About a year ago a man called Barry Peterson telephoned to say he was taking photographs of West Coast writers and could he take my picture? I laughed, then agreed – I admit, a bit condescendingly. Who cares about BC writers, much less what we look like?
This week I went to the launch of Barry’s book, 111 West Coast Literary Portraits. It’s a beautiful thing: large format, warm, charming black and white photographs on heavy paper, with portraits – 111 of them – on the left hand page and a short excerpt from that person’s writing, on the right. My first thought was, “It’s beautiful,” and my second was, again, “Who cares?” Who, except us 111 and maybe the other West Coast Writers who have no money to buy an expensive book, plus the few readers who still support writers enough to buy a gorgeous, hard cover coffee table book.
Then the speeches started. “This book happened because someone believed in it,” said Alan Twig, editor of BC Book World. I was still sceptical. But as the story of how this book came – beautifully – into our hands, I changed my mind. Barry and his partner of the time, Blaise Enright, got this zany idea to photograph writers and one of the first writers they mentioned the project to was poet Mona Fertig who also happened to be interested in printing – small projects like chapbooks, using handmade papers and an original hundred-year-old linotype press. “One day these photographs will be a book,” Mona told them. “I don’t have the facilities to publish it now, but one day I will.” That was 1997.
Barry and Blaise continued to take photographs but it was slow work. It didn’t pay for one thing, so it was done in their spare time, on their own travel dime. When they photographed Alan Twigg – a “doer” in the world of BC writing – he loved the project and asked them to make available the dozen or so photos they’d done so far for a travelling literacy exhibit. But that meant framing and packing and transporting and Barry and Blaize didn’t have the money. Alan, a man producing a free literary journal out of his garage, handed them a cheque for $500. “It’s a start,” he said. A few days later he called to say he’d found sponsors; BC Hydro and BC Gas would help underwrite the cost.
Still, it wasn’t a lot, and life kept getting in the way. The writers were far spread. Barry and Blaize’s relationship broke up. But Mona had turned her chapbooks into a small publishing house and whenever Barry checked in, discouraged, she’d say, “One day I’m going to publish that book!”
In 2012, she did. There were money problems – it was an expensive project. There were printing problems. The film was hand processed using archival fibre based prints and the first copies came back from the printer with white blotches all over the portraits.
But Mona and Barry (and Alan) never let go, and the proof of this impossible, improbable project was here in our hands, a testament to the power of a few people’s belief in it.
In a way, that’s what all writers do. We have this unreasonable, uneconomical, actually almost ridiculous commitment to putting words on paper (or these days, into the ether). Nobody wants to pay for them and unless you’re Philip Roth, nobody is waiting for what we write. But we believe in it. Sometimes we’re the only one. If we’re lucky, we find a friend or a small group of friends who are likewise doing this crazy thing, writing. Sometimes, with enough faith and enough hard work and enough dogged tenacity and living off pasta – we have a blog, or a published article, or a book in our hands. Impossible, until we believed it – and our colleagues and friends believed it – into being. No wonder some of us call our publications, “our babies.” They’re a small miracle.
111 West Coast Literary Portraits is published by Mother Tongue Press. See http://www.mothertonguepublishing.com/?page_id=428