Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Political Romance

For the next month, we present excerpts from a soon to be published e-book, Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the 80s, an interview anthology by Kevin Courrier about the 1980s from artists who lived and worked in that decade.

Talking Out of Turn #15: Heather Robertson on MacKenzie King (1984/86)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One genre that came into prominence in the eighties was the pop biography. Due to the growing influence of celebrity shows on television and tabloid journalism, the pop biography transformed the literary form into an open field of speculation where we could imagine aspects of the life told, not just read about the facts in the subject's life. If Christina Crawford's shrill and exploitative examination of being Joan Crawford's daughter represented one pole of this change, there were other writers who brought a playful and more thoughtful perspective to biographical journalism.


author Heather Robertson

In the chapter Icons Revisited, I included a number of writers who re-examined iconic figures in styles less formal than previous work. Some of the writers included Barbara Branden on Ayn Rand, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Kennedy family, former leftist David Horowitz on the Ford family, John Malcolm Brinnin on Truman Capote and Heather Robertson's fictionalized biographies on former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Willie: A Romance in 1983, Lily: A Rhapsody in Red in 1986,Igor: A Novel of Intrigue in 1989).

Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King

King, a member of the Liberal Party who was first elected Prime Minister in 1921, came under scrutiny in the eighties for his claim to having clairvoyant powers and the rather bizarre relationship he had with his mother. Rather than skirt the claim, Heather Robertson's trilogy, drawn out of both fact and fiction, delved into the psychological underpinnings of the Canadian leader without exploiting any of the prurient fascination in the subject. In this interview, I've cheated somewhat by editing together two different conversations with Robertson in order to provide a wider scope of her perspective on King.

kc: Before I get into your view of William Lyon MacKenzie King, what kind of view do you think we have of our former Prime Minister? 

hr: We usually think of King as an old man. An old fuddy. He wasn't though. In his thirties, he was fairly attractive, a very vigorous man, and a very sensual man with a certain amount of charisma. So what I tried to do in Willie: A Romance was develop a portrait of the kind of man who covets political power. It's a portrait of a man who was written off. He had been defeated in the election of 1911 and left basically unemployed. King was a Liberal hack doing a little bit of dabbling here and there. In other words, nobody took him seriously as a potential Prime Minister. Thanks to his diary, I developed this intimate personal portrait of a politician. It's not just King; it's a politician. And as a basically inept man, he became the most successful Prime Minister in the British Empire. He dominated Ottawa political life for over fifty years.

kc: But how strange a man did you find him to be as you were researching your subject?

hr: Psychiatric reports as early as 1916 suggest that he was not only profoundly neurotic but he also had psychopathic tendencies. He was certainly subject to severe nervous breakdowns and depressions. At those times, he would withdraw from public life. As he grew older, he even became more and more remote. So here we are with a man, who by all standards would be considered borderline psychologically, who develops into a successful politician. The psychiatric theory behind King was that he sublimated his personal problems into politics, so that politics and being Prime Minister became his entire life. King was obsessed with political power without being an ideologue who had ambitions or goals, or even theories. He just wanted to stay in office.

kc: What kind of opinion did King have of himself?

hr: King saw himself more and more as Sir Galahad, or Parsifal. You know, the pure Knight of the Round Table? He was deeply into Tennyson and the whole romantic myth of the Victorian era, whereby he had to keep himself pure in order to fulfill this holy crusade. He's the most extraordinary political animal that I think we are never likely to see again in the Western world.

kc: You put a woman into his life in Willie: A Romance named Lily Coolican. Was that done to humanize him?
hr: No. You have to look at him from the point of view of a woman because they were so central to his concept of political power. His whole relationship with women is central to his psychology and to his political success. How did he seem to women? How did he relate to women? Why was it impossible for him to develop what might be an ordinary married life? Obviously, if he had, he would have been a failure as a politician.

kc: You give Lily a modern consciousness though.

hr: Well the [first] book isn't just about Willie King, it is about a social history. It's a history of the period. And the period in this first volume, which covers 1914 to 1918, is a great turning point in Canadian history. The First World War liberated us from the British Empire. It was the beginning of our national identity. But it was also a very important time for women. It was the beginning of the modern age. It was a time that brought women out of the drawing rooms and into the factories. These were middle-class respectable women moving into the garment and lumber factories and munition plants. Women became politicized then. And, for the first time, they began to earn money. As I was writing Willie, I read diaries from these women so I could capture the voice of that time. My aim was to write this book as Lily Coolican's diary which would be a counterpoint to Willie King's diary. It's she who Willie is in love with and who returned his strange affection.

kc: What was King's relationship to women? We're certainly now more aware of his relationship to his mother.
hr: King was very interested in women. Women liked him. This was something that fascinated me from the very beginning. He had a large circle of female friends so there was nothing about him that suggested that he was gay. But I was always amazed at the admiration and regard from all these women when he would treat them badly. King would send them gifts and flirt with them. But then he would drop them cold. So I developed an idea of what his attraction would be for women. Most of it was intellectual because he was well-educated and an intelligent man. King had an intuitiveness that was very feminine. He had no use for the rituals of masculine society. He didn't like the clubs, the horse racing, or the gambling. But he did like the rituals of female conversation. It was the kind of things that women build a romance on.

kc: Do you think you might raise the ire of certain historical purists by writing your books on King and the period as novels?

Charlotte Whitton, the former Mayor of Ottawa.
hr: But they're novels about history. I'm really grasping at historical truth, not historical fact. You see, I don't trust historical fact because I've done enough research myself in archives to know that papers are laundered, documents are missing, locked up, or destroyed. So what the straight historian has to do is ignore the stuff that is not there. I've done a lot of work in oral and popular history and that's the area I move into. For instance, simple facts about Canadian history are not known. How many Canadians know for a fact that Leon Trotsky was here during the First World War? Some say that he was not in Kirkland Lake, but there were a lot of people who would swear that he was there during the teens. So let's put him in Kirkland Lake. I also suggested that Charlotte Whittonwas possibly a lesbian and that is strongly suggested in her papers because she had a thirty-year relationship with another woman. Yet these things are not commonly known.

kc: You changed the style of the second book in the trilogy [Lily: A Rhapsody in Red] from Willie: A Romance. Why was that?

hr: What I've been trying to do in these novels is recreate the style of the time. Willie was set in the time of the First World War, so I used the diary technique which was the style of the day. Now I'm into the twenties and thirties, so I've written Lily in the style of a movie, a silent movie like those wonderful Lilian Gish films where everything moves very quickly. I'm very fond of those movies and I even have segues where I hold up a sign that says, "One Day Later." (laughs) This is the movie that Lily would have made, if she had made a movie. At one point in the book, she says to Willie, "Let's make a movie. We'll call itDeath of a Nation." This, of course, is a play on Birth of a Nation. But it is also a key to the novel because it is about the death of Canada at that time. It's about the corruption of the government and the selling out of big business and the Depression. The twenties and thirties were about chaos and also a very traumatic time in Canadian history.
kc: Your books remind me a little of the kinds of games that Doctorow played in his novel Ragtime where historical figures keep slipping in and out of the fictional narrative. Why play these games with history? 

hr: It's a way of forcing people to look at their recent past. I've also learned a lot from television today. It's in the way that television turns news into drama. The news is shaped for television by the camera, the journalist, the editing process and the host. So when you turn on the national news to try and figure out what is really happening, how do you know? The little snippet you see on the screen is an incredibly distorted perception of what is happening out there. So what I'm trying to do is challenge people's perceptions, too. We have many assumptions about what is right and what's wrong. What happened and what didn't. We all know that MacKenzie King was a Prime Minister, and as a novelist, I say to know that fact, what if? Let's assume that this happened instead of that. You're right when you suggested that this is a game. My books are like Trivial Pursuit without the answer cards (laughs).

- originally published on March 21, 2011 in Critics at Large.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism

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