Dispatches | September 02, 2004

[By Michael Piafsky]

n a few months, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) will host its annual convention, and this year, for the first time, it will be held outside of the United States, in beautiful Vancouver, B.C. Many of the best writers from across Canada will be there, but one, among the best we’ve ever produced, won’t be.

Timothy Findley, like so many of Canada’s national treasures (Poutine, The Tragically Hip, three-down football) never really succeeded in garnering much attention south of the border. As an undergraduate at Northwestern, I asked my advisor whether I might write my thesis about the influence of war in Findley’s novels. “Probably not,” she sniffed. “We encourage undergraduates to focus on more accomplished novelists.” She then asked me whether Findley happened to be a relative of mine, as if that might explain my interest (every Canadian, of course, is related to or at least knows every other Canadian). He wasn’t. My interest came solely from his writing, the scope of which was fantastic. Findley’s writing defies easy categorization. He wrote beautiful, slight novellas about soldiers struggling to retain their humanity while doing their soldierly duty; mystery novels; short stories that bordered on horror; plays about Ezra Pound; and even a fictional retelling of Noah and his ark. His writing career began late, but stayed consistently strong: his best novel might have been his first, The Last of the Crazy People, a tragic story of the gradual degeneration of an aristocratic Ontario family; or it might have been Pilgrim, one of his last, a magical story of an immortal trapped in 1912 Switzerland and under psychiatric examination by C.G. Jung. Findley wrote plays and memoirs and personal essays. If he didn’t write an opera it might only have been because no one ever asked him to.

In late October 1999, I was working, quite happily, in advertising in Toronto. Like many people I would sometimes write stories on weekends or late at night. My wife decided to send two of my stories to Timothy Findley, whom I had never met. She wrote that I was a great admirer of his work and that perhaps he’d be interested to read some of mine, and spend a moment encouraging me. It was, in short, the same impertinent letter good writers have been getting from bad ones and their spouses since the beginning of time. Perhaps my wife didn’t know that, or maybe she, as an American, was simply determined to explode the myth of Canadian politeness at all cost. Regardless, six weeks later I received a letter from Timothy Findley.

The letter itself was gracious and generous. It contained none of the false mentorship, none of the “keep working and one day you too might become a real boy” promises that writers seem obligated to offer. It was a letter from one writer to another, nothing less. He spent a few paragraphs on compliments and encouragement before moving on to more practical matters: specific line edits on both of the stories (which he apologetically referred to as quibbles) and then an almost disingenuous gift. “I hope,” he wrote, “that you are submitting your stories for publication.” He suggested the editor of a literary journal that might accept one of the stories, offering that I was quite welcome to include a copy of his letter, “if it might help.”

Of course it helped. Reading my story now, I cringe. It was my first story and while Findley was complimentary, I have to assume that its publication had more to do with his recommendation than any strength of the writing.

A few months later, when the story was published, I wrote Mr. Findley another letter, thanking him very much. This letter carried absolutely no expectation of reply, no more stories to burden him. It was a thank-you note. But again a few weeks later, I received a warm reply from Mr. Findley congratulating me on the publication and wishing me a happy New Year. It was an invitation to write again, but I never did. Strangely, I didn’t write to him because it felt too large an imposition to write him updates of my progress, knowing that he would read them and might write back. I’d hoped to dedicate my first book to him, but that’s still a far-off point on the horizon and Mr. Findley died in 2002.

There are some disadvantages to being from Canada. It is cold, undeniably, and the parts that aren’t cold have traffic that is difficult to fathom. And being Canadian seems like the only thing left that people feel obliged to make fun of, as if all of the off-color jokes in the world have been funneled north. But there are some advantages to Canada, too. Our national anthem is nicer, and our money is more colorful, and you can write a letter to your hero and get back a letter in return.