Talk given at the MagNet Conference in Toronto, Ontario on April 28th, 2017.
1974. Darkness. Fonts. The sheen of glossy grey Xerox paper. I, clad in white samite and sports socks. The arcane allure of a long-armed stapler, the numinous and tactile attraction of cover stock. I was ten years old and my school was having a White Elephant sale.
I had recently moved to Canada from Northern Ireland and I didn’t know what a White Elephant sale was. Our teacher, Ms. Foote—I had this intense schoolboy crush on her—encouraged us to have something to sell. So, of course, to please her, I was going to have something to sell. And though I’d never done it before, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to write a story and make a little book out of it. I don’t remember all the details but I know Cosmic Herbert and the Pencil Forest was about Cosmic Herbert, an ancient and ironic wizard who had to save the pencil forest.
The forest was being clear-cut by writers whose need for self-expression—and thus pencils—was insatiable. Naturally, the consequences of this were ecologically disastrous for the pencil forest and for the continued survival of literature as we know it. I don’t remember how the story worked out or, how my sales were, but I know I didn’t move as much product as those kids who sold brownies, tank tops that they’d macraméed, or little plastic statues of bedraggled and forlorn golf-playing men that said, “World’s Number 1 Best Dad.” But I did catch the excitement of writing and publishing. The excitement of creating work and standing behind it, sometimes literarily, like at that White Elephant table, or at book fairs or signing books after a reading.
Since then, I’ve been doing basically the same thing in various forms for forty-three years. Writing and publishing. In this way, as my favourite Louis de Bernières’ line says, I have demonstrated, “Exemplary flexibility in the face of unchanging circumstances.” And how have I managed to continue this activity for all these years? To paraphrase Yeats, “I have an abiding sense of tragedy, which has sustained me through temporary periods of joy.”