Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

George Fetherling

Inside with the outsider

By Cheri Hanson

Driving rain diluted an early-January crowd for the Vancouver launch of George Fetherling’s new novella-and-stories collection, Tales of Two Cities (Subway Books). About 20 people braved the latest downpour, which came three days shy of breaking the city’s continuous rainfall record set in 1953, to hear Fetherling read in the Lamplighter Pub, a 105-year-old hotel bar that borders touristy Gastown and the drug-addled Downtown Eastside.

Tales of Two Cities tells the story of a Toronto literary agent who moves to Vancouver in order to escape scandal, failure, divorce, and a catastrophic illness. While some might be quick to see Fetherling’s own life in the first-person narrative, he says the narrator’s story is not his own. “His opinions are not my opinions. His biography is not my biography. He was created from the ground up.”

Fetherling wrote the book – longhand, with a fountain pen – while serving as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Massey College in 2005. It explores the idea of feeling like an outsider in Canadian cities and the experience of being an immigrant, in every sense of the word. This theme, among others, unites the novella and four stories.

Fetherling acknowledges that the book’s sexual content is also new literary territory for him. “I was astonished to learn, as I was writing this thing, that it’s an erotic work. It would probably not be greatly overstating the case to say that in a few places, it’s filthy. I was really surprised. I’ve never written erotica before. I don’t know where that came from, and let’s face it; I’m closer to 60 than I am to 50. That’s not the usual pattern.”

The candid sexuality piqued the curiosity of several partygoers. When asked what brought him out to the event, writer Brian Busby laughed. “Frankly, he told me it was a work of erotica. That’s rare in Canadian literature.”

That played into Fetherling’s decision to publish the book with Subway, the small firm that he (and several others) founded in Toronto in 1994 and moved to Vancouver in 2000. Fetherling says Tales was a perfect fit for Subway, because of its urban setting and sense of “Vancouverocity.” And while the book may have been more right for Subway than wrong for another house, Fetherling, whose last novel was published by Random House Canada, conceded, “I don’t see a very large, mainstream publisher wanting to print a dirty novella.”

Fetherling (formerly known as Douglas) lived and worked in the Toronto publishing and media world for the better part of 35 years, but says he enjoys greater personal freedom on the West Coast. “I find Vancouver, for me personally, is a more congenial place to write.” In Toronto, “always it seemed to me that people were being judged on the basis of who their grandfather had been. I don’t think that’s so true out here.”

Fetherling’s friend and proofreader, Merrill Fearon, read from Tales at the party, and called the book quirky and funny, praising Fetherling’s longstanding commitment to CanLit. “He’s born to write. He prefers writing to speaking.” Indeed, Fetherling has written and edited more than 50 books in his 57 years. He currently pens a syndicated column for the Vancouver Sun, and has held nearly every writer-in-residence, jury, and association position in the nation.

Margaret Reynolds, president of the Association of Book Publishers of BC, first met Fetherling in Toronto during the late 1970s. “George is kind of a special person. He’s done so much for Canadian literature,” she says. Although she hasn’t read any of Fetherling’s previous titles, it’s a running joke between the two. “He’s always telling me, ‘Someday I’m going to get you to read one of my books.’”

Manning the sales table at the Lamplighter, Seven Oaks magazine editor Charles Demers said Tales is immediately recognizable for anyone who lives in Vancouver. It also has the seasoned perspective of someone who has learned to trust his words and his craft, said Demers. “George is someone who has arrived at literature through life, instead of arriving at life through literature.”