by Antanas Sileika
Aspiring writers dream not only of publication, but of standing on the stage at Harbourfront Centre, and then, maybe best of all, sharing drinks with other authors in the Hospitality Suite.
That was part of the dream I wrote about in my memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller.
When I returned to Toronto from Paris, where we’d run a literary journal called Paris Voices out of the bookstore (Shakespeare and Company), the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) down at Harbourfront Centre was like a literary Manhattan compared to the grubby literary digs at S.&Co.
High profile writers came through there, the likes of Tobias Wolff and Guy Vanderhaeghe. Anybody could go down to listen to them at the Festival, but every aspiring writer wants to do more than sit in the audience. In my overheated literary imagination, I envisioned a hospitality suite that included a Canadian version of the Algonquin Round Table. Who would be our Dorothy Parker? Can a Canuck even be Dorothy Parker?
Maybe not. Literary parties are sometimes like awkward cocktail parties at Rotary Club Conventions.
But not always.
Here are a few scenes from the IFOA Hospitality Suite across the decades:
A Québécois writer stands guard in leather pants at the smoking room (this was long ago) in the Hospitality Suite. He demands a song from every person who wants to enter. Always game for a little fun, I start Shaboom, a doowop tune, and from behind me, I hear someone join in. It is Ellen Seligman, the late storied editor from McClelland and Stewart.
She loves that tune and her partner, Jim Polk, can do the accompaniment in its entirety, one that goes something like – hey doddy din din alingalingaling. Jim Polk is in a suit and tie, and of a certain age. He looks like a returning original member of The Crewcuts, who sang the tune in the fifties. We three start that room rocking, and we keep rolling until early in the morning. “Shaboom” remained our secret code word, a mantra Ellen and I whispered to one another whenever we crossed paths at literary receptions.
* * *
In the Hospitality Suite, I run into Christine Pountney, a talented Canadian writer who has just returned to Canada from the UK. I am enchanted; I am transported; I am twenty years her senior; I am married. When it comes time for me to go, Michael Winter saunters over to say hello to me. I tell him that if I were younger and single, I would not leave the room without that woman’s phone number. He gets her number. He marries her.
As a coda to the story above, I like to remind Michael that Christine drove him to the hospital when a dangerous infection threatened his heart. She saved his life, or put another way, I saved his life by tipping him off to her.
* * *
The late Alistair MacLeod and I are standing in the Hospitality Suite when he confesses to me that many of his admirers buy him excellent bottles of scotch, but Alistair is a Scot who doesn’t like to waste money. What does he do with those expensive bottles? He puts them under his bed. When it actually comes to drinking, he tells me he will drink anything on offer and then he laughs and asks me to get him a drink. “Anything?” I ask. “Anything,” he answers. But a cocktail party in the Hospitality Suite is fluid, and somehow I lose him in the flow of movement and conversation and I never do get him that drink. The next thing I know, I hear Alistair has died, and I think two things after I get over my shock and grief. First, I wonder if his kids know about the good bottles of scotch under his bed. Second, I hope my own last words are a call for one last drink from a friend.
A year later, in the Hospitality Suite, Guy Vanderhaeghe and I recall Alistair with great sadness while drinking, naturally enough, a whiskey called Writers’ Tears.
* * *
The dream of my youth threatens to become the nightmare of my later life. The Hospitality Suite is a place I now visit early, if at all, for just a quick drink before retiring.
But there are always young writers in the room, sometimes haughty if they have broken big, more often unsure of themselves and eager to meet older writers they have admired. They are still dreaming, and looking around for the Canuck who will be our own Dorothy Parker.
Antanas Sileika is the author of four works of fiction. His first collection of stories, Buying on Time, was shortlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Toronto Book Award as well as serialized on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers. Woman in Bronze and Underground were both listed among the 100 books of the year by the Globe and Mail, and the latter has been optioned for film. Antanas is the former director of the Humber School for Writers. He lives in Toronto, Ontario. He’ll be at IFOA 2017!