THE HARD SELL
Mark Medley goes on the road with Douglas Gardham, the would-be king of CanLit
On a recent Saturday evening, Douglas Gardham is sitting behind the wheel of his black Acura TL, on a highway west of Toronto, making his way back to Alliston, the small town where he lives. The road is slick from the rainstorm that passed through the area earlier that afternoon, and traffic is relatively light. The radio is off, and the car, for the moment, is quiet. He seems tired. It’s almost 10 p.m., and it has been, for Gardham, a long day; he’d arrived home just after one that morning, having spent the previous week-and-a-half in Mexico with his wife, where they celebrated their 30th anniversary, and left his house at 10 a.m. to drive to a Chapters bookstore in a big-box shopping mall on the border of Oakville and Mississauga. He spent the subsequent nine hours standing behind a small table, near the entrance, hawking his two self-published books to strangers.
“It was a better day than I thought it would be,” he says, his eyes darting between the road ahead and the rear-view mirror. “I didn’t think we’d get to that number.”
He sold 29 books that day, surpassing the 16 sales he averages at each event. This is Gardham’s career. Every weekend for the past three years, with very few exceptions, Douglas Gardham has travelled to a different bookstore, from British Columbia to New England, to sell his books. Three years ago, just after his first novel, The Actor, was published, he quit his full-time job of 20 years to try and make it as a writer. By his own estimate, he’s driven more than 115,000 kilometres during his travels, which have undoubtedly cost him much more than he’s earned. This weekend, he’ll be in London; next weekend, it’ll be Peterborough; at the end of the month, he’ll visit Toronto. He has events booked through the rest of 2016. When I ask, as we leave Mississauga behind, how long he can keep this schedule up, he doesn’t hesitate at all before answering.
“I can’t see myself stopping.”
You’ve probably never heard of Douglas Gardham. I’d never heard of him, either, when, a little more than three years ago, he e-mailed me out of the blue. He’d just published The Actor, which he’d been working on since 1998, and was trying to drum up some media attention. As a rule, I rarely write about self-published books – there are too many, they are largely terrible and most of them are not readily available in bookstores. I told him to send me a copy of the book, though I had no intention of writing about it.
Over the months – and eventually years – that followed I began to think of Gardham as my benevolent stalker; he sent me regular updates, links to blog posts he’d written, interviews he’d conducted with small-town papers and radio stations and tagged me in tweets, which often included a photograph of Gardham, taken in whichever bookstore he happened to be visiting that weekend, smiling and holding up copies of The Actor and The Drive In, a short-story collection he published in late 2014. Most authors publicizing a new book spend a month or two spreading the word, but Gardham kept going and going. Last year, while visiting in-laws in Ottawa, I spotted him at the Chapters in Kanata; I watched from a distance, pretending to flip through a magazine, as he greeted everyone who walked by, fascinated by this author who was in the midst of a seemingly endless book tour. I felt sorry for him, to be honest, but I also admired his commitment. Finally, a few months ago, after receiving one of his newsletters and realizing it had been three years since he’d first contacted me, I could no longer help myself. Who was Douglas Gardham?
We meet at the Indigo at Bay and Bloor in Toronto one Saturday in June. Gardham, who is 54 years old, has been told he looks like a slightly younger Bill Murray, although I’d describe him as John C. Reilly’s older brother. He’s wearing olive slacks and a purple plaid shirt and, when I arrive, is in the midst of preparing for the day. (He goes on to sell 18 books.) He shakes my hand with a child-like giddiness, and we sit and chat in a nearby Starbucks, agreeing how strange it is to be finally meeting after all these years. I apologize for taking so long to interview him, and he laughs.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he says of his early media outreach. “I had to come to the realization [that] I’d been writing most of my life, but from the world’s perspective, I’d just started.”
The Actor, a bizarre, David Lynch-like thriller about obsession, delusion and determination, tells the story of a man named Ethan Jones who, still haunted by the disappearance of his college girlfriend years earlier, moves to Hollywood to try and become a star. It’s a novel about pursuing dreams, about never losing faith – lines include “You just can’t stand there and expect something to happen” and “You only get to go through [life] once, you know. You got to make it count” – and it’s difficult not to draw parallels between Gardham’s life and that of his protagonist. Ethan, even when his career is floundering, is constantly telling people, “You won’t forget me,” and to remember his name because “you’ll hear it again someday.”
“I’ve talked to so many people who are not necessarily doing what they want to do,” he says. “They have something inside them that they would like to do but they just can’t. And that’s how The Actor was originally written – the idea of someone getting out from what they were doing and chasing a dream.”
Gardham was born in Toronto in 1962. His mother was an elementary school teacher who became a stay-at-home mom after the birth of Gardham and his two younger siblings, while his father worked for Bank of Nova Scotia. The family moved from town to town – Oshawa, Kitchener, Petrolia – before settling in Markham. Gardham was a talented athlete – “If you talk to my father today, he would still say [I] could have played professional hockey” – and an avid musician (his high school band was named Atlantis; they make a cameo in The Actor). After graduating from Carleton with a degree in mechanical engineering, he moved to Toronto, where he worked for the Ministry of Transportation by day and played the occasional open-mic night, although his dreams of becoming a musician ended at the Free Times Cafe on College Street.
“I invited a bunch of friends one night and it was just a disaster,” he recalls. “I was so embarrassed. That’s actually when I started to write short stories.” (The Gift, one of the stories collected in The Drive In, dates from this era.)
He bounced around, from city to city – Toronto, Cambridge and, finally, Alliston – and job to job – a computer company, a snowplough manufacturer and Husky Injection Molding Systems, where he spent two decades. The entire time he was leading what he calls “a double life.”
“Engineering is not particularly creative, and there’s a reason,” he says. “You want the planes to stay in the air, boats to float, wheels to stay on your car. You don’t want to get creative in those areas. So, for me, writing was always that outlet.”
His first novel, which he wrote on the bus to and from work, was called H20 and was about an engineer working for a lawnmower company who invents a hydrogen-powered car that threatens the oil industry and leads to the abduction of his wife. A second novel, with the working title Misunderstood, concerned a man who learns of a sexual assault only to realize “he’s closer to it than he thought he was.” His third novel was The Actor.
After completing a manuscript in 2000, Gardham then tried to find a literary agent or publisher, sending the novel to several of the big American imprints.
“I knew nothing,” he admits. “I would get rejection after rejection. I can remember being in Bolton” – where Husky is based – “and literally phoning New York from a pay phone to see whether they’d looked at my submission or not.”
He put the novel aside for a while, writing short stories instead, but “it never went away. It would just eat away [at me]. And every two or three years, it would come back and say something like, ‘Is this it?’ ” Finally, after a decade of frustration, he turned to iUniverse, the Indiana-based publishing service that has released some eventual bestsellers, including Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and, here in Canada, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis.
The novel was published in April, 2013; the following month, Gardham was asked to transfer to a new position at Husky, something he had little interest in doing. “I really felt like I had something special and I couldn’t let it go any more,” he says. So, during a meeting with colleagues, he asked them to search for his name and The Actor on the Internet.
“ ‘Wow, an author with your name.’ That was the first response. I said, ‘That’s actually me. That’s my book.’ ”
His last day of work was May 31, 2013; his friends held a book launch for him the next day.
I visit Gardham in Alliston on a Monday afternoon in late June. He lives in a spacious suburban house with his wife, Laura, a personal trainer. (They have a son who lives in Toronto and a daughter who lives in Vancouver.) Upstairs, he shows me his office, the walls hidden by bookshelves showing off his wide-ranging taste in books: Nino Ricci and Alice Munro shelved next to Joe Hill; Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away next to Neil Pasricha’s The Book of Awesome; two copies of Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures; Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ron MacLean’s Cornered; Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein; Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler and Stephen King.
“I wouldn’t be here without King or Robertson Davies,” he says as I study the spines. “It was King that inspired me through his ‘Constant Reader’ notes that I could actually write, and Davies always said writing is more about diligence and discipline than anything else.”
Gardham is disciplined in his diligence. He held his first signing in the summer of 2013 and has since then done more than 125 events. The weekend before we first met in Toronto, he’d been in Massachusetts and Vermont; the following weekend, he drove up to Sudbury for the day, arriving back home at three in the morning. He sold 27 books that day.
“I think Doug probably does more signings at Chapters-Indigo than any other author in Canada,” says Keith Ogorek, the senior vice-president of marketing at Author Solutions, the parent company of iUniverse. “I don’t know what his motivation is. I don’t know how he’s wired – I haven’t seen his Briggs-Myers [personality test] or anything so I don’t know why he does it.”
Gardham’s wife, Laura, describes her husband as “an introvert,” and Gardham himself initially dismissed the idea of doing in-store events, saying, “I’m the guy that comes in the store [and] goes to the shelf and looks at books. I’m not the guy that’s coming to the table.”
The table is always flanked by a banner, about seven feet tall, which Gardham printed at Home Depot and which features both the covers, and short blurbs about, his two books. He will stand there – and he is adamant about this part, saying “if you’re not famous, and you don’t have a lineup at your book signing, stand up!” – for hours on end, rarely, if ever, taking a break. He brings snacks from home. He greets everyone who walks by with a cheerful hello, and always brings a stack of business cards to hand out to those who listen to his “20-second elevator pitch,” which he has delivered tens of thousands of times.
“The Actor is the story of a young man’s journey of self-discovery and overcoming the trauma of a personal tragedy in his life, which he does in a somewhat unique way – by chasing a dream,” he says, delivering it like an infomercial voice-over when I ask him to try it out on me. “Except the dream isn’t quite what it seems. It’s a story of love and hardship, persistence and overwhelming joy. It reads like a thriller but it’s more than that. And the tagline for the book is ‘The Actor can portray anything you can imagine.’ ”
Both times I watched him at work, he sold a book within the first five minutes; he happily signed their copies when the customers returned from the cashier. He often asks them to pose for a photo, which he will post on social media. The days can be long, and sometimes boring, but “it’s a privilege and good fortune to actually do something that I just never really thought was going to happen.”
Gardham has an admittedly scattershot approach to publicity; the bookstore events are just one part of it. He blogs, updates his Facebook page and sends out an eclectic collection of tweets to his 86,000 followers. “I think you have to be everywhere. You have to consider almost everything. I know some things work and some things don’t.” Numerous times, he tells me how little he knows about the publishing industry, but this ignorance serves him well.
“You’re not supposed to call Heather Reisman?” he asks me at one point. “Why not?”
Gardham has already written his next two novels, The Musician, which he hopes to publish next year, and The Author; together, they form a trilogy. Despite his relative success with self-publishing – he’s sold more than 4,000 books in total, a solid number for Canada – he very much hopes to land a “traditional” publisher. He talks of reaching “the next level.” He’s planning more events in the United States, calling it “wide-open territory.” And although he’s visited many bookstores multiple times, he still sees potential growth closer to home. “There’s what, 3.5 million people in the [Greater Toronto Area]? My last number was 4,300 books [sold]. I have a long way to go.”
Just how long he’ll be able to go remains uncertain. His life, he admits, “was planned and predictable before. It’s not like that any more.” When I ask him about finances, he says, in the business world, “you’re usually five-plus years before you actually break even.” He’s been at it for more than three. Writing is his only source of income, and currently, “I’m relying on savings that we’ve got. But we’re not far off.” He can’t imagine going back to work. “If you’re not willing to give up everything for it, you don’t want it bad enough.”
Laura says that while “I really, really want it to work for him, because it’s something that he cares deeply about, of course I have concerns.” Such as? “That it won’t be sustainable. The books have got to hit a tipping point. One of these books has got to fly. It’s got to go big in order for him to make a living as an author.”
But even if he gives up everything, success is not guaranteed. We’re sitting at his kitchen table, having just returned from lunch at his local diner, and I ask him if he ever considers that.
“You can strive for something as much as you want but there’s no guarantee it’s going to pay off in the end,” I say.
That spending almost every Saturday for three years on the road is not enough. That saying hello to strangers 500 times in one afternoon is not enough. That quitting your job is not enough. That visiting bookstores from Belleville to Brampton to Burlington is not enough. That writing is not enough. That none of it is enough.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “But not to try, and to wish you had, is a whole other category. And I’ve had enough of that to know.”
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