With winter semester winding down, many people on campus look forward to a little R&R. And although the University of Alberta Press does not enjoy the same seasonal ebb and flow that many students and faculty enjoy—in fact, we are in the thick of a dense production schedule with new titles coming off the press at a blistering pace—we are, however, certainly prepared to blow off a little steam and fête some of our authors with friends and colleagues from on and off campus. Literary Cocktails, held yesterday between 4:00 and 6:00 PM in the Papaschase Room of the Faculty Club, gave us all a chance to do just that.
Literary Cocktails this year got to the heart of what makes UAP a vibrant, ambitious, and innovative publishing house—people. To celebrate some of our favourite people, whether they write our books or enjoy reading them, or both, we chose to deviate from the traditional roster of luminary poets, fictionistas, and literati in favour of showcasing biography and creative non-fiction titles. This is well timed as we have just launched a new literary travel series called Wayfarer.
University of Alberta Press authors, Jerry Haigh (The Trouble with Lions) and Ken Hoeppner (The Ordinary Genius) were the stars of this year’s Literary Cocktails. Both travelled to Edmonton yesterday to talk about the peculiar demands of writing non-fiction, and how they were both able to bring forth two fine, yet vastly different, examples of life writing.
The Master of Ceremonies for the event was University of Alberta English professor and creative non-fiction guru, Ted Bishop, whose runaway hit memoir, Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books, has been picked up for a second printing by WW Norton. It was a supreme treat to have Ted on hand to spice up the afternoon with his wisdom and astonishing energy (and a singular talent for injecting suspense into life’s most underestimated details).
The turnout was better than anticipated; there wasn’t a spare chair to be found in the Papaschase room.
In introducing Ken Hoeppner and his biography of Arnold Platt, Ted, exercising true storyteller savvy, began with a bang. Calling the remarkable Arnold Platt—the man who engineered and cultivated sawfly-resistant Rescue Wheat back in the 1930s and went on to become one of the greatest and most self-effacing generalists in the history of prairie public-policy making—a terrible man, Ted fixed us to our seats, breathless, looking anxiously to Ken for signs that he might be in on some daring joke.
Ted lambasted Platt because of the very first sentence of Ken’s book: “[Platt] spent two days at the incinerator, burning most of his private papers.” Ted noted that, as an archivist, he considered this to be a crime against both scholarship and history. Hoeppner’s opening line does its job, creating emotional tension, and elicits another masterful hook by our Bishop. I was relieved when Ted let us off the hook, but from then on he had my attention. I still don’t know if Ken was in on Ted’s cliffhanger of an introduction.
I wasn’t sure if the look on Ken’s face was one of collegial disinterest or simmering ire. Or perhaps he was simply anxious, waiting for Ted to deliver the punch line!
Ted Bishop’s introduction did highlight a key challenge for Arnold Platt’s biographer; namely, how does one find out anything about a person who was so self-effacing he went out of his way to destroy his personal writings?
Ken described the digging he had to do in order to find those precious primary sources that remained after Platt’s death. Being a consummate generalist who preferred to influence policy rather than pursue power, Platt led a relatively understated life. There were fortuitous moments—unimaginable finds—in Ken’s painstaking searches for documentation, which he shared with us, making us privy to an intimate look at this daunting craft. Ken revealed an admirable devotion to his subject—as biographer and friend.
Ted then introduced Jerry Haigh.
Jerry Haigh took the stand next and delighted us with stories he’s lived and cultivated over the years as a big-game veterinarian in various locales across Africa. It was quickly apparent that behind these often raucous and rowdy adventure stories about treating and studying wild lions, rhinos, elephants, and other wild animals lay a deep concern and conviction to help improve the quality of life for all indigenous species—including humans. The real-life stories that Jerry shares in The Trouble with Lions: A Glasgow Vet in Africa range from fun and funny to sobering, even harrowing, as he describes the tragedy of the bush-meat trade. No matter what his subject, and whether in print or in person, Jerry can spin a ripping yarn and keep a person fascinated for hours. I never tire of opening that book to a random page and plunging into the midst of some exotic locale populated with wild creatures and real characters.
(On an unfortunate note: Jerry lost one of the brilliant brass buttons from his blazer at some point during the event. What stings is that these buttons were an heirloom from his father’s regimental uniform. Hopefully someone has found it and can get it to either Jerry or to us at the Press.)
The three stars of this year’s Literary Cocktails…Life Writing Edition: Jerry Haigh (The Trouble with Lions), Ken Hoeppner (The Ordinary Genius), and our MC, Ted Bishop (Riding with Rilke, WW Norton & Co).
Literary Cocktails was a wonderful affair this year. I am glad we chose to mix things up and feature non-fiction authors this time around. Who knows what we’ll do next year? Literary Cocktails…Lexicographers Edition?! No doubt we could find an author or editor or two to make it a swinging time!
And, if you would like to be notified of out next Literary Cocktails (whether it feature lexicographers or otherwise), please let us know!