Stuart McLean (1948-2017)

In 2008, Stuart McLean granted Feathertale one of its first ever interviews. We are republishing it today in memory of the novelist, humorist, host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café and three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour who has passed away at the age of 68. 


Born: Montreal, 1948 currently lives in: Toronto
Began storytelling: Late in life — “I was a largely unsuccessful, shy and inarticulate kid.”
If not a writer/broadcaster he would be: A politician, like ones from the sixties
Favourite humorist: E.B. White
Grew up reading: The Saint series by Leslie Charteris
Best-known line: “We may not be big, but we’re small.”

FEATHERTALE: You’re one of the most recognized voices on Canadian radio. How did you get your start?

STUART McLEAN: Well, right before I went into broadcasting I was working in the student services department of Dawson College in Montreal. I left that, and I guess I began as a journalist in my mid-twenties. I started doing serious journalism working on current affairs documentaries for a program called Sunday Morning.

Somewhere around the mid-1980s I started writing a personal column. That’s where I learned the technical side of writing. I found my voice, though, as a writer working with Peter Gzowski on the CBC’s Morningside. I guess you could say I had this sort of twenty-year apprenticeship in writing before I really made it.

FT: You say you had a twenty-year apprenticeship in writing. That’s a bit longer than your standard plumbing apprenticeship. What made you decide to be a writer?

SM: I don’t think you decide to become a writer — I think it’s decided for you. I think it’s an affliction. If I weren’t making my living as a writer, I would be writing long letters to the editor and to my friends.

My urge to write probably comes from inarticulateness. I think writers are probably inarticulate and uncertain people, and writing is a way of striving for articulateness. It grants the ability to work at your words until they say what you want them to say. I find even with people that are emotionally close to me, I have the need to write things to them. I get this feeling that it’s the only way to express myself in an adequate way.

FT: Do you prefer writing or performing?

SM: Performing on the radio doesn’t exist. It doesn’t feel like you’re performing when you’re in a studio. Writing is a difficult, sometimes painful, and very seldom a euphoric occupation, whereas performing the work on the stage is often euphoric. You lose yourself in the moment in a way that is interesting. Performing is so much more fun than writing. By the time you perform, the hard work is over. Writing is like hauling the skis to the top of the mountain, and performing is like taking the ride down. But if I could only do one, I would give up the performing.

The more interesting dichotomy is writing versus performing that which you have written on the stage. It would be unfulfilling and I would feel dishonest to be on stage performing only the work that others have written.

FT: Do you draw from the same skill set when doing both writing and performing?

SM: Not really. In performance you have to be comfortable in your skin, but maybe also not too comfortable. Comfortable so that you’re not so worried about what others think. Many people get frozen and can’t go onstage because they’re worried they might make a mistake. That doesn’t happen to me. I have no self-consciousness; I’m totally comfortable on stage. If I make a mistake, I’m very comfortable to just point it out and move on. But I recognize that it’s strange. Like, why would one want to be on stage? There seems to be some other dimension of me on stage that speaks to maybe a discomfort with oneself. There’s some sort of an imbalance there, probably.

FT: Do you have a favourite radio personality?

SM: Of all time?

FT: Sure.

SM: Joe Pine. He was a one-legged talk-show host back in the days when talk-show hosts were just beginning. I was enchanted by him because he was rude.

Joey Reynolds, he had a show on WKBW in Buffalo. As a kid, I used to turn the dial until I could find him on the air. You’d pull in the station like you were pulling in the signal from outer space.

At present I’d have to say I enjoy the work of Ira Glass, who does This American Life out of Chicago.

Then of course there’s Robert Krulwich with National Public Radio in New York. He used to work on All Things Considered. Eleanor Wachtel, she’s good.

Gzowski, of course — he was magnificent.

I could keep going and going. I guess I’m kind of a radio guy.

FT: Where did the idea for the Vinyl Cafe come from?

SM: The idea started with David Amer, a retired music producer withMorningside, the CBC Radio show I was working on with Peter Gzowski.

When David came to me, I was tired. As an artist you always want to skate on thin ice. I was just beginning to get a little comfortable in my work; I was doing things formulaically.

But at the same time I had just started to play with fiction after this twenty-year apprenticeship in radio where I’d learned to write. David came along and suggested doing this new radio show. That got me thinking, and I described this fictional world to him where there was a guy who would own a record store. We did a pilot and it sat on the shelf for five years before someone decided to pick it up and do it.

FT: And now that show’s a regular Sunday feature across the country.

SM: That’s right.

FT: Every week you read a story on the Vinyl Cafe that comes from the life of the people around the record store you created. Of all the characters you’ve created for the show, which one means the most to you?

SM: Stan, the little boy from the Vinyl Cafe. I find him very fetching. And the old Italian guy next door, Eugene. There’s an innocence to both of their lives. The boy is striving to figure it out, and you get the feeling he suspects there’s an instruction book — that there’s a way to do this, but he doesn’t have his hands on it yet. I think I feel that way a bit myself. The old Italian guy, because he doesn’t give a shit anymore. He is very comfortable in his own skin. He’s found the things that he does best. But there’s some sadness to his character, because he’s an old man and he can’t do what he once did as well as he did.

FT: If you could read one classic novel on the air, what would it be, and why?

SM: I wouldn’t read a classic novel on the air because that’s not what works well on the air. It would be an impossible task on the radio unless you were sensitive to everybody’s attention span. If I could read anything on the air that’s not mine, I would read the poetry of Billy Collins, or maybe the short essays of E.B. White. There are a couple of poems that Carl Sandburg wrote that I would love to read too. These are three writers whose work has stopped me short and made me gasp in wonder and amazement that it’s so good.

FT: You’re tied for the most wins of Canada’s top honour for humorists, having won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour three times now. What does that mean to you?

SM: When you’re nominated it’s very lovely and it’s great when you win it. But when you have to write the next story and it’s not working for you and you’re on deadline and it’s just not coming, you don’t sit back and say, “Well, I’m the Leacock winner.”

FT: What does it take to be funny?

SM: I have no idea. If you came to me before writing a humorous piece and said, “What should I do?” I would look at you with a blank face and I would say, “I have no idea.” I have no understanding of what I do. It’s intuitive. I don’t understand why some things are funny and other things are not. I have a few theories, but they’re not well thought out. Humour has, like poetry, an added dimension, and it takes you closer to the hot fire of added truth. It’s not my habit to think about this work. I just do it and leave the thinking to others.

This interview originally appeared in The Feathertale Review No.5.

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