It’s a Thursday afternoon and Stuart McLean is in the living room of a house in Austin, Tex., working on the tale he will tell audience members in Vernon in less than two weeks.
He is two scenes from completing the first draft and he knows he is cutting it close.
He always does, he says. He likes writing to deadline.
Those who know of McLean and his Vinyl Cafe radio series on CBC Radio that tell the stories of Dave, Morley, Stephanie and Sam are well aware of the brilliance in the storytelling.
Those who have never heard McLean’s avuncular, Jimmy Stewart-tinged voice captivate every sense of the listener, well, they are all the poorer for it.
McLean’s Vinyl Cafe is like an old friend, a comfortable chair, a weekly chat with your barber — it really is an art form that strips away all pretense and demands only from the listener their imagination.
McLean is a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. He is author of a dozen books of unparalleled humour. He has a number of honorary degrees and maintains a collection of various awards.
But, he is and always will be a writer, a documentarian of the lives of people, regular people who are all around us, every day.
His attention to the lives of others is not unlike that of Barry Broadfoot and his landmark series of books, presented as an oral history of Canada, told by those who lived it.
“I never thought of that before, but that’s a good observation,” McLean says.
McLean says when he took in a stage play of Broadfoot’s Ten Lost Years (chronicling the Great Depression in Canada), he was, literally, left speechless.
“It was one of the most profound stage presentations I have ever seen.”
Broadfoot, McLean — it’s all about telling the story.
As McLean notes, the art of writing a story is not in the idea, but in the execution of the idea.
“Ideas are a dime a dozen,” he says.
“I have notebooks of ideas. You want one? You can have 10.”
It’s logging the hours and turning ideas — good and bad — into stories that becomes the art.
McLean will take to the stage at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Monday night, and will tell another tale from the lives of Dave, Morley, Stephanie and Sam, the fictitious Toronto family that has been a staple of The Vinyl Cafe since it premiered in 1994.
He will write 10 stories a year, about a story a month, which, he concedes, “is a lot of work.”
The stories he writes are at times shaped by the audience as he jumps from town to town.
The tale he tells in Kelowna may be the same tale he tells in Kamloops, in Vernon, in Prince George, though there may be tweaks to the art form by the time The Vinyl Cafe reaches the final stop.
It’s all part of a long collaboration, McLean says, between him and the idea, between him and story editor Meg Milton, between him and producer Jess Milton and between him and his audience.
That collaboration has led to The Vinyl Cafe becoming the poignant powerhouse it is today, its stories beamed across Canada, into the United States and across the Atlantic to England.
To millions of listeners, McLean is the storyteller with a humorous touch, the walking, breathing book that, each year, opens to reveal tales that can make you laugh, cry and sigh.
In his life before The Vinyl Cafe, however, McLean was a hard-news journalist, winning an ACTRA award for best radio documentary for coverage of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1979.
“I don’t right now,” he says when asked if he misses the hard-news life.
“It’s part of a progression of a writer. As an artist, you are always looking to challenge yourself. You’re looking for thin ice. If I get bored, the reader will be right behind me.”
One day, The Vinyl Cafe will close forever. McLean knows that.
“I’m kind of scared it will have to end one day,” he says.
When that day comes, he says, he would give serious consideration to standing for public office (he is not a member of a political party) — but he will continue to write.
He may not be big, but he’s a writer.
Stuart McLean on the Order of Canada,
On Sept. 28, Stuart McLean was invested as an Office in the Order of Canada in a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
The Officer of the Order of Canada recognizes a lifetime of achievement and merit of a high degree, especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large.
“As it happens, they phoned me a year in advance,” McLean says.
“The call came out of the blue. I felt profoundly moved when that call came.
“I have tried to tell the story of Canada. I have tried to stand by the values that are important in this country.
“When that call came, I felt like it was a confirmation of both these values and what I have been doing.”
McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks is a collection of essays on an eclectic mixture of topics.
One essay, The Morning Paper, details McLean’s love of newspapers, a relationship that stretches back to his childhood, to the days of the morning paper and afternoon paper, to the experience of grabbing a section and trading it for another section while sitting at the kitchen table with the family, to the bedtime ritual of crawling under the covers with the funny pages.
“Reading the paper as a kid, it was like the Internet and all the forbidden mysteries of the world tied into one,” he says.
“The pleasure of the paper in those days was different as I was a boy and everything was new to me.”
Today, McLean remains an ink-stained fan as he subscribes to The Globe and Mail, The Guardian and NYTimes.com.
Stuart McLean takes the stage at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Monday at 7 p.m. Musical guest is east meets west master musician Harry Manx. Tickets are $53/adult, $33/student 18 and under at the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.
–– Morning Star contributor Christopher Foulds is the editor of Kamloops This Week.