Interview with Fishing with Gubby author Gary Kent
– by Ryan Ingram
Gary Kent has a hard time saying no to adventure. It’s how he ended up a commercial fisherman in BC in the ’70s, and it’s also how he ended up writing and co-creating Fishing With Gubby, a children’s book that’s been nominated for both a BC Book Prize and Joe Shuster Award (named after one of Superman’s co-creators, the awards recognize Canadian cartoonists and creators.)
Even though Fishing With Gubby is clearly aimed at kids – it follows Gubby, a hard-working, eager commercial fisherman, and his cat, on an adventure through B.C.’s high tides – it also paints a fantastic sense of what Kent refers to as “the golden age of fishing in BC.” The flourishing fishing villages dotting the coast may look as fantastical as Oz or Wonderland now, but it’s a scene Kent experienced firsthand once upon a time.
When asked how the (almost) 70 year-old became a children’s author, Kent explained that the project came together by chance when his friend Kim La Fave, a children’s book illustrator, expressed interested in doing a book on fishing, drawing directly from Gary’s ten years of commercial fishing experience. It was an offer Kent couldn’t refuse, and the two Roberts Creek residents worked on- and-off for 12 years creating the book, which was released in the fall of 2010.
Ryan Ingram: How did the collaboration between you and Kim work?
Gary Kent: Well, typically, I’d go over a couple times a week, in the afternoon usually, sometimes in the morning, and we would think of various scenes, which were based very loosely on my own experiences from all those years of fishing, and we would kind of riff on it. Pretty soon, between the two of us, we’d be bouncing [ideas] off each other.
It was much more than the sum of the two parts, for sure. We ended up coming up with tons and tons of material. And we’d get pretty silly about it, but that was part of the whole process. We had Gubby going through all sorts of things…
RI: Did you read comics growing up? Do you still?
GK: I did. Yeah, for sure. I was definitely a Marvel fan.
What influenced me consciously was Raymond Briggs, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with him. He’s a brilliant English illustrator who I just love. And he does stuff for both kids and adults. He did The Snowman, Father Christmas and Gentlemen Jim… Some of it has a dark side to it, and we thought we might embark on that with on Gubby – [give him] a bit of a dark side – but it never turned out that way. He ended up as kind of a less grumpy person than I am.
RI: The art style kind of looks a bit like Herge [the creator and artist of Tintin]? Was that a conscious effort on your part or Kim’s part?
GK: No – I can’t really speak for Kim, but you’re kind of influenced by all these people that you love. I love Herge. I had all of the Tintin stuff – I was in my twenties, of all things.
Other people, I guess older than yourself, have seen Raymond Briggs. I was showing a bunch of other people the pamphlet, and she said, “Oh boy, you guys were sure influenced by Raymond Briggs”, but I didn’t think it showed so much.
RI: What kind of feedback has Gubby been getting? What have you heard from both kids and adults?
GK: It’s been great. When we called it a children’s book, we didn’t really know what we were talking about, because it was going to have some elements – there’s details about fishing – and the characters are kind of adult characters for the most part, and their conversations aren’t real fishermen conversations because fishermen mostly swear all the time.
We thought of doing a subscript book and just have Gubby say “fuck” the entire book. You know, “Fuck you, eff-your-mother, too.” [laughs] I know darn well they swear all the time. All the things that happen to you out there, things fall apart and having to be towed in, I can’t begin to tell you what can go wrong when you’re out in a boat.
Anyway, I went on tour for the BC Book Prize because Gubby was [nominated] and so along with two other real writers – I don’t consider myself a real writer – off we went up north, and we did about 13 gigs, and about eight of them were elementary schools from Prince Rupert to Quesnel, and everything in between, and they loved it.
I think they like this idea of this old guy and a cat doing something that was obviously very meaningful, and without getting too over-the-top about it, I think it resonates with them at a certain level. It certainly has with adults. I know one adult told me, “I go back and I read it again and again, because it sort of reaches me in someplace.” Well, that astonishes me because – what’s that all about? [laughs]
RI: Have you got feedback from other fishermen, and people that are familiar with that world?
GK: Absolutely. You know, I don’t have much contact with commercial fishermen. But I have heard back from people that know fishermen, that are related to fishermen, and they loved it – well, you know sometimes they tell me what’s wrong… but y’know, much of it’s from memory and I couldn’t remember all the details. It is after all, a fictional book.
But one of the funny stories was, someone asked me about Gubby – how did that name come about. I was kind of unsure where that name came up. I had a sense that there was a fisherman along the West Coast, and as it turns out, I talked to someone in Ucluelet and they said, “Oh, I know Gubby. I know a guy named Gubby” – it turns out there is a Gubby, and he’s about the same age as I am and he’s received about 10 books so far because everyone thinks it’s him. But he loves it.
Another fisherman I know that lives up here, she also sells fish and chips – she can’t get through it without crying because it’s, you know, for the loss of the industry, and she finds it very sad… she has strong feelings about what’s happened to the industry.
RI: Speaking of the fishing industry – Gubby takes place in what’s dubbed the “golden age” of fishing?
GK: Some of us have referred to it as that, yes. What happened in the ’70s was that – I kind of make the joke – is that the government discovered the industry and decided that the thing to do would be to organize it properly. And of course we all know what happens when the government decides to step in.
The reason I call it the golden age is that you could buy a boat like we did for $6500, the license along with it, and there were restrictions, but they were minimal. So you could go and catch fish and sell them, and it was wonderful. Even idiots like us, we had no experience, knew nothing about fishing, we could go out and catch fish and actually make some sort of a living out of it. Certainly you could never possibly do that now. And that ended by the ’80s.
RI: So it was a lot of over-regulation and over-fishing that led to the decline?
GK: Over-fishing, all of the things. Technology, that’s a big part of it. A fish boat could go out there and stay on the stocks for a long period of time. Gubby is sort of a conservation fisherman, he’s a hard-working guy, but he’s not going to catch every fish in the ocean. He wants it to be there for everybody, forever, really. So he doesn’t have a lot of technology that would allow him to follow schools down the coast – and that’s what day-fishing was like in those days. You could go out and catch a lot of fish, but more often than not, you’d catch 20 or 30 fish and then you’d come in and you could be with your buddies, and sit around and b.s., have a good time, and do it again the next day.
There was really no way you could over-fish an area, but once you tgot he radars and the GPS and all the other things, you could just nail a school a fish and then just follow them all the way down the coast. And if you had a freezer on the ship, you’d just fill your freezer and stay up there for a month – like that one scene where Gubby pulls into Bull Harbour and there are all those big boats? And he goes on board, and sees all the equipment they have, the fax machines – that was a little wry comment on the future of the industry.
RI: Some of the places featured in the book, like Refuge Cove and Winter Harbour, do they look anything like they did in the book now?
GK: Actually the publisher, up in Pender Harbour, he has a boat – quite a large boat that the illustrator [Kim La Fav] and I, about eight years ago, used to follow our little hero’s trip all the way up to Bull Harbour and around Cape Scott and down to Winter Harbour. So we got to see what had happened in the interim, and in Winter Harbour, there were no fish boats at all. Absolutely none, and this was the middle of the summer. When I was there, there would be 200 or 300, and it climbs up to – I could be exaggerating – but 400 or 500. There was only one boat there, and it had grass growing out the deck.
Refuge Cove is still a big sports recreation boating place, so it thrives still. But the farther north you go, a lot of the little villages don’t exist anymore. They’re just not there.
I was little depressed by it, actually. Coming to a place I remember so well, but you know, life’s like that I suppose. But the industry did not have to go that way, if it had been managed properly by everyone, I think it would still be a thriving industry, really.
RI: Even though the industry is in a bad place, it can sort of still be experienced through the world of Gubby. Are you thinking of creating more adventures for Gubby?
GK: We are. One we’re thinking of is gillnetting, which is sort of a natural. It’s a variation on trolling. And we’re thinking of doing it from a Japanese fishermen’s point of view, because the Japanese Canadians involvement in the industry goes well back over a hundred years and has become a very important part, other than that sort of terrible blip in 1942 where their boats were taken from them.
Initially, we though Gubby would be peripheral, but I’ve been thinking I might make him more central again and he would have a friend that was a Japanese Canadian gillnetter, and there’d be a bunch of other stuff going on, as well, of course… [But] it’s organic, this stuff. I love it. Here I am at the age of 70, writing a children’s book. It’s about as amazing to me as when I was 30 buying a fish boat.