I met Pierre Berton once. That same day I got a copy a copy of his then newest book, The Joy Of Writing.
Both were fascinating experiences.
Many lifetimes ago in the early 2000’s, I was in attendance at the now-defunct Book Expo Canada and the esteemed author Pierre Berton was one of the multiple writer guests. Handlers from Random House were stationed with Berton, who at over eighty years of age, required the help of a wheelchair to navigate around.
While walking by, I noticed Berton and was whisked right away into a picture with him. For the next few minutes we discussed many things, including my admiration for all his historical books and how my father has reread Flames Across The Border a hundred times. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing another outside perspective on his life’s work and we left each other sharing a hearty laugh.
I already was very well versed in Pierre Berton’s career well before that fateful meeting. Growing up with a history buff for a father, so many aspects of Berton’s books glommed onto me that it always felt like I had read all these volumes myself. Years later I found out his writings not only included dozens and dozens of non-fiction books covering all sorts of eras of Canadian history and identity, but also included reams of columns for the Toronto Star, hosting his own television interview show, and extensive experience as an editor in both magazines and books.
And this book, The Joy Of Writing, has Berton reliving his illustrious career and laying out generous advice for writers everywhere. All told in a mostly chronological order.
Berton starts at the beginning, with early journalism work at University leading to enterprising newspaper work while in the army. A reporting job leads to his second attempt at a full fledged book, with the first try having becoming lost sometime in the war. Success hit when Berton wrote a history of the Royal Family, which leads to books varying from collections of his columns to general interest topics to multiple titles about Canadian history.
With Berton providing examples of his writings over several drafts, we get a glimpse into where he places the emphasis of his thought process. Every historical volume requires a hook for the audience to latch onto, and some require a cliffhanger to lead into the next book. His exhaustive research and strides to humanize, at that point arcane history, would be a chore for the average writer, and Berton has no issues with showing his perceived failures in this regard. Interestingly, his columns are not dissected this way, nor are his general topic books, such as The Comfortable Pew or The Smug Minority. These almost appear to be not as taxing to Berton, so they are mentioned almost as an afterthought.
He also talks abit of the two styles of writers. Ones like him, Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, who pound out a first draft quickly, then doing the major reworking and rewriting in later versions. Other writers fix and fidget with their work every step of the way, so that future revisions are not as intensive. Neither way is wrong, meaning it is up to the individual writer to decide for themselves how they will operate.
Like all advice, you can take it or ignore it. Berton finishes off with a list of thirty rules for writers, some of which I found not quite to my liking. His journey, which ended with his passing in 2004 at the age of eighty-four, includes so many writing lessons, all unique to him. With plentiful examples and a confessional vigour, he opens up decades of successes and failures.
It feels like when I met him, I only knew a fragment of the story. The fascinating experience would be so different today.
…is currently reading Our Town by Thornton Wilder.