During an interview in 1969, Graeme Gibson showed me a photograph of Margaret Atwood and asked if I thought she was a white or a black witch.
I was a 24-year-old reporter for the now defunct daily newspaper The Toronto Telegram, and he was a 35-year-old writer of experimental fiction who had just published his widely acclaimed first novel, Five Legs.
A white witch, I assured Graeme, and he quickly replied, “yes, I think so too.” He didn’t know it, but only a few days before in an interview with Margaret, she confided to me that Graeme made her think of the sun god on an old Roman coin.
Her voice, like his, had been full of curiosity and awe, so a few years later I wasn’t surprised to learn that they became partners after their respective marriages dissolved. It was a literary love match. Along with a small group of Canadian writers like Austin Clarke, Marian Engel and Scott Symons, they were allies and comrades in the fight to get attention for Canadian books.
In the late 1960s, many Canadian publishers believed Canadians weren’t interested in Canadian stories, so they published mostly foreign books. It was also a time when bookstores had two sections: the American bestsellers at the front of the store and the Canadian section at the back, labelled Canadiana – a title that suggested Canadian novels and poetry books were manuals for stripping pine furniture.
At a small rally of writer activists in the early 1970s, Graeme climbed the Egerton Ryerson statue outside Ryerson University and draped it with the American flag to protest the sale of Ryerson Press to a U.S. company. Reporters took photographs and wrote stories about it. “We discovered we had influence,” he reportedly said. “Nothing was ever the same after that.”
He was so right. Together with Margaret and others, he founded the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers Trust. In 1973, he published a book of interviews with his fellow writers called Eleven Canadian Novelists. It was a manifesto of sorts. His friends were taking the craft of writing seriously. A decade later he helped open a chapter of PEN in Toronto.
The late London literary agent Abner Stein once told me that Graeme was the consummate lobbyist. He said that if Graeme had lived in the UK, he would have headed up Britain’s biggest union or been a major figure in the Labour Party. Graeme shared a profound sense of social responsibility with Margaret, but his activism, more than hers, seemed to spring from the joy of bringing people together to work for a common cause.
In a culture like ours, where “not bad” passes for the highest form of praise, Graeme wasn’t afraid to compliment others on their good qualities and he enjoyed plotting communal strategies over a beer at downtown Toronto pubs.
By the late 1970s, his political work had begun to overtake his writing. He published two more highly praised novels, Communion and Perpetual Motion, and didn’t write another until Gentleman Death in 1993. For such a social and politically active man, the characters in his novels were often afflicted by an existential loneliness and even helplessness in the face of overwhelming cultural forces. His stories functioned like a kind of flagellating self-examination, and sometimes felt more like a dialogue Graeme was having with himself than a conversation with the reader.
In 1996, he announced he was giving up novel writing and he gave the title of his work-in-progress, Moral Disorder, to Margaret to use for a collection of short stories. His two non-fiction books, The Bedside Book Of Birds (2005) and The Bedside Book Of Beasts (2009), took a new direction. He had become a devoted birder by then, and these books successfully combined his political concerns with the environment and the sensual delight he took in the world around him.
Naturally, he kept his hand in the writers’ union. Just a few years ago, his passionate argument for including self-published authors won the day at a union meeting.
A tall, imposing man, Graeme was the son of a Canadian Brigadier General, and he walked with a military bearing. Yet he broke the patriarchal mould of his WASP upbringing and created a more feminist style of masculinity. He once figured as a role model in an essay I wrote, which argued that Canadian men were more inherently feminist than American men. Why? Because they knew what it was like to be seen as second rate growing up next door to the American empire.
Certainly, he was the kind of spouse that many feminists hope to find. Although his partner has become one of the most famous writers in the world, he held her success lightly and with pride, and without it knocking his ego off its perch.
His support for her never wavered in the years I knew them as a couple. He was the great man behind the great woman, and he seemed to get enormous pleasure out of that role. How many people are capable of such an act of generosity? But with him it appeared natural. It was part of his ethical way of moving in the world, his moral compass keeping steady until the end. Graeme died on September 18 in London, England, where he was accompanying Margaret on her book tour for her new novel, The Testaments. He was 85 and suffered from dementia.
Many writers are known for how many books they sell. His writerly fame was of a different kind. He was a literary influencer who permanently changed our cultural landscape. A man I know called him a shining example of kindness, thoughtfulness and political passion – a role model for men struggling to express their emotions outside the norms of toxic masculinity. A giant of a gentleman, a woman said of him recently. Another man compared his death to a giant Douglas fir falling in the forest.
He was also the Great Statesman of Canadian Letters, and for that all of us owe him a large debt of gratitude.
Susan Swan is a Toronto-based writer. Her latest novel is The Dead Celebrities Club.