Paul here –

I ran into an old friend at a film screening the other day. He had heard about Kickstart and asked, quasi-jokingly, whether I considered myself an author, an editor, or a “compiler.” This was a bit of a toughy.

Maybe it’s the three years I spent at university devouring, worshiping, and critiquing what the English consider the paragons of their language’s literature, but I still consider “authors” to be members of an elite club you need to do a certain amount of intellectual heavy-lifting to join. An “author” does something beyond simply writing a few words you can sandwich into a binding. They create or re-create worlds in which every detail, from the grandest to the most minute, needs to stand up to scrutiny. Alex is an author. His forthcoming novel, The Toronto Trilogy stands up to the test. I, however, am still something else.

But an editor? No, what we did with Kickstart went beyond editing. And “compiler”? Well, no offense to my friend, but I haven’t a clue what that means.

Kickstart is composed of small, first-person entries in which the participants in our book discuss being young, struggling to find their path through life, and working towards some kind of attainment of their desires. To produce the book, we engaged in a process that some of our readers have found slightly mystifying. Perhaps that’s why I had such difficulty distilling precisely what it was that I did.

It went a little something like this: we met our participants (usually over coffee) for several hours, talked to them on the record, typed out transcripts of our interviews, identified what we thought were the structural spines of their stories, and then worked collaboratively with them (referencing the above-mentioned transcripts) to produce a series of first-person narratives that we found lucid and compelling.

There. That’s it. So, what do you call that?

When I started thinking about it, I tried comparing the act of creating Kickstart to “ghost-writing.” In our interview with June Callwood, she talked quite a bit about ghost writing. She had done some in her time, and considered it quite a skill (if not necessarily her favourite literary pastime). As a ghost writer, you are part story editor and part voice capturer. You find the kernel of the story (which the teller may not know themselves) and you capture the cadence and tone of what they are expressing. That’s no easy task.

Several years ago, I wrote a piece for Maisonneuve magazine about political speechwriters. When I began researching it, I felt that political oratory (especially in Canada) was largely insipid piffle because those delivering the speeches rarely penned them. To me, too many politicos looked like bad actors that had only received their hastily written scripts five minutes before delivering them. But as I talked to experienced speechwriters, I learned to appreciate the craft.

One Liberal speechwriter in particular spoke of the importance of capturing voice. He made a study of how different politicians composed their thoughts by watching them in Question Period. Allan Rock, he pointed out, always spoke in complete sentences while Anne McLellan rarely did. In lieu of forcing a speaker like McLellan to adhere to the straight-jacket of a grammatically correct sentence, he explained, it was best to tailor her speeches to her natural verbal idiosyncrasies and rhythms. Legendary JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen would answer the phone pretending to be the president. He imitated so as to master. To write a successful speech for someone else, you had to practice talking, and thus, indirectly, thinking, like the person who would deliver it.

To write for another person’s mouth, though, is very different from distilling their voice in a written work. With Kickstart our aim was for the reader to feel as though they were sitting down to coffee with each participant. We wanted the prose to feel conversational and genuine.

We had two things on our side. For one, we had the transcript as a reference; and two, we were exchanging drafts with the participants in question. The problem was that both of these positives weren’t always as helpful as you’d imagine.

Let’s address the first one first. The transcript of a conversation is indeed the precise record of what words were spoken in what order. But anyone who has ever compared the record of a conversation they’ve witnessed or partaken in with the memory of said conversation will know that the former is usually a pale shadow of the latter. The snap, crackle, and pop of a person’s conversational speech are typically nowhere to be found in a transcript. As a result, you need to infuse the lifeless words and chaotic grammar on the page with your interpretation of the “spirit” of the conversation you had.

The second problem relates to the question of self-awareness. Few people have any idea what they sound like when they speak. Usually they have far more important things to worry about. Often, when we presented participants with faithful versions of what they said, we were told that “it doesn’t sound like me at all.” When we acknowledged this was possible and allowed the participants to take a kick at it themselves, they often sent us back dry regurgitations of the facts in their stories without an ounce of the spirit or verve with which they’d been relayed in the moment. The three of us ensured that the participants in the book always had final say over the words in their chapters, but getting to the point where everyone was happy was a laborious process.

So what would I call myself? To be fair, I’m still not at all sure. But the whole process of attacking that question (and the questions that have sprung out of it) has been very educational, especially as I set out to write yet another draft of my current short film project. In it, I’m trying to capture the voices of two Elmore-Leonard-esque toughs. Getting it right requires a lot of listening on street corners and subway platforms. It requires removing (as much as possible) the preconceptions and traps imposed by too-many bad movies. But it’s a process that could easily go on forever.

Voices are slippery fish, never wholly caught in the net of written language.

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Ok. Maybe we need a bit of a flashback. Forget about how Kickstart got into Indigo or onto Amazon. Let’s talk about how we got a publishing deal. We were nobodies, literally. None of us, save a couple articles here and there, had ever published anything. We had no agent.

We followed the proper procedure: we wrote query letters, we sent chapter excerpts, we had initial meetings. But… nothing.

The interesting thing – though more than a little frustrating at the time – was that compared to the overwhelming response we were getting from our interview requests with successful Canadians, the local publishing industry was rather demure. Why is that? we wondered.

Then we found Dundurn. They were willing to take risks on us. And for that we are forever grateful. But how did it happen?

It came down to luck. We happened to bump into the right people at the right time. One of our features, Liberal MP John Godfrey, was able to guide us in the right direction. And a lot of publishing – hell, everything – comes down to that: having a champion – someone who’s well-known and wants to see your project come to fruition.

The publishing industry in Canada is extremely risk-averse. It’s understandable. Ninety percent of titles don’t make back their money. There’s a huge influx of cheaply produced mass runs from the US market. But we’re happy our friends at Dundurn threw caution to the wind – and said Yes. It’s an entrepreneurial spirit we need more of in the arts business. Especially in Canada.

We’ve always tried to make Kickstart’s underlying philosophy one of helping others. The book tries to use the words of successful Canadians in order to point the way for those young adults whose real lives are just beginning. We include ourselves, for obvious reasons, in this latter category. We’ve learned an awful lot from those who were generous enough to donate their time. Whether it’s about being a ballerina, an entrepreneur or a librarian, we feel that others can learn a lot too.

But maybe there’s something for which we can actually help…

Publishing. This has been a question many young people have on their minds these days – especially those looking to try their hand at writing. Do we have any advice? Well, perhaps. We’re just starting out on this adventure known as publishing a book: hell, we haven’t even had our launch yet. But, with the help of our great publisher Dundurn, we’ve learned a thing or two about getting our book into stores.

First of all, money talks. Every time you see a cookbook at the front of a bookstore, or wonder why your favourite novel has its own little shelf under the Fiction category, there’s a reason. At the large retail chains this usually has to do with how much push a book is getting from its publisher. It’s not the staff being creative with a store’s presentation (which is what we’d always thought). Every placement is the result of a specific agreement, usually made at the top of the chain of command.

We’ve already tried to seek out our book in the great Indigos of Toronto. One particular store was hording it in the backroom, which is understandable: it usually takes a few weeks for a bookstore to process a delivery of books from a distributor. We had to push for them to agree to bring the book to the shelves a little early. Thank you, Indigo.

In fact, in this country, a lot relies on that particular chain. Say what you will about the disappearance of small mom and pop operations, if you get your book into Indigo/Chapters, you’re set. Especially if Heather Reisman likes your style. The jury is currently out on what she thinks of ours… but we know that Ms. Reisman is on the same page as us: she believes in respectful entrepreneurship (see her fantastic Entrepreneur Series with Peter Munk and Jim Pattison, two of our own favourite interviewees), as do we; and she supports great Canadian writing (especially prominent in her Heather’s Picks section). We’re not sure if we fit into this last category, but we’re big fans of those who do. We hope that a relationship with Indigo/Chapters develops. Because, for first time authors, so much relies upon it.


A (somewhat) helpful vid on publishing…

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.

valerie_pringle_young.jpg

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.

When Andrew first raised the issue of writing what eventually became Kickstart, we spoke of interviewing “successful” Canadians. The problem with the conversation that we had thereafter was the problem with most conversations that anyone ever has: because we all possess and work with different definitions of the words we use to converse with one another, people are rarely speaking about the same thing, even when they think they are.

Just as we’d disagreed about ‘Rock n’ Roll Star’, so too did we disagree with what “success” meant. Should we interview the richest people in Canada, the most famous people in Canada, the “best” (I think we were talking about humanitarians) people in Canada or the “most balanced” (again, what on earth does that mean?) people in Canada? Was someone who happily worked away at their modest job for forty years as “successful” as someone who made millions but hoarded it like Scrooge and ruined all sense of familial balance in the process?

It was tough going. We fought. And in the end, it became clear that the best way to proceed was to simply approach those we respected – people who, regardless of precisely how much money they made, had left what we saw as a positive mark on their communities.

As a result, there’s a very good chance that you won’t agree with the picks we made. You may hate them in fact. But do keep in mind that the three of us are very different people. Our politics and personal values diverge in places. Kickstart reflects this. It is nothing if not diverse. It contains those on both sides of the political spectrum (mainly because we, like many, think that old thing needs to be tossed out by the curb). It contains those who’ve been successful in business, humanitarian areas, the arts, sports, and politics. A dinner party featuring those contained in this book would be a remarkable thing, but one no doubt characterised by colourful and zealous debate on core issues.

In many ways, picking who to approach was one of the most enjoyable parts of working on Kickstart – it gave us each a chance to think long and hard about what values we believed in.

We thought it might make sense to briefly outline exactly how the book came about. As a result, over the next few months, we’re going to be telling our story in serialized form – while writing about other things as well of course. Hope this doesn’t get too dull.

Clueless

Many moons ago, in a frozen, hyper-Americanized Canadian city (let’s call it Toronto), Andrew, Alex, and Paul all attended the same high school. Alex and Paul played in a band called Black i (well, actually, inspired by Prince, said band was identified by a mere symbol – a cartoony, sable lower case ‘i’ rather than any script). The band, fronted by the inimitable Fraser Finlayson, specialized in tight, radio-friendly pop-punk ditties, inspired by the forebears of Green Day – Pinhead Gunpowder. Finlayson penned some of the most memorable hits to ever come out of North Toronto: ‘Shine,’ ‘Toxiphobia,’ and ‘Bishop’. You may remember them.

Anyway, I’m digressing, but only to give you proper background. Alex (lead guitar) and Paul (hapless drums) came together around the music. Even when Paul left the band, citing “artistic differences”, the bond never disappeared.

Andrew didn’t play an instrument. He was, however, a fan. Not of cartoony, sable lower case ‘i’, but of BritPop – in particular a group of louts from Manchester who he believed were geniuses. Paul disagreed.

Alex is a conciliator. So he sat, waffling, on the fence.

The three young men would hang around the locker room in grades ten through thirteen (ah, those halcyon years, when Ontario was brave enough to stick out), chirping on about whether ‘Rock and Roll Star’ was the most inspiring rock anthem of the 90s or a piece of insipid drivel (this argument has continued, in different forms, through the remainder of their friendship).

Though they spent their university years in different places, the friendship survived – mainly because Oasis continued to stink and Andrew remained in a coma-like denial.

After finishing up in England (where he had secured a B.A. in English Lit of all things), Paul returned to Canada and tried to write for magazines (as well as working construction, putting ads on taxi hubcaps, teaching sailing) . He wrote all kinds of things, but he was rarely paid more than 35 cents for anything (no matter how “genius”).

Just as Paul was about to give up, Alex returned from Dublin, claiming that he was going to do a little writing too. That was enough to instill Paul with a renewed faith, so he went on being poor and staring into his navel for another year.

During that year, a number of things happened. One thing was that Alex, Paul, and some other friends – Kegan Winters, Alex Molenaar, Adam Peterson, and Dave Baker – began writing a TV show about people who worked at a youth hostel. They themselves didn’t work at a youth hostel. But they did like throwing parties at one. And they wanted to write a TV show. So it didn’t matter.
Another was that Andrew – now an aspiring financial planner with Investors Group- took Paul and Alex for a drink and suggested an idea he had: why not interview successful Canadians, asking them how they survived their twenties and got their careers started? We could then put the fruits of our labour into a book. And hell, we might even learn something.

The idea seemed a grand one, mainly because they would get to meet and talk to people they admired. Even if there was no book, it couldn’t hurt, could it?

As Alex and Paul slugged away on the show, they began writing letters to potential interviewees as well.

The story of how they picked those interviewees is to come. Continued anon