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‘I laugh at stuff that’s hard or caustic or sarcastic, but I just can’t do it.’ McLean says. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
‘I laugh at stuff that’s hard or caustic or sarcastic, but I just can’t do it.’ McLean says. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

INTERVIEW

Stuart McLean riffs on the serious business of writing humour Add to ...

To begin at the end of a pleasantly meandering conversation in the sun-filled, back-alley Toronto hideout of Canada’s bestselling author, Stuart McLean is toying with the idea of running for office.

“I’ve always thought of that,” he says, sliding into the subject easily after being asked to contemplate the possibility of a career after the one that has already made his fortune, chronicling the imaginary lives of Dave and Morley and all the good folk from the Vinyl Café – in books, on CBC Radio and in about 100 stage shows a year.

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Elected office “was the road not taken” for him as a young man growing up in Montreal, McLean says. And it might also be the road yet taken. He speaks passionately about the country and its past successes, the deeds of Lester Pearson and his hope that Canada might shine once again on the international stage.

“When I’m not writing my stories that’s what I think about all the time – the politics of this country and what we have done together,” he says, blue eyes glinting in the slanting light, the familiar opera-house resonance sounding even in his quietest voice.

The fact that McLean doesn’t expect his inbox to be blizzarded with solicitations from party operatives after such a statement suggests he might really be as winningly naive as his yarn-spinning persona aims to suggest. Or maybe not: Just like a pro, keeping ’em guessing, the would-be candidate hesitates to express any partisan views and, when pressed, escapes into generalities.

As the operatives will quickly discover upon inquiring, the biggest impediment to any Stuart McLean career change will be the tremendous success he enjoys in the one he already has. Best known for his long-running radio show, now in its 19th season, McLean is also the most successful Canadian author in the Penguin Canada stable, having sold more than one million copies of his 10 Vinyl Café books since 1995.

McLean’s latest, Revenge of the Vinyl Café, is handily outselling both Alice Munro’s Dear Life and Will Ferguson’s Giller Prize-winner, 419, a lead that will no doubt widen when the author embarks next week on his Vinyl Café Christmas tour, which is scheduled to stop in 13 Canadian cities as well as Seattle and Bellingham, Wash., with tables of books (and CDs) available for sale at every one of more than 20 shows.

McLean is so multifarious it is tempting to exclude him from the ranks of “real writers” who live or die by their pens alone. In fact, he is the model of the multi-platform performer every publisher now wants its clients to be.

Book buyers not only flock to Stuart McLean readings, they pay good money for the privilege – upward of $60 in the best seats. Then they buy his books, both the latest and its many predecessors, all featuring the humorous adventures of the same familiar cast of characters.

Then he reminds them why they like him so much by introducing new stories on his CBC Radio show.

Surprisingly for one who seems so ubiquitous, playing about 100 live dates a year, McLean only writes 10 new stories over the same period. But they, he insists, are the essential foundation of all his other platforms.

“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to spin it out in many mediums,” he says, adding that he has “the most fun” on stage. “But if they ever said to me, ‘You can do one thing or another, Stuart, you can either write or you can be on the stage, but you can’t do both,’ I would write. That would be it. That’s the path of heart for me.”

McLean’s path is marked by obvious clues on display and tucked away in his Kensington Market home, a much-published but little-seen industrial cottage architect Jeffrey Stinson built for himself in the 1980s. They include an old photo of Stephen Leacock pulling a wee fish from a Mariposan stream and, mounted in a separate frame, a red fly from the master’s own fishing kit. McLean even has a Leacock letter, which he digs out eagerly and reads from gleefully.

“I just keep the wolf away from the door by shooting ink at him,” Canada’s most famous humorist, before McLean, wrote in 1933.

As if to undercut what might seem too obvious, McLean also has a fan note from none other than Phyllis Diller pinned up in his study. “Your CDs are the greatest,” the late comedian wrote. “You make me laugh till the neighbours say, ‘Quiet over there!’ You are a wonderfully funny man.”

But as the same correspondent had already pointed out in an earlier note, McLean’s type of funny is still much more Mariposa than Catskills. “She talked about the difference between jokes and humour, the difference between a punch line and telling a story,” he says. “And she talked about my work being kind. It was a very lovely letter.”

Clearly, kind works. “That’s just who I am,” McLean says. For all their foibles and misadventures, Dave and Morley and friends live in a world of perpetual, gentle uplift.

“I laugh at stuff that’s hard or caustic or sarcastic, but I just can’t do it,” he says. “I start worrying about people’s feelings. So I try to make my points my way.”

Correction: “I don’t try, it’s just who I am.”

Leacock’s presence on his walls is more a reminder than a literary inspiration, according to McLean. “It’s a serious business writing humour,” he says. “I put his picture on my wall as a reminder that I should take it seriously.”

For inspiration McLean names not Leacock but U.S. writer E.B. White, who also figures large in his collection of literary ephemera, framed and unframed. White said that humour, like poetry, can have an “added dimension,” according to McLean. “And when it’s done well, because it has this added dimension, it can take the reader close to the big hot fire that is truth, and they can feel the heat.”

And they don’t know whether they are laughing or crying. “That’s when I feel I’m doing my best work,” McLean says. “When I take people to a place where they laugh and they cry and their feelings are confused.”

As to how he manages to create that effect so consistently over the years, McLean professes total ignorance. “I have no idea what I do or how it’s done,” he claims. All he knows is that it’s working – and that thoughts he once entertained about “pulling the plug” on Dave and Morley after 20 years are in retreat.

Politics may beckon, but it will take more than the usual flattery to pry Stuart McLean loose from his commanding seat at the Vinyl Café, the unacknowledged capital of popular literary culture in Canada.

A story is born

A lot of craft goes into making a Vinyl Café story seem like such a simple thing. Each one grows, shrinks and grows again on its multimedia journey between composition and ultimate publication, all the while being polished by audience feedback and ample professional help.

Each one starts at about 5,000 words before being submitted to his long-time editor, Meg Masters, according to the author. “And then we cut, cut, cut,” he says. A second editor, radio-show producer Jess Milton, sits in the wings with a script as McLean introduces the new story to audiences. “Then we caucus the next morning and look at it. I’ll say, ‘Boy that bit wasn’t working’ and she’ll say, ‘You’re right.’ And she and I edit the work together.”

Once streamlined, polished and perfected for broadcast at about half its original length, the story comes back under Masters’s supervision prior to publication. At this stage, McLean takes advantage of the elbow room and greater formal complexity permitted by the medium. “We’ll take the radio script and we’ll put stuff back in it, maybe even write new stuff,” he says. “We go through another editorial process to make it bookish.”

 

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