My first notion of beauty came from looking through our sunporch window at the Ohio River—the lights of town gleaming against the old smoky blue-grey hills, the lights repeated and blurred in the river.
In those days right after the Second World War, Wheeling, West Virginia, was a grimy industrial town where the plants and steel mills that lined both sides of the river sometimes made the rain more acidic than battery acid. It also lived up to its nickname, “the friendly city.” I lived on Wheeling Island where everybody knew everybody and the world was sustained by front-porch gossip—an endless cycle of stories. This is the most basic-fundamental, bred-in-the-bone landscape for me, and I’ve spent my life trying to describe it.
My parents split up when I was about a year old, and I was raised by my mother and grandmother. I am currently working on a book about what it meant to me to grow up without a father.
My mother told me that the first object I ever held in my hands was a pencil. The lower half of our bathroom wall was tiled, and each tile looked to me like the panel of a comic strip. I’d sit on the bathroom floor and draw on the tiles, filling each one with the drawing that went with the story I was telling myself. When I got older, I moved from tiles to paper. The first two fingers of my right hand became callused from holding pencils and crayons.
In our family nobody ever died and vanished—they just moved into another realm, much like moving to Cincinnati—so I grew up surrounded by dead relatives. We discussed their lives in meticulous detail. One of the most important of these was a man I never met (he died when I was eleven), Joseph Henry Sharp, the successful painter.
One of his large paintings hung in our living room, but we also had a tiny painting that my mother would take out from time to time to show me; it became an iconic object of my childhood, resonant with magic and mystery.
People in our family kept saying about me, “Oh, he’s just like Uncle Henry.” That translated into: “Keith’s going to be an artist, and that’s all right.”
When I was eleven, I was awarded an academic scholarship to attend Linsly Military Institute, a venerable college-prep school in Wheeling. There I was lucky to encounter two English teachers who lived and breathed literature—David Judy and Gordon Crawford—and a superb journalism teacher, Walter Willson. I agreed with my family that I was going to be an artist, but exactly what kind of artist I wasn’t sure. I continued to draw and paint, but writing gradually became my primary focus. In study hall I flipped over my graded homework assignments and wrote poems and stories on the back of them. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit me hard when I was fifteen. I immediately read everything I could find about the Beat Generation and decided that I was a part of it.
At West Virginia University I began what I considered to be serious work on my first novel—that is, I rewrote the opening scene several dozen times. I was in love with Faulkner then, so each of my rewrites was longer than the last—more luxuriant with obscure complexities, more glittering with jewel-like adjectives. Faulkner may not have done wonders for my prose style, but from his Yoknapatawpha County I got the idea to create my own fictional geography. That’s when I first invented my half-mythic, half-real town of Raysburg—a place that looked suspiciously like Wheeling.
I was very much part of the folk revival.
I’d started playing the guitar in high school; since I’d heard Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, I’d been chasing after the real thing—that raw, rough, brutal sound that shouted authenticity—so I was primed to be devastated when I first heard Bob Dylan. I was rarely seen in public without a guitar to hide behind.
In the mid-sixties I dropped out of university to pursue the life of the writer. (If there were an emoticon to indicate a wry expression, I would insert it here.) I wandered around North America—from Los Angeles to Alaska to the Florida Keys to Nova Scotia, making small scraps of money by working as a painter of signs, houses, and fences, as a folk singer, as a stock boy and a bus boy, as the manager of a karate school and a ballet school, as a photographer and dark room technician, as a cook and a day laborer, as a sales clerk, a typist, a washer of tractor trailers, a dyer of feathers, and attendant in a psychiatric hospital where I was fired for “over-identifying with the patients.” In a rented room at the back of a used clothing store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, living on rice and peanut butter paid for by collecting pop bottles from garbage cans in the middle of the night, I finished the first draft of my first novel in three weeks. It was rejected by twenty-six agents and publishers.
Boston was where I ran out of forward motion. I worked at more odd jobs, kept poking at my unpublishable novel. Then, near the end of the sixties, I was drawn into the movement against the Vietnam War. I contributed to the “underground” press—writing news stories, reviews, and editorials for The Journal of the New England Resistance, The Free Press of Boston, Broadside, and Fusion. I produced my own weekly radio show on Boston’s alternative station WBUR and once lectured on “youth culture” at Harvard (although “lecture” is probably too strong a word).
1968 through 1970 were alchemical years; living through them was like being fired in the crucible. What you thought mattered. What you did mattered. For a brief time you could walk onto the Boston Common, into a political meeting, an occupied building, or simply into a crowd of kids hanging out on the street—anywhere there were people like you—and those people really were your brothers and sisters.
An advantage of not having a father is that you sometimes get to choose the father you want. My choice is David Omar White—a guide, a mentor, and a role model for me. Omar was a visual artist, a goofy old guy from the smallest of American small towns—from a place, he said, that “looked like a pancake with wheat growing out of it.” I met him in our newspaper office where he was doing the same thing the rest of us were—donating his time to the Movement. He drew meticulous pen-and-ink illustrations for any anti-war organization that asked him. I got to know him well the year I lived in his chicken coop.
Omar worked in a multitude of styles and media. Here are some of the vibrant fantasy landscapes he was painting in the last years of his life.
Omar was a family man and a working artist. I wanted to know how he did it—wanted to hear simple advice, told to me in a simple way. “Work every day whether you feel like it or not,” he said. I built myself a desk in the chicken coop and set my typewriter on it. Then, for the first time in my life, I began to work every day whether I felt like it or not.
I read Omar the best passages from my writing. “Don’t trust that lyricism,” he said. “It’s too easy.” He’d quit working in oils, he said, because it was too easy. He told me to find something that would fight me back—like the pen-and-ink cross-hatching he was doing.
I started cutting great gobs of writing out of my novel. I worked all day, and at night I’d sit around and drink Portuguese wine with Omar while he cross-hatched. What could I make of my enormous pile of writing that went all the way back to high school? I began to look for some underlying structure—the order implied in it, the direction it wanted to go—and then I found myself in the midst of one of the most creative periods of my life. I went into total seclusion and, in two weeks of blistering intensity in Omar’s chicken coop, I blocked out a project for myself. It was definitely something that would fight back. I didn’t know how many books it would take, but it was more than one. “You can do anything you can make work,” Omar was always telling me.
“How do you know if it works?”
“It doesn’t tell you any truth. It seduces your own truth out of you.”
Public events changed my life again. Richard Nixon carried the war into Cambodia, and shortly after that, four students were murdered by the Ohio National Guard at a little school nobody had ever heard of—Kent State.
Two perfectly nice middle-aged ladies standing in the line at the bank in Harvard Square said what many perfectly nice middle-aged Americans were thinking—”Those students got exactly what they deserved.” Something in me went click, and I thought, I’ve got to get out of here.
When I’d been called to take my Army physical in the early 60s, you could still get out of the service by making it absolutely clear that you were going to be trouble, and that’s what I’d done. My experience had been so much like Arlo Guthrie’s that when I first heard “Alice’s Restaurant,” I couldn’t stop laughing. Like Arlo, I’d been declared unfit to serve, so when I emigrated to Canada, I wasn’t avoiding the draft—I was making my personal protest against the war. Millions of words have been written about the Vietnam War and my generation’s reaction to it—including a few thousand I’ve written myself—and I’m not going to add to them here. There’s no way to feel good about Vietnam. No matter what you did—if you served, if you got out of it, if you left the country, if you stayed—whatever you did, you still felt bad.
I left the States because of the war, but I stayed in Canada because I liked what I found here. I became a Canadian citizen in 1976. Because I still retained my US citizenship, that made me into one of those Janus-faced people who stand at the border and look both ways—a dual citizen. In Canada I completed the project I’d outlined for myself in Omar’s chicken coop. It took me twenty years and five books to do it—my first five published novels.
If I’m not Canadian by now, I never will be. I’ve lived in British Columbia for close to fifty years. Canadian editors—most notably, Ed Carson—published me when the Americans wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole. I’m married to a Canadian and have two Canadian daughters. While researching my father in 2004, I was delighted to discover that I’ve always had Canadian roots. My paternal grandfather was a Montreal glassblower who moved to West Virginia for the work. My great-grandfather, Louis Maillard, is buried in Montreal’s famous Mont Royal cemetery; my uncle, Edouard Maillard, is buried in Redcliff, Alberta. I have Canadian cousins all over the place.
In my early career in Vancouver, Robert Harlow, then the Head of UBC’s Creative Writing Department, acted as my unofficial mentor—helping me out countless times in countless ways. Thanks, Bob.
In the late 70s I was active in The Writers’ Union of Canada and was one of the founding members of The Federation of BC Writers. (Here is Trevor Carolan’s memories of the early days of the BC Fed.)
For awhile music was nearly as important to me as writing. I played and taught recorders and early music, played electric bass in a folk-rock band, and studied music at Vancouver Community College—the most fun I’ve ever had as a student. Halfway through my fifth novel, the one about music, I was afflicted with writers’ block so severe that I couldn’t write much of anything beyond personal entries in my journal. For nearly two years I worked as a free-lance photographer. When I could write again—it felt like a sparkling new beginning—I finished Motet (1989) and it went on to win the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. My experience as a photographer inspired me to write Light in the Company of Women (1993).
In 1989 I was appointed to a regular teaching position in UBC’s Creative Writing Program, and I’ve been there ever since. I love teaching, and I love my students. I’ve learned as much from them as they’ve learned from me. If I wrote an account of myself that was even more personal than this one, I would have to mention another dozen or so people who helped me out along the way—I’m grateful to all of them—and of course I would have to talk about my wife, Mary Maillard, and my daughters, the heart of my life. Writing is a social act.
For a more distanced take on me, try my Wiki entry. I didn’t write any of it, but it’s fair and generally quite accurate.
Keith, A friend in Roanoke, Virginia first told me of the Clarinet Polka since she knew I was Polish. Being a Vietnam Veteran and having grown up in the Wheeling area, I related to the people, places and mentality of growing up in the Ohio Valley and the need to leave it. I was born at North Wheeling Hospital in 1948 and raised in Lansing, Ohio and was drinking and going to bars and nightclubs in West Virginia at age 15. I have now read most of your books and I can’t seem to get enough of the stories of Raysburg and the characters that live there. I rediscover myself in many of them. My people worked in the mills and mines but I chose a career in radio and had a need to get out of the Valley. I have been in broadcasting for 36 years. I have returned to work in Wheeling and thank you for bringing alive my memories of growing up in the Ohio Valley and beyond. When will the new book be published?
Thanks, Frank. That’s really good to hear.
Thanks, Sean. I guess I better start practicing!