Best of 2013!

Booklist has picked Catching Cancer as one of the best books of 2013.

The Trials and Tribulations of Making a Book Trailer

Creating a book trailer was harder than I thought it would be.  It took us three tries! For the first one, Gordon and I went over to the Cates Park beach in North Vancouver—where the opening scene of At the World’s Edge takes place. It was a lovely West Coast afternoon; we got background sounds of water lapping at the shore, squirrels chattering in the trees, and a lovely long lonely wail from the train that skirts the south shore of Burrard Inlet.  I read from the book, which usually goes over quite well, when I do so in person…but on the video?  For some reason, it missed…

So back to the story board.  We decided to do something quite different.  We’d shoot in Chinatown in an alley that Curt had photographed.  This wouldn’t be West Coast idyllic but gritty and edgy—maybe more fitting for the book. So on a Saturday in December, we parked on  Chinatown’s main drag and walked over to the particular alley, off Gore Avenue, that interested us.  I stood in front of a smelly dirty yellow garbage bin that was covered in graffiti.  This time I didn’t read from the book. I spoke earnestly to the camera about Curt’s photography and how Chinatown was a favourite subject of his.  It was a disaster.  The seagulls were so raucous, they practically drowned me out. Cars kept driving up the alley and interrupting the shoot.  And people kept wandering through.  Sometimes they asked us what we were doing and what we thought of Vancouver.  I think they figured we were tourists on some kind of grunge tour. And so we explained that we weren’t tourists, we lived here, and we showed them Curt’s picture of the alley in 1972. They looked bewildered, they were probably wondering on what planet we made any sense.  It was all very distracting.

We returned home and I sent off some emails to people who know more about this than I do. I mulled over their replies and then I got another idea. We didn’t have to shoot any film at all. We could use stills and create movement a la Ken Burns—pan across the stills—zoom in on the aspects that were most intriguing.  I spent a morning in the City Archives looking for pictures of the 1400-block West Pender where Curt lived with his good friend, Fred Douglas. There weren’t many pictures of that section of Pender. Other parts of the street were much more popular subjects. But remarkably, there was a photo of the dilapidated building where Curt and Fred shared a rat-infected “pad.” It was perfect.  And from there the video grew.  We added a photo of Vancouver’s skyline in 1959, as seen from Stanley Park, and included some pictures from the book. We used Curt’s poems typed in courier on onion skin.  I love to see that now—the uneven analogue words.  And with a clever tool that Gordon found, we got Curt’s words to lift off the page.  I wrote to Gregg Simpson asking his advice about music. I knew he’d been a musician in the 60’s and I thought he’d have some good ideas.  He sent me a few pieces by the Al Neil trio—of which he had been a member. More serendipidy.  The music saturated the video with mood and then it was just a matter of a short narration.  Gordon mixed the whole thing, the music, the narration and the pictures, and managed in a quite wizardly fashion to save the parts and the combinations all in the appropriate places.  Here it is. Did it work? Well, you can be the judge of that!


The Bookstore

You will find my description of Curt’s life as a bookseller in the chapter entitled, The Vault.  (To read the interesting story about why it has that name, you’ll have to read the book!)  When Curt started the store at 350 West Pender Street, he quickly discovered that that being a bookseller was not for him. The enterprise floundered and Don MacLeod bought it for a song–well, $200.  He kept the stock and the same location, although he renamed the shop, “MacLeod’s Books.”  Don took out a loan from a credit union to make the purchase and was able to pay it off after his first day in business.  Here’s a picture of Don’s store in 1981. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that MacLeod’s Books, currently at 455 West Pender, on the north side of the street, still sports a remarkably similar sign. Don Stewart is the current owner.

Vancouver City Archives, CVA 779-E11.27



City of Vancouver Book Award announces shortlist

Independent presses dominate the shortlist for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award, which was announced today.

The $2,000 annual prize recognizes “authors of excellence of any genre who contribute to the appreciation and understanding of Vancouver’s history, unique character, or the achievements of its residents.”

The nominees are:

  • V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, John Mikhail Asfour and Elee Kraljii Gardiner, eds. (Arsenal Pulp Press)
  • At the World’s Edge: Curt Lang’s Vancouver, 1937–1998, Claudia Cornwall (Mother Tongue Publishing)
  • Undesirables: White Canada & the Komagata Maru, Ali Kazimi (Douglas & McIntyre)
  • The Better Mother, Jen Sookfong Lee (Random House Canada)
  • YVR, W.H. New (Oolichan Books)

This year’s jury was comprised of former bookseller Jane Bouey, author and educator David Chariandy, and retired Vancouver Sun books editor Rebecca Wigod. The winner will be announced at the Mayor’s Arts Awards gala on Sept. 20.

Tod Greenaway

A letter from St. Petersburg arouses memories of Curt

Tod Greenaway 1927-2008

Tod Greenaway, 1927-2008

Tod Greenaway was a friend of Curt’s and he is quoted in At the World’s Edge.  (p. xv and 204). He was an artist, a writer, and a photographer. Recently I had the pleasure of encountering more of Tod’s thoughts about Curt.  They came to me via Irina Borisova, a writer in St. Petersburg, Russia, with whom Curt and Tod corresponded.  Below you will find a letter Tod wrote to her two days after Curt died.

I also wanted to mention that I have several copies of Tod’s last book of essays, Loitering, to give away, thanks to the generosity of his daughter, Rachel.  If you would like one, let me know.

Date: December 19, 1998.

Dear Irina:

So, it has finally come to pass, the death of Curt Lang.  I am sorry not to have written to you. Everything was happening so fast, there were so many demands made on my time and I was rather frantic at not being able to get to my work. And I am not feeling all that well. But it was clumsy of me not to think of you being left in suspense.

Read more »

In Search of Innocence

I find a long-lost film-maker, a long-lost painting and (maybe) a treasure trove of Vancouver’s beat history

Writing a book is a little like having a child.  The child grows up, ventures out into the world and does all sorts of things that surprise you.   I was reminded of this quite vividly when I unexpectedly received an email from PG Forest.  He introduced himself by saying that his father was Leonard Forest, who directed a National Film Board documentary in which Curt Lang briefly appears.  PG Forest lived in Montreal but wrote that he would be visiting Vancouver for a few days and wondered if we could chat. Of course I was curious and suggested we meet for coffee.

I knew exactly which film he meant—In Search of Innocence, a haunting  movie about artists, writers and musicians in beat-era Vancouver.  Leonard Forest, an Acadian and the director of French programming at the NFB, made the film about 1964. (There’s a French version too, called À la recherche de l’innocence).

Read more »

In Pursuit of a Free Spirit

Curt was a friend of mine for about 12 years.  But this is not in itself a reason to write a book about someone, so  I’d like to say a few words about  why I was moved to write At the World’s Edge.

Curt was a person who did many different things, he was a beat, he wrote poetry and published it, he painted and exhibited his paintings in the Vancouver Art Gallery, he started a bookstore, which became MacLeod’s Books and still exists today, he built boats, he salvaged logs, he was a fisherman, a photographer and high tech entrepreneur.  So his life gives us a unique window into Vancouver’s changing economic history.  This in itself is interesting but there is more.

Curt was something very unique; a free spirit, a latter-day Odysseus. Read more »

Curt’s Poem

It is book launch eve.  Of course, I am nervous! I am reflecting back on the journey that this book has been.  I will miss it.  For some reason, I find myself thinking of one of Curt’s poems.  It is untitled and undated.  My best guess is that he wrote it sometime in the mid sixties:

If you want to see someone smile,

Send out your mind, secretly

like a thief,

Gently like a butterfly,

Silently like a loving glance.

Read more »

In Conversation

Michael is a writer, who like me, lives in North Vancouver.  He was a neighbour of Curt’s friend, Fred Douglas, and curious about my book.  I gave him  copy of my manuscript and on a Saturday afternoon, he came over with his tape recorder and we chatted about Curt and the process of writing about him.  To hear us,  just click Claudia in conversation with Michael:

The book is done!

I’m happy to announce that I have finally finished At the World’s Edge.

On the left, is the cover–designed by Jan Westendorp.  It combines a picture of Curt snapped sometime in the late sixties with a photo of Vancouver’s  Granville Street which Curt took in 1972.  This was part of a mammoth street photography project Curt undertook.  The National Gallery in Ottawa has a few of Curt’s images, but the vast majority (approximately 12,000) now reside in the Vancouver Public Library–Special Collections.   If you click on the previous link and search for Curt Lang, you will find the library has made a few photos accessible electronically.  At the World’s Edge, however,  includes many images that are not available elsewhere.

I was rather amused a few weeks ago, when I called the Vancouver Public Library’s Special Collections to get some information about Curt’s photography.  “Oh,” said the librarian,  “We have ordered a new book about Curt Lang.  It will be arriving in the fall.  Perhaps that might help you.”

‘Who else could be writing a book about Curt?’ I wondered.  ‘And why had I heard nothing about this project?’ Then the penny dropped.

“Is the book called, At the World’s Edge, by any chance?” I asked the librarian.  After a minute’s silence, she replied, “Yes that’s it.”

“That’s my book!” I exclaimed.  “So it’s not going to help me, unfortunately.”

Jan is still working on the design of the book’s interior–combining images and text.  I should have more to report about that in a couple of weeks.  I am very pleased that Greg Lang, Curt’s brother, has provided an introduction and David Beers, publisher of the on line magazine Tyee,  is writing a foreword.  Dan Francis, BC historian and the author/editor of more than twenty books had this to say about At the World’s Edge: “Lang was a pivotal member of Vancouver’s ‘beat generation,’ the hipsters, writers and artists who set themselves against the comfortable pieties of post-war consumer society. Cornwall’s book is a fond recollection of her subject and the times in which he lived.”

Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing has been arranging a busy fall reading schedule for me.  I will be announcing dates later, but so far,  appearances will include the Vancouver Public Library, the West Vancouver Memorial Library, the Lynn Valley Library,  and the White Rock Library.  If you know an institution,  group (a book club, perhaps, or photography club) that might be interested in a talk or reading, shoot me a comment!