Find Your True North: With a Little Help from Douglas Gibson, “The Cartographer of Canadian Publishing”

This article about The Cartographer of Canadian Publishing is written by Sheila Pinder, college course facilitator, proofreader, school principal (occasional) and aspiring novelist.

Douglas Gibson

Douglace Gibson, Canadian editor, publisher and writer.

Writers, have you ever questioned yourself? Wondered if you’re writing for the proper audience, in the right genre, market, format for you? Could you, should you, change direction? Would it help you to know that even the late Alice Munro struggled with the same insecurities? On May 9th at Wolf Hall in London, Ontario, I had the great good fortune to speak with Munro’s former editor and publisher, Douglas Gibson.

Gibson was joined on stage by his friend and fellow author Terry Fallis, who introduced his mentor as “one of the great legends of Canadian publishing—he also edited me.” Fallis is a two-time winner of The Leacock Medal for Humour, and the author of nine national bestsellers, the first six of which were edited by Gibson. From his role as a junior editor at Doubleday Canada, Gibson was recruited to fill in temporarily for his boss and remained head of Doubleday’s editorial department until he moved to MacMillan and finally settled at McClelland & Stewart where he edited for the likes of W.O. Mitchell (whom he refers to as simply Bill).

“Bill was a larger-than-life character,” perpetually reworking his last manuscript and the final chapter in particular. “It should have been easy enough except that he was very very slow,” Gibson says. Mitchell would send in messy, hand-written work that was frankly “disappointing. Finally, he sent in the final chapter. Now, editors have to be honest with their authors. In this case, the honesty was very difficult for me.” Gibson visited Mitchell in person, to gently advise that “Bill, I’m no good to you if I’m not honest with you. This last chapter just isn’t good enough.” Bill replied, “Oh, [heck] I know that. That’s why I’m rewriting it now.”

Gibson recognizes “the uncertainty, the insecurity that affects so many writers.” From Morley Callaghan, who insisted that Gibson come straight to his home to read his newest manuscript over “right now, yes, now,” to “the last upper Canadian, Robertson Davies, who as you know looked like God, but was breathing hard before a performance while I was pacing, so I asked him “Butterflies?” and he said “oh yes, always” and then came gliding onto the stage like a galleon,” to Alistair MacLeod who “was writing wonderful short stories but at the rate of one per year,” and ultimately delivered the manuscript for his first novel, No Great Mischief “literally page by page,” we all need a compass to keep our true north in sight.

Douglas Gibson even helped Alice Munro to stay on course. “The first time we met,” says Gibson, “at that point, she was a great short story writer. And everyone, I mean everyone was convinced this was a terrible mistake. They told her she should write a novel. No more short stories. So, she stopped writing short stories and found she couldn’t write anymore. I said to her, ‘Alice, you’re a great short story writer. You must keep writing short stories. And I will keep publishing them forever more.’”

And when she won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, it was Gibson and his wife who travelled to “the heart of Stockholm” on Munro’s behalf, “where everyone, even the cameramen, wore white tie and tails and the windows of the bookshops were filled with Alice Munro titles.” Thank goodness Munro found and followed her true north. Today, she is “revered worldwide as master of the short story” (CBC News—May 14, 2024). Tragically, she passed away at the age of 92, on the very day these words were written.

Fallis notes that “Doug had a unique relationship with his writers.” He called, cajoled, visited their homes, and wrested words on crumpled sheets of paper from their very hands. Perhaps it was a sign of the times, or perhaps it’s testament to the man himself that Gibson “took the wide ranging view of things that editors could and should do. By temperament, I would want to continue to do things the same way.”

Whatever you write, follow your path. Find your north. And if you’re anything like Gibson, along the way you’ll help another weary traveler to find their own.

Posted on May 15, 2024 at 5:00 am by editor ·

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