Interview – Grant Lawrence on Adventures in Solitude
– by Erin Hanson
Grant Lawrence, CBC broadcaster and former singer for the Vancouver-based punk band the Smugglers, has received a lot of attention for his book Adventures in Solitude.
Published by Harbour Publishing in September 2010, the book reached #1 on the BC Bestsellers list and #2 on the National Bestsellers list. Most recently, Lawrence won the B.C. Book Prize for the Bill Duthie Book of the Year, awarded to “the most outstanding work published in BC this year.”
Adventures in Solitude is Lawrence’s recounting of his own experiences in Desolation Sound, beginning in the 1970s when his dad buys property in the mysterious and barely-accessible marine park. Dragged up there every summer as an awkward and carsick-prone kid to spend rainy days battling the elements in a cedar cabin, Lawrence eventually turns his back on the inhospitable Desolation Sound. After years travelling the world pursuing rock star dreams, an older and well-travelled Grant Lawrence returns to his family cabin only to find with surprise that he has fallen in love with the place. His personal anecdotes are interspersed with local histories and tales of the region’s colourful characters to paint a vivid picture of Desolation Sound – a beautiful yet wild and volatile marine park at the end of the road.
In late April I had a chance to talk to Lawrence at his home about his book, its unexpected popularity, and his Beachcombers-based model for success. Lawrence started with by preemptively answering the question he maintains everyone asks him: how long did it take to write the book?
Grant Lawrence: Everyone wants to know how long it took to write the book. I don’t know why that’s that big of a deal, but everybody has that question. The answer is five years. I started in 2005, finished it in the summer of 2010, so, five years. While working full time.
Erin Hanson: Well, I guess the book contains so many of your personal experiences, right? It must have been a challenge to collect them all.
GL: Yeah. Once I decided to write about that subject I had to figure out how it was all going to be organized. How it would all fit together and what the narrative would be. It’s one thing to have a bunch of short stories, but there is obviously a narrative that strings the entire thing together, which I thought was really important. I had to figure all of those things out on my own as I went along, basically.
EH: So did you write it and then take it to a publisher after it was written? Or did you pitch the idea first?
GL: No. I never pitched the idea. I decided to write the whole thing first, and so I did, but it went through like eight different drafts. So I wrote the whole thing, and I printed up the manuscript and I mailed it out. I gave one to my best friend’s wife who is a voracious reader, and I gave one to my friend who’s a publicist at Harper Collins in Toronto. She’s always really encouraging. They got back and said they really, really liked it. So that was the first bit of encouragement I heard. And these are both women, and it’s kind of a guy story – like, I’m a guy and there’s lots of, sort of drunken swashbuckling in the book, and so it was really, really positive to me that women liked it.
I sent it to the major publishers across Canada, every single one. And over the course of about, I’d say three or four months, every single publisher right across Canada rejected it. Every single publisher said the book was too regional. That it was only about the West Coast, and even more specifically it was about this weird place no one had ever heard of called Desolation Sound, and it would only appeal to people in Powell River and Lund. I could’ve just packed up and gone home at that point, but I always thought that that was so short-sighted of the publishers. I kept thinking of The Beachcombers.
It is one of the most exported Canadian programs in history. And the show is about two dudes and their shitty boat dragging logs around. And this was the show for like, 15 years. And it was a huge hit, basically because it showcased the wild West Coast to the world, so the whole world got to see this. And Gibsons? No one ever heard of Gibsons. Gibsons is still a tourist attraction to this day because of The Beachcombers. And I thought if The Beachcombers could have appeal, my book is basically like The Beachcombers meets The Shining, so why wouldn’t this have wide appeal?
I thought, well every single publisher in Canada has rejected the book, end of story, it’s over. I thought back to my music career, and I remembered that the major labels are just like the major publishers. The major labels in music have to be extremely careful what they choose because there’s a bunch of jobs on the line. Independents can be a little more free-flowing with who they choose.
So then – then I got a phone call from Harbour Publishing. This was in March of last year, so about a year ago right now. I got a call saying not only do they want to publish the book, they want to publish it the following fall which was really soon. So all of a sudden I went from complete and utter national-scale rejection to all of a sudden having the publisher that I wanted in the first place. So, it was weird. I tried to stay indie and tried to stay local, and went national, got rejected all the way along, and then brought it back to indie and local. But the challenge was that I wanted to prove to all of those national publishers that the book did have national appeal, and I feel like I’ve done that. And so screw them all.
EH: I know you’ve been doing readings across Canada. What’s been the response?
GL: It’s been great. The book came out on Sept 27. I started doing book events on October 7, that was the first one, at the Vancouver Museum. That one was packed and that pretty much set the ball rolling. But it’s on the down-swing now. But between September and now I was able to take the book and talk about it and read it to people at book events coast to coast, from Tofino to Halifax, and up into the territories. The reaction was great everywhere. It’s been really, really awesome having the book received like that right across the country.
I gotta say a lot of it is CBC fans. You know, I’ve been really, really lucky to have shows on CBC for years and a lot of those fans that I’ve made from CBC, they just bought the book because it was me. It didn’t really matter what the subject was. So I really, really thank all those people. You know, like the people on the CBC Radio 3 blog, they’re amazing and very supportive. And just people that have listened to me on and off for years on whatever show I’m doing. So that was really gratifying.
And even Smugglers fans are kinda like, “Oh yeah, what are you up to now? Okay, well I’ll buy this,” even though there’s really very little about music in the book. There are only cursory mentions here and there, so it’s not a music book, but music fans have been into it which has really been great for me. And a lot of musicians in Canada have been supportive. Like Jason Collett, Black Mountain, David Myles, Amy Millan, Sarah Harmer, Elliot Brood, all these artists have championed the book and I could never ask for anything more than that. It’s really been overwhelming to have that happen. Chris Murphy from Sloan’s really amazing, AC Newman from the New Pornographers, he provided the title for the book, so you know, as much as it’s not a music book, the musicians are still involved in many ways. Nardwuar’s been incredibly supportive.
EH: How is the transition? Like, you’re used to being in a punk band, and now you’re spending your Friday nights at libraries. Are the readings what you expected?
GL: No. Dave Bidini is a great mentor of mine, a great writer, and he’s a musician. He was in the Rheostatics and he wrote about his experiences. I watched him when he put out books, and he would do readings and events and combine music and all the rest of it. And then the Vinyl Café as well, you know, my wife Jill [Barber], she does a lot of touring with the Vinyl Café. So what I’ve basically tried to do is combine what I saw at the Vinyl Café, Stuart McLean telling stories and having a live musician, and what Dave Bidini did. I tried to combine all of that into, like, a book show. And so I made a little movie, and usually Jill or someone plays.
So across the country I’ve had about 25 or so different musicians play at them. Like Aidan Knight, Said the Whale, David Myles, Matthew Barber, Jim Bryson, you know, all these people have come out and played. So that’s been very, very awesome, too. I love touring and I love travelling so that was great, but to just do it on my own and to go in and talk for 40 minutes to an hour about something I’m really passionate about, read a story or two, people laugh, people enjoy it.
And I meet people with similar stories, whether it’s in Saskatchewan or Manitoba or Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, it’s really fantastic. This is the other thing I’m learning. It’s unlike a record that is filled with say 12 songs, and you can go and play that record, do a tour and play 12-14 songs or whatever at a show. I can’t really go and read like eight stories. Do a set of stories. It just doesn’t really work. As my wife said, you just have to start writing new stories. Like, get on with it. Like, stop milking this one.
EH: Well, speaking of writing new stories, you’ve mentioned that you’re going to be writing about the Smugglers next.
GL: Yeah, I think so. Like even this afternoon I’m trying to take all of the Smugglers tour diaries and put them all into a Word file and put them all in one place.
EH: Nice. But Smugglers tour diaries, are, uh, a little different than Adventures in Solitude.
GL: Yeah, they’re full-on. I mean, they’re beyond risqué. There’s everything from alcohol and drug abuse to sexual deviancy to sexual experimentation to, you name it. And some of the stories are funny, but it’s all really very brutally honest. That was the first success that I had as a writer because while the Smugglers were going full steam ahead in the ‘90s, I wrote tour diaries. And I guess we started putting them onto the web in the late ‘90s, like just when the web was starting up. I didn’t know it at the time, ‘cause I don’t think the word existed, but I was blogging. And I was putting up tour diaries and those tour diaries became very, very popular.
And when you write a diary, it’s usually just to yourself, so it’s very personal. So I made them really personal and really frank. And they were basically written for what I thought would be my own bandmates and kind of a select group of fans that had the wherewithal to find them. They weren’t really made for my parents to read. That’s the thing that was kind of lucky with the first book, is just by sheer happenstance and luck it’s had an incredibly wide appeal. So I’ve read the book at high schools, and I’ve read the book at seniors centres. And then there’s all the people in the middle. And so I don’t think the Smugglers book will have that wide appeal. It might appeal to people 50 and under, but definitely not 50 and over. Like, they’d go, like, woah.
EH: And you probably won’t get invited to high schools.
GL: Maybe. I don’t know! I just did a reading at a high school in Powell River on Friday for their writers’ conference and I read the story about my house party going out of control, and the teachers didn’t seem to mind. I think they don’t mind what I read as long as I sort of push the, “Here’s a kid who did a whole bunch of rebellious things and look at him now!” type thing. Like, you know, rebel-made-good type thing. But it’s fun, I love doing high schools because there’s a really great energy. There’s also a total snottiness to the kids where you really have to prove yourself to them. ‘Cause otherwise they’ll eat you alive like they would any weak substitute teacher, you know? I like it. It’s fun.
EH: I thought it was pretty funny when you’re talking about your house party in the book, and you have those clips from the Province [newspaper]. Were those straight out of the Grant family scrapbook?
GL: Yeah, they’re from my mom’s scrapbook. She had all the clippings.
EH: Is that something that they can laugh about now?
GL: Yeah, it is. In fact they were laughing about it before I was. I was so embarrassed and scarred by that incident. They were furious with me and I felt really bad that I had done it, and they wanted to joke about it before I did. They brought it up, and I’d be like, “Be quiet, I don’t want to talk about that.” So yeah, they’re fine about that.
EH: That’s cool. They can probably see how mortified you were.
GL: I guess. I mean, they were totally livid at the time. Like my dad was just the angriest I had ever seen him. But now they’re cool with it.
EH: I met your mom at the North Van reading. She came up and started chatting, and her big thing was she maintained that Heather was not a nerd.
GL: Yeah, I know! She’s in denial about that. She always says that, and I’m like, have you seen a picture of my sister? Like, knee braces, glasses, weird haircut, like are you kidding me? She’s just defensive about that for some reason.
EH: Obviously Desolation Sound is a special place for you, but are there other places in British Columbia that you enjoy exploring?
GL: Yeah. I love the Okanagan. I like warm sunny weather and I love swimming. So I love the Okanagan for that. I’m a bit of a sun addict. I love it where it’s hot and sunny. Desolation Sound in the summertime is that, the whole coast is, so those are my two favourite areas.