, and their delightful works have frequently provided me with templates for my own efforts. Each of these men is a gifted storyteller with an unerring eye for a great or amusing tale, a wide-ranging and versatile vocabulary, and an absolute mastery of the rules and tenets of writing verse. By studying what they did in their day, I learned how to look for the same kind of things in my own work.
Given a clear understanding of how rhyme and scansion really work, and a vocabulary that is eclectic yet accessible and comprehensible to your readership, all you really need is a thought to start you off, an idea to start the ball rolling and set your story in motion. Some people think of that initial thought as an inspiration, the galvanizing spark that leads to creation. I tend to think of it as a hook from which, or on which, I can hang my creative canvas. And the beauty of the whole thing is that once you’ve begun, there really are no limits to where your mind will take you, or to the form your thoughts will dictate, so long as you have a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Many people over the years, after reading or listening to the poems I have written, have remarked on the variety and the range of what I write. But really, tbey are all stories, even the ones with a moral or a lesson in them…
I remember when I turned 21. In those days, you got “the key of the door” (the right to vote) because you were legally acknowledged to be an adult. When I was a kid in Britain, 18 was when you could drive a car, or be called up for your national army service and get legally killed in a war. You could also walk into any pub in the country and buy beer. But you couldn’t vote. That had to wait until you were 21. When I recall how young I was at 21, how green and callow and unfit to be let out without a keeper and a chain, I cringe. And then along came the day when my stepson Mitch turned 21, and I had to think of something to say to him. What came out was the poem “Mitch 21,” which also went, with minor changes, to my own son Mike when he reached the same milestone.