Origins of the 3-Day Novel Contest.
In the last week of June 1978, I fell into an argument about George Orwell a few days after my photograph appeared in the Globe and Mail next to a photograph of Anne Murray, the singer-sweetheart of the nation. Anne Murray had just flown into Toronto from Vancouver, having completed an advertising campaign for the Bank of Commerce worth a million dollars in today’s money—enough “to keep the wheels rolling financially,” she told the reporter, who, under a headline reading “Success is no strain for Anne,” noted that she was “paler and slimmer than she’s looked in a long time” and that her nose was “red to the point of peeling.” In the photograph, Anne Murray’s perfect nose looks just fine: how could it be otherwise?
The nose in my photograph goes unmentioned in the story accompanying it. I too had just flown into Toronto from Vancouver, after a sleepless night on the red-eye, which cost about two hundred dollars in today’s money and included the complimentary half-dozen double vodkas, the half-dozen cups of coffee, etc., required to sit up all night waiting for the sun to rise over Lake Ontario. I had a lunch date with William French, the book critic at the Globe and Mail, who took me up to the rooftop cafeteria at Globe and Mail headquarters and bought me a sandwich and several more cups of coffee while I described to him the (possibly ludicrous) idea of a Three-Day Novel Writing Contest, which was set to begin on the following Friday at midnight and run for three days through the Canada Day long weekend. The story and my photograph appeared under the headline (in a smaller font than that used for Anne Murray’s story) “Pulp Press looks for quickie books.” Earlier in the year, Pulp Press (the precursor of Arsenal Pulp Press) had been attacked in Parliament by Tory MPs as a terrorist organization in receipt of public funds, which made it possible for William French to fill two columns with ruminations on parliamentary slander, freedom of expression, the short history of Pulp Press and the challenge of writing a novel in three days—a topic that, without the added lustre of the terrorist charges, might have made for thin copy or perhaps no copy at all. The essay closed with a mock report of the fulminations of an outraged Tory MP (Howard Retch, Mud Flats) against CBC radio for broadcasting an interview with a naked book publisher “at 8:45 a.m., the family breakfast hour.”
Photo by Rachael Ashe
Later that day an interviewer from a private radio station asked me “on behalf of any would-be novelists who might be listening,” as he put it, why I should expect anyone to send their three-day novel to the company that published the Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla and other suspicious books, a surprisingly long list of which he then read aloud as his gaze burned into mine above the microphone. What did I say in reply? I remember only that he blinked before I did, and that he cut off the interview as soon as I stopped speaking. My reply, whatever it had been, so impressed the postmodernist literary critic John Bentley Mays, known at the time for an attack on the poetry of Phyllis Webb in the pages of the journal Open Letter, that he sought me out and invited me to lunch at the Peter Pan on Queen Street West as a reward for having silenced a troublesome media personality. The Peter Pan was a high-class bistro with tablecloths and cloth napkins, and haughty servers, and a soup-and-pasta combo plate, and imported beer in bottles—all signs of a life that until then had eluded me, and that erased any vestiges of the sandwich provided by the genial William French in the Globe and Mail cafeteria. I never spoke with John Bentley Mays again, and fear now that I might have had too little of suitable weight to say to him in the Peter Pan, where I felt more intensely what I had been feeling since I had arrived: a growing sense of impostor syndrome.
As the week progressed, there were more interviews and at least one ceremonial dinner, with a publishing collective in a basement, consisting entirely of nuts, peanuts, marijuana and fruit juice, but I failed to convince myself that anyone out there was going to write a novel in three days. I was staying with my friend Walmsley and his girlfriend Michelle in an apartment on Wellesley Street, where I shared the sofa with Rocky, an overactive black kitten who used the sofa as a launching pad from which to throw himself into the drapes gathered at the balcony door, which he seemed to think were, or ought to be, trees. He would hit them high up by sinking his claws into the fabric, then tear and flail his way to the ceiling and fling himself back over to the sofa. This performance went on intermittently day and night, and I learned very quickly to avoid being ripped to pieces while sleeping by covering myself from head to toe with a sleeping bag and striving to lie motionless beneath it. In the evenings I recounted my adventures in the media to Walmsley, who had written two books of poetry and several plays; I wanted to persuade him to try to write a novel in three days so that I might be certain of at least one entrant in the Three-Day Novel Writing Contest, but Walmsley remained aloof to the suggestion.
The argument about George Orwell overtook us in a restaurant near Allan Gardens on Thursday, the day before I was to return to Vancouver. It was a warm, clear evening; we set out on foot with Michelle and stopped to collect their friend Erika, who had broken her foot and rode along with us in a wheelchair. Neither Walmsley nor I was prepared for the argument, which, when it erupted, proved not to be about Orwell himself but about the title of his novel 1984. According to a story that one of us had read, the title had been given to the book not by Orwell but by his publisher; Orwell had wanted to call his novel 1948.
We settled into the restaurant and arranged ourselves so that Erika was comfortable in the wheelchair, and ordered something to drink, and then dinner. We ate something delicate, interesting: crepes, which were new in 1978, and little steaks and shrimps, and sauces; drinks, of course, and then without hesitation we plunged into the argument, my good friend and I, the argument to which there were at least two sides: that the change to the title of Orwell’s novel was significant, and that it was not significant. We must have started there, with Walmsley perhaps taking the significant argument (so to speak) and me taking the other side, or the other way around. We plunged on into the debate through the main course, wine, whiskey, beer, coffee, dessert. Michelle and Erika were patient for a while; for too long, perhaps; for most of the dinner, as Walmsley’s voice rose and mine rose with it and vice versa. Eventually even the waiter began to show uneasiness, if not a species of unprofessional anger. Erika demanded to be taken home; we paid the angry waiter, or more likely Michelle paid the angry waiter, and the four of us stumbled and wheeled out onto the sidewalk. The argument waned as we took our bearings and began walking along the edge of Allan Gardens toward Erika’s place, and then it began to wax again, the argument that would not end and had even embraced a meta-argument about whether it was possible to have an argument like this one, about something as trivial as the title of a novel. We left Erika at her place, to her evident relief, and argued intensely all the way to back to Wellesley Street. I had abandoned hope of persuading Walmsley to write a novel in three days; it seemed to me that honour might require that I relinquish the sofa to Rocky and find a hotel. By three in the morning, long abandoned by Michelle, we turned to drinking coffee at the kitchen table, and the levels of argument, the arguments about the argument, began to collapse in on themselves.
The next day Rocky woke me up on the sofa by batting fiercely at one of my feet, which had slipped out from beneath the sleeping bag. It was Friday, my last day in Toronto. I called Pulp Press in Vancouver and learned that nearly a hundred people had registered for the Three-Day Novel Writing Contest. I had underestimated the power of William French.
In the evening I had a quiet dinner with Walmsley and Michelle, and I don’t recall that any of us mentioned Orwell. After dinner I went for a walk. When I returned to pack my suitcase for the flight home, Walmsley and Michelle were sitting at the kitchen table, with a typewriter in front of them and several pads of lined paper. I’m going to write a three-day novel, said Walmsley. Michelle is going to type it up as I write.
He was making notes, he said, from an idea that had been forming all day. They were going to start writing and typing at midnight, when the contest started. I went out to the street and found the Airporter, and caught the last flight home.
On Monday night at midnight, Walmsley called. We finished the novel, he said.
A month later I called him to say that his novel had won the first Three-Day Novel Writing Contest. The title was Doctor Tin.
Six months later, Walmsley called again. Rocky had taken one of his flying leaps, missed the drapes and sailed out over the balcony and down five storeys to the ground. He had survived.
Five years later, William French wrote another column about the three-day novel, which he described as “a uniquely Canadian contribution to world literature.”