Quick. Name a writer who lives in London, Ontario. When presented with this challenge, many of us come up empty.
Some might manage a name or two. Big names in fiction like Emma Donoghue, author of the internationally-acclaimed novel Room. Or Bonnie Burnard, winner of the Marian Engel Award, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and Giller Prize. Or Joan Barfoot, another Marian Engel Award recipient, whose output of 11 books and counting began with a Books in Canada First Novel Award win back in 1978.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. And not even the whole tip at that.
London is teeming with writers. Let’s add Elizabeth Waterston to the list, an English professor turned novelist, member of the Order of Canada and the Royal Society, who is still writing and publishing at the age of 89. And let’s not forget Barbara Haworth-Attard, award-winning author of 16 novels of historical fiction, fantasy and mystery for middle-grade and young adult readers. Or Penn Kemp, London’s first poet laureate, celebrated as a foremother of Canadian poetry as well as an accomplished playwright and essayist.
And even still, that’s just scratching the surface.
Statistics Canada data indicates that over 500 people make their living exclusively from writing in London, which means writers are the single largest group of culture workers in the city. That still doesn’t include writers who have a non-writing day job.
London writers have formed several highly-visible and successful communities, says Ben Benedict, a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) London Chapter and a freelance journalist who has over 1,000 publishing credits on the arts. In addition to PWAC, these groups include the London Writers’ Society, Poetry London and the London Poetry Slam. The Writers’ Union of Canada, a national organization representing professional book writers, also has many local members.
Of the many media professionals, songwriters, playwrights, novelists, poets and academics in the city, Benedict points out that many work in isolation and obscurity. “It’s this obscurity,” he maintains, “not being recognized at the grocery store for instance, that gives London its charm for many writers, along with its low cost of living and many amenities.”
According to Waterston, who has perhaps the longest publication history of anyone in the city, London has always nourished its writers. When she retired, she moved back to the city from Guelph, partly because of the friendly artistic milieu.
Even though writers in London, like elsewhere, now have opportunities to connect electronically with colleagues around the world, many continue to value local, face-to-face contact both with each other and their readers.
As their numbers grow, London writers may not be able to enjoy their obscurity for long.
An earlier version of this article was posted on Dec 11, 2011.
Paul Cavanagh is the author After Helen, a novel set in London, Ontario, published by HarperCollinsCanada. So far, his most outrageous accomplishment was being crowned the world’s first Lit Idol at the London (UK) International Book Fair. He is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada. Visit him at www.paulcavanagh.ca or on Twitter @cavanaghpaul.