Stuart McLean's new book, Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe, arrived at my door a couple of months ago. I always love getting a copy of a book I've worked on, but this time it was bittersweet. An echo of old times and a reminder of an editing process done in the midst of absence. The thrill of something new and the sigh of something missing.
The Christmas book is the ninth collection of stories from Stuart's The Vinyl Cafe show, which aired on CBC Radio for more than two decades and whose final instalment, The Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert, aired last weekend and featured the last story Stuart wrote and performed. (That story, Christmas Cards, is also published in the new book.) Like the previous volumes, Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe chronicles the lives of a wonderfully quirky family – Dave and Morley and their children Sam and Stephanie – as well as their neighbours and friends.
As a comic writer, Stuart was a master at creating scenes that were hilarious without being cynical or mean-spirited. In the Vinyl Cafe universe, people are prone to make mistakes, but destined to be forgiven. Community, friendship and love always have the upper hand.
But Stuart's narrative skill went far beyond evoking laughter. He was a mesmerizing storyteller, weaving his tales out of the common threads of people's lives, and managing to both find and celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary. In doing so, the Vinyl Cafe fiction became one of those rare literary efforts where people of all ages found common ground – teens listened to the stories on radio along with their parents; children and octogenarians alike crowded his concert shows. What's more, people right across the country saw themselves in these stories – the show was as popular in Newfoundland as it was in British Columbia.
Indeed, by the time Stuart died in February, The Vinyl Cafe was a bona fide Canadian institution with a loyal following of almost two million listeners in this country and the United States. His coast-to-coast concert tours were invariably sold out, and the CDs and story collections were perennial Canadian bestsellers.
Illustration by David Collier
This new book's arrival reminded me of all that, but it also reminded me that my experience with The Vinyl Cafe was unusual – it was, for the most part, on the page. I was Stuart's McLean's story editor. I did listen to the show on the radio – in particular the shows that featured a new story, and I attended concerts when they were close to home, but my primary contact with the stories was in print – both in their first incarnations for the stage and then their last, for the books.
It wasn't always like that.
When Stuart started The Vinyl Cafe – initially as a summer replacement show on CBC Radio – I was his book editor at Penguin Books. I had edited his Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada. Stuart asked me if I could give him some feedback on the fiction he was writing for the show (which was not, at the time, the "Dave and Morley" stories. Those would come a little later). But instead of sending me the stories, he would read them to me over the phone, while I made notes. My introduction to the Vinyl Cafe universe was, like for so many others, through listening – but with a difference.
When Stuart read those early stories to me, he was not performing them in any way. He was reading just as he might if he were sharing some article from the newspaper. So the first time I heard him perform one of his stories, his unique and idiosyncratic delivery was a shock. And to be honest, I didn't particularly like it. In time, I got used to it; eventually, I became terribly fond of it. But despite that, I always like reading the stories best. I still hear Stuart's voice in them, but it is his private voice, not his public one – the way he read his work to me at the very beginning. It gives those stories a kind of intimacy that I cherish. That's one of the reasons I love seeing the stories in print. But there is another.
The first drafts of the stories that Stuart would send me were always much longer than he could use on stage or radio. As years of performing went by, Stuart got better and better at knowing exactly how long to keep the audience in his fictional world before letting them go. He would often tell me how many words he wanted to cut from a story when he sent it to me for editing. I was sometimes dismayed by that, having to cut scenes I loved or little descriptions that tickled me. I almost always wanted the stories to be longer.
Despite that, where Stuart always took a decidedly leisurely pace was at the beginning of the stories. He loved to stretch his literary self in these early paragraphs. The first-draft openings often read like prose poems – lyrical and evocative, thoughtful and moving. And, unfortunately, ridiculously too long for a 3,500-word story. Inevitably, I would have to take my editorial machete to them, hacking 300, 400, 500 words right off the top and then continuing my pruning throughout the rest of the work. I did, however, always leave a little extra foliage so that when Stuart went out on the road, he and Vinyl Cafe producer Jess Milton could pare a little here and there according to how the stories were working on stage. By the time the stories were recorded, they would be their tightest, trimmest, funniest selves. But sometimes when I heard them on radio or in concert, I'd get a little pang when I noticed a sentence I liked was missing or a colourful description absent.
But then the stories would come back to me. Or at least, our favourite ones did. When we started to put together a Vinyl Cafe book, I would go back to the earlier drafts of each story and look at all the material we had cut. A lot of those scraps remained on the cutting-room floor (including most of the openings). But I would pick up other bits, bits we had loved but felt we had no room for. I'd dust them off and put them back in, until we had a longer, fuller version of the story – the concert show with a shadow of the early drafts clinging to it. Next, Stuart would go through the story again to see which additions he wanted to keep and which he felt could go back on the floor. And then we polished that new, longer draft. It was a process I loved.
I was always happy to be knee-deep in the Christmas-morning wrapping-paper chaos of Dave and Morley's world. In fact, one of the reasons I think Stuart and I worked so well together was that we were both a bit hapless – prone to social awkwardness, physically clumsy at times – the kind of people who lose their wallets or drop their cellphones in the toilet with alarming regularity. (Stuart is the only other person whom I have ever met who also managed to lock his keys in the car, along with his small child. Both of our stories involved panic, the kindness of strangers and the rescue of said child.)
In other words, we both had plenty of "Dave moments," as we called them, to draw on. Once, Stuart called me to find me in a bit of a state. I had a splitting headache and, while trying to deal with my head and care for my aged cat, I'd managed to gulp down the cat's thyroid pills instead of Tylenol. (That became the basis of his story, Dog Pills.)
And Stuart's "Dave moments"? Where to begin?
In our very early days of working together, Stuart had rented an office in a house on Markham Street. Stuart thought the best thing about the little place was that it had no phone line. Since this was in the pre-cellphone days, whenever Stuart wanted to call me, he'd go to a pay phone, around the corner on Bloor Street, outside of Honest Ed's. As traffic roared past him, he'd shout to me over the line. And I would shout back, "What? What?" And then, every once in a while, I would hear him, but it would be some strange non-sequitur, and I'd realize he'd seen someone he knew on the sidewalk, and was actually talking to them. Once, I heard him bellow at his wife, who was, apparently, walking on the other side of the street, "Hey, Linda! Linda! Do you have any money?"
Years later, we were on a conference call with some TV producers, talking about the possibility of a TV show. I was in Toronto, they were in Los Angeles and Stuart was in some tiny motel room in Western Canada – in the middle of one of his tours. The Hollywood types were mostly talking among themselves, while Stuart and I listened. Suddenly, there was a great buzz on the line, as if an airplane was taking off beside us. The conversation stopped. The fellows in L.A. asked what was happening. It wasn't coming from their end. It wasn't coming from my end either, I told them. Then, as quickly as the roar had started, it stopped, and Stuart's sheepish voice came on the line. "It was me," he admitted. "I spilled a glass of water on my laptop and was trying to dry it with the hair dryer."
We laughed a lot during our story discussions. Stuart's humour was darker and more acerbic than appeared in his fiction. And so is mine. We often laughed hardest at plot twists or lines we knew could never be used in a story. A number of comedians have had fun doing rude or sinister Vinyl Cafe parodies. I always want to tell them, "Oh, you really have no idea … Stuart already did that himself – but better."
I miss those phone calls. And I miss all of that laughter. But while as Stuart's friend, I mourn the loss of him, as his editor, I also mourn the loss of his writing.
After Stuart died, many fans wrote to say that they were heartbroken that the little world he created, the world of Morley, Dave, Sam and Stephanie, would be no more. The idea that they would not hear about what happened next to these characters was hard to accept. I understood this completely. I, too, wanted to know what the future held for these old friends.
But this was not the only writing that I had hoped to see more of. Shortly after Penguin published Welcome Home, Stuart showed me a small portion of a novel he was working on. I don't remember a great deal about it, except that it was set somewhere in Central America and that it had shades of magic realism to it. I also remember that I was entranced. I wanted to read more; I wanted him to finish the book. I know he never did, and when I would ask him about it later on, he was evasive. I suspect he had lost interest in it. But the very existence of that small bit of work always made me rather excited about the thought of "after The Vinyl Cafe." I imagined that Stuart would live to a ripe old age, long past the final episodes of the show, and that he would start some new long-form writing project – and I would be along for the ride. It was a journey I was looking forward to.
When someone dies, the friends and family left behind often have regrets. I have a number when it comes to Stuart. One of them is about all those unwritten stories and longer works. And one is about those lovely, lyrical, leisurely beginnings, the beginnings we always ended up dropping. How I wish I had saved them, cut and pasted them into some separate file. If I had, I would go back to them now, spend a few hours reading over them. I can't imagine a better way to remember Stuart than being drawn – again and again – into the wonderful fictional world he created, as if we were starting on another venture together, as if we had all the time in the world.