Canada's Unknown Writers

They write about anything and everything. A Parisian cop and his unlikely Gestapo partner in occupied France. Magical swords in a parallel Tudor kingdom. Tempestuous Regency heroines. Quiet Christian prayer. Guides to fantasy realms. Some of them are stunningly prolific, others have racked up enviable single-volume sales figures. They've won industry awards, glowing foreign reviews, large print runs and healthy incomes. On top of all that, they're Canadians.

And you've never heard of them.

It takes a few moments of calculation, but Ed Greenwood is confident when he comes back on the line. "The one on my computer right now," he says from his farmhouse near Cobourg, Ont., "is book 164." Greenwood, 43, who writes fantasy novels and guides to role-playing games, can't remember a time when he wasn't endlessly scribbling. (He writes even while posing for photographs, and in one year crafted 11 books.) The stepson of noted children's writer Barbara Greenwood, he was inventing sequels to his favourite stories by age 7. When he was 16, Greenwood found the instructions to a role-playing game inadequate, so he wrote his own and sent them to the manufacturers. Their acceptance of the changes led to a trade magazine column, and by 1979 he was dispensing advice to other game players through an alter ego, a wizard called Elminster.

In that persona, Greenwood began to write game-playing guides, and geographical and historical backgrounders for his fantasy realms. In addition, he writes novels about Elminster, and other characters. He also attends conventions as the wizard, "a dark-bearded version of Gandalf, with a fake British accent, eccentric and crotchety." Elminster, in fact, can be "terribly annoying," Greenwood cheerfully admits in his travesty of an upper-class-twit voice, but "some years he brings in astonishing amounts of money." Like 1994, when Elminster: The Making of a Mage - a fat hardcover novel Greenwood wrote in just 16 days - sold out its 75,000 print run between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve.

Until last year, Greenwood also worked full-time as a Toronto library clerk, cramming regular shifts, lengthy commutes and four hours of writing into his day. "But," he laughs, "I got Sundays off." When it's suggested that a mere four hours daily hardly seems enough time to produce his prodigious output, Greenwood responds, "Oh, but I could get in 14 to 16 hours on a Sunday." Didn't he say he had Sundays off? A puzzled silence is followed by dawning enlightenment in author and interviewer both. "Off work," Greenwood clarifies. Even now he works part-time at the public library in nearby Port Hope. "I like meeting people," he says. "Anyone who comes through the library door is a potential book character."

Greenwood is not alone in writing as easily as he breathes. Margaret Fishback Powers has been at it since she was six, and the 60-year-old itinerant Christian evangelist from Tillsonburg, Ont. reckons she's written as many as 15,000 poems. One is the now ubiquitous "Footprints," seen by millions over the past 20 years on greeting cards, T-shirts, figurines and Christian Web sites. It's about a woman glancing back at the single set of footprints she's left in the sand, seeing them as a sign God had abandoned her in hard times. But the Lord responds that it was exactly then "that I carried you."

Others have claimed authorship of "Footprints." So in 1993 Powers set down the story of how she wrote the poem in 1964 at a youth retreat near Kingston, Ont., and how it later escaped her control to spread anonymously across the continent. Footprints: The True Story Behind the Poem that Inspired Millions recently hit the half-million sales mark in its various editions. "That's been a bit of a surprise," Powers says, but not nearly as much as the fact that "it really touches people when there's a death. Yet I wrote it the day my husband asked me to marry him."

J. Robert Janes would never agree with Greenwood that writing is more play than labour, but he wouldn't flinch at Elminster's schedule. "I work very hard, six days a week," says the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., author of the St-Cyr and Kohler mysteries, set in occupied France. "I finish one book and I start another, though I did take three weeks off, once, in 1982." Now 67, Janes began his working life as a geologist before taking the plunge as a full-time writer in 1970. He wrote kids' books, geology texts, non-fiction and novels until - 22 years later - finding lasting success and an absorbing subject with Mayhem, the first of a dozen mysteries. His atmospheric, superbly researched series features two weary cops and Great War veterans - one French, the other German - compelled to work together. Often menaced by shadowy Resistance operatives, collaborators or high Nazi officials, they learn to place their trust only in each other.

Although Janes's novels have appeared in translation as far away as Turkey, no French publisher has picked them up yet. "My understanding is that a lot of older French people just don't want to talk about the war," Janes says. "And my books, well, they touch a lot of sensitive areas." American reviews, though, have been overwhelmingly positive, including the Wall Street Journal's, which "pleased me, a socialist, immensely," laughs Janes. The war era has interested him since his Toronto boyhood, when he grew up along side a family of Belgian refugees. "I'm fascinated by the tapestry of the Occupation," says Janes, whose wife, Gracia, is a weaver as well as an environmental activist. "How when you pull one thread everything starts to unravel."

The level of detail he provides about daily life - everything from the night blindness caused by a lack of vitamin A to black market deals - impresses professional historians. In October, the Western Society for French History, an academic association, will hold a plenary session at its conference in Baltimore on "the convergence of fiction and history" in Janes's novels.

He isn't Canada's only ex-geologist with literary ambitions. Dave Duncan, 69, pursued that career in Calgary from 1955 until one of the oil industry's periodic collapses left him free to publish his first novel in 1987. He's since produced 32 more, mostly fantasies and science fiction, once turning out five books in 13 months. Duncan is now a global star, frequently translated into Russian and German, and lauded for characters who "feel more deeply and think more clearly than most" in the genre, according to one U.S. review. Although Duncan claims to have been "raised in Britain on trashy weekly boys' papers," a thorough grounding in science and history is apparent in his Blades series, set in an alternate Tudor realm. "My King Ambrose is Henry VIII; when he shuts down the sorcerers, it's Henry closing the monasteries." His novels provide Duncan with "a good living," he cautiously offers, though not at the level of those Christian authors "who sell like frozen peas."

Born and raised in England, Jo Beverley has written "since I could put sentences together." But her first romance novel wasn't published until 1988, 12 years after she'd immigrated to Canada with her scientist husband. Twenty-three novels later, the Victoria author is a prominent rebel against her genre's rigid rules. Like most in the romance field, Beverley, 54, is a specialist. "I write three periods, all in England - Regency, Georgian and early medieval." She began her career crafting what are known as "traditionals" (i.e., no sex). When she shifted, in the early '90s, to racier, more complex stories, she felt compelled to write a letter of warning to her readers. But the fans by no means turned away. She's sold 3.5 million books, and won five awards from the Romance Writers of America as well as a place in its Hall of Fame. Beverley now earns an estimated $300,000 annually.

As well as a childhood itch to write, write, write, the authors also share a common response to the obscurity that is their lot in their home country. The national tendency to lionize Canadians who have met with success abroad simply does not extend to genre writers, let alone the authors of devotional tracts. While they are reviewed in the U.S., only Janes - the literary world considers mystery a cut above romance or fantasy - can expect any coverage in Canadian media. (Beverley is sardonic about the reasoning behind that: "Odd that mysteries are acceptable because of their 'realism.' Everyone falls in love sometime in their lives; how many corpses have you tripped over?") Greenwood, like the others, professes complete unconcern. "I see all the CanLit buzz, the awards and attention, and I think, 'Yeah, yeah - while you guys are busy, I'll just write another book.' " In his case, of course, that may be literally true.

But while the lack of attention hasn't crippled them financially - their average income dwarfs that of all but a handful of literary fiction writers - it really does sting. Janes is open about how much foreign encouragement has meant to him. "Four years ago I went to a mystery writers' conference in the States. Bookseller after bookseller told me how much their customers liked my series. Before that no one ever said they liked what I was doing."

Even for compulsive writers, a little praise goes a long way.

See also LITERATURE IN ENGLISH.

Maclean's September 2, 2002