Memoir: One Year Later …

New Work

By Hubert O’Hearn

Exactly one year ago today, I was in Thunder Bay finishing off my packing before emigrating to the Republic of Ireland. Choosing which clothes to bring was easy – one small suitcase. Which books to ship? Ah, now that was a much tougher call. As I had worked as a reviewer for three years (and had played as a reader for considerably longer), I had built up a collection of well over a thousand volumes, filling five six-foot tall bookcases as well as smaller flat-pack three-shelf models in the bedrooms, kitchen, hallways… well, you get the idea. Yet at $600 a shipping carton, I had to say farewell to many a dearly loved friend. But you make your decisions in life and you stick with them.

I ended up staying in Ireland for four months; leaving not by choice, but instead as a result of gross incompetence by a Canadian clerk in Ireland’s Ottawa Embassy. So, without belabouring you with the details, I slipped across the Irish Sea on the Larne Ferry and wound up in the wonderful town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. And so it is from here that I write to you, from a room in a Guest House high on a hill overlooking the medieval walls, the fortifications of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and the great expanse of the North Sea that protected these great United Kingdoms for centuries.

My intent in moving here was to write. Period. I had existed, yet not particularly lived, and approached writing in the same manner as so many people have over the years. I call it the ‘one of these days’ syndrome. In a survey of Americans, 81% of them feel they, ‘have a book inside them.’ I assume that was not a result of restaurant horror stories – being served le livre and onions perhaps. Yet, how many of them actually do it? (As a side note, I’ll tell you who really does do it. Icelanders. One out of 10 citizens of that remote crag of hot springs and spectacular skies will publish a book in the course of their lifetime. And I did say publish, not just write. Wow.)

Why did I choose to emigrate? First, I realized there was nothing holding me back – no children, no mortgage, and since my beloved fiancee Kimberly had been felled with a brain aneurysm two years earlier, no love either. There too, it really was Kimberly who had always pushed me to give up any other job and just write; we would sort out the money later. I remembered that.

I remembered that on a snowy, cold night in April when I came quite close to witnessing a murder and nearly becoming the second victim. For nearly four years I had been the night auditor at a local hotel, which meant that from 11PM until 7AM when the dayshift arrived, I was the only employee on the premises. That was all right. It gave me time to read, write and think, besides occasionally acting as a bouncer when the boys started whooping it up like their room was the Malamute Saloon.

You see, lonely men on sales trips tend not to head to the theatre or symphony concerts – they go to strip clubs. Upon doing so, they spend $9 a beer, God only knows how much on lap dances and are then drunk, frustrated, and in the rut. Oh yes, and it was also an approximately $35 cab fare to the nearest strip club from our hotel.

And so it was that one such hotel guest returned by taxi at nearly 3AM and refused to pay his fare. Said guest then tried to kick the life out of the cab driver. Have you ever actually seen someone violently kick someone else in the head? It’s not like professional wrestling. It is vicious, murderous and the sounds from foot, head, grunting assailant, and diminishing victim are – but no. Your life will not be better for knowing the actuality of that.

In any event, when the assailant walked into the lobby and dropped blood on my front desk before I ordered him, ‘Get your scrawny ass to your room and don’t move until the boys (police) get here,’ I realized that I was the only witness to a possible homicide. And at that moment I decided one thing:

This all changes and it changes Now!

Over the course of the summer of 2012, I decided specifically to move to Ireland. Outside of a couple of authors I had slightly befriended – Deborah Henry and John Boyne – I didn’t know a soul there. However, there are times in life where it is best to listen to one’s inner voice. How do you know when it is one of those times? Easy peasey lemon squeezy, for it is all of them.

I didn’t make the move with much money as back-up. In other words, I took Kimberly’s advice. Yet, I had skills and resume fodder that I hoped I could parlay into revenue. Besides the books, I had also been a speechwriter specializing in human rights. That alone paid the bills for my first five months overseas. Besides that, I reached agreement to write a monthly column for a tabloid called Thunder Bay Seniors about my adventures; and American Blues Scene magazine agreed to assign me as European correspondent.

Now there were risks involved. Those three years of reviewing for publications across North America (my favourite actually is this one, The Winnipeg Review as the magazine and its editor Maurice Mierau provide both the space to really explore a novel and the feedback necessary to advise a critic) had given me a host of excellent contacts in the major houses of Canada and the US and most of the ‘mid-majors’ as well. Yet now I was entering both the Old World of English literature and a new world for me. How would the publishers, editors, agents et al view some arriviste with a noticeable accent? After all, I had spent my formative years shopping at Eaton’s, not studying at Eton.

Well, if I spent five minutes worrying about my reception, that was a wasted five minutes. Both the Irish and the British could not possibly be more accepting and indeed helpful. Not to start waving the flag of Me or anything, but I actually won a monthly Irish poetry award two months before I arrived in the country. (‘You say you’re definitely coming? Well good enough, as the poem is lovely.’) This anecdote actually leads somewhere; stay tuned.

Originally I was pitching a novel, and there were the usual difficulties in securing an agent. However, manuscripts actually made it to learned minds in the agencies and the Dublin-based agents were more than pleased to suggest others in the profession who might be interested in handling my romantic comedy. The Irish market is a tough nut to crack, although the Irish may well be the best-read people in the English-speaking world. The population of the entire country is only 4.5 million, yet 5.7 million newspapers are read every week. That said, only 120 books were published by Irish authors in 2011. That’s what an economic disaster, the end of the Celtic Tiger period, will do to you.

Still, virtually every town or village I have travelled to in both Ireland and Britain has independent bookstores on their high streets. Of course there are the giant chains of Waterstones and W.H. Smith, yet from all appearances the indies seem to be doing just fine. It is also an immeasurably great satisfaction to ask for book suggestions from clerks and – gasp! – the clerk actually knows his or her stock rather than just gamely pointing at the bestsellers on the wall.

Sticking with the retail side a bit longer, it was also notable that all the major supermarket chains have well-stocked book sections. Again, not just the standard issue rack of Harlequins, Stephen King and John Grisham; instead a wide array of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, mostly hard cover. Availability is a key to increasing readership. By the time I had left Canada, Chapters-Indigo had virtually completed their takeover of the retail market. If you wanted to buy a book (and we’ll leave Amazon aside, please) you had to travel to this one destination, assuming you had a Chapters franchise in your town. In Berwick-upon-Tweed, population 10,000, I count two independents plus a W.H. Smith, as well as five supermarkets with book sections. If I included all the local gift and tourist shops featuring books by local authors and historical guides, the list would rise to about twenty outlets.

What is distinctly missing amidst all these retailers is Canadian content. As much as I love my new home, I left Canada because of an inner longing to explore the world and the limits of my own talent, not because I loved Canada any less. (Oh all right, Stephen Harper as Prime Minister didn’t help. I am tempted to spray paint a bedsheet with red letters and hold it up the next time Harper is in the UK and show the message to the cameras; ‘I’ll Come Back When YOU’RE Gone!’)

Canadian literature has progressed so far in dimensions of multiculturalism, deep psychological insight and sheer poetry of expression that it actually hurts that not a single Canadian author has a place on the book shop shelves except Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Oh yes, and Yann Martel when the Life of Pi movie came out. That felt particularly strange in Ireland, which absolutely adores the music of Leonard Cohen with the national broadcaster RTE playing him regularly, yet I never saw a single collection of his poetry anywhere. I know it is brutally difficult for the small and mid-major Canadian publishers to deal with overseas shipping, retail chains and so forth, yet there is no good excuse for the majors (e.g. the various imprints of the Bertelsmann group – Penguin, Random House, Knopf etc.) to not give it a go. I would start naming names of Authors I Want To See, however I will leave out at least five or ten, so it is perhaps best to leave it alone.

Instead, much like one of my literary heroes and my old pen pal Mordecai Richler – we wrote back and forth about Montreal Expos baseball – the one way I’ve found for a Canadian author to achieve sales in Britain is by being published in Britain. I was shocked in the most giddy, surprise birthday party sort of way, to find that even the largest London-based publishers are completely approachable, in much the same manner as the Dublin-based agents.

After I had reviewed a handful of UK publishers, I mentioned in an email to a publicist that I was working on that novel I mentioned earlier. Well, I was put straight through to the acquisitions committee and their very sage and personal recommendations are being folded into that same novel’s manuscript. A similar route also led me to land a deal with Elizabeth Beecher Publishing and I am tickled beyond belief to say that my first book of poetry, Random Acts of Love will be on sale at about the same time as you are reading this. (Now! If you are tut-tutting that blatant advertisement, I once had the pleasure of listening to the great Irving Layton address one of my university English classes. Layton said that if he were starting out as a poet, he would wear a sandwich board and parade up and down the street blowing a trumpet. Be glad you don’t have to hear me play trumpet, as I can’t blow a note.)

So there it is. The route less-travelled I suppose you could call it. It hasn’t been the easiest of years. I have been in love and out of love, safely housed and effectively deported, and just recently I was refused a flat here in Berwick because I am a writer and therefore would be a ‘threat to the young girls who are tenants here.’ (No I’m not kidding. Good thing I didn’t mention I had also been an actor…) I have been on occasion broke in both wallet and heart, yet never once in spirit. It was worth the risk. And I still look forward to reading and reviewing great Canadian books. I shall champion the cause of the writers of our huge, self-effacing nation until my last breath.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Hubert O'Hearn

Hubert O'Hearn is an arts and book reviewer who recently moved to the UK. His book reviews currently appear in nine major North American cities. An archive of his work can be found here.