Every once in a blue moon someone pops up like a demented jack-in-the-box to inflict such havoc in your life that they become elevated, for at least that short troubled time, to the status of nemesis. Briefly many years ago I had the dubious distinction of playing that role opposite none other than the reigning queen of Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood.
Nemesis. For those who lack a superlative command of Greek vocabulary, look it up in your Funk ’n’ Wagnall’s. A nemesis, from the Greek for “pain-in-the-ass”, is that worthy opponent who makes life hell for the hero(ine) and, in the downer ending that rarely cuts it in Hollywood these days, inflicts retribution or vengeance upon them. As Professor Tarzan might say, me Protagones, you Antagones, now let the drama begin.
In the fall of 1975 I was in a Master’s program at the University of New Brunswick. Thanks to respectable undergraduate marks and a handful of short stories and poems published in UNB’s literary quarterly The Fiddlehead, I’d been granted permission to write a creative thesis in lieu of an academic one.
Unfortunately this did not exempt me from taking two academic courses of incredible dryness. The only course of interest was one on Yeats, whose fascination for the occult resonated with me. But to fill out my program I was stuck taking a course on 19th Century Canadian poets, an academic field of such barren prospect (or so it seemed to my 26-year-old mind) that I feared to die of boredom.
Meanwhile, in lieu of writing a novella or a dozen short stories for my creative thesis, I was zealously pounding away at a porn novel, which a writer friend of mine had assured me was the easiest way to break into the New York publishing world. In a more-or-less continuous state of tumescence, I had little patience for Bliss Carman’s “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree”, when what my daily page-count required was more of “He lifted her skirt and felt her plush buttocks yield to his probing fingers…” But I digress.
As a grad student I had an assistantship and a monthly stipend from the English Department to perform menial labor for an assigned professor. It was academic feudalism but it helped pay the bills and, until my porn novel breached the gates of the Big Apple smut kingdom, I was resigned to my fate. I was assigned to the Professor of Creative Writing who was responsible, along with teaching the usual academic load, for managing UNB’s Visiting Writers program. My role in the big scheme of things was to help him however he deemed suitable.
Thus far in the fall semester, I’d been obliged only to plaster the campus and a few select downtown locations with posters advertising the October visit of poet Al Purdy. Plus ensure there were two bottles of Scotch waiting in Purdy’s hotel room when he arrived. Purdy had been in great form the night of his reading, bellowing his poetry in a robust voice to a crowd of aficionados. After the reading a bunch of us trailed the literary force majeure back to the bar of the Beaverbrook Hotel, like a school of remora all wanting a ride on the shark. There Purdy commandeered a corner table and, flanked by a couple of blondes too old to be students, too provocatively dressed to be professors, and too many to be his wife, proceeded to drink everyone under the table.
In November the Professor placed all his trust in my faint abilities to be the “handler” for Margaret Atwood’s visit to UNB. A daunting and prestigious assignment! Aside from the poster campaign there were only a couple of other duties – arrange for a PA system the night of her reading, and pick Ms. Atwood up at the Fredericton airport. Unlike Purdy’s voice, conceivably strengthened in noisy bars drawing the attention of busy waiters, hers was apparently rather delicate, better suited for genteel salon discourse over tea and Peek Freans.
November passed quickly. Deeply immersed in my porn novel, I’d lost track of the date. Luckily, I remembered to get the posters up in time but neglected to deal with the PA system. The day before her reading I checked with the campus office that handled such things and was told that their only portable PA system had already been loaned out to another function. I called a downtown music store and learned I could rent a PA system for $50. I laid out the alternatives for the Professor’s executive approval – spend $50 on the PA rental, or at no cost, I could set up a microphone with my guitar amplifier. The Professor stroked his goatee, trying to dislodge some fleas he’d harbored there since the Cuban missile crisis, and said it was my call.
I tested my amplifier that night. It was a Fender Bassman tube amp that required a 10-minute warm-up before each performance. Its 100 watts were capable of driving two 15-inch speakers in a cabinet the size of a steamer trunk. I plugged in my bass guitar and gave it a fierce workout until the next-door neighbors started pounding on the walls. Philistines, they had little appreciation for the hypnotic bass riff of Iron Butterfly’s Inna Gadda Davida played over and over and over again. I plugged in my microphone, which I’d bought at Sears a few years ago for $19.95, and tested it. Aside from an annoying tendency to squeal like a butchered pig when I stood directly in front of the amp, it was good to go.
Friday morning it started snowing. I was driving a 1965 Volkswagen Bug at the time and like most students I had little money for automotive maintenance. The battery was in a fragile state and most nights I brought it to bed with me to keep it warm. The heating channels that ran from the rear engine to the front vents were rusted out, and on most winter days I had only a small space of clear window in the lower left corner of the windshield to see through. For a broader vista of the road ahead, I kept a scraper handy to clear the hoar-frost from the windshield.
But these were minor inconveniences compared to my clutch, which no longer worked. To start the car I needed to coast downhill or get a push. Once going I was able, with a skill equal to a Formula One race car driver, to shift gears, crunching and grinding as I expertly matched the engine revolutions to the transmission. Since the UNB campus was built atop a hill and I myself lived in a house whose driveway sloped to the street, gravity was on my side in most cases.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, my VW feared the straight and level, and recently I’d declined to become involved with an attractive grad student of apparently relaxed morals simply on the grounds that she lived in an apartment complex situated in a gulag of flatness. However much I appreciated field work for my porn novel, I didn’t need the embarrassment my clutch-less car promised.
That afternoon I carried my battery out to the car, gave it a push down the driveway and headed off to the airport to fetch Margaret Atwood. En route I cleverly gauged the flow of traffic approaching intersections and managed to slow or speed up as the situation required, such that I never came to a dead stop and risked stalling my vehicle. At the airport I was relieved to see the parking lot built on a slight incline. Although snow was still falling, I figured that with a push I would become mobile again.
Inside the terminal I checked the flight schedule. Ms. Atwood’s plane had apparently just arrived. I wandered around the arrivals lounge, her face still fresh in my mind after all the posters I’d put up. But all along, I’d imagined I was looking for someone of considerable stature, as befitted the Queen of CanLit. Probably five foot nine or ten, I figured, she was that BIG. I kept looking, but nowhere did I see her. Finally, there was no one left in the arrivals lounge but me and this petite woman with curly hair, who finally came up to me and said, are you from UNB?
Ohmygod! The light went on with such a blinding flash that I must have stood there stunned for several seconds, immobilized like a moose on a dark highway when two drag-racing tractor trailers come tearing around Dead Moose Curve, bearing down on him…
She must have snapped her fingers. I yanked my consciousness back to the arrivals lounge and saw her standing there with her paisley suitcase, looking very impatient like she had somewhere to go in a hurry. Probably forgot to use the facilities on the plane, couldn’t go to the washroom when she arrived because she was afraid she’d miss her ride, and was now just plain anxious to get to the hotel. I offered to carry her bag but she wouldn’t let me touch it.
We went out to the parking lot where I explained the situation. I would put the car in neutral and we’d both push until it got a bit of a running start down the inclined parking lot. Then I’d jump in, hit the ignition and, God willing, the clutch-bone connected to the tranny-bone connected to the wheel-bone would turn at just the right speed to allow the engine to start with the stick-bone in first gear. She stared at me like I was kidding. She soon found out that wasn’t going to get her anywhere.
I had to give her credit, she was game. A lesser woman would have said, to hell with this backwoods horseshit, I’m taking a taxi into town and sticking UNB with the fare. But no, she was cool. She put her suitcase in the back seat of the car and pulled on her gloves like she really meant to get a grip on things. Now that’s a poet. You could tell just by the color of her gloves, red like boxing gloves, that she was a fighter and Governor General’s Award material to boot.
We got the Bug rolling in short order, and I was thinking we probably looked like the Wright Brothers trying to get the Kitty Hawk airborne. But when I jumped into the car, Ms. Atwood didn’t have the horsepower to continue its momentum. Before we ran out of incline, I hit the brakes and we changed sides. I’d push from the rear and she’d push at the driver’s side with one hand holding the door open and the other hand on the steering wheel. Off we went. When we were up to speed, I yelled at her to jump inside but she yelled back it was going too fast and she was scared, and I yelled back at her that she’d better, or we were walking to Fredericton, and she’d be late for her poetry reading.
At that, she jumped in, hit the ignition, and the engine caught. I ran to catch up with her. We couldn’t stop the car for fear of stalling the engine so I had to yank open the driver’s door and stand on the running board while she climbed over the gearshift into the passenger seat. As I slide behind the wheel I grabbed the gearshift to shove it into second gear. She gave a little yelp and I realized that I’d grabbed her knee because her dress was still caught on the gearshift and I couldn’t see, honest, what I was putting my hands on. She struggled to get her leg over and I heard a rip and then the gear dropped into fourth and we almost stalled before I could get my hand on the gearshift for real and pull it back into second where it belonged.
We didn’t talk much until we were downtown, coasting into the driveway of the Beaverbrook Hotel. Because I couldn’t really stop, not on a little incline like that, we had to circle through once and she opened the door and tossed out her carpetbag suitcase like a UNICEF plane doing a supply drop for some culturally-starved hamlet deep in the interior of Sticksville. Then we went around once more and she opened the door and perched on the passenger running board, her beret cocked over one eye like some French Resistance fighter parachuting behind enemy lines.
I asked her if she wanted me to come back and pick her up at seven to go to the Professor’s for dinner. She said no, rather tersely, and jumped. What a trooper. I slowed as much as I could but she hit the ground on her wrong foot, I think, and staggered several yards before she ran into a parked Lincoln Continental. I heard a curse, although I don’t know whether it was from her or the guy whose ride she’d plowed into.
I went back to my place and, by making a sharp U-turn on my snow-slick street, spun around in the road and shifted gears from first to reverse as I slid backwards up my inclined driveway. I cut the engine and went in to my bed-sit apartment where I had a joint and a beer to calm my nerves after that exciting encounter with the Queen of CanLit. I got my bass guitar out from under the bed and checked my amp. Sixteen bars of Inna Gadda Davidda later, I figured everything was fine. I plugged in my Sears microphone. Testing, testing, testing…
At seven o’clock I packed my gear into the Bug, got a running start down the driveway and cruised over to the Professor’s house. He lived on the side of the hill so, even though I had to park a block away, I was set for the next leg of the evening. I arrived at the Professor’s place to find him and the missus in a testy mood. His wife was a handsome woman with thick eyebrows and ample breasts and whenever I saw her I thought of James Joyce’s character Nora in Ulysses, an earth mother with a vibrant passion for life. She gave me a wet kiss when I arrived and asked me what I wanted to drink. Knowing I was now in genteel company, I accepted a glass of wine.
Ms. Atwood arrived ten minutes later. The Professor and his wife gushed over her, taking her coat and asking about her flight, and whether she found the Beaverbrook Hotel to her liking. Ms. Atwood wasn’t very forthcoming in the travelogue department, providing only monosyllabic responses, which I thought was kind of pathetic for a woman with her alleged command of the language. Maybe she was just saving her bon mots for her reading later tonight. As she entered the living room with a slight limp, she glanced my way and I thought I caught a glimpse of something malign there, as if she suspected I might have been regaling the Professor and his wife with tales of airport follies.
Ms. Atwood and I sat in the living room while the Professor and his wife alternated playing host/hostess while the other scurried off to the kitchen where some culinary crisis seemed to be brewing. The Professor had a senile golden retriever named Shaggy that, however much she seemed to discourage it, took quite a liking to Ms. Atwood. I had to admit, there was a poetic ring to it – Shaggy and Maggie.
In any event, Shaggy was well-named because every time you touched him, a huge mitt-full of his hair came away in your hand. In moments Ms. Atwood’s other ankle-length dress, a tartan thing of dark colors, was covered with mustard-colored hair. In short order she was sniffling and sneezing and trying to push Shaggy away. He misinterpreted this as rough-house play and came bounding back each time to paw her all over. The Professor eventually saw that Ms. Atwood, clearly more of a cat person, had had enough of this fun and banished Shaggy to the basement where we listened to him growl and howl for the rest of the evening.
Eventually whatever had been on fire in the kitchen was put out and we convened to the dinner table where Nora brought out a blackened dish of casserole with apologies that the Professor had read the recipe wrong to her and she’d cooked it at 450 instead of 350. He scowled and denied it, but to make up for whoever had allowed such a thing to happen, opened a bottle of the “good wine” for dinner. Nora dished out generous helpings of blackened casserole, what might have sounded appetizing on a Cajun menu, with side orders of over-cooked broccoli and under-cooked carrots. Finding no topic worthy of conversation, we all drank a toast to the brave men and women of Canadian letters, and wielded our utensils to attack dinner.
After a brief foray between the layers of her lasagna, Ms. Atwood muttered that her lasagna contained meat. The Professor laughed heartily at that, saying of course there’s meat, that’s how we make lasagna, what were you expecting – tofu? And there was this dead silence, relatively speaking, except for the low moan of a desolate dog down in the dungeon, and Ms. Atwood said, but I’m a vegetarian.
Well, you could have heard a participle drop. But secretly I was thrilled. After the logistical nightmare of transporting Ms. Atwood from airport to hotel in my clutch-less car, my ears had been burning all evening just thinking of the polysyllabic cuss words she must have invoked as she mended her torn dress, applied liniment to a strained muscle, or examined the bruise on her hip where she’d collided with a Lincoln. I was relieved to see that a little of the shit going through the fan would be spread liberally around. Nobody could accuse me of having dumped a burned meat offering on her plate.
We all looked at each other. The Professor was aghast. No one had told him. He’d read every word of Northrop Frye, he assured us, and not once had that esteemed critic of Canadian literature mentioned that Margaret Atwood was a vegetarian. She fixed him with a squinty eye and said in a frosty tone whose spirit flatly contradicted the words she chose, it’s all right, I’ll just eat around it.
For a moment there, I struggled to recall a joke that might lighten the atmosphere. But a glance at Ms. Atwood, seeing a bright spot on her cheekbone, cautioned me that this was a situation where belly laughs would not be readily forthcoming. So I bit my tongue, diplomat that I am, and chewed silently on my blackened lasagna leather.
Again I had to tip my hat to Ms. Atwood. She could have stood up, knocked over the table and stormed off into the wintry night to flag a taxi whose driver might have guided her to a Chinese restaurant with a nice bean curd soup and vegetarian spring roll to tide her over. But no, she hung tough. Using her utensils as deftly as a surgeon, she quickly dissected the lasagna, pushing the meat off to one side, the pasta off to another, and grimly ate her meal, her face reflecting the same gusto with which Russian soldiers during the Stalingrad siege controlled their gag reflex to swallow a rat drumstick and a side order of rotten potato.
The rest of us pretended not to notice how picky she was, when I know we were really all thinking, what the hell’s the matter with a bit of Grade A ground beef? The Professor opened another bottle of the “good wine” and deftly steered the conversation boat toward the shores of Canadian Literature, prattling on about how The Fiddlehead was publishing reams of good stuff this year, some of it contributed by very promising young writers, like Alan sitting right here at the table. Ms. Atwood turned her head a couple of degrees in my direction, and one of her eyes regarded me warily, reminding me of the way horses watch you nervously when you sneak up on them with the gelding shears.
Showing the first glimmer of sympathy I’d seen all evening, Ms. Atwood sought to relieve the Professor of his lasagna faux pas by asking him kindly, how fared dear old Fred Cogswell. This was another English Faculty professor of great geniality who had for many years offered a heavy load of “bird” courses in which every student, no matter how densely illiterate, stood assured of getting at least a B-grade, while he simultaneously shepherded to print the quarterly edition of UNB’s literary magazine, The Fiddlehead, whose literary output was second only to what was coming out of Kingston via The Queen’s Quarterly.
Well, given a nudge in the right direction, the Professor was off and running like a horse with the bit between his teeth. We got treated to a complete rundown on every other academic in the English Department. An ex-patriate American, the Professor had once mentioned in class that, instead of going to Korea, he’d served stateside in Military Intelligence, implying that he was pretty hot stuff, and that he’d been in a serious quandary at one point as to whether he should take a job with the CIA and become an assassin of Commie agents or continue his graduate studies to become a professor. Lucky for those Commies he’d made the wrong choice.
You could tell, however doubtful his story was, that there was indeed something of the spy in him, the way he’d built a dossier on the whole English Faculty, just in case Canada, as left-wing as it was, turned Commie too and he’d have to squeal on his associates in order to protect his own tenure.
Dessert was offered but Ms. Atwood, as anxious as any sane visitor to escape from a nut-house back into normal society, said maybe it was best to forego that pleasure and head off to the university for her reading. The Professor would drive her, she made that clear, so I headed off on my own. The Bug was parked on a steep street so it was a breeze to get started and drive over to UNB, whose campus itself was built on the summit of a considerable hill. I parked at the highest point I could find in the lot of the Memorial Hall Building, and made two trips to carry into the lecture hall my Fender Bassman amp with its huge speaker cabinet and the 100-watt amplifier head along with my Sears microphone and assorted cables.
The lecture hall, which the Drama Club used for its monthly productions, had a good-sized stage and mezzanine section, behind which a spectator gallery with built-in wooden seats rose at a steep incline. I imagined this was something like the design of old-style English theatres, where the gentry looked down over the heads of the riff-raff. Little did I know that a Shakespearean drama of minute proportions was about to unfold this evening, and that I would play such a villainous, albeit petty, role.
As the spectator gallery filled up, I went about my business as poet roadie. I plugged in my amp and cabled it up to the speaker cabinet. I ran the microphone cable up onto the stage where a wooden lectern faced the gallery. In those days, living on the shoestring of a graduate student’s assistantship, I’d never known the luxury of a microphone stand. During jam sessions in my apartment with my brother or some other amateur, I’d made do with a broomstick handle taped to a chair, and the microphone taped to the broomstick. Tonight in my haste I had forgotten to bring my broomstick.
But as Frank Zappa used to say, necessity is the motherfucker of invention, and I wasn’t going to let a little thing like this spoil Ms. Atwood’s big night in Fredericton. I hustled out to the cloak room where I found a wire coat hanger. I bent it into an appropriate shape and anchored one end of it around the lectern’s reading light and, with a generous quantity of electrical tape, secured the Sears microphone to the other end of the coat hanger. I switched on the amp and gave it a few minutes to warm up.
Although the Bassman was a classic piece of rock ’n’ roll equipment, practically a collector’s item, it was a tube amplifier. There were about half a dozen of those tubes, each one looking like a little miniature city under a dome of glass, the lights slowly coming on in the little cathode skyscrapers. Compared to today’s modern electronics, this was almost Soviet-era technology, but if it was good enough for Jimi Hendrix, I figured, it was good enough for Margaret Atwood.
In a few minutes, the Bassman was humming happily, a steady low-decibel drone like a distant airplane that could be heard throughout the lecture hall. I thought this might be a little distracting so I tried reversing the polarity on the power plug, but that only sent it into overdrive, like the sound of a kamikaze plane beginning its dive into some hapless troop ship. I quickly returned the plug to its earlier position.
By now the lecture hall was filled to capacity. Ms. Atwood was chatting with a few of the English Faculty and at one point I actually heard her laugh, and I could see that everyone was squirming with excitement and that the evening was shaping up to be one of those great cultural events everyone would fondly remember years after. A few minutes later the Professor started shushing people and urging them to take their seats. He and Ms. Atwood mounted the stage where he fumbled his way through her introduction, getting the name of one of her novels wrong, calling it The Inedible Woman, probably still thinking of the food she’d left on her plate. Finally, he finished and left the stage to her.
There was a hushed silence in which the audience was clearly perplexed to hear the drone of a distant airplane. I crept from my seat in the front row and thumped the Bassman with the heel of my hand. A low rumble echoed from the back of the hall. Now it sounded like an airplane flying through a thunderstorm. I passed my hand over the amplifier and discovered that if I kept it within a few inches of the biggest tube, the sound of the distant airplane diminished from that of a four-engine cargo plane to that of a single-engine Cessna. I crouched there, my hand in place like a Reiki master administering healing vibes to a sick client, and nodded to Ms. Atwood that it was safe to proceed.
She began to read her poetry. She had a small breathless voice like an asthmatic child and it was clearly evident why amplification was mandatory for her. Things went well for another poem or two and then it all went to hell in a handcart. She was in the middle of a poem when the Bassman suddenly cut loose with a terrible yowl, like a cat “getting fixed” without benefit of anesthesia. She stopped in mid-sentence and glanced in my direction, and the look in her eyes was like a hail of bullets in a drive-by shooting. I be wastin’ yo ass, muthahfuckah, if’n I hear dat again.
I withdrew to the side of the amplifier. On other occasions before this, I’d noticed that if you approached it too closely from the front, the amplifier would start to squeal with feedback. Jimi liked that sort of thing, but Maggie didn’t. I stroked the Bassman with my Reiki technique but it wouldn’t behave.
Up on stage, thinking maybe it was her end of things that had gone awry, Ms. Atwood tried to adjust the microphone at the end of the coat hanger. The electrical tape peeled off and the microphone fell with an amplified “thunk” to the lectern. I heard titters and sighs from the peanut gallery as I vaulted up onto the stage and went to her rescue. I wrapped the microphone back into place with some extra tape and hissed at her to stick to the poetry and leave the sound system to me, at which point I realized my harsh words were being amplified for all to hear. More titters and sympathetic groans of outrage from the gallery. I slunk back to my post beside the Bassman.
To reduce an epic story to a haiku, hell hath no fury like a feedback-prone amplifier. Maybe all those old Marconi tubes, even as they teetered on the verge of electronic Alzheimer’s, still harbored some kind of primordial intelligence like the computer Hal in the movie 2001. And in the heart of its circuits the Bassman probably suspected it’d been pressed into service, not to hasten the revolution via rock ’n’ roll, but to propagate mere poetry without the force of power chords and killer riffs.
No matter how I cajoled him, Bassman wouldn’t behave. He growled and howled, drowning out every word Ms. Atwood tried to share with her audience. I twirled his dials and flicked his switches, punched and kicked him, and rocked him back and forth. Bassman would not be controlled, so in the end he had to be silenced. I pulled the plug.
Ms. Atwood looked at me, as if to say, are we done now? I shrugged helplessly, feeling like the village idiot in a room full of professors, students and Faculty wives. In a less evolved society they probably would have brought out the tar and feathers for a brief intermission, but I was fortunate to have been born in genteel times, and was allowed to slink back to my seat without anyone throwing more than dirty looks my way.
The rest of the poetry reading was rather uncomfortable, like watching a blind person walk barefoot through a room littered with broken glass. Ms. Atwood, still the trooper in a situation that only electro-shock or several years of scream therapy would likely erase from her memory, soldiered on. She read her poetry just like they must have done in the old days, her naked voice against the crowd, while back in the upper reaches of the peanut gallery, people asked her to speak up, please, they couldn’t hear her. And she would say, I’m sorry but I’m speaking as loudly as I can, and then she would cough to clear her throat and in a thin reed-like voice, she would continue to read her poetry.
There was a lot of applause when it was over. Mostly relief, I felt, but there was admiration too, the kind we reserve for marathon runners who come straggling in at the end of the race, wobbling and half-blind with fatigue, garnering applause not because they have beat anyone’s time but because they have, against all apparent odds, finished the job they set out to do.
As the crowd evacuated the lecture hall, I dismantled my equipment and humped it out through a side door to the car, studiously avoiding the eyes of anyone who crossed my path. There was a wine and cheese reception in the salon down the hall in Ms. Atwood’s honor, and although I had played a significant part in making this a memorable evening, I humbly felt that it was not the place for me to make an appearance and draw any undue attention. I walked out to the Bug, released the hand brake and coasted out of the parking lot. Once I was safely out of earshot I switched on the ignition and descended into the wintry night, swallowed up in the bowels of my quiet provincial town.
For awhile on campus I was quite notorious for the role I’d played that night at the aptly-named Memorial Hall. Several of my crueler fellow graduate students, doubtlessly honing the skills with which they would later denigrate their associates in competing for tenure, took to calling me The Bassman. And each time this elicited raised eyebrows among fresh company, someone would tell the story of how I’d ruined Margaret Atwood’s poetry reading.
The irony was that they barely knew a fraction of the story, but I was in no mood to provide more hoist for my own petard. Eventually I tired of this teasing and, like a lion tormented by dogs, in one pivotal week around the time of the Winter Solstice, announced my withdrawal from graduate school and burned the manuscript of my porn novel in a desolate section of the New Brunswick backwoods.
Since then, I’ve had many occasions to reflect upon my freshman-like approach to graduate-level responsibilities those many years ago. Still, it’s spilled milk under the bridge, and no amount of groveling would suffice to earn Ms. Atwood’s forgiveness. To broach the subject with her now, even via an abject letter of apology, might precipitate a flashback, the magnitude of which could plunge her into who knows what state of psychological imbalance. Worse still, she might write vilifying letters to the Canada Council and every publisher she knows, nipping in the bud any hopes I might have had to forge my own literary career. No, if I’ve learned one thing after all these years, it’s best to fly under the radar.