On paper, author and UVic professor Bill Gaston has lived a remarkable life. About 10 years ago, a salmon-smoking accident nearly burned down his house, which became the opening scene of a recent novel, The World. During his university career, he was also a diplomat of sorts.
Gaston visited Beijing in 1973 as part of the UBC Thunderbirds hockey team to play a series of exhibition matches, similar to Nixon’s “ping-pong diplomacy.”
It was captured in a National Film Board of Canada (NFB) documentary called Thunderbirds in China (free to view online), which shows players running along a nearly empty Great Wall and taking in the sights. They were among the first Westerners to visit China since the Cultural Revolution. At the time, there were no private cars and people dressed in the same muted tones.
“Anybody under 25, anywhere we went, had never seen a Caucasian,” said Gaston. “We were gawked at.”
Gaston is 65 now, a winner of the Victoria/Butler Prize, the CBC Canadian Literary Award, and and a nominee for the Governor General’s award and the Giller. He has lived in Toronto three times, taught writing in New Brunswick and played semi-pro hockey in France. He said his many notable experiences were just a function of age.
“If you count them off on your fingers, it kind of sounds that way, but not really,” he said.
Gaston is reading from his latest short story collection, called A Mariner’s Guide to Self Sabotage, at the SHOAL Centre on March 23 alongside children’s author Margriet Ruurs. His publisher describes the book’s characters as “holders of secrets, members of shadowy organizations, screw-ups, joyriders and runaways.”
Gaston said the stories were not written with any unifying theme necessarily, or even as a collection to start with.
“I write stories and when I have enough of them together, they become a book,” he said simply.
However, he said that such a summary is not necessarily incorrect. The book does feature characters who make bad choices, and “they are their own barriers to happiness.”
He said he has become more succinct as an older writer, which comes from reading his heroes (he cited Martin Amis, Jim Harrison, and George Saunders — who is a current favourite of Gaston’s).
“What you know of human nature comes from people you know,” said Gaston, who said that necessarily influenced the characters in his books. Gaston has a memoir called Just Let Me Look At You, coming out in May, which is about his grandfather, his father, and himself. Not surprisingly, it’s about fatherhood.
“It’s about dysfunctional, sometimes violent relationships,” said Gaston. The book was prompted when he learned a secret about his deceased father’s upbringing.
“Once I found out what his background was like, let’s say I forgave him,” said Gaston.
Gaston has done many readings over the decades, and looks forward to this one as well.
“When I’m sitting at home and imagining people reading my books I have a very indirect experience of them connecting with the work,” said Gaston.
“But if I’m reading and somebody laughs or somebody smiles or falls asleep for that matter, it’s a very direct connection.”
Bill Gaston and Margriet Ruurs will read at the SHOAL Centre Mar. 23 at 7 p.m. (doors at 6:30). Tickets are $10 at Tanner’s Books or online at sidneyliteraryfestival.ca. Proceeds support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.