McLuhan Studies : Issue 5

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On Writing the McLuhan Biography


On Writing the McLuhan Biography:

Terry Gordon in Conversation with Eric McLuhan

EM: Can you reconstruct your writing of the book?

TG: What could be easier than saying what one has done? Writing Escape into Understanding is fresh in my mind. Even if it were not, my studio remains awash with the notes, files, tape recordings, and correspondence I used. I still look up from my computer to a wall festooned with key passages from McLuhan's writings, directives on biography writing from Leon Edel, Paul Murray Kendall, and others...

EM: Principles, product...what about the process?

TG: That's a much tougher question. On Day One—you know, that old image of the writer rolling a clean sheet a paper into his typewriter—I wanted to do some scene-writing based...

EM: Scene-writing?

TG: Uh-huh, reconstructing an incident, an occasion, a special day, or what have you, and I had earmarked some material from my archive research that looked very promising for writing up this way. In fact, I was sure I had just the right stuff for my prologue. What should have been an easy job was anything but. At the end of a long day, I had a draft that looked appallingly brief, too brief to be the backbone for a prologue. Eventually it wound up much later in the book and I scrapped the idea of a prologue altogether.

EM: Did you wind up writing much of your material in chronological order?

TG: Not really. I did write the chapters on the Winnipeg years and part of the first Cambridge chapter first, but after that I was all over the place. Often an idea for a key part of a chapter would just pop up when I least expected it, so I would tackle it right away.

EM: In the end you didn't present your material in strictly chronological order either.

TG: Right. Part six, "McLuhan's Legacy," originally appeared in chunks throughout my manuscript. It was my editor's inspired suggestion to reconfigure it as it finally appears. I can never say enough good things about my principal editor, Don Bastian, at Stoddart Publishing.

EM: What's the advantage of combining the chronological approach to biography with the "ideas" approach as you did?

TG: This way, my book closes with an overview of McLuhan's thinking in the final years of his career and opens onto the application of his teaching and the implications of it for the whole postmodern scene. The reader moves from learning about a life to doing something with the ideas that are the main reason for reading about that life.

EM: What were your criteria for choosing what to put into the book and what to leave out?

TG: Basically, I focused on whatever would give the book shape, show the fundamental underlying unity of McLuhan's intellectual preoccupations.

EM: In the end, what did you decide to leave out and why?

TG: Hah! It wasn't always my decision. I wrote about a dream that McLuhan recorded in his diary—a very bizarre thing, but very interesting, I thought, and it also seemed fairly obvious to me that it was based on a passage from Wyndham Lewis, though McLuhan himself did not recognize this as the key to the dream's interpretation. So it seemed like a choice bit of inadvertent self-revelation on the part of my subject, and I wrote it up. My editor decided to cut it, for reasons he did not explain. Perhaps he thought I was grandstanding a bit, or that pop psychology has no place in an intellectual biography. At any rate, I showed the passage to Phyllis Grosskurth, and she thought it was too bad it had been cut. "It drips with enormous envy and aggression," she said.

EM: Now, let’s come back to those principles for biography writing that you were mentioning earlier. Did you stick to them?

TG: I tried to, except for one that I decided early on I would violate.

EM: Namely?

TG: "Keep to a minimum direct quotations from letters." McLuhan himself contrasted his role as an explorer in his publications with the role of explainer in his correspondence. His letters are such a rich source of illumination about the ideas he explored in his books that I knew I had to treat readers to generous helpings to provide insights into McLuhan's enduring legacy.

EM: I know that you worked under severe time restraints in writing this book.

TG: Yes, and they were self-imposed. I knew I had to stick to a deadline that coincided with my leave from Dalhousie University, because once I went back to full-time teaching there just would not be any time to work on the book. So, I took the total number of words called for in my contract with the publisher, divided it by the number of days I had available, and said "That's how many words you have to write every day." It worked. I never fell behind schedule. Sometimes I got ahead and treated myself to a day of no writing.

EM: There must have been discouragements too.

TG: Terror, even. I remember going back to my hotel room in Ottawa one evening after a twelve-hour day at the National Archives. This was fairly early on in the research. I realized that at the rate I was going through the material, I had no hope whatever of meeting my deadline. I looked out the window at the last light fading over the Gatineau Hills and said "You can't do it," and that night I was absolutely convinced I couldn't.

EM: How did you get over that feeling?

TG: I poured myself a drink and started putting in even longer hours the next day.

EM: What was the hardest part of the work?

TG: Writing the death scene. Of course I had known the details for quite some time before I came to write them up, but it was a surprise to find myself reacting as I did to putting it all down in my own words. I sat at my computer in a cold sweat, nauseated, dizzy, violent cramps. I learned that there is a limit to how much professional detachment you can bring to your subject.

EM: How important is that detachment?

TG: Paramount. You have to be close enough to your subject to understand his way of thinking but sufficiently detached to evaluate every shred of data that comes your way as a prospective basis for revising what you have been planning to say.

EM: The biographer has to scrutinize himself as much as he scrutinizes his subject?

TG: Absolutely. Or risk falling into the Morton Jimroy syndrome.

EM: Morton Jimroy?

TG: One of Carol Shields's creations. He's the biographer in her wonderful novel Swann. The whole book is a lesson on the deceptions that literary critics and biographers can practice...even on themselves. I had a good laugh at myself when I detected a bit of Jimroy coming through.

EM: How was that?

TG: Well, I was working on a long section dealing with Understanding Media, and suddenly it all just seemed very academic for material that was going into a "trade" book. I had to tweak my own professorial nose, but I didn't change course very much. An intellectual biography is an intellectual biography, after all.

EM: I've heard people express admiration for your writing style. What kind of decisions did you have to make about style?

TG: Style is such a complex thing in biography writing. For one thing, it sets the viewing distance between the reader and the life, and in that respect the biographer has to ensure consistency. There is also a dimension of style that has to do with suitability vis-a-vis the subject matter. Irony is a tricky business, but I decided I needed to use it as a stylistic device at various points.

EM: For example?

TG: Sad irony, and with this there is no risk of sending your reader confusing messages about your view of your subject, but funny irony can be a little more ambiguous. I went with both kinds. The scene with McLuhan and Alphonse Ouimet in the men's room, for example, shows Ouimet missing McLuhan illustrating his point about user as content.

EM: Tell me more.

TG: No, I want readers to dig out the ironies for themselves. There are quite a

few, for those who care to look carefully.

EM: Are you hooked on biography?

TG: Oh yes, and have been for a long time.

EM: Your favorite biographers...?

TG: We have some very distinguished biographers in Canada: Peter Waite, Phyllis Grosskurth, and rising stars like Rosemary Sullivan. Among U.S. biographers I admire John Paul Russo, Robert Kanigel, who did a stunning job on the life of the mathematical genius Ramanujan, and of course the masterly life of Picasso that John Richardson continues to craft. In the U. K., Michael Holroyd is my top choice, though I give full credit to Shaw's earlier biographers too.

EM: What do you think of Philip Marchand's McLuhan?

TG: I think it would be thoroughly unprofessional of me to offer an analysis [of The Medium and the Messenger]. Phil and I started from different points, worked with different sources, wrote with different purposes, wrote in different styles, so it's comparing apples and oranges. I have the greatest respect for anyone who tackles any biography, and I’m certain that Phil would say the same.

EM: How do you find the critical reaction to your book? TG: Precisely what I expected. They love me in New York, Boston, Chicago. In Canada there has been grudging praise and curmudgeonly comment—so far, at least. Irony again. If you take the reviews altogether, they reflect both the reception critics gave McLuhan's own work and how he reacted to it, and I emphasized this with my opening epigraphs for chapters 8, 9, 10. The latter has him saying: "My motive in returning to Canada was then, as now, my fear of acceptance. I knew there was no danger of this in Canada...In the U. S., surrounded by an atmosphere of success and acceptance, I could have lost my bearings very quickly." Interestingly enough, in my files there is a copy of McLuhan's reply to one of his critics, written 26 years ago. It could be reprinted today as a reply to one of the reviews (non-review really) of my book. The same critic McLuhan replied to!

EM: You still have your bearings?

TG: Yes, and a great deal of satisfaction too, because many people have written to me already to say what they like in my book, to engage in discussion of McLuhan's ideas, etc. I am also deeply grateful for the tremendous background preparation that interviewers have done. I did various press, radio, and television interviews in connection with my appearance at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors in Toronto and additional ones since returning to Halifax. Such intelligent questions! Very encouraging.

EM: What next?

TG: I was ten years into the research for a life of Charles Kay Ogden when I was invited to do the McLuhan biography. Now I go back to Ogden.

EM: This is the Ogden of Ogden & Richards, The Meaning of Meaning?

TG: Yes, that man of many masks. Literally. He had a huge collection of masks. He amused himself with them, but he also used them as a lesson in communication. When people came to visit him he would wear a mask and ask visitors to put one on too. He said it facilitated talk in terms of ideas instead of in terms of personalities. But was he also hiding? Some say many mysteries surrounded him; others say that is what he wanted people to think.

EM: Sounds as if it is going to be a trickier assignment than McLuhan.

TG: Well, it’s hard to say if I can beat Ogden at his own game. The only way might be to do something like Jay Parini has done in Benjamin's Crossing, a fictionalized account of the subject's life.

EM: I look forward already.

TG: Thank you.

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