Canada’s celebrated literary editor is no “Mr. Fancy Pants”
Douglas Gibson is bringing his tales of famous Canadian authors to Cabot Trail Writers Festival
If you want the god’s honest truth, ask Douglas Gibson.
It’s one of the qualities that has made him the trustworthy editor for many of Canada’s most distinguished authors. He attributes his approachability and honesty as an editor to his small village upbringing in Scotland.
“The one thing you can’t be among Scots is a fancy pants guy who thinks he’s better than everyone else. What they [authors] got was this village guy who grew up in a population of 700 and who was just an ordinary guy that treated everyone as equal. That meant if they were expecting to be treated as kings, they had the wrong guy,” said Gibson in a phone interview from his home in Toronto on Sept. 7.
Gibson has edited the work of Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Morley Callaghan and Alistair Macleod among others. In June, 2017, he received the Order of Canada.
In his days of teaching, he encouraged the same honesty-is-the-best-policy approach amongst his students.
“I told them that the most important task they had was to get the author to believe that they were on the same side, that they were giving the author their honest reaction to everything about the book. The author may not agree with it, but they could count on the fact that this was absolute honesty.” His other piece of advice? “As an editor, change as little about the manuscript as possible, but as much as necessary. Some people feel an editor must earn his or her keep by making marks, but if what you’re seeing is perfect, leave it.”
This approach was the polish used on Alistair Macleod’s 1999 multiple award-winning novel, No Great Mischief.
“I was reading Alistair’s work and, you know, first page, second page. I just sat back, because it was perfect.”
Gibson has lead a contrary life in the book publishing world. He insisted on remaining an editor despite his promotion to publisher, and then President of Macclelland and Stewart in the late 1980s.
“The usual thing is you’re an editor, then you’re promoted to publisher and you stop editing. I said to hell with that! Because this is what I’m good at and this is what authors seem to appreciate.”
Gibson also mastered editing and publishing before becoming an author, an unconventional path and a decision he laments. He wasn’t aware of the reassurance an author wants and needs from an editor until he began to pen his own stories.
“I knew that writing was a lonely game. That the writer is working alone, usually in a quiet room, hour after hour, with no feedback. That’s lonely and it’s inevitable that doubt creeps in.”
Morley Callaghan once insisted Gibson come to his home to read his latest manuscript. While Gibson reviewed the manuscript, Callaghan made every effort to ensure Gibson was comfortable, had enough light, food and drink. He would not relax until Gibson had assured him his writing was good.
“That was what he needed to hear. This guy who had been writing and publishing for 60 years.”
Gibson had no time to think about the sequence of his career. He stumbled into publishing, a job that immediately suited him, at a time when Canadian publishing began to flourish.
“In 1967, Canadians were becoming excited about Canadian things. Suddenly, there were young writers like Atwood and Munro, and new publishing companies springing up. It was a rising tide, and it was floating all our boats. I was lucky to be part of that. I’ve been lucky to be part of it ever since.”
Gibson arrived in Canada by Greyhound bus on Sept 8, 1967, fresh out of a Masters degree at Yale University. He had a vague idea about a career – publishing and journalism sounded fun – but no steadfast plans. After briefly couchsurfing at friends' houses in Hamilton, ON, he landed his first editorial job editing none other than Stephen Leacock the author that had first turned him on to Canadian literature growing up in Scotland.
These days the editor-turned-editor/publisher who coaxed the best out of Canadian authors, travels the country recounting his most treasured interactions with them. Gibson has turned his two books Stories About Storytellers (2014) and Across Canada by Story (2015) into stage performances.
Gibson’s next stop is the Cabot Trail Writers Festival, taking place at the Gaelic College September 29, 30 and October 1. For more details about this year’s visiting writers and to purchase tickets, visit www.cabottrailwritersfestival.com.
Gibson's latest book.