Take the Train, Eh?: A Mini-Memoir of a Maritime Mentorship by Ian McGillis

Flying, to me, always somehow feels like cheating. When travelling long distances that don’t involve the crossing of an ocean, I try, whenever time, budget and access permit, to take the train. What’s lost in efficiency, I believe, is more than made up in respect – by which I mean a true appreciation and humility in the face of the awesome immensity of this country and continent. You just don’t get that in a few hours at 40,000 feet. (The fact that I’ve never had a driver’s licence may well factor into all this, too.)

So, when I went to Nova Scotia to represent Quebec in the first Quebec Writers’ Federation/Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia Mentorship Exchange earlier this year, there was really only one way to go.

Disembarking in Halifax after a blissful if nearly sleepless 24 hours, gingerly regaining my land legs and breathing in my first intoxicating shot of salty Atlantic Ocean air, I knew I’d stumbled into some form of lit-friendly Narnia when a young VIA Rail worker on the station platform espied my T-shirt, a fashionably black item emblazoned with the logo of a Canadian literary publisher (I’m trying to avoid any appearance of buzz marketing here, so let’s just say that this particular publisher’s logo consists of a large upper case vowel in a circle), and inching toward me said, simply, “Writer?” I nodded, and the warm fuzzy feeling thus engendered never left me for the whole visit.

The writing life, if you’re lucky – and I have been, extremely so – brings occasional moments of convergence and full-circle symmetry so perfect that you couldn’t make them up, and that certainly proved true for me on this, my first-ever trip to the Maritimes. No small part of my sense of Atlantic Canada has been gleaned by my reading, at an impressionable age, the short stories of Alistair MacLeod as collected in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. So the fact that my Nova Scotia fellow mentor in this exchange was to be his son Alexander – whose debut collection Light Lifting I had also read with great admiration and no small sense of envy, funnily enough just weeks before learning I’d landed this gig – was, not to put too fine a point on it, very cool indeed. I met Alex on my first visit to the Writers‘ Federation of Nova Scotia office on Marginal Road when he swept in on a break from teaching at nearby St. Mary’s University and, while the seven or eight of us present sat snacking, launched pretty much unprompted into an impassioned speech on the importance for aspiring writers of reading – and reading, and reading some more. (An obvious point, you might think, but you’d be surprised.) First impressions don’t come much better.

Equally eerie, for me at least, was that I was put up in the Waverley Inn on Barrington Street, the very hostelry where Oscar Wilde stayed for four nights while in Halifax on a lecture tour in October 1882. Wilde, as it happens, was my first proper favourite writer: when I was probably a bit too young I devoured both The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ballad of Reading Gaol and got my first faint stirrings of the idea that putting words together might be something I’d like to try in earnest. Also as it happens, the suite where the great man slept was the very room in which I stayed on the second of my two Halifax trips. Several people I apprised of this amazing fact cited Wilde’s famous alleged last words, in a different hotel, in Paris: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” Well, I’m pleased to report that the wallpaper in the Waverley Inn’s Oscar Wilde Suite not only didn’t make me want to kill myself, it was actually quite nice. If you ever get a chance to stay there, I urge you to do it. It’s handy for Bearly’s House of Blues and Ribs across the street, too, and for the wondrous Henry House just a few doors down. Ask for a Propeller in either place. They’ll know what you mean.

Lest I give the impression that this is all about me and my little epiphanies, rest assured that this exchange was really all about – yes – exchange. Writing is a solitary calling, and the communities that support it are far-flung; something that can make those communities and the people in them feel less alone is invaluable. The payoff comes in ways tangible and less so, both immediately and at unpredictable moments down the road: in essence, you have a bigger and more embracing sense of things, and that can’t help but show in your work. Thanks, then, to the QWF for choosing and sending me; thanks to Alex MacLeod and to poet, novelist and teacher Sue Goyette, my Halifax foot-tour guide; to the Haligonians who attended my workshop, thanks for your gracious attention and perceptive questions; and to my mentee/prodigy Jess Chisholm (remember that name, people), thanks for your dedication to the cause, and for helping recharge my own creative engines. I truly hope I’m only the first of many Quebec writers who will have an opportunity like it.

Ian McGillis‘s novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry was shortlisted for the QWF Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, the McAuslan First Book Prize and the Stephen Leacock Medal. He writes a weekly books column for the Montreal Gazette.

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