A Banff Memoir

[Hey, if you click the titles of my posts, you can see them laid out in a more eye-pleasing form. Should that sort of thing appeal to you.]

I’m out in Banff, Alberta for two weeks, at the Banff Centre. I’ve been sitting in a studio in the woods, typing. Fourteen hour days with the music playing and the trees bending outside in the faint wind. I’ve somehow written 15,000 words in one week, which is shocking to me, but when the phone doesn’t ring and the elk leave you alone, you can get a lot done.

Banff is a mythical place to me, especially the centre. I first came here in 1984, when I was 18, to participate in the theatre program. I was in the “beginner” program; there were two levels. The “senior” program involved frightening older people who really knew how to emote. David Barnet, who still teaches at U of A, was the acting teacher that summer for our group. I don’t remember much except the last day, when David gave us our marks out loud, in a group setting. We were all given Bs, I think, owing to our efforts (these grades counted toward high school or university, if I’m remembering correctly), but the real appraisals were given live, in front of our peers. He talked about what each of our strengths and weaknesses were as actors. When he was done, he’d discussed everyone but me. There were protests from the rest of the class, and he finally admitted he’d skipped me. “I skipped you, Mr. Redhill,” he said, “because you’re not an actor. You don’t know what you’re doing. However, I’ve never seen anyone analyse a text the way you do. Your insight into character is quite fine. But, you can’t embody it.”

It was therefore his fault that I went to university for acting the following year. To prove him wrong. In Bloomington, Indiana. I lasted one year.

We also had to take “movement” class, which was some kind of dance class. We wore leotards and dance belts. All you need to know about a dance belt is that it’s a pair of thong underwear crossed with a boxing glove. It’s big, and it holds your nuts in a vice and goes straight up your bum. It’s supposed to make your grande chausees better I guess. It had no effect on mine. The teacher of the class was a 74-yr-old  man named Paul Draper. Paul was tall, with an incredibly erect bearing, and he had a tragic story. He was a tapper, and he’d been famous in the 30s and 40s. Hugely famous. Hollywood, Carnegie Hall, Broadway. He performed for ten years with Larry Adler. Then he came to the attention of Joseph McCarthy and his friends and he was blacklisted for life. He told us the only work he could get in the movies after that was doing shadow dancing, like behind a curtain, a sihouette.

He took dancing seriously. When he was showing us a routine, he’d move his feet through it, murmuring some kind of private language hup-a-hup-dup-dup-dohh and then we tried to do it. He was ferocious. Despite the fact that none of us had had any training in dance, he would be furious with us if we couldn’t get it. The highest mark he gave was a C+. He gave me, who moved like a spavinned ape, an F. He died at 86 years of age in 1996.

I fell in love for the first time that summer, too. First, some kind young woman kissed me on the lawn behind Donald Cameron during a costume party. I was dressed in civilian clothes, but I had a shirtboard Superman “S” taped to my t-shirt. Guess it worked. Then I met someone and eventually had a relationship with her! But in August of 1984, we were meeting for the first time.

I came back to the centre in ’88 and ’89 for the writing programs. More my speed. In 1988, the writing program at Banff had as students Gil Adamson, Laura Lush, Terry Jordan, Rick Hillis, Gabrielle Gunther, Lesley-Anne Bourne, Jean Yoon, and others whose names I’m neglecting to recall. I shared a room with a man who, some years later, changed his name to Algo McNada, which he said meant Nothing From Nothing. He got married to another student who was here that year, too. W.O. Mitchell, huffing snuff, Alistair MacLeod, Richard Lemm, Lorna Crozier, Dale (now David) Zieroth and Holly Ballard Rubinsky were the teachers. All of them were wonderful. Holly and Bill are gone now. Bill was already getting a little old and forgetful. Holly would have to draw him away from the students, who he would have spent 12 hours a day talking to, and remind him to go eat.

That summer of ’84, we had a student from Calgary, a young woman whose father was a rigid, religious type and who disdained the arts, especially dance and theatre because it was too physical. Her mother had plotted with her in secret to get her here, and here she was, slight, pale, frightened, but talented. In the second week, her father found out she wasn’t in bible camp and told her to wait for him; he was coming to get her. That night, sitting in the third-floor lounge, a bunch of us saw her walk into the elevator in what looked for all the world like a wedding dress. She’d pushed the up button. We looked at each other silently and then made a run for the stairwell. We ran up three flights of stairs, to the top floor and began looking for her frantically. She was standing at the railing on the outdoor deck, looking down. Three of us grabbed her and held her. Her father came the next day and I’ve never heard of her since.

1989, I was here in the May Studio, working on poetry with Don Coles. I remember Don reading the whole manuscript of K in Love to us in his room. Laura and Lesley were there that year, too, as well as Steve Heighton, Karen Connolly and, again, faces without names. (Someone, I know, is going to write me an angry email—we were best friends in 1989! Forgive me, whoever you are.) I was working on the poems that would become Lake Nora Arms that year. That book wasn’t published until 1993, but my real beginnings as a writer are rooted in that month in 1989.

1989 was one of the years that Adele Wiseman, the late and lamented Adele Wiseman, was the head of the literary program at Banff. She was a fierce woman who took no prisoners, and she was political to her toenails. However, she was also one of the warmest human beings I’d ever known. In my early twenties, I was a frequent dinner guest in Adele’s house in Toronto, but this summer, I was meeting her for the first time.

She was driving me and two young women to the Banff Springs Hotel because the program was having its yearly visit to the gourmet trough that is Sunday Brunch at the Banff Springs. And one of the women in the car was talking about the movie Stand By Me, that film with River Phoenix, remember, based on that Stephen King story? This young woman was talking in dreamy tones about the boys in the movie and how sad the movie was, etc etc, and when we parked the car in the hotel parking lot, Adele turned around in her seat to her and said, “That movie is a garbagy piece of misogynistic bullshit.” And got out of the car. And then we got out of the car. Adele waited for us and when the young woman caught up to her, Adele said, “I’m very disappointed in your feminism.” Then she put her arm around her and a minute later they were laughing at something. Adele Wiseman was a force of nature and I was lucky to know her.

In 1991, I came to the Leighton Artists Colony for the first time. I wrote a terrible screenplay. The few people who read it died instantly of brain hemmorages. I was at York, in film school, by that point. I’m in the same studio I was in in 1991 right now: Hemingway. Perfectly round, with a high conical roof, and a balcony that looks out onto the woods.

In 2001, I was here as part of the Banff/Calgary Wordfest (running as I write this in fact) and met Nick Earls, who’s now an old friend. That was the year of my novel Martin Sloane and I recall experimenting, serially, with how much I could drink at book festivals. Finally, I was here in 2002, helping, with John Murrell, to dramaturge a multimedia piece that the Gryphon Trio was developing. The centre had changed some since 1991, but nothing like it’s changed beween 2002 and now. The quaint, Swiss-cottagey centerpiece of the whole campus is gone. Donald Cameron Hall, which used to house the administration, the cafeteria, a bar, a nice little shop, and other things is gone, replaced by this:

I accept that corporate citizenship leads to things like this, and support of culture from the private sector is very important, but when they block your view of the mountains and stomp on your memories, I don’t like it as much. They’ve done something similarly blocky and unfortunate with the Sally Borden, which used to house the rec centre and had a huge lounge for artists to gather in. It was built to mimic, in reverse, the peak of Mount Rundle, which is behind it. Now it’s a massive hunk of pleasantly designed, multi-purpose CorpoStructure. No lounge anymore. No fireplace. No pool table.

At least Lloyd Hall is the same. The main dorm. I walked in there a week ago and smelled its slightly yeasty carpets, the vaguely pleasant pong of human beings living and sleeping all together and it shot me back to 1984.

I’ve been here a week in the Leighton Colony. It’s been wonderful to be here again, to have the mountains and the trees and the animals (I’ve even seen one of these!):

A pine marten. Latin name: Oo-cutie-pa-pootie-num-num

My life as a writer would have been different without The Banff Centre. I was lucky to discover it, and so many writers in this country have passed through here and been glad they did. And thank goodness they haven’t touched the Leighton Colony. DON’T TOUCH THE COLONY, BANFF CENTRE! It’s such a wonderful place to work.

Both the centre and the town have changed a great deal in twenty years. In the town, there are more souvenir shops. A Gap. A Keg. But it still has the charm I remember when I was eighteen, galloping downhill with a girl I’d just met to the Magpie and Stump, probably the worst Mexican food in Canada.

In other news:

I’m going to be on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers this Monday at 1pm EST. I’m talking about Inger, me, and writing in general. I think it went pretty well, hope you’ll listen in. The wonderful Christine Pountney is on the show, too, talking about her novel, Sweet Jesus. If you miss the show and want to listen to the podcast, click here.

Jack’s house


The image for this site is a photo I took at a place called “The Cutoff” near Tunica, Mississippi. I was looking for a house for a character in a book. He was a far-off-the-grid kind of guy and I wanted him to be somewhere almost not on the planet anymore.

The novel takes place in Toronto and in the American south. Jack Beifus is a “non-paying spouse” who’s scarpered to the middle of nowhere in the state of Mississippi in order to evade having to pay support to his ex-wife back in Toronto. I wanted him in some kind of shack or house in a field or a cabin in the woods. Then I was having breakfast one morning and got to talking with a Tunica local who told me to drive down to The Cutoff. It’s called The Cutoff because the Mississippi river was cut off in two places to form a standalone lake there. This lady told me there was a place in The Cutoff called Charlie’s Camp that I should go take a look at.

Charlie’s Camp was on the other side of the levee. You had to drive to the end of Fox Island Road and then go right up the levee and down the other side.  This was where you launched your boat, and there was some kind of ramshackle corner store and bar there too. Around it, on about an acre of land, were a collection of the strangest houses I’d ever seen. Most of them (including the store) were raised up on six-foot stilts. Obviously, it flooded here often enough to warrant living six feet in the air. There were about thirty houses here, on either side of the launch area. But not very many of them looked lived in. And there had been more houses as well, because there were the remnants of demolished buildings lying around.

I started to drive and take pictures. Then I realize I’m being followed. It’s a gargantuan man in a monster-truck size 4×4. He cuts me off on the main road and demands to know what I’m doing. I tell him I’m a novelist from Toronto. “The hell you are,” he says. He has a head the size of a Hallowe’en pumpkin, but it’s the colour of a butternut squash. I ask him if he’s doubting that I’m a novelist or that I’m from Toronto. “I don’t doubt you are, but what the hell are you doin aroun here?”

He turns out to be Charlie, the guy who owns the land Charlie’s Camp is on. When I succeed in charming him with my friendly, naive way, he tells me that he’s owned the land for fifty years and as recently as two years ago he had eighty-two tenants paying a hundred dollars a month to park their stilty houses on. But there was a massive, destructive flood in May of 2011 and the federal goverment wouldn’t let people go back to their houses for weeks. So many of them simply left. Now he had seventeen tenants and he was about to wrap up his business at The Cutoff. I told him I could be on my way, but if he didn’t mind, I wanted to take some pictures. He told me to make myself at home. Then I asked him if I could come back out when he wasn’t so busy and buy him a drink, and he said, “I’m never not busy. Got no time to talk.”

He drove off and then I found the house. Couldn’t have found a better house for Jack Beifus, nor a better image for life as a writer these days.