Of the many people we were lucky enough to interview for Kickstart, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the youngest. The wunderkind conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal came to our attention at the right time: we had started to wonder whether the names going in the book would be known among young people. There is no doubt that Nézet-Séguin, 32, has struck a chord in his home town of Montreal. It is, as they say in Quebec, the coup de foudre. Who else could get away with conducting his orchestra in front of thousands at Parc LaFontaine in hawaiian shorts?

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Photo: La Presse

For those in la belle province wanting to learn more about this up-and-coming international star (he will be conducting the Rotterdam Orchestra next season), a relatively new Montreal magazine has given him the cover spot: you can check out a virtual edition of the publication Montreal Centre-Ville here.

When Paul returned from Asia, the project really kicked into full gear. Even though publishers still didn’t want to touch a book written by three upstart nobodies, we soldiered on, trying to interview as many people as we could.

On the whole, the response was good. Though most interviewees probably assumed we were naïve simpletons with pie-in-the-sky ambitions, they humoured us and offered more of their time and honesty than we deserved.

When Alex travelled to Regina to visit his grandparents, he managed to meet with former finance minister Ralph Goodale, former lieutenant governor Lynda Haverstock, and provincial Chief Justice E.D. Bayda. Meanwhile, in Toronto, we had an enthralling chat with architect Raymond Moriyama, who regaled us with stories about re-tracing the steps of the Buddha, and Bob Rumball, the former CFL star and evangelical minister who fought to get the deaf acknowledged in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In September, Paul snagged an internship at the now dearly departed Saturday Night magazine, where he had the good fortune to work under then editor Gary Stephen Ross. He took Kickstart under their wing, volunteering to sit down with the proposal we were then submitting to publishers, and give us feedback on how we were progressing.

Gary was the author of Stung, the basis for Owning Mahowny starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a former partner in McFarlane, Walter & Ross. He had been through the ringer, as both a writer and publisher, and had numerous insights into how to avoid being screwed. He also had many things to say about the form the book was taking.

At the point where we showed him our stuff, Kickstart was a very different book. Each chapter was written like a mid-length magazine profile. The form didn’t really work because, not only were we not yet trained magazine writers, but, in a general way, our personalities were overwhelming the real content – the interviewees themselves. Gary rightly pointed out that we were going astray and suggested an alternative.

No one likes to read long raw interviews (unless the interviewer is Michael Ondaatje or something), but they do appreciate the immediacy and authenticity of the interview form. So why not find a middle ground and do what authors of oral histories do? Why not take the raw interview, prune, polish, and shape it, and then work with the interviewee to present the heart of the interview in as clear and precise a way as possible?

Gary had edited a book like this while with McFarlane, Walter & Ross. He thought it would work for Kickstart, but he warned it would take a long time. “Do you really want to be killing yourselves for this?” he asked Paul over lunch one day. The answer was yes. It was worth it. The new form Gary was proposing was worth working to achieve. It would give the reader greater access to the interview subjects. It would be like sitting down for a coffee with the interviewees themselves – minus all the “um”s, “let me think about that”s, and “actually I think it was probably the other way around”s.

In addition to giving Paul time off whenever he needed to run off to an interview, Gary acted as a mentor and quasi-agent in the absence of both. When Saturday Night was shut down mid-way into Paul’s internship, and Gary moved back to Vancouver, he continued the conversation remotely.

Without his help, Kickstart might have taken on a very different form indeed. In fact, it may never have been published. While we didn’t heed all of his advice, we hope he enjoys the final product.

Kickstart contributor Jim Pattison didn’t just want to get into the record book, he bought the sucker. Jim Pattison Entertainment Ltd., which already owns the worldwide right to run and develop Guiness World Records museums and attractions through Ripley Entertainment Inc., paid an unspecified price for “the best selling copyrighted book ever.” With 30 Ripley’s Believe It or Not “odditoriums” and a handful of Toussaud’s wax museums in his pocket already, Pattison is slowly but surely cornering the lucrative oddity market.

Was the hallowed book of factoids on Pattison’s psychic horizon when he started out selling cars in Vancouver’s Kingsway district? It’s doubtful. He claims he just set benchmarks for himself and concentrated on doing a good job. Who knew advice that prosaic could actually work?

Those Who Said No

February 14, 2008

We can’t pretend that everyone we approached for Kickstart wanted to talk to us. We’re not going to name names, but a large number of people didn’t find our cold calling and light stalking to be as persuasive as others.

So why? Well, there are a number of reasons.

For some, our entreaty initiated their classic Canadian humility reflex. Some didn’t want to be associated with anythning too ‘ra-ra’ and celebratory. A lawyer told us she hadn’t been in her current position long another to be ‘worthy’ of a spot in our book. A CEO was worried that, in a year where his country performance had dipped, it wouldn’t look good if he was seen crowing about his success.

It seems the word “successful” rubs many people the wrong way. No author of “Literature,” for example, would touch us with a ten foot pole. Their sensibilities couldn’t hack even the idea of us. Perhaps there were typos in our approach letter. Yes, maybe that was it.

Pop musicians didn’t seem to like us either. In an industry that requires its players to maintain the look and feel of youthful rebellion, it may not have benefited them to be in a book with more mature business-people.

We tried and tried to convince folks that ours wasn’t a how-to book, a success rating, or a compendium of saints’ lives. But once a blush starts, it’s often tough to bring down.

At least these people said no and meant it. Others would say yes and then have their Public relations people string us along for months on end.

“Of course, of course. A book! He loves books. What about Friday? 10 am?”

“Sure, that sounds wonderful.”

Friday, 9 am

“Hey Guys, so sorry. He’s actually out of the country. Has been since Tuesday.”

“But you set up the meeting on Tuesday.”

“Right, well, how about next week? He’s really excited. Phone me on Monday, maybe 2:30.”

Monday, 2:30

“Hello? How did you get this number? An interview with…. Look, not just anybody can get an interview with…. Oh, it’s you guys. Cool, cool. Yeah, um, this week’s just not gonna work. How about February. I think February will be good.”

“Okay, is there a day in particular?”

“Probably not actually. May have to be March. Give me a call then. Gotta go.”

Early March

“Hi….. a book about what? No, you can’t interview him. He doesn’t do that kind of thing. Sorry, click.”

Two weeks later. Our phone rings:

“Hey Andrew, you never phoned me back. We’re ready for the interview. One question though: who’s your publisher?”

“Oh, as we told you before, we’re still in talks with a few. Nothing’s been completely ironed out. But it would really help us out to have Mr. _____’s name associated with the project.”

Long silence, followed by “Oh, well, why don’t you phone us back when that’s all been sorted out.”

Click.

I wish we could say that only happened once, but we’d be lying. Those who say pursuit is three-quarters of the fun have never had to chase that man’s boss.

In the end, the number who declined an interview was very small, but they inspired us to redouble our efforts, fix our presentation, and push forward. The more interviewees told us about their experiences of rejection and delay, the more we came to see that being told to get lost was just part of the process – one that we would have to come to enjoy.

Vintage Munk

February 14, 2008

Before he was the founder and Chairman of Barrick Gold, Kickstart participant Peter Munk was many things, one among them, the twenty-something co-founder of Clairtone Sound Corporation. In the sixties, Clairtone combined high-end stereo equipment with stylish Scandinavian cabinetry and avant-garde marketing. After surviving by the skin of its teeth for the first while, Clairtone became a whopping success and its two founders, Munk and David Gilmour, media stars. Eventually, the company moved into the competitive colour TV market. Here, from 1967, is the TV spot Young & Rubicam did for their G-TV. Gorgeously shot by Frank Spiess, it’s a perfect snapshot of Canadian optimism and new-found flash in what Pierre Berton called “the last good year”.

One of the most inspiring people we met during the course of the Kickstart project, was James Orbinski, the current head of Dignitas International and the former president of MSF International. He wouldn’t want us to launch off into hagiography in this space, but there’s no real need to. Take a look at those two organizations and the work speaks for itself.

2008 is going to be a coming out party for Orbinski, and hopefully his message as well. If you don’t know who he is now, you certainly will. In 2006, Orbinski set off to write a memoir about his years working at the heart of humanitarian crises – the Somali famine and the Rwandan genocide among them. As a result, he returned to Africa to confront the past through the prism of still unfolding realities. The team behind the Oscar-nominated Romeo Dallaire doc Shake Hands with the Devil (Director Patrick Reed and White Pine Pictures’ Peter Raymont) decided to follow him. The result is Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma, which has just screened to glowing reviews at Sundance. It’s Canadian Premiere will be this spring.

Here are some clips below.

On Triage.

On the need to fundraise.

The book, An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century will be published by Random House in April.

In our talk with him, Orbinski spoke of learning about responsibility in high school. As it was put to him by a teacher, to be a truly responsible citizen required that you were “response-able”, that you were ready and willing to do what needed to be done. Orbinski struggled with what he needed to be doing in his life. His taste for adventure led him to leave school twice, once to help start a hotel with his friends in the Laurentians. His time at Trent saw Orbinski gravitate to clinical psychology, which took him to a Youth Detention Centre in Calgary after graduating. As he told us, Orbinski was “exploring with intent,” trying to learn where he needed to be and what he needed to be doing. He finally found his answer during his third year of med school, while doing immunology work in Rwanda. It was an “aha” moment that forever changed him.

His has since been a life devoted to humanitarian aid and its myriad challenges. We’re eagerly awaiting both the film and the book.

For interviews Orbinski has given about Triage and a look at the trailer, visit Dignitas’ News & Events Page

Oddly enough, the question we get asked the most is not “do you know how beautiful you are?” “How did you get so beautiful?” Or “Can copies of your book be bought by the lorry load?” Instead, it’s usually “How did you get these people to speak with you?”

While this isn’t as good a question as the other three, it’s probably worth addressing here.

The answer is two-fold. First, we benefited hugely from living in a country where the types of people interviewed in this book aren’t perpetually hounded by the press. Depending on where in Canada you are, you can find our CEOs, politicians, artists, and community leaders doing the crossword puzzle at your local Timmy’s (or Timothy’s or Starbucks, depending). We found that, in true Canadian fashion, most of the people we approached for an interview tried to talk us out of it, blushing with embarrassment that they had been asked at all.

The second key to getting folks to sit down with us was bugging them. We sent introductory letters and then we phoned to follow up. Then we phoned again. And then we phoned again. In some cases, the chase went on for months, with Andrew calling daily. He is the cold call king. He’s relentless. While he lost a few big fish, Andrew managed to secure interviews with some of the most influential and successful people in the country.

That’s not to say that we never used connections. We didn’t have many, but we used them where we could. At the end of every interview, we asked the subject to recommend another person we should talk to. Then we asked if they would recommend us. It didn’t always work, but 1 out of 10 ain’t bad.

That is one of the principal lessons we’ve taken from this project. You can’t be afraid to lose or look stupid. If you ask fifty people and fifty people spit in your face, it’s all worth it, if you can hook just one.

That’s a lesson the participants kept speaking of as well. The old “if at first you don’t succeed” adage may sound trite when you’ve heard it a thousand times, but when someone who’s succeeded tells you the first six banks turned them down for a loan before the hail mary seventh came through, it suddenly reveals itself to be true.

If you keep phoning, they will talk.

In case anyone was wondering, when we’re not making fools of ourselves in front of famous Canadians, we actually engage in other, sometimes meaningful, lines of work. Often, they involve constitutional law. Alex, currently at the bottom of the barrel at his particular institution, manages to keep his head up as soon as someone mentions any number of key words: paramountcy, ancillary, s. 91, s. 92… oooh, he’s getting distracted just thinking about them.

Anyway, he and Paul were in Quebec City in January, following the Canadians Constitutional Affairs Conference, an event that brought together students from all across Canada. Paul was there doing what he does best: filming, directing and looking lost. Alex was there for the food. The three-day event was exceptionally organized by students from McGill and Laval universities. The photo below shows Paul interviewing one of the organizers, Nolan Bauerle, while ubiquitous cameraman Eric Fenato looks on.

The Canadian Constitutional Affairs Conference.

Within a couple of weeks, Alex was at another event, this time in Montreal. It was a black suit affair (he was in sneakers) at one of the fanciest places he had never been but always seen: the Suco Lounge. The Institut du Canada moderne, a federalist organization in a sea of Quebec nationalism, was launching its think tank called, um, Le Think Tank. No joke. We hope the group succeeds and, judging by those present, the future of the country will be defended by a bunch of well-dressed, good looking people.

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Just as we were about to start, just as we had contacted the first set of potential interviewees, Paul decided to go to Japan. He was chasing a girl, so he was wholly justified in doing so, but it was a bit of a pain nonetheless. This was especially true given that our first interviewee was going to be journalist Valerie Pringle and she had initially agreed to sit with us because Paul had tutoured her son the year before.
When Paul phoned Ms. Pringle to alert her that two others would be arriving at her house the next week – but two wonderful and upstanding young men – she didn’t seem the least bit fazed. She seemed far more interested in talking about the wonderful contradictions at the heart of Japanese culture. Oh, and would I be going to the Golden Temple?

So, while Paul walked around the streets of Kyoto, Alex and Andrew rang the bell at Ms. Pringle’s Toronto home, introduced themselves, and sat down to ask her about her internship at CFRB Radio. The interview was a huge success, not only because Ms. Pringle was charming and buoyantly funny, but because it validated their belief that, yes, people would talk with candour about the struggles of their twenties.

Valerie’s career in journalism was hardly a smooth escalator ride up the ranks of Canadian radio and TV. She not only had to push her way in the door with dogged perseverence, but she also had to deal with constant dismissals that she was “too shrill” to go on air. She even went back to her high school drama teacher for voice lessons.

The next two interviews – with cardiac surgeon Tirone David and HuskyPlastic Moldings CEO Robert Schad – confirmed the very same thing. While so many of our friends hesitate to discuss their struggles and self-doubt, wishing to project airs of immense confidence in the inevitability of success, those who have been through it and can look back on their twenties with greater ironic distance are far more willing to say “God, I was frightened. I wasn’t sure I could do it.”

Paul ultimately spent three months in Japan, and later China and Indonesia. Alex and Andrew, meanwhile, pushed on. As they went, the standard template of questions slowly began to evolve. What had started out being a book about how people became successful began to focus just as much on the things that didn’t work. We decided that, if someone spent six years in jobs they hated, unsure of what to do, that was just as interesting as their stories of finally getting around to starting their business. What, after all, was Paul doing? He was off searching for something, trying to learn more about the world, who he was, and what he wanted. The search, the pursuit and the myriad stumbles along the way are what give the final prize real value. As we progressed with our interviews, we came to see that that would be at the core of what our book was about.

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Indigo’s recent Entrepreneurs Series brought visionary Canadian CEOs into bookstores to talk about the challenges and rewards of starting a business. For those who weren’t able to make it, check out these informative video interviews with Kickstart contributors Peter Munk and Jim Pattison, as well as the likes of Robert Lantos, Seymour Schulich, and Onex Corp. CEO Gerry Schwartz.