Brian Brennan has been featured on the South Branch Scribbler this past summer with an excerpt from his book, "Brief Encounters: Conversations with Celebrities, 1974-88” which talked about his meeting Victor Borge, the renowned comedian. Brian is an award winning author and has agreed to answer 4 questions for today’s interview. His website is listed below.
4Q: We recently had a taste from the above mentioned book, "Brief Encounters: Conversations with Celebrities, 1974-88. At the time of your sharing an excerpt with us, this was an in-progress book. I would like to know how the idea for this book developed and is it completed.
BB: I have since given the book a new title – And Then I Asked: Brief Encounters with Writers, Comedians, Directors, Actors and Musician – completed the manuscript, and submitted it to an agent for consideration. The following Introduction provides the background:
This book had its genesis in a conversation I had recently with a writer friend bemoaning the fact that a Russian website was flogging pirated copies of our books online without compensation to us. I mentioned in passing that Tennessee Williams once told me he had been similarly victimized. The Russians ripped him off to the tune of thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties on plays they had translated and staged without his permission.
“You talked to Tennessee Williams?” said my friend, surprised.
Yes, I hadn’t thought about it before, but indeed I got lucky. A week before I interviewed Williams, for a story to run in the Southam (now, Postmedia) newspapers across Canada, he had left another reporter in the lurch saying, “I haven’t been paid to pass the time with people who insult me.” I don’t know what the other reporter said to get Williams’s goat, but when I caught up with him in Vancouver – where he was readying his new adaptation of a Chekhov play for its premiere production – the playwright was in better humour and ready to answer any questions about his life and work.
I did the Williams interview in 1981 and, as I hunted through my archives to find that story, I came across dozens of my other newspaper stories from the 1973-88 period that collectively, I thought, would make for an interesting book if expanded and updated. These were interviews I did with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Leon Uris, Bob Newhart, Cleo Laine and other artists who had been sent on the road to promote new books, record albums, or upcoming performances.
The interviews were conducted during a time when artists relied to a great extent on the mainstream media to get the word out about their current activities. Blogs and social media had yet to be invented so the newspapers, radio and television stations provided the only publicity outlets then available.
I was working as a full-time general arts and entertainment writer based at the Calgary Herald, and it was easy for me to establish a rapport with these visiting artists because I had worked in the theatre as an actor and also had made my living as a barroom piano player. Additionally, I had the advantage of being a writer for a Canadian, as opposed to British or American, news organization. Artists who had been victimized by tabloids digging up dirt on their sex lives and drug habits seemed to feel on safer ground when talking to a Canadian reporter. They didn’t think I was out to “get” them. In fact, to my surprise, they often dropped their guard and revealed little-known facts about their lives and careers when talking to me.
Crooner Al Martino, for example, told me he became a social pariah in Hollywood when the producers of the movie The Godfather signed him to play the troubled wedding singer Johnny Fontane – a character loosely based on Frank Sinatra – because the director, Francis Ford Coppola, wanted Sinatra protégé Vic Damone to get the part. “Coppola didn’t think I was an actor,” said Martino. “He said I was just a singer.”
Tammy Wynette was similarly candid when she told me she was finding it difficult to reconcile being a married mother of four with being constantly on the road. Recently married for the fourth time, she admitted that the marriage was already on the rocks. “It’s very hard to travel and live a normal life,” she said wistfully. She divorced soon afterwards.
When I looked through those yellowed newspaper clippings, I thought it might be fun for you, the reader, to revisit them with me. I would give you some background, and perhaps tell you things that had to be left out of the original newspaper stories for lack of space or other reasons. For example, I can reveal here for the first time that when I talked to the movie actor Glenn Ford, it was after I had watched him doing take after take for a short one-minute scene in the first Superman movie. It took him that long because he simply couldn’t remember the line.
Most of these stories did not come from in-depth interviews. The sessions necessarily had to be truncated because the press agents had other reporters besides me lined up to ensure maximum media coverage. My interviews, therefore, never lasted for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Yet even though they were short and generally self-promotional in tone, they sometimes yielded nuggets. Richard Harris, for example, was at first more interested in talking to me about how much he missed boozing than how much he enjoyed starring as King Arthur in Camelot. And Kenny Rogers gave me an impromptu a cappella preview of his soon-to-be hit recording of “Lucille” when I asked him where he planned to go next with his music after experimenting with rockabilly, jazz, folk, country and psychedelic rock.
Occasionally, interviews fell into my lap I when I least expected them. I never thought, for example, I would ever get to do an interview with Chuck Berry because the reclusive rock star was said to be miffed at all the bad press he had received over his troubles with the law during the 1960s. Yet he agreed to talk to me before going on stage for a nightclub performance in Calgary. Why? “Because now I’m finally ready to talk,” he said, without elaboration. The legendary fan dancer Sally Rand, was also reluctant to talk to reporters, especially those who came with cameras and lights to film her show. But she happily chatted with this reporter who came with just notebook and pen until I asked her why she was still stripping at age 71. “What would I retire to?” she said dismissively.
Later events reminded me of some of these long-ago interviews. When B.B. King played the blues for President Obama at the White House in 2012, I recalled that he once told me he thought the blues was dying. When Randy Bachman reinvented himself as a CBC Radio host, I recalled asking him why he had seemingly committed artistic suicide twice, first by walking away from the Guess Who and then by leaving Bachman-Turner Overdrive. When Johnny Depp played Tonto in the 2013 big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger (a flop, by all critical accounts), I recalled that I had talked to the original Tonto, Jay Silverheels, about the racism he encountered in Hollywood during the 1950s.
I did these interviews long before celebrities connected directly with their fans via websites or social media; when it was still possible for a lucky reporter to learn something about an interviewee that hadn’t been in the news before. So in one respect you might see this book as a nostalgic exercise in time-capsule journalism, evoking a particular time and place before the era of Twitter and Facebook. But I think it’s also important to tell you what happened to these people after I talked to them. When I tell you, for example, about the problems Mordecai Richler encountered when he first had his book The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz adapted as a stage musical, I think you might also be interested in knowing the extraordinary lengths to which the producer went afterwards in an attempt to take the show to Broadway.
Why does the song “Amazing Grace” still occupy a very special place in the repertoire of singer Judy Collins? Why did Robertson Davies abandon what appeared to be a successful career as a playwright in Canada to start writing novels? Why did Sophia Loren go back to Italy to serve a jail term for tax evasion? Why did Tom Lehrer totally disappear from the scene after establishing himself as one of America’s cleverest and wittiest satirical songwriters? Why did Michael Nesmith quit The Monkees to start making music videos? Why did Shari Lewis start conducting symphony orchestras after she had endeared herself to kids all over the world with a comedy ventriloquism routine involving a cute sock puppet named Lamb Chop? Why did Chubby Checker go through 20 pairs of platform boots a year to keep his audiences twisting the night away? Those are some of the questions I’ve tried to answer in this book while simultaneously looking backward and forward.
I hope you’ll enjoy taking this trip down memory lane with me. During a golden age for newspaper journalism in Canada, I was one of the few full-time entertainment reporters who wasn’t restricted to writing just about theatre people or television people or music people. I got to talk to them all, and will be forever grateful to my editors for giving me the opportunity to do so.
I am also grateful to my editors for loosening the purse strings whenever I wanted to travel to New York, London, Vancouver, Stratford or Edmonton to conduct interviews and write stories. Many of the stories in this book happened only because the Calgary Herald had plenty of money to spend on coverage that attracted big readership in the first instance and big advertising revenue in the second. Those generous travel budgets are now – sad to say – a thing of the past, not least because of the precipitous decline in print advertising revenue following the rise of the Internet in the 1990s.
A note about the arrangement of the stories and choice of subjects: At first I thought I would bundle the interviews, with writers in one section, actors in another, musicians in another, and so on. But then I decided to simply present them alphabetically by last name, primarily for the sake of variety and contrast. I sifted through the interviews chronologically, picked out the ones I thought would still be of interest today, only to discover to my shock, after I had written practically half the book, that most of the subjects were male. Uh-oh. That meant going back to the beginning and rebalancing the sex ratio. In the process, I found myself highlighting the achievements of some fascinating and talented if occasionally little-known women such as mystery writer Bunny Wright, singer Colleen Peterson and actress Nicola Cavendish who might not otherwise have made the cut.
I covered the Canadian arts and entertainment beat for 15 years. The plus is that I got to meet a great number of charming and gifted individuals. The minus is that I didn’t have enough time to spend with most of them, so had to do many of these interviews on the run. Thus the resulting stories are by no means definitive; they are more snapshots than full-length portraits. But I hope you’ll take them for what they are, as engaging and stimulating encounters with accomplished individuals I once thought and still think are deserving of our attention.
4Q: I’m particularly interested in your book Leaving Dublin: Writing my way from Ireland to Canada. Please tell us more about this book;
BB: This is my autobiography, published by RMB – Rocky Mountain Books. Here's the Introduction:
This is a book about a guy (me) who lived in Ireland with his parents until he was 23, came to Canada for a bit of craic (the popular Irish word for fun), tried his hand at different things (including playing piano in bars and reading news on the radio), and eventually found his calling as a newspaper reporter, as a chronicler of the passing parade.
Along the way, I met some very good people. I always felt that if I ever wrote an autobiography, I would pay tribute to them. This book is my attempt to do that. The subtext is a thank-you note to those who gave me love, friendship, inspiration, amusement, encouragement or even a kick in the pants whenever I needed it most.
I use the word “tribute” because, at this point in my life, it has a special resonance for me. In 1992, as you will soon read, I started writing an obituary column for the Calgary Herald that quickly garnered more positive reader reaction than anything else I had written during my previous 24 years as a journalist. It was called Tribute: People Who Made a Difference, and, for the most part, it was about people whose names had never appeared in a newspaper before.
Why did I write about unknowns? Because I thought everyone had a story to tell and, if I discovered that story, I wanted to tell it. While fondly remembered grandmothers, retired railway workers, nurses, teachers and community volunteers might have seemed irrelevant to the news-hardened editors who filled the front page with stories about the shenanigans of politicians, crooks and millionaire athletes, there was nothing irrelevant about them as far as their families and friends were concerned.
It turned out that it wasn’t just the families and friends who enjoyed reading about the people I wrote about in the column. Everyone I met seemed to enjoy reading about them. In essence, I was practicing community-weekly journalism in the pages of a big-city daily, where by the conventional standards of newspapering, my subjects had no right to be. Yet, during the seven years I wrote the column, I felt I was producing something just as compelling as the stories about gang shootings and NHL playoff games that appeared in the rest of the Herald.
I don’t claim any special credit for making Tribute as popular as it was. I was merely the facilitator. The stories were already there; it was simply a matter of gathering and telling them. I am grateful for the success of the column because it paved the way for a series of books about individuals from Canada’s past that I wrote after leaving the Herald. Tribute also provided me with the impetus to write this book, to tell my own story in conjunction with the stories of those who have made a difference in my life.
My stories begin in Dublin, where I had a childhood that was mostly happy, peaceful and untroubled. It had none of the poverty, misery, alcoholism or philandering that seem de rigueur for Irish memoirs nowadays. My youth was Angela’s Ashes without the rain; the sunny side of the growing-up-in-Ireland experience.
That said, I cannot paint a picture of cloudless nostalgia for you because mine was a childhood full of longing. Longing to have a smaller nose, bigger muscles and the ability to be as good at hurling and football as my more athletic classmates. Longing to feel appreciated by my father. Eventually, longing to escape. Escape to what or to where? I hadn’t figured that out yet, but as I got older I felt a growing need to find something better, someplace else.
In 1966 I took that big step into the unknown. At age 23, I quit my job in the Irish civil service and headed for Canada. Was this to be the something better, someplace else for me? Indeed it was. Canada, I quickly discovered, truly was the fabled land of opportunity. There were few barriers. Once the Canadian immigration authorities opened the doors, I was home free.
In Canada, I was able to parlay my love of piano playing into a steady gig as a professional musician. I was able to use my Irish love of talking to inveigle my way into a job as a radio announcer. I was able to use my love of writing and storytelling to find a job as a newspaper reporter. In each of these instances all I had to do was knock on someone’s door, ask for work and the job was mine.
In Ireland, things were different. There were fewer opportunities and more red tape. If you wanted to work as a professional musician, you had to join the musicians’ union and satisfy a union board of examiners you could play any popular song on demand. If you wanted to work in radio, you had to earn broadcasting school certification. If you wanted to work as a print journalist, you had to prove you were proficient in shorthand and typing, and be accepted into the National Union of Journalists.
Besides, Ireland was taking me in a different direction. My destiny there was controlled by my parents, who wanted me to be a civil servant: “The best job you’ll ever find in this country.” In Canada, I was able to start over, to become the master of my own destiny. I came on a mission of adventure, with hope in my heart and a safety net in my back pocket. If my money ran out before I found work in Canada, I knew I still had the civil service job awaiting me back home.
I never went back home, of course, except to visit. My travels took me from Dublin to Cork, Vancouver, Toronto, Dawson City, Smithers, Prince George and, finally, Calgary. Two keyboards have been my constant travelling companions. On one I type, on the other I noodle. “Make the words sing,” a Herald editor told me once. “Make the music speak to me,” said my piano teacher in Dublin. Thus have the strands of my life intertwined. Thus have the stories unfolded.
4Q: Is there a childhood anecdote or fond memory you would like to tell us about?
BB: One of my favourite childhood memories, recounted in the opening chapter of my autobiography, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, has my father and mother arguing over whether they should use the family savings to buy a car or a piano. My mother was pregnant with her third child at the time. She and my father reached a compromise: If the baby was a boy, they would spend the money on a car. If it was a girl, they would buy a piano. My sister was born in August 1950 and my father delivered on his promise. The new piano arrived a week later. All of the children learned to play and I even managed to make my living for a while as a barroom pianist.
4Q: What’s in the future for Brian Brennan?
BB: My non-fiction book of biographical sketches, Rogues and Rebels: Unforgettable Characters from Canada's Storied Past, is scheduled for publication by the University of Regina Press (trade division) in the fall of 2015.
Thank you for being part of the South Branch Scribbler Brian. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Brian’s website is www.brianbrennan.ca
Check his blog for up-to-date information on his literary activities: http://brianbrennan.ca/blog/
Next week, join me here when Guest Author, Katrina Cope of Australia talks about her novels The Sanctum Series. The truth behind the deep and dark side.