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GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
'I rarely slept more than four hours'
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This excerpt from Anna Porter's memoir, In Other Words, explores the struggles of balancing motherhood and a career in the 1970s publishing industry
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By ANNA PORTER
  
  

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Saturday, October 6, 2018 – Page P12

THE UNEASY BALANCING ACT

My daughter Julia was born in July, 1977. In a moment of unbridled generosity and, possibly, with an eye to legislation regarding maternity or parental leave, Jack gave me five weeks off. And once again, a child of mine was celebrated in verse, this time by noted poet A. J. M. Smith: Dear Julia Porter, happy child, born of a lovely mother, worthy sire, I wish you all things joyful, all high-styled.

I build a sacrificial fire of fragrant cedar to make my wishes magic spells. May all your hours and days be gentle and delicious - with love and laughter filled, sunshine and flowers.

But I knew there wouldn't be many "joyful" days for me at McClelland & Stewart.

Most of the staff were women, which was the case for all publishing houses, but few were in management positions. Having babies was frowned upon and asking for raises when a woman was at the age of having babies was detrimental to promotions.

Women, of course, earned much less than men.* Jack maintained he had hired more women not because they were cheaper but because he had "discovered that women are generally more efficient." I still have a copy of Jack's handwrit André memo to me explaining why my salary would stay at $10,000 a year, about 30 per cent lower than that of senior male employees. Even John Neale, who had started as sales manager after a couple of years as M&S sales rep in Ontario, was earning more. I was pissed off and let Jack know it, but I didn't quit, at least not then. I loved working at M&S. It seemed like the perfect job: being paid to read, to comment on interesting manuscripts, to spend time with extraordinary people. I wasn't angry at Peter and John; they were part of a delightful, usually inseparable trio, including John's black lab, and my low income was not their fault. It was Jack's.

By this time I was both running M&S's publishing program of more than a 100 books a year and involved with Seal Books.

There were many meetings in New York, book fairs in Frankfurt and London, the American Booksellers' Association's annual affairs in a variety of cities, sales conferences, and seemingly endless editorial and marketing meetings. In addition there were long discussions with Charles Templeton, Richard Rohmer, Matt Cohen, Margaret Laurence, Peter Newman, Farley Mowat, Marian Engel, Earle Birney, James Purdy, Irving Layton, Pierre Burton and Elsa Franklin, of course, and many other authors on our unwieldy M&S lists. The creation of the $50,000 Seal Books First Novel Award added an extra bit of excitement to our lives, but now the reading of the hundreds of manuscripts submitted for the prize deprived me of whatever sleep a new mother is able to snatch between late-night feedings. Seal's partners in the award, André Deutsch in Britain and Bantam Books in the United States, had agreed to publish and promote the winners. Selecting the short list and arguing with André Deutsch and Marc Jaffe about the eventual winner took nerves of steel, which I lacked that year.

I remember one long, tempestuous debate with André over the possibility that W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe might win the First Novel Award. André said trying to sell that book in Britain would be akin to our promoting a novel about an imaginary cricket team in North America. It was an argument I couldn't win.

Jack's assessment that being M&S's editor-in-chief was more than a full-time job was correct. I had been working about 10 to 12 hours a day, and now, with two children, I tried to get home early enough to read a few stories to Catherine, walk about with Julia till she nodded off, put them to bed, and then start reading manuscripts. I rarely slept more than four hours. My big white takehome bags expanded on Fridays for extra reading time on weekends.

For several months I tried to convince myself that I could manage everything. Jack encouraged me to imagine it could be done. He even offered to have Catherine do her drawings in his office while I ran meetings in the boardroom, and a couple of times he took Julia in her portable bassinet and stashed her under his windows while I ran off to do presentations to major accounts. Since Julia was still nursing, I used to pump milk in the women's washroom. Once, when I was in Imperial Oil's boardroom, trying to talk them into sponsoring a big new Canada book, I noticed that all the men had stopped looking at me and were staring fixedly at my end of the glossy table. I had misjudged the time and milk was pooling rapidly between my elbows.

I didn't finish my sales pitch, I just ran.

I was a seventies feminist. I believed that women could do it all, but I was losing focus, wore the same clothes most days, seldom washed my hair, and began to lose my sense of humour. In a Saturday Night article Bob Fulford asserted that the major event of the 1970s was "the triumph of feminism." At the beginning of that decade, I would have agreed with him. The sixties had included the sexual revolution, the birth control pill, and a general feeling that now everything would be possible for women. Yet at the end of the seventies, I was too exhausted to feel any sense of triumph. Our hiring a new charming German babysitter did little to assuage my constant anxiety.

Once when Marian Engel was coming back from a TV interview, she told me that the other woman on the show had had her hair done, looked svelte in a tight black sweater, wore very high heels, and had perfect makeup that didn't run under the strobe lights. Marian was hot and sweaty after a sleepless night with her twins, her hair was damp, she wore something beige she had pulled on in a hurry, and she had not noticed the baby vomit down both shoulders where she had burped the babies - two at once.

In addition to taking care of the twins, she was busy advocating for the Public Lending Right for authors, was involved with the Writers' Union, whose early meetings were of André held at the Engels' Brunswick Avenue home, was a member of a couple of book prize committees, and carried on lively correspondence with Hugh MacLennan, Timothy Findley, Margaret Laurence, and several other writers. Her home was a cluttered confusion of books, dishes, letters, baby bottles, and notes spilling over the edges of tables and rearranging themselves on the carpet.

Our home, I told Marian, had taken on the Marian Engel look with mountains of manuscripts spilling onto the floor, Catherine drawing on piles of unanswered mail, Julia on my lap as I read, and my husband Julian picking his way through the debris of my working life.

* In 1981 women working full-time were still earning about 54 per cent of what men earned.

Shoeless Joe went on to become an international bestseller (though not in Britain). It was the basis of the very successful movie Field of Dreams, starring the young Kevin Costner.

Adapted from In Other Words: How I Fell in Love with Canada One Book at a Time by Anna Porter. Copyright © 2018 by Anna Porter. Reprinted by permission of Phyllis Bruce Editions, Simon & Schuster Canada, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Associated Graphic

Anna Porter's book In Other Words: How I Fell in Love with Canada One Book at a Time explores her time working at McClelland & Stewart with Jack McClelland.

DOUG FORSTER


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