I remember the first time I met Silver Donald Cameron because I was scared to death.
I had no good reason to be, really. Canadian authors, as a group, have always impressed me with their warmth and kindness. But as a novice feature writer at The Daily News, I felt pressure when writing about such talented people because I wanted my arts features to be worthy of their time.
And because Silver Donald Cameron is one of Canada’s best-known and most versatile writers, I felt additional pressure. He was required reading the University of King’s College J-school. In our class on writing for magazines, we read The Education of Everett Richardson: The Nova Scotia Fisherman’s Strike as a textbook example of how to write creative nonfiction in a way that was entertaining, touching, and brimming with truth. I remembered being blown away by his prose, at once quiet and profound.
I shouldn’t have worried about the interview. Cameron was charming and amusing and the article that ran in our weekly entertainment magazine — Seven Days — was fun to read. Afterward, he sent me a kind note telling me how much he appreciated the story and the chance to talk.
A few years later, the scenario repeated when we met again to talk about Sniffing the Coast, a delightful book about how Cameron and his late wife Lulu made a 600-mile voyage in the Gulf of St. Lawrence aboard their cutter Silversark. It was another memorable interview.
In 2011, Cameron shows no signs of slowing down, and his work continues to entertain and provoke. He is the host of The Green Interview, a series of important conversations with many of today’s vital thinkers and decision makers about issues of economic sustainability that will be good for people and the planet. In September, he published A Million Futures, which chronicles the short, wondrous life of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation which empowered more than a million young Canadians and helped transform a generation.
I’m happy to introduce him to you now through 24 Questions. (I posed one question twice, which he pointed out graciously.)
1) What was your favorite book as a child? What is your favorite children’s book?
In early childhood, anything by AA Milne. Then The Wind in the Willows. Later, all the books of Arthur Ransome – Swallows and Amazons and all its many successors. In my teens, two books by Roderick Haig-Brown, Starbuck Valley Winter and Saltwater Summer. If I had to choose a single book, it would probably be Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, which eventually provided the structure for my own children’s novel, The Baitchopper.
2) What is your most marked characteristic? Does it help or hinder you?
Pig-headed determination. Sometimes it helps – that’s how I’ve persisted as a writer. Sometimes it hinders, making me hang onto positions and possessions I should abandon. But I wouldn’t be me without it. I say this to my brother, and he shakes his head; he says my most marked characteristic is a love of life, and my determination to miss nothing – and my passionate loyalty to people and ideas that matter to me. I say this to my wife, and she agrees that I’m very determined – but wants to add that I’m a very creative problem-solver who can generally turn around a difficult situation quickly.
3) Which quality do you most like in a man?
Intelligence, imagination, courage and humour.
4) Which quality do you most like in a woman?
Intelligence, imagination, courage and humour.
5) What is your earliest memory?
The death of a favourite cat when I was three.
6) Describe the best meal you’ve ever had.
Not a good question for me. I enjoy meals greatly and promptly forget them. (I know that Marjorie will remember them for me.) That said, a contender for the best dinner would certainly be a meal at Vij’s Indian restaurant in Vancouver last summer. It was astonishing. A contender for the best lunch ever would be a recent feast at The Port Pub in Port William, NS. I actually wrote a column about that one.
7) What’s the best book you’ve read in the last two years? The best movie you’ve seen?
There have been lots of good books. One that pops to mind is Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which I read in preparation for a Green Interview with the author. Movies, like meals, move in and out of my mind at lightning speed, but I recently enjoyed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
8) What characteristic about yourself would you most like to change?
My age. Not that there’s anything wrong with my age, but clearly I have more years behind me than before me, and I’d rather have it the other way around.
9) What always make you happy?
Sailing, working in my boat shop, hanging out with my neighbours in Isle Madame, and hanging out anywhere with Marjorie.
10) What always angers you?
Abuse of power, along the whole spectrum from bullying to Bush.
11) At this moment, where would you most like to be?
In December or January? Sailing in the Sea of Abaco, in the northern Bahamas.
12) How would you like to be remembered?
You assume that I will be remembered. I like that assumption very much.
13) What is your most treasured possession?
My sailboat, Silversark. I’m learning not to treasure possessions, but an ocean-sailing boat is a key to the whole wide world.
14) Who is your favorite fictional heroine and why?
Jeanie Deans, in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian. Torn apart by the conflict between her love for her sister, and her absolute commitment to truth, she manages by a heroic effort to avoid any compromise and to be faithful to both values. In the running: Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, and Aminata Diallo in Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.
And fictional hero?
Odysseus in The Odyssey, the foundational narrative of western literature, for his intelligence, imagination, courage and humour – not to mention pigheaded determination.
15) Who are your three favorite composers?
Vivaldi, Bach and Beethoven.
16) Who is your favorite painter?
17) Which talent would you most like to have?
The capacity to use the talents that I already have more powerfully, and with more focus.
18) What is your favorite journey?
The one Marjorie and I took in 2004-2006, by small boat from Cape Breton down the eastern seaboard to Florida and the Bahamas, and home again. (This story is told in Sailing Away from Winter).
19) What is your greatest regret?
That I haven’t spent more time writing fiction.
20) Who are your favorite writers?
A horde. In non-fiction, John McPhee, Bill Bryson, Farley Mowat. In fiction, Hemingway, Robert Pirsig, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley. In poetry, Yeats, Frost, Coleridge, John Newlove, Al Purdy. And – of course – Chaucer and Shakespeare.
21) What is your greatest fear?
Ending my days with a healthy body and a ruined mind.
22) What is in heavy rotation on your iPod?
I don’t listen to music that way. If I did, there would be jazz piano (Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck, Michael Kaeshammer), Cape Breton Celtic (Scott Macmillan, J.P. Cormier, John Allan Cameron), classical (particularly Bach and Vivaldi), swing (Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Moe Koffman), folk (Pete Seeger, JJ Cale), and classic rock like the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin.
23) What do you most value in your friends?
I sound like a broken record, but… intelligence, imagination, courage and humour.
24) What is your guilty pleasure?
My friends say I am ruthless in my pursuit of lemon pie. I deny it absolutely.
25) Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
My next book, which is (always) going to be a brilliant, shimmering masterpiece that will astonish the world.