Union of Canada
Andreas Schroeder, interviewed by phone at Roberts Creek, B.C. on March 21, 2013, by Christopher Moore in Toronto.
Moore: Tell me about your situation as a writer circa 1972. You were already published in poetry and in stories at that time?
Schroeder: Poetry primarily and stories just getting going, but really paying the bills with journalism. It was becoming just possible in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s to actually consider a writing career that would cross-fertilize among the different jobs that might actually pay your bills. I didn’t realize at the time that we were probably the first generation of Canadian writers for whom that wasn’t a completely ludicrous idea.
There was obviously a generation ahead of us that had already been doing this, but you could count the successful ones on the fingers of one hand. For them it was more of a romantic dream, whereas in my generation — and there were a lot of others besides myself doing it here on the West Coast — we grew up with the idea that this was somehow a fairly practical possibility. Not easy, definitely, but doable.
So we were probably quite ready to engage with the concept of a Writers’ Union. True, there was already the League of Poets, but -- not to be unduly uncharitable -- it was more of a kaffeeklatsch organization. The league wasn’t accomplishing much in terms of improving the real practicalities around earning a living as a writer.
My introduction to the Union came about — when was the Canada-Russian series? Was it ’71?
Moore: Fall of ’72.
Schroeder: Ah, right. Well, that’s when the League had its famous AGM at the MacDonald Hotel in Edmonton. Its executive director obviously wasn’t a hockey fan and hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the series was going to be happening right during the League’s AGM. As a result, you had a hotel full of writers stubbornly sitting in their rooms watching the games and not attending any of the meetings, so that the AGM itself — the events — were running on empty.
Moore: And you were a member of the League and attending this AGM, were you?
Schroeder: That’s right. I was working as a poet and looking for something like a brotherhood, I guess, but not really expecting it to lead to anything too terribly practical. I remember John Newlove was there and Al Purdy, and they got mightily upset at some of the Russian goal-scoring. At one point -- I think it was Newlove – he threw a beer bottle at the television, which exploded. That was just an example of the sort of thing that went on all weekend. So the League got kicked out of the MacDonald Hotel and told never to come back. Margaret Atwood was there too, and the next day, I guess it was on the Sunday after the whole thing wrapped up … she was flying back to Toronto and I was flying to Toronto too for some reason, and we ended up sitting together. She was looking really grumpy. I said, ‘Peggy, I didn’t think you cared that much about hockey.’ She said, ‘Hockey, forget that. I was just so disappointed in this organization. It’s got no political traction at all. It’s just farting around. We really need an organization that’s a whole lot more practical and a whole lot more political. One that’s got some real gumption and actually wants to improve writers’ lives in more serious ways.’ Then she said, “As a matter of fact, there’s a few of us in Toronto who have been kicking this idea around. How would you like to get involved? We’re thinking about something like a writers’ union.’
Well, she didn’t have to spend much effort convincing me – it was just as clear to me that this was exactly what we all really needed. So I said, ‘Sure, count me in. I’m game.” We landed in Toronto and she told me when they were going to get together at Marian Engel’s place next to talk about it, and within three months or something like that, at the meeting at Neill Wycik College, it happened, we got the whole thing roughed out, and the following year we were on the road.
Moore: So back up a little bit. You were getting off the plane with Margaret Atwood in late September in ’72 I think. Were you in Toronto long enough to go to some of those meetings at Marian Engel’s house?
Schroeder: One of them, on Marian’s porch, and we all drank beer and talked about what we needed. I’ll tell you, I had no idea how big a part of my life was going to be involved as a result of it, because PLR was a major topic that day. Marian knew all about it. She’d heard about it from Denmark. There were a whole bunch of ideas being bandied about, but that was the one she insisted we pay attention to. Graeme was big on it too. In a way, PLR became the main issue around which the Union coalesced because it was the only idea (of the many ideas that were being proposed) that looked like it could be turned into cash. We thought that was probably the most realizable goal of the ones that we had in the hopper, and how long did it take -- 13 years?
Certainly Marian was absolutely right because it did eventually become one of the more significant Union achievements. She sensed that right off. She had a good practical sense of things like that.
Moore: I recently talked to Howard Engel of his memories of those kinds of meetings at their house. Who do you remember being on the porch at that meeting? You mentioned Graeme Gibson and Marian Engel of course.
Schroeder: Yeah, and Fred Bosworth believe it or not. I’ve got a funny story about Fred although it doesn’t have anything to do with that meeting, but maybe I’ll get to that later. David Lewis Stein was there. David – associated with the press – what was his name?
Moore: Oh David Godfrey?
Schroeder: Yes, he was there, for a few hours and then he left. He was a real go-getter, with real business savvy. Graeme was the guy who had the political strategy savvy, but Godfrey had the business side of it. I thought he was going to be a big mover in the Union. In the end, that didn’t happen.
Moore: I guess he went more into publishing, and software and all kinds of things.
Schroeder: Although he wrote the whole time. So it was really quite odd that he didn’t get more involved. Perhaps in the end because of the business side of it.
If you look at what was achieved in those early years, it was really stunning.
Schroeder: We began with a virtual tabula rasa. There were so many things to accomplish that in a sense you almost couldn’t lose. But still, it’s a miracle to me sometimes that we did manage to pull so much of that shit together. There were some really naïve writers in the group, and some with an almost anarchist approach and what-not, which was very highly ideological. In the end, we sort of tried to incorporate it — you know, the James Grays and the George Woodcocks and so on — but it was a miracle we managed to keep those guys as members for the two or three years that they were. In hindsight, it was pretty much predictable that they were going to kick us in the teeth and leave.
Moore: Having become too structured and hierarchical…
Schroeder: Yeah, which was something we achieved within the first 10 minutes. As far as Woodcock was concerned, the minute we got more organized at Wycik, things were already too organized. And yet, isn’t it ironic that Woodcock left us the Woodcock Fund, which has helped more writers in more astonishing ways than you could ever appreciate. But they weren’t membership-type guys.
The other interesting thing that struck me at the time — I only attended one of the meetings at Marian’s house; there were a lot of them that had apparently gone on before I got there — but I was initially the only West Coast person, and I got involved fairly quickly at the National Council level — immediately, actually. But what struck me was, yes, it was a small group of Torontonians that cooked it up initially but as soon as the first organizational meeting was under way, there was buy-in from right across the country. In no time at all, there was a good national balance.
Moore: I wanted to ask you about that. According to the chronology I had, if this was in the fall of ’72, you talked to Margaret Atwood and went to that meeting. I think it was Dec. ’72 there was the meeting at Neill Wycik. Alma Lee was already on a sort of staff position, at least a bit of a retainer, and she talked about really struggling and beating the bushes to find a hundred writers who might come to that meeting.
Schroeder: Yeah, that was the first one.
Moore: It may have been the second one she was talking about because there was one later, in the summer of ’73.
Schroeder: Yes, in June. That’s the one where everybody came. The Neill Wycik one was really more of a planning meeting.
Moore: The first one, in December of ’72.
Schroeder: Yeah, that’s where it all gelled, and then once it was an idea that was in place, the buy-in happened really fast.
Moore: So the following meeting was in June … the second Ryerson meeting.
Schroeder: Hmmm, I’m bad at this stuff. I think the Neill Wycik was in June. What was the one in Ottawa?
Moore: That was in November ’73 — the official founding.
Schroeder: Okay, so the Neill Wycik would have been in June . The one in Ryerson was in ’72, that’s how it works. The Neill Wycik and the Ryerson ones — those were really planning meetings — and the Ottawa one was when everything became official. And before that there was a bit of an attempt at outreach of course, but everybody was concerned about just getting the idea rolling. That was the thing that impressed me. It had not been true for any of the other organizations I had belonged to. They were always so Toronto-centric. This one … well you know there were quite a few people in the Writers’ Union back then who had also been members of those other groups, and they’d learned from that, and had come to realize what the political reaction would be and what to avoid. So I give them high marks for the way they bent over backwards to make room for writers from all across the country.
Moore: David Lewis Stein thought that the institutional aspect of that — having provincial members or regional members on the National Council in the beginning was an important aspect of that.
Schroeder: He’s quite right about that. Writers in the Maritimes and on the West Coast at that time were pretty prickly about Toronto, and tended to take offence really quickly, so paying attention to that was definitely a smart idea.
Moore: Do you remember other British Columbians or West Coast writers who were involved early on like you?
Schroeder: George Payerle, he was in there right from the beginning. Bob Harlow. Robin Skelton. Audrey Thomas. Terry Heath — he wasn’t West Coast; he was Saskatchewan — was involved quite heavily right from the start too. My friend Silver Don Cameron from Vancouver was already living in the Maritimes, and he got involved pretty quickly. And then of course Hélène Holden from Montreal. She was married to that famous lawyer, Richard Holden I think. Notorious gadfly. I think he started up his own political party at one point. But he had a lot of influence. You’d never know that from Hélène. Hélène ran the Double Hook bookstore, which was that famous bookstore…
Moore: In Westmount, right.
Schroeder: She co-owned it with somebody else, I’ve forgotten. But anyway, she was this tiny, petite, very francophone writer who was involved right from the start and for about five or six years she was in there like a dirty shirt. She was really, really involved, but then she faded away. I think in her case it was because she stopped writing, or wrote less and less.
You know come to think of it, that wasn’t such an uncommon phenomenon — people who just stopped writing. It’s never been easy.
Moore: Sure, not everybody makes a career out of it in the end. In fact, I’ve seen quite a list of the early members and there’s quite a few I don’t recognize as having gone on writing in fact.
Robert Harlow, was he…?
Schroeder: Yeah, Robert Harlow was in there for about half a dozen years and then just drifted away. Bob was an interesting guy. He was formerly head of the CBC out here and then became head of the creative writing department at UBC.
Moore: How about Susan Musgrave? Was Susan an early member?
Schroeder: No. Susan was still quite young back then, and only writing poetry. Maybe 18 or thereabouts. She was very heavily involved in the BC writing scene, and of course Songs of the Sea Witch was published when she was 17, I think, and it was a damned good book too. When it came to organizing and things like that, she was still a bit out of her depth. She did actually step up to the job eventually, but many years later. I’m shooting from the hip, but I’m thinking about 12 years later, maybe more. So she was just writing and trying to keep her head above water.
I remember a lot of people from the Maritimes being involved.
Moore: There was one I was going to ask you about. One of the things I’ve been hearing is about is the drafting of the by-laws and the constitution. Harold Horwood gets a lot of credit and Frank Scott gets a lot of credit too. I’m still trying to sort out who was in where on that. Do you remember them at Neill Wycik or later at Ottawa, or who was doing what when?
Schroeder: Frank Scott never did … I’m not sure that Frank was ever a member. He was certainly consulted a lot. I’m trying to remember if he was at Neill Wycik.
Moore: My understanding, and I wanted to check this with you, is that he was mainly at the Ottawa meeting. He may even have chaired some of it because David Lewis Stein said they were pretty grateful for the work he did and assumed he would go on being a member. And at the end of the Ottawa meeting, he said ‘Boys, you’ve got yourself an organization’ and said ‘Thanks’ and walked away. And he didn’t participate any longer.
Schroeder: That’s how I remember it too. I don’t remember him at Neill Wycik and I do remember him at Ottawa, and that was it for him. He saw himself primarily as a poet and he wasn’t making a living from his writing. But Harold, oh my God, yes, Harold was a phenomenon. It took me a long time to get used to Harold. Harold had been Smallwood’s sidekick, been a Member of Parliament — the cut and thrust of politics in the Maritimes I can only imagine; it was probably even worse than Ottawa. He had this voice that cut, a really sharp voice that he made no effort to de-emphasize. When Harold talked, it always sounded as if you were being accused or your death sentence was being read.
Frank Scott was the guy who had the whole philosophy down, and the legalities. But Harold had the practical, everyday parliamentary procedures down. So everyone always turned to Harold to get his advice. In fact, he published an amended version of Robert’s Rules of Order specifically for the Union, which we used like a Bible for years and years, although it eventually faded away.
I saw pretty much eye to eye with Harold, strategy-wise, so for a couple of years there we served on Council and I never had any reason to tangle with him. But at some point I came out against something that Harold was for, and holy smokes, he lashed out at me and just sort of wiped the floor with me. I was just stunned. I walked out of that meeting and thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know where that came from but I guess Harold and I don’t have a future in this Union.’ And the next morning, he was totally, inexplicably friendly again. I said, “Harold, I don’t understand. Yesterday you hammered the stuffing out of me.’ And he said, ‘Oh shit that’s just the way you do politics where I come from. For God’s sake, don’t take it personally!” It took me a long time to internalize that because he sure was convincing when he attacked you during a debate. I don’t think he fully realized the effect he had on people that way.
He wouldn’t engage in a lot of small talk. He wouldn’t engage in the sort of preparatory babble that went on when an idea was first put on the table. He would just shut up and sit and wait until he had an opinion about it, and then he’d come out of his corner. The starkness of that, and the abruptness always shocked everybody. It took me some time to get used to it.
I did eventually visit him … he’d moved to Nova Scotia by that time … he actually had some sort of hippie enterprise going there, which was a side to him that you wouldn’t necessarily have intuited… well, he had a long ponytail for a while, but other than that you would never have dreamed. He had none of that loosey, goosey stuff in his manner you would normally associate with a back-to-the-lander. So I was startled. But it was clearly the real thing. He had a whole operation there that was pretty much self-sufficient and organic and solar-powered and the whole nine yards. When we weren’t doing politics — I can’t say he was a different guy, but he certainly had a different approach. We actually got along very well, but he could have fooled me at National Council meetings, sometimes.
Moore: The structure of the Union as it began was very much centred on the AGM as being the real decision-making body and there was supposed to be a huge turnout of writers, who thrashed issues out for several days, and the National Council was the implementation body of that, if I understand the philosophy of it correctly. Was that all the things you were thrashing out at Wycik and towards the founding meeting?
Schroeder: Yes, that’s how it worked. I was on National Council right from the start and I think I served on it five or six years straight. We burned up phone lines like you wouldn’t believe. This was before e-mail, right? E-mail was just getting started but it was expensive and unpredictable, in fact unreliable. I remember trying to institute it when we got PLR in ’86. I tried to install it as the main communications platform because this was in the days when long-distance phoning was still really expensive. Email seemed like it was going to be a cheaper way of doing things but I think we spent just as much money struggling with the software and trying to get all of the systems in place and so on.
We also did a tremendous amount of letter-writing. I went back into my Union files when I sold my archives and, holy smokes there were a lot of letters. I think we wrote letters to each other every single day of the year. And big long letters too. We’re talking about 2,3,4 pages., single-spaced. Truckloads of them.
Moore: Policy and politics, and what to do and how to get it done.
Schroeder: Well yeah -- technologically it was a whole different era. Photocopiers were just coming in, and Gestetner – well Gestetner preceded photocopiers. There was a lot of Gestetner. Everybody on National Council got Gestetnered copies of everything.
Moore: We’ll have to put a footnote on the bottom explaining what a Gestetner is.
Schroeder: I remember the year I was vice-chair, I was in Toronto quite a bit as a result, and we still had our offices on Bloor Street back then. It was hot and the office didn’t have air conditioning or anything, and all the men had their shirts off and everyone was sweating like crazy and literally dripping sweat on the papers and what-not. We were sticking stamps on a million envelopes. There was a lot of really mundane stuff like that, running the Union. We had virtually no staff in those days.
At some point we must talk about Alma. She was formidable and in ways that were not standard issue. The Union was actually technically broke, a lot of the time, so that every couple of months we were actually going under and Alma would go and see the bank manager. I don’t know what happened behind those closed doors, and I’m not really suggesting anything untoward, but I’m describing a degree and quality of charm that the Union had no idea it was basing its entire financial salvation on. What that woman was able to get in the way of cooperation or at least a bank manager not freaking when I’m sure every rule in the book said that he should have been, was astounding.
Moore: Now she also told me that she went to see Farley Mowat once when the Union was out of money, and Farley gave them a loan. It wasn’t just the bank managers.
Schroeder: Yeah, Farley and Pierre. June Callwood I think. There were a number of people who quietly helped out, and Alma had the list.
Moore: And this was when the Union was a going concern, when it had been officially founded, had a National Council …
Schroeder: Yeah , but even the year that I was chair, which would have been ’76 I guess, there were times when I’d look at the books and I’d say, ‘Alma, I’m not an accountant but I can add and subtract. I think we’re fucked.’ And she would grin and say, ‘Yeah well it looks like it’s time to go and see the bank manager again.’ And I said, ‘ I’m looking at these books but I don’t want to know what I’m seeing. You just tell me it’s ok and that’s what I’ll go to the National Council with; I’ll say, Alma says it’s ok.’ And somehow it always was.
Moore: Let’s backtrack a little bit to the founding meeting in Ottawa. I haven’t got a very coherent description of that from anybody yet. I understand it was at the Lord Elgin Hotel. What else can you tell me?
Schroeder: It’s a bit of a blur for me too. There was a fair amount of raucous debate. By and large, nobody had to be convinced that we had to exist, and that the basic structure of the organization should be something close to what was being proposed. That wasn’t the issue. The biggest issue as I recall it was membership, and membership cost. There was a lot of quarrel about what membership criteria should be used, and how membership fees should be assessed. I have to admit that at the time it didn’t bother me. I can sort of see the various perspectives a bit more clearly now. I guess there was a fairly elitist — what we would call elitist now — sense of things for some people. I think they were less interested in having big numbers. It would be nice to have big numbers but if that came at the expense of the quality of the commitment to writing, it wasn’t worth it. They didn’t want triflers. What was a trifler? Imagine trying to define that. And in fact it never really got resolved. I think the general spirit was, we had to try and be a little generous about this, but in retrospect, that’s not really what happened, because [John] Metcalf was involved pretty much from the start, and he took that on. He fairly cheerfully ignored any of the Union’s tendency to define that concept more loosely. He applied our membership criteria with an almost Teutonic vigour.
Moore: You mean he wanted to keep out anyone he considered a trifler.
Schroeder: Oh yeah, and he did. We blew hot and cold on the various definitions for almost two hours as I recall and never really got it resolved. But he was chair of the membership committee, and he developed that as a little fiefdom of his own. We never knew much about who got rejected. Metcalf was just sitting there on his little throne deciding who was in and was not, and only years later did I think holy cow, that guy was a gatekeeper in a way that I don’t think we ever fully appreciated. Because, I mean, the people we expected to be in the Union were. The people who got turned down, we probably didn’t know, and they didn’t come back. No one that I recall ever went around the membership committee and complained to the National Council about being rejected. I guess they just went off and licked their wounds. By the way, Metcalf wasn’t doing this surreptitiously or anything. He was quite marvellously cheeky, and he boasted about how he was keeping the … it’s almost a little bit like the Québeçois concept of pur-laine.
Moore: Did this mean you had to be a fiction writer or you had to be a literary fiction writer or you just had to burn with a pure hard flame?
Schroeder: A literary writer. Believe it or not, in those early days nobody seriously considered the idea of a non-fiction writer as a member of the Union. I find that stunning now. I mean really, what were we thinking? It’s beyond me. But you know, ‘non-fiction’ had a different reputation back then. Creative non-fiction hadn’t happened yet, and even going into your own bailiwick, history was being written in a pretty darned boring way.
Moore: And non-fiction was really a branch of journalism, mostly. I guess you didn’t want a whole lot of newspaper people.
Schroeder: That’s right. So there were much greater distinctions being drawn at that time. And when that line finally began to crumble, it produced another series of arguments that almost broke the Union up. It was intense.
Moore: So someone who wrote Harlequin romances or successful crime thrillers, not a hope?
Schroeder: Not on your life. Not that I remember. It was purely literary; in fact, an applicant’s books were actually read by the membership committee. They were vetted for quality, and that only stopped when the applications for membership became so numerous that it just wasn’t practical anymore. I will say that at the time I don’t think it particularly harmed the Writers’ Union movement. That’s maybe not fair of me to say in the sense that there were undoubtedly individuals out there who may have felt pretty aggrieved about the Union’s stance. But at the time it just seemed like we were keeping it straight, keeping it legit, or something like that.
Moore: So if you wanted a really committed ginger group of activist writers, I guess you were selecting for them?
Schroeder: Yes, that very term was used back then, and it was used in that context. I recall Keith Maillard using it in an accusing manner when he felt we were losing our edge many years later, when the Union seems to be floundering a bit. Yeah, Keith Maillard, there’s another person who started off strongly with the Union and then sort of faded away, but kept writing, quite busily.
Moore: So the meeting in Ottawa was a somewhat formal business meeting? I think there might have been Frank Scott in the chair; there was an agenda and resolutions being passed, and an organization to be brought into being.
Schroeder: Well remember, that was the third meeting for most of us. So we were pretty accustomed to the drill and a lot of the stuff, even if it hadn’t been formally put on the books, we already had the concepts thrashed out. In a lot of ways, besides the money and the membership, the rest of it had pretty much been agreed to at Neill Wycik already. The Ottawa meeting mostly formalized it.
I don’t remember the Ottawa meeting being as formative in the way the Neill Wycik meeting was. The Neill Wycik meeting for me was where things really got thrashed out from scratch. The Ottawa meeting was where everything was announced. That’s how I recall it. As the formality went on, all kinds of stuff was finally put on record because there we were in the National Capital and all the rest of it. But the original ploughing of the ground and the really messy stuff mostly happened at Neill Wycik, in my recollection.
Moore: How long did that Neill Wycik meeting last? Was it over a few days?
Schroeder: Yeah it was. Those of us who came in from outside Toronto were booked into some sort of college-type residence — I’m not sure. This is where my Bodsworth story comes in. Many of us shared accommodation. It was availability of money and everything. Nobody had a lot of it. Fred was a big name back then and he was an international writer, not just Canadian. He was a bird guy and travelled to all kinds of exotic birdy places. And I’m speculating here but I can only conclude that maybe the world separates into two kinds of people: those who sleep cold and those who sleep hot. I always sleep in a room with windows and doors wide open and a huge down comforter to offset that. So we wrapped things up and everybody went back to their rooms and I said goodnight to Fred and we went to sleep. A few hours later I woke up and the room was boiling hot. You can get almost nauseous from something like that if you’re a cold sleeper. I stumbled over to the thermostat and found the damned thing cranked right up to the max. So I turned it off. Everything was fine for a few hours and then I woke up again and it was boiling again. No matter how many times I turned it down, the room was soon boiling again. I think we must have done this about four times when I finally woke up to see Fred stumbling to the thermostat and cranking it back up and going back to his bed. It was hilarious – or it is now, remembering it – but then it was an utterly traumatic night in which I never got a wink of sleep. It was like being in the tropics.
So that was my introduction to Fred Bodsworth. I didn’t actually know him before.
Moore: I bet you had to spend the whole day thrashing out the constitutional details of the Writers’ Union.
Schroeder: You know, we never even talked about it. That was the funny thing. We both woke up with red eyes and feeling like shit, but never mentioned it. But we also never shared another room again.
Moore: I wanted to ask you about Margaret Laurence to begin with, who was the interim chair or the informal chair before there was a formal chair I think. What can you tell me about Margaret’s role?
Schroeder: Well, remember, the beginning of that actually goes back to England because she was in England when the talk first began about having a union. And everyone automatically proposed that she be the first chair. She resisted mightily. Her reputation was huge, but she herself was mortally shy. So shy that when it came to public events in which she had to perform — for a reading or as a chair or whatever — she would just shake. It terrified her. Years later she became my oldest daughter’s godmother. We phoned her dozens of times every year and got to know her very well. That part of her nature never changed. She would virtually barf before every public appearance. She didn’t want to be chair and didn’t enjoy it and really just wanted to be a member of the group. So she was primarily a figurehead and she also didn’t have administrative skills. She had wonderful person skills and that in the end was really her primary and huge gift to the Union. She drew on all her connections for the Union and in fact even brought Mordecai Richler kicking and screaming into the organization, although he hated every minute of it and I don’t believe he ever attended anything. But he did pay his dues every year and lent his name. I think he actually availed himself once or twice of some of the Union’s touring program, and when he stopped doing that we were all very grateful because he messed it up every time. He couldn’t seem to avoid offending wherever he went and so if he had gone before you, all the expectations were highly negative.
I actually got quite cranky about that for a time. Because he had no idea what was going on back in Canada and his ideological perspective on things often seemed to go well ahead of his understanding of it. So he would shit on everything but then avail himself of it anyway. Like writers’ residencies. I’m not saying the Writers’ Union created writers’ residencies but it sort of evolved them. There had been a few programs like that going on before, but the Union sort of standardized them and thrashed out a kind of contract for what people should be expected to do and how much they should be paid. Mordecai was one of the first to use it -- and left it in a mess. Apparently he hardly ever showed up for a workshop, and when he did he read the paper most of the time, telling people you can’t teach creative writing — not that anybody actually claimed you could, but he sort of assumed that’s what they were expecting. The hosts were just devastated, and some of them didn’t want to do it anymore.
He didn’t cover himself with glory with respect to PLR either. At one point, when we were still trying to figure out how much every writer would get and on what basis, we were looking at solutions that would avoid the British model in which a small number of successful writers got pretty much the whole pot. I decided to approach about a dozen of Canada’s best-known writers and ask them if they’d be willing to accept an earnings ceiling — even though it would cost them a lot of money. I’m happy to tell you that the response was so generous, it was amazing. I mean people like Berton and Callwood and so on said, ‘You know what, not only do we encourage the idea of a ceiling but we won’t even apply, so you can use the money for writers who really need it.’ Everybody, that is, except Mordecai. He said, ‘No way. That’s my money.’ I know he could be generous with people. It wasn’t that he was a mean-minded guy particularly, but he had that side to him that was pretty difficult to handle.
Anyway I got sidetracked there.
Moore: You went from Margaret Laurence to Mordecai.
Schroeder: Yeah. So Margaret did that for… it wasn’t even a full year; it was just part of a year, and full of fear and trembling. God bless her.
Moore: And lending her name as the leading novelist of the day, in effect.
Schroeder: And running a lot of interference among the more hot-headed writers that she knew. Sort of doing the motherly thing, you know? She kept James Gray under control, to the extent that anyone could. She and Sylvia. Actually Sylvia Fraser served that function too. They sort of mother-henned a fair number of writers, and when people from the margins were brought in to the Union and didn’t really know what was going on, they took them under their wings in ways that were quite wonderful.
So yeah, that’s mostly what Margaret did. And then this god-damned question of how to finance the Union kept coming up. The issue was, should we have a flat fee or do you pay on a scale according to your writing income? That’s what brought Margaret down. I’m trying to remember which side of the argument she was on. I think she was into paying a sliding scale, in other words, according to your income. It got her into big shit with her friend, Toronto writer – Jewish. Adele?
Moore: Adele Wiseman?
Schroeder: That’s her. Adele actually quit the Union over the issue and Margaret was devastated and sort of quit herself for quite a while and then came back. But that hurt her enormously.
Moore: Well, that’s why I wanted to bring up the name of Marian Engel, who was also a very shy person and a bit of an organizer. What can you tell me about Marian Engel’s role?
Schroeder: Marian definitely had both those sides to her, but they were quite often in contradiction with or at war with each other. Of course, Marian had a hard life, you know, so she had built up a deep resentment about the way writers were being treated in this country. Well, she focused on the libraries. She was really angry at the way that libraries took writers and their books for granted. Yeah, she was not a details person, not a nuts-and-bolts person, but she could really see the bigger picture. A kind of visionary, in some ways. But I always felt that she was a very lonely person too.
Moore: Howard Engel said that he thought the existence of the Union and just a whole lot of writers in a room together was tremendously affirming for Marian Engel; that she’d been so kind of lonely and isolated in a way as a writer that even if she disagreed with them all, the fact that there were other writers and they were working together, he thought that was tremendously important to her.
Schroeder: Yeah, and I have to say that for the most part, it wasn’t writers who she tangled with. The people she took shots at were people who were treating writers badly. So when she got her dander up enough – and that’s how she operated; she sort of waited until she got her dander up – then holy shit, she went all out. She had guts. She went to a meeting of Toronto librarians -- because she’d got herself on the Toronto Public Library Board, mostly as a spy for PLR I think -- and she sat there and listened to them talking about it, and I think she was pretty patient for quite a while, but when she finally lost her cool over it, she used a keynote speech that she gave to a librarians’ conference to let them have it. She called them ripoffs. She said that they were ripping off Canadian writers. That was the headline in The Globe and Mail the next day. She said to me afterwards that she wasn’t sure she was going to get out of that room alive. That’s one topic about which you can address a librarian and get a major reaction.
The other thing about Marian was that she had leukemia, which is one of those weird cancers that can come and go, it seems. You can have leukemia for a long, long time. If you get really lucky, it might go into remission for years. Hers had been in remission for a fair while and then around about ’73-’74, I guess ’74, it came back with a vengeance. She was in the middle of a divorce and it was very contentious, and her life went in a real tailspin at that point. She kind of got a double-whammy. I think in her own mind there was possibly even a cause-and-effect element going on there. In any case, at a certain point she just realized that pure surviving was going to take everything she had. I remember she came to a National Council meeting and said, ‘Folks, this is it for me. I don’t know how this is going to end, but I have to wrap up the Union work until I find out.’
That’s when she laid the PLR load of coal on my head, and that’s when I took it over. But she was involved in a bunch of other stuff too, and she had to cancel everything and let it go.
Moore: When I talked to Howard, he spoke of her very respectfully. We didn’t get into the breakup and that part of her life.
Schroeder: It ended up in court a lot. So we lost a major soldier in the PLR wars.
Moore: I’ve seen some of her diaries published, where she says, gotta talk to Alma, early on, about collecting societies — she was onto PLR early and the idea of collective licensing before anybody else. She knew some things for sure.
Schroeder: She had good European connections and she heard about it there and she investigated it. She was really pumped about it at those early meetings.
And then of course — didn’t we talk about this once before? — the Union had its own Russian spy.
Moore: Yes, let’s get that story on the record.
Schroeder: This was a guy named Sydney Gordon. What’s curious is that he doesn’t show up in any of our membership directories. He was definitely a member of the Union, no question about that, but he lived in East Berlin, and he only came over to Canada every year for the AGM. He had other connections to Canada but that’s the only time anybody ever saw him.
Moore: And what qualified him for membership? How did he get past the John Metcalfs?
Schroeder: He’d written a novel about Norman Bethune and that had been made into a film script even back then. The guy who wrote the film script was a buddy of Mordecai Richler’s. What was his name?
Moore: I know the guy you mean. Ted …
Schroeder: Ted Allan. Allan and Sydney Gordon were somehow linked. They were linked as co-authors, but there was more linkage than that. It was Graeme who first picked up on it. It sounds like a bizarre notion now, but that sort of stuff was not uncommon back then. I mean, look when East Germany finally wrapped it up and we discovered what the Stasi had been up to. Virtually every second citizen was a spy. So they were just pulling in information routinely, everywhere they could get it. It was probably not all that skullduggerous. But that was the only thing that Sydney Gordon ever seemed to do. He would come to the AGMs and would sit around listening and then disappear — and presumably write his reports. But his function in the Union, and what alerted Graeme to it, was that any time anyone said anything about the treatment of writers in Russia, which was quite a topic of conversation back then, because they were being sent to mental asylums and suchlike — he would always pop up and defend Russia vigorously and single-mindedly. He would say things like, ‘The only writers that are in institutions in Russa are crooks.’ Flat-out statements like that. What? Whoa!
This went on for a number of years and finally came to a head in ’76, when I was chairing. We’d been building up to this. David Stein had already been trying to stretch the Union to address slightly more than just national questions, you know, because he thought we had some clout on some of these issues. David had a long left-wing history and was working as a journalist then, and so it naturally kind of fell into his purview.
By the time I took over, the questions were getting more urgent about the Union also taking positions on international matters. That led to quite a debate because there were people who were genuinely alarmed that that would provoke divisive perspectives for very little gain. Their point, I think, wasn’t unreasonable. We had so many things to accomplish in our own country that we might just be diffusing our energies by taking positions on international matters. And also, it wasn’t necessarily true that we were better informed on that kind of stuff than anybody else. But on the other hand, it just seemed an element of maturity. Was the Union eventually going to get to the point where it didn’t have to spend its entire time navel-gazing?
So it came up for debate. The test case was the treatment of writers in Russia, and June Callwood had put a motion on the floor excoriating Russia for that kind of treatment. We kind of knew, at least in the rough outline, what was going to result from that. We talked about it at National Council: can we afford this; can we handle this? And we decided, ‘Doggone it, yes we can.’ And so we did. We got to that part of the motion and people started responding to it, and things did get quite heated. But I think everything was still very much under control until Sydney Gordon got up. Now, in the past, Sydney had usually kept it short. He’d made his opinions clear, but sort of left it at that. I don’t know what provoked him in this particular situation, maybe the way the motion was written, but he just flew off the handle. He went on and on about how socialism in Russia was the greatest thing on earth, and writers had no goddamned business undermining it, and when they did, this was the least they could expect. And so on. It was really vitriolic, just pouring out.
It struck me as a long time but maybe it was only 30 seconds — kind of hard to tell — but once people got the drift of where he was headed, they started shouting and yelling and jumping up and trying to get in on this. He’d made his point with bells on.
I said, ‘Sydney, thank you, we get your point. Others would like to speak too. Please sit down.’ He wouldn’t stop. He had the microphone, and took it out of the stand and grabbed it and wouldn’t let it go, and he went on and on and on. And the uproar got louder and louder. I was totally losing control of the meeting. Eventually I panicked. I saw it was all falling apart; I saw the worst projections of what the naysayers in the National Council had warned us about: ‘We aren’t ready for this; we can’t handle this.’ And others had said, ‘Yes we are.’ It looked to me as if the naysayers were going to carry the day.
I asked Sydney to sit down several more times, and when he absolutely ignored me, I grabbed my microphone and I bellowed into it at the absolute top of my lungs: ‘Sydney, sit!’ It was so loud it just sort of blew the walls out, and everybody stopped. The whole room just froze, because there was a level of desperation in my voice that almost changed people’s focus. (I had seen Graeme running along the back of the room toward where the microphone cords plugged into the board, but I hadn’t been sure he’d get there in time before all hell broke loose.) Now there just was this stunned silence. Sydney sat down.
And then — and this is the part that’d become almost mythical in my own recollection — up through this silence arose this sonorous voice, and it was Jan Drabek, a writer of east European origins (Czech, I think). I guess he’d seen the motion and he’d intuited where this might go, and he’d brought along a list, a long list, of writers who’d been incarcerated, tortured and disappeared. He knew some of these writers, and he knew how to pronounce their names. He read the names on his list without any explanation, just read the names slowly and almost reverently. It was like a religious event. It was the damnedest thing. Everybody listened and people sort of sank down in their seats and he kept reading the names. There must have been like 50 of them. After he’d finished the last name, he sat down too. He didn’t say a word. And then there was, I don’t know, maybe another 15 seconds of total silence.
And then I said, ‘Ok, I think we can vote on this question now,’ and June Callwood got up and spoke to it, briefly, which ended the debate because she’d been the original mover, and we voted and the motion passed. And Sydney Gordon disappeared didn’t show up for the subsequent days of the meeting and he never appeared again. He just evaporated.
That’s when Graeme decided what his function had been. I think he may well have been right.
Moore: I’m delighted we recorded that. We’ll leave that in the archives. It’s good to have that on the record for sure.
Schroeder: The Union did have its share of catastrophic disagreements that did almost sink the organization a few times. Oddly enough, they rarely had anything to do with anything of serious substance.
As you can imagine we were never flush with money and our staff wasn’t very well paid. We had one case where it turned out our executive assistant was actually running a separate business out of the Union office at nighttime. Some National Council members stopped in to the Union office at some ungodly hour, like 11 o’clock or something, and found the place buzzing with people using the equipment and generating text and whatnot that had nothing to do with the Union. The person was fired, but she had some friends who defended her and it sort of split the Union into two schisms, resulting in some nasty behaviour that probably brought the Union closer to the brink than any serious issue the Union’s ever confronted.
You could almost draw the conclusion that whenever anything truly important was being debated, no matter how divisive it appeared, the Union always managed to avoid the rocks. It was the minor stuff that got it into the biggest trouble.
Moore: Well somewhat similar with Penny Dickens quite a few years later …
Schroeder: Yeah, that’s another one. Similar but there was an ideological element to that one. But really, when you came right down to it, it was mostly personalities.
Moore: Well we’ve talked for about an hour. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Schroeder: Well there’s a delicious story that falls more into the area of gossip, but what the hell. It would be fun to put it in.
The Union had a visit from a number of famous writers and one of them was Günter Grass. I’m trying to remember what year that would have been. It was the year I was chairing, come to think of it.
Moore: So it would have been ’76?
Schroeder: Probably ’77. He came to Canada and asked to meet Canadian writers, and Foreign Affairs was dealing with it, so they called us up and said, ‘Would you guys host Günter Grass?’ We were delighted to, and as it turned out, my German background — not actually German; it’s East Prussian — was Günter Grass’s background too. So there was kind of a neat fit. We’ve actually stayed in touch ever since.
He wanted to meet famous Canadian writers and in particular he mentioned Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson. I was the first outside-of-Toronto chair who’d actually moved to Toronto to do the job, so my wife Sharon and I had rented an apartment above the Parliament Tavern, on Parliament St. We hosted this party and invited a whole pile of Union members, especially the founders of the Union, and of course it included Graeme and Peggy.
I remember Grass had a great time. (I believe Sylvia Fraser was part of the reason, not to put too fine a point on it.) So we’d been partying for a couple of hours when Graeme hauled out his guitar and proceeded to sing, as one should in the ‘60s right? (Keep in mind that in Canada, the 60’s actually happened in the 70’s.) So all of a sudden the event turned sort of hippie, and Barbara Amiel, who was there with George Jonas, were both horrified at this turn of events. I suppose it was simply too declassée. The problem was, there was only one entrance to the apartment and in order to get to it, you had to walk right through the living room where everyone was singing. So Barbara came rushing into the kitchen to ask whether there was another exit from the apartment. We said, no, not a regular doorway of any kind, but there was a fire escape out the kitchen window, which took you down to the flat roof above the pub, about 30 feet above the street, from which – since there was no fire ladder down to the street -- you could jump across to the next building, a distance of about four feet, onto its flat roof, whose ladder would then take you down to about 8 feet above the parking lot, from which you’d be able to drop down onto the pavement, hopefully not breaking an ankle.
They discussed it for a little bit. You can just imagine George Jonas in his Saville Row suit or whatever expensive haberdashery he was wearing, and Barbara gussied up pretty good too. But I guess just the idea they would be involved in a hootenanny for the next two hours was sufficiently intolerable that they decided to risk it. So we raised the kitchen window and I jumped down to the flat roof below, which was about a six-foot drop I guess, and Barbara landed in my arms and I set her down. And then George came down. And then by golly they actually jumped across to the next building and worked their way over to its fire escape ladder. Unfortunately that building’s roof had a whole pile of scrap metal on it — old bed springs and god knows what — and it was dark, there was no light out there, so by the time they got to the ladder, apparently their clothes were somewhat the worse for wear. George climbed down and then Barbara climbed down, and then the last six or eight feet or whatever it was — they actually dropped down onto the street and headed off to find George’s BMW and go to a less un-cool venue. We all had a good laugh about it.
Moore: Did Günter Grass join in, singing songs?
Schroeder: Well he didn’t know the songs but he loved it. He thoroughly enjoyed the singing and the company. Everybody else had a great time too.
Moore: I sent Sylvia an e-mail recently asking if I could talk to her. I haven’t heard back. She may be away at the moment, but I am hoping to talk to her.
Schroeder: She could give you some wonderful stories. She was in her element for sure.
There’s also a story about Alma Lee. We went to see Jack McClelland on a number of occasions to get him onside on various Union initiatives, one of which was the multiple submissions idea. The Union had floated that in ’75 I think. As you can imagine, it was quite contentious. There was probably some other event that this effort was just being piggy-backed onto, but I remember that Jack had a swimming pool, and somehow by the end of the evening there were a number of people skinny-dipping, including our own Alma Lee, who was representing the Union rather nakedly.
So it had been booted about but not formally proposed … this multiple submissions business. I suggested we formalize it. So we sent a letter to all the publishers proposing it. The response was somewhat surprising. I expected like a hundred per cent refusal, but we got about a 30 per cent acceptance, which was a lot higher than we thought.
My response from Karl Ziegler at Talon Books, however, was a package. When I opened it, it was Saran-wrapped and to all appearances -- and indeed it was -- a turd. A big fat turd wrapped in Saran-wrap. All the message said was, ‘This is what I think of your idea. Sincerely, Karl.’
So some of our communications got rather graphic back then. People were quite opinionated about a lot of things the Union was promoting…