In the early stages of a book there are always many visits to the publisher to discuss minutiae, talk about blurbs, and pass judgment on the placement of commas.
And so it was that one day, many years ago, I was walking along a hallway at McClelland and Stewart when I passed by the office of the publisher, Avie Bennett.
Avie was busy, but he waved hello. He was talking to a small, comfortably built man with white hair and a reddish face who was wearing an old tweed jacket and rough pants, holding a tweed cap in his hands.
A workman, I thought.
The two men held glasses of something the colour of strong tea. How democratic of Avie, I thought; a publisher sharing a glass of scotch with his plumber.
Later, when my own business was done, I passed back along that hallway again and this time Avie beckoned me, and I went in and we shook hands, and he introduced me to the man I thought was a plumber.
I was suddenly short of breath. I don’t remember what I stammered in the presence of the greatest writer of his generation and mine, but we shook hands and he asked after my book and I felt suddenly like an author.
As time went by, with books to sell, our travels sometimes coincided and we had drinks now and then, and I became familiar enough to call him by his first name. Like calling Tolstoy “Leo.”
One of his university colleagues invited me to Windsor some years ago, to speak to a class of her kids about writing. Alistair was about to retire at that time, after a long and distinguished career. I always liked that about him — he had a family, and so he worked at something in addition to his art in order to supplement his living.
Half an hour into the class, when I was in full flight, filled with assurance about how to observe and how to translate those observations into print, Alistair appeared quietly at the back of the room and took a seat. Again, I began to stammer.
He was famous for observing that a carpenter does not just order up a load of lumber and dump it in the yard and say he was going to build a house; a writer had to have a plan. He also said that when he reached the halfway point in a story he stopped and wrote the last sentence, which he said gave him something to write towards. I, a more haphazard man, don’t recall how I made it through the class.
I was invited to his house later that evening to attend a retirement party, this one not meant for faculty but for his friends and neighbours up and down the street where he lived, and that’s another measure of the man. He had a life outside art.
The family home was modest — if I recall, the floors were crooked — but there was live music, much of it played by his kids, and plenty of food. He made sure I met his wife; she sparkled, and they made me feel at home in their home.
I didn’t know many people at the party, so I occupied myself by keeping an eye on Alistair as the evening went on; he moved easily here and there, stopping to share a joke or fill a glass, making sure that everyone felt comfortable.
As the hour got later and music and the laughter got louder, I saw the greatest writer in the country look across the room and catch his wife’s attention; she looked back at him with wordless understanding, the kind that occurs between two people who have been in love for a long time, and they moved toward each other as if they were the only people in the room, and they met and held each other lightly as they danced, saying whatever it was they had to say by the way they moved in each other’s arms.
That’s what I remember now.