The Book Talk

It’s been a while since I've been to a library. En route to this one, the Elgin Mills Public Library, in Markham, Ontario, I walk by a gym filled with wriggling preschoolers, through chlorine-filled air, past a state-of-the-art ice rink, and a coffee shop where kids on a Friday after school, sit with latte's and open laptops, heads bent over screens. This is a whole new world since my days long ago as a Kleinburg Public Library Page for Mrs. McCutchin. Under her watchful eye, I took out cards, stamped dates, and filed borrower information. This passel of preschoolers will never know a world without technology at their finger tips, I realize. They will never know a world without microchips.
And then, I am here, inside this giant book repository. The muffled quiet is distantly familiar. The book smell, vaguely so. But the line-up of people, books in hand for electronic sign out, is jarring. I realize that it must be over a decade since I've been in a library. Feeling inexplicably uncomfortable, I make my way to the back, where I will spend the next hour at 'the book talk.' Through the kind invitation of Donna Marrin, the leader of our writers’ group, my role is to represent and to report back. It has also been suggested to me that a blurb for our local paper would be well received.

I take a seat in the front row. Before me, he trudges. Clean, black socks poke through his black Nike, slip-on sandals. He's from Saskatchewan, he tells his sandals and his audience, as he darts sideways and glances towards the door. With three of us seated on the many chairs before him, he must be wondering—I know I am—what the next hour will bring.

His face and mood seem to lighten as his audience swells. Seven children pile through the door. They head to the back row. I don't have to turn around to see to where they are headed. Their children's 'indoor voices' are still being cultivated. Rod's sandals carry him out into the hallway. Perhaps they take him to look for stragglers.

Then, he is back at the front of the room. Still trudging. Pacing, and trudging across spotless grey carpet. If I reach out and touch him now, our contact will spark static electricity.

A woman leaves the front row to stand beside him. There is no doubt that She is a Librarian. No matter the changes to the buildings over the years, librarians have a constancy of kind and quiet confidence. In measured tones, she speaks. Author Rod MacIntyre, she informs us, is a winner. Many times a winner. And, a nominee as well. For many more awards.

I sit with my envy in my plastic front-row chair, pen poised to take great notes for my colleagues back at the writers' group where we too aspire to be winners, aspire to become bona fide writers. Our little group of fluctuating numbers meets once a month, strangers who gather to create for each other that rare, awkward pleasure, where for the brief five minutes that the egg timer permits, we are authors, reading from our work. In the hushed safety of a church basement, we read from our writings, while others hang on our every word... and then gently offer only as much constructive criticism as we ourselves are prepared to hear.

Rod seems ready to read for the thirty or so of us now gathered before him.

Before he reads, he shares a little. Builds a rapport with his audience, this teller of tales before us. From a poor Catholic family, the oldest boy, it is his manifest destiny to become a priest. His father had a Grade 8 education. His mother left school after Grade 7. He tells of his memories of the Saskatoon cold, where birds literally fell, frozen, dead from the sky. He sells papers in this cold. It is 1958. It is a day for celebration when he transfers his paper-selling skills indoors, to an old hospital. Here, selling now for ten cents a paper, he can work despite sub-zero temperatures, in his shirtsleeves. He tells of a bearded man who speaks to him from his death bed. This man exposes him to Shakespeare, and to death. Both change his life forever. He never becomes a priest.

Rod hasn't read us a word, but we are enthralled. When he speaks, it is with his lips, his eyes, his hands, his arms. He gestures, punctuating his statements with the movements of his body.

It is 1961. He is fourteen. He writes his first metaphor. And the water lay on the shower room floor. A thin mirror. He calls this his 'light bulb moment'. He is 14 and it is 1961. He is transfixed by the idea that he can create, paint pictures... with words.

Back in Markham, present day, Rod finally begins to read, from a book first published in 1991, Yuletide Blues. Channelling his protagonist from the first page, 15-year-old Lanny Reich describes the experience of playing the piano. “If you do it wrong, you get noise. If you do it right, you get music.” I am taking notes. My subconscious has linked his protagonist's words with the collective desire, chanelled through me, of the writers' group. We want to make beautiful music with our words. Like Rod does. His well-chosen, well-crafted words, are lyrics and melody. Rod shares that this book has since evolved, that what was published in '91 is now different, in subsequent printings. It's not significantly different, but he has made changes nonetheless. This idea of writing as living, as being 'in transition', and only captured at the time of publication, but still, not quite final, resonates with me, and with what I heard the other night on the 2007 Massey Lectures, CBC. I google it. There it is, Alberto Manguel, author of City of Words. (I also note that he is published by Anansi Press (Publisher of Really Good Books.) Is it coincidence, I wonder, that Anansi has published Rod's latest work?) There is an interconnectedness. Both Rod, Anthony, the great oral narrator, Alice Kane, and my not-yet-worth-being-called-a-'real-writer' self might agree that stories are what help us see ourselves and others more clearly.

'What parts of a story come from our lives?' he asks us to consider. 'Which parts are fictionalized?' He reads again, and asks the children, 'Who thinks that this part of my story is true, that it happened to me? Who thinks that... I made it up?' We are all eating out of the palm of his splendid and talented writer’s hand, the hand on which the expressive fingers extend, the same fingers that transfer the contents of his brain onto the pristine white of blank pages. Those fingers take pearls from head and heart and share with the world.

But it's hard work, he responds to a question. A lot of hard work. After three failed attempts, his fourth novel is the first to get published—when he is in his forties. Relief floods through me. Five more months before I turn 40. There is still hope. Pressure, but hope. And without pressure, there would be a lot of contented oysters, but no pearls. Rod inspires me to produce a pearl....

In the blink of an eye, Rod is announcing that he will leave us shortly, and will close with a small story that was inspired by an urban myth. He is excited by the book that the librarian, ever helpful, hands to him. “This book is so nice and new,” he comments. “I'll spit all over it!” We laugh, and listen as he begins the ending of our hour together, reading in second person. “You once had a dog named Rusty...” By the end of the story, each of us has lost not only our dog, but our innocence. He is finished. And no one wants to leave. He is packing up, but turns into our silent respect, asking, “Why are you all watching me?” We laugh. Rod Maclntyre has reached out from the front of the room, and touching each of us with his well-crafted words, he has sparked something in all of us. He is a master of word painting, of storytelling. I head out to get my first library card in years, to sign out some of his books. And to try to capture some of his magic on paper for those who were not as fortunate we who spent such a special hour with him.

Angie Dornai is a published author, freelance York Region writer, and proud member of the Markham Writers' Group. She will always remember the afternoon that she was fortunate enough to attend 'the book talk' at the Angus Glen Library with Rod Maclntyre.