Experimental novelist, conservationist, birdwatcher, outdoorsman, cultural activist, gifted cook, generous host, world traveller – Graeme Gibson was a key figure in a talented generation of Canadian writers who brought a modern Canadian literary tradition into being. He also helped put in place the structures to make it possible for authors to earn a living in this country. He and his life partner, author Margaret Atwood, were a power couple at the heart of the country’s literary culture for close to five decades.
Mr. Gibson died at 85 in University College Hospital in London, on Sept. 18 with Ms. Atwood and his children by his side. He had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke five days earlier. The couple had been travelling in Italy, then in England to launch Ms. Atwood’s latest speculative novel, The Testaments. He had been in declining health and suffered repeated falls since the start of the year.
He made legions of friends in many countries not only because of his literary standing, but through progressive causes he tirelessly championed, such as the freeing of jailed writers and habitat preservation for birds and other animals. News of his passing was reported around the world, from The Guardian, Le Monde and Corriere della Serra to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Graeme Cameron Gibson was born Aug. 9, 1934, in London, Ont., the first of two sons of Brigadier General Thomas Graeme Gibson, a career army officer, and Mary Gibson (née Cameron), an Australian who played the ukulele and sang on the radio. The family moved frequently and Graeme lived as a boy in Toronto, Halifax, Fredericton, Ottawa, and for a time in London, England. The Brigadier helped liberate Holland; in the Dutch city of Deventer, a street is named for him.
Young Graeme changed schools often. For a time, he attended Upper Canada College in Toronto. He ended up at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, in Saint-Jean, Que., where he discovered that he was a crack shot and had leadership potential.
“I didn’t like university, I didn’t like school,” he told CBC Radio. He bounced around from University of Waterloo, where he enrolled in English and philosophy, to University of Western Ontario, to Edinburgh University and then back to Western, where he obtained a bachelor of arts in 1958. He told the CBC that he subsequently flunked out of the master’s program. By then, he knew he wanted to write.
At about this time he met Shirley White, a decisive young woman seven years older than him, who had left school in Grade 10. They married in 1959 and moved to England because – this was the prevailing belief at the time – you couldn’t be a writer in Canada. In London, Shirley Gibson gave birth to the first of their two sons while her husband worked as a supply teacher in public schools and tried to write a novel. They found an inexpensive apartment on the French Riviera, at Cap d’Antibes, where the fledgling novelist wrote for eight months, until the money ran out.
They returned to Canada in 1961, settling in Toronto, where Mr. Gibson began teaching English at Ryerson Polytechnic, as it was then called. He stayed at Ryerson for most of the decade. A Canada Council grant gave him time off to finish Five Legs, which was finally published in 1969 by Dennis Lee’s upstart House of Anansi Press. With its stream-of-consciousness approach, it had no plot or rounded characters, but the critics agreed it broke new ground for a Canadian novel. Wrote William French, The Globe and Mail’s literary critic: “Five Legs, I have no hesitation in saying, is the most interesting first novel by a Canadian to be published in many years.”
Eric Wright, later a notable writer of crime fiction, was the head of Ryerson’s English department and recruited a teaching staff that included authors such as Peter Such, Gary Geddes and Mr. Gibson. Recalled Karen Mulhallen, another young teacher from that time who became editor of Descant, a literary magazine: “I taught Five Legs and asked Graeme to come to my class, which was being held outside in the quad on a beautiful fall day. He was very tall with a moustache, a swashbuckling figure. The kids, mostly young engineering students, were mesmerized. They had never seen a real writer before.”
He wrote three more novels: Communion (1971), Perpetual Motion (1982) – the most accessible of his fiction – and Gentleman Death (1993). In the last of these, the writer attempts to come to terms with the deaths of his father and younger brother, leaving him as the only surviving member of his birth family. It’s an audacious postmodern work in which Mr. Gibson’s alter ego, a struggling Toronto novelist named Robert Fraser (the same name he gave the 19th-century protagonist of Perpetual Motion) appears as a character alongside his own fictive characters, wondering if he has got them right. Mr. Gibson dedicated the book to his brother, Alan, who had died two years earlier.
With Gentleman Death, Mr. Gibson had said everything he wanted to say in a work of fiction.
He also produced a book of interviews, Eleven Canadian Novelists Interviewed by Graeme Gibson (1973), and two beautifully illustrated miscellanies, collections of passages from his voluminous reading about the natural world. The Bedside Book of Birds (2005) and The Bedside Book of Beasts (2009) were his last two works before the onset of dementia curtailed his activities.
Mr. Gibson emerged as a cultural nationalist in 1970, when Canada’s oldest publishing house, the Ryerson Press, was sold to the U.S. publisher McGraw Hill. When the government did not intervene to block the sale, he joined a demonstration, climbing the six-metre-high statue of Egerton Ryerson (the 19th-century educator) in front of the school to drape it with a U.S. flag. The media took notice, and the Ontario government set up a Royal Commission on book publishing.
The commission needed representatives of the writing community to appear at its hearings and rounded up a group including Mr. Gibson to speak. When it became obvious that a permanent organization was needed to defend the financial and legal rights of creators, Mr. Gibson took a leading role in forming the Writers’ Union of Canada. He became its chairman in the mid-1970s. In 1976 he was also one of the founders of the Writers Trust, a charity that provides financial assistance to writers in need and runs several literary prizes. He was president of PEN Canada, the Canadian arm of the international human-rights organization for writers, from 1987 to 1989. His involvement in these organizations was noted in the citation when he was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1992.
Mr. Gibson told the biographer Rosemary Sullivan that the notion that individual artists function best in isolation was nonsense. There is strength in numbers.
He had varied interests. Mr. Gibson also set up the Pelee Island Bird observatory, which facilitates studies of migratory birds, and is now chaired by his son, also named Graeme Gibson. The elder Mr. Gibson was a member of the Rare Bird Club, an international group of donors who fund the work of Birdlife, an organization for the protection of threatened species.
Mr. Gibson first met Margaret Atwood at Toronto’s Grossman’s Tavern in 1970 at a party for the poet Milton Acorn, but did not see her again for almost a year. (The story of their romance is told in The Red Shoes, Ms. Sullivan’s biography of Ms. Atwood.) Shirley Gibson, Ms. Atwood and Mr. Gibson were all involved with House of Anansi Press then, and it fell to Mr. Gibson to take a photograph of Ms. Atwood for the back of her next book of poetry that Anansi was to publish.
This 1971 photo session set off a spark between them. By then, both of their marriages were unravelling and by 1972, when the two writers became lovers their marriages were over. The couple bought a farm near Alliston, north of Toronto, and started a new life together. Mr. Gibson’s boys were often with them.
Although they never married, their bond proved lasting and mutually supportive. They raised a daughter, Jess, worked for the same causes and maintained four homes: one in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood; a country house in Oro Medonte county; a place on Pelee Island, the southernmost point of Canada, where they spent several weeks each year watching migrating birds; and a rustic cottage in the wilds of Northeastern Ontario, near the Quebec border, that had once belonged to Ms. Atwood’s hardy parents.
“It’s pure and simple, with a wood stove and composting toilet and clean water from the lake,” said the artist Charles Pachter, their longtime friend, who has visited.
Mr. Gibson was a great cook who could feed a crowd. “Peggy was good with baking. The Atwood-Gibson post-Christmas party was legendary,” Mr. Pachter added. “Graeme would make his favourite bean dish and there were lots of people, not just well-known people but people who were struggling. They shared a love of travel and lived for long periods in Italy, France and England.”
When a U.S. author wistfully remarked that “Every woman writer should be married to Graeme Gibson,” Ms. Atwood had the message printed on a T-shirt.
Ms. Atwood told the London Telegraph in 2013 that her husband found it funny. “He’s pretty good – he mostly just keeps out of the way. And I don’t show him my books before they’re in print. I recommend it. Supposing your spouse doesn’t like your work –then you are in trouble.”
Mr. Gibson leaves his wife, Ms. Atwood; sons, Matthew and Graeme; daughter, Jess; and three grandchildren.