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W.O. Mitchell - Interview with his son about Jake and the Kid

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Mariposa Podcast

 

This episode is about the work of W. O Mitchell, the author of two Leacock Medal winning books: 1962's Jake and the Kid and the 1990 winner According to Jake and the Kid. The podcast features an interview with the author's son Orm Mitchell, himself a writer and university professor, who with his wife Barbara co-wrote a two-volume biography of his famous father.  The interview covered the Leacock medal winning books, but also his father's broader impact on Canadian literature as a teacher, an editor, and an author of the most successful novel in Canadian history, Who has Seen the Wind, first published in 1947 and will be reissued as a special edition this 75th anniversary year (2022).

 

INTERVIEW 

Orm Mitchell (OM)

Yeah, he did influence quite a few people. I think he felt, in terms of his career, he had a number of irons in the fire. He considered himself an actor in his 30s. He did a lot of little theatre. And then secondly, when he got writing, obviously with Who has Seen the Wind,  which was a major, major book that came out in 1947. It was published by Little brown in the States and Macmillan in Canada. That book has had an extremely long shelf life. In fact, right now my wife and I just finished reading the first proofs for a special 75th anniversary edition of Who has Seen the Wind that will come out this November, and it uses the Kurelek illustrations.  I believe there’s eight color and 32 black and white. In preparing that, it was amazing for me to see how this book has continued. Just in fact, at one point, I believe it was when the Kurelek M&S edition came up, which was the first edition to go back and publish the full-length version of Who has Seen the Wind. When it was published in 1947, the Little Brown editor had made something like seven or eight thousand words in cuts.  But Macmillan went ahead with the W.O.’s preferred version. And it was my wife, in fact, who discovered this when we were in the early stages of collecting material for the biography, and we had gotten an edited copy, they sent us a copy of the manuscript. And it was amazing what she found. As a result of what she found, Douglas Gibson agreed to publish that full length version, with the illustrations by Kurelek in 91.

 

DBD (DBD)

Were the edits given to it by Little Brown aimed at de-Canadianizing the story?

 

O.M.

There was a number of things that they didn't like – like all the references to the wind, and they cut out whole paragraphs. Who has Seen the Wind is very poetic and richly textured prose. And so he wrote to his editor at one point to say,” hey, look I'm not doing a weather report here. These references to the wind and so on are for atmosphere and are quite deliberate.” And he managed to get some of the cuts that they originally wanted to do back in. But the M&S version has many more passages that weren't in that first one. The book has gone through, I don't know, how many editions, you know, it's into the 20s,

 

DBD

I read the cumulative sales in Canada exceeded a million Is that correct?

 

O.M.

That's right. It's, you know, it's past the million mark now. And, and that's just in Canada. Now, it's one of those books, I think that will just simply keep going on and on. And to come back to the Leacock awards that he got the first one for the 1961 Jake and the Kid stories, and then 91 I believe it was, According to Jake and the Kid,  those stories have a long shelf life to go back to your first question about the impact that he had on other writers. So he thought of himself as an actor and a writer.  He also was a teacher, and he, in fact, was principal of two different schools during the early 40s.  And he filled in, in fact, to teach in, in I think, was around 1949, at the High River high school. My wife's mother, Dorothy Mae, was pregnant. And so she had to leave the school and W.O. taught for her for eight months, and he loved teaching. And then of course, he did, he started the writing program at Banff, and he was head of it, I think, for close to 10 years. And then, as you said, he was Writer-in-Residence at numerous universities across Canada, the last one and the main one, the University of Windsor. He was there for something like eight or nine years.

 

 DBD 

Trent was one of them as well, I think.

 

O.M.

Yeah. He taught at Trent for, I think it was it was more one or two week things. But he was


W.O.

writer in residence at York, at Toronto, at Calgary, and others.  And he took very, very seriously his role as a teacher of creative writing. And the reason for this is that he had a very significant person looking over his shoulder when he was first beginning. During the 30s, he tried to publish numerous short stories and failed. He met my mom in 1939 at a swimming pool. Well, actually, he just sold a set of encyclopedias to her mother, and he came by to deliver them and it was my mom who met him at the door. And he fell for her right away. And he noticed her a few weeks later at the swimming pool; she was teaching kids how to swim. He was the lifeguard, and it was mum who introduced him to a guy at the University of Alberta - F.M. Salter. He was a Renaissance scholar. And he had a creative writing course that he did for the Department of Education at the University of Edmonton.  So, Dad didn't actually take it; he sat in on it, and Salter worked with him. Salter read some of his stuff and realized here's talent, and he spent a lot of time on him, and it was Salter, in fact, who played a key role in the Jake and The Kid short stories starting in 1941. And it was Salter who acts as a kind of agent – W.O. referred to him his agent sans 10%.  He shilled for W.O. and got him that first publication in Maclean's magazine and it was a Jake and the Kid short story.

 

DBD 

So, in 1941, he was not established as a writer per se?

 

O.M.

Oh, not at all. In fact, it was Salter, who was seeding the ground and was, you know, preparing him and worked with him for close to five or six years on the manuscript of Who has Seen the Wind. W.O. would write stuff and Salter would send it back. And it was Salter, in fact, who made the contact with the editors down in the States. Really neat story, Salter wrote to the editor of Atlantic Monthly, and it was through his correspondence and complaining about how terrible one of the stories in Atlantic Monthly was and saying he had some writers who had better stories. And the editor wrote back and said, “Well send some to me.” And so he sent W.O.’s and that's how he got a short story published in Atlantic Monthly. It was 42 or 43. I can't remember the exact date. And it was a section or a story from Who has Seen the Wind,  and the story was called the Owl and the Pound. And it was that short story being published that then led to Atlantic Monthly’s coterie press Little Brown getting interested in W.O.’s stuff and ending up publishing Who has Seen the Wind in 1947.

 

DBD

In those years, he also sold a story to Maclean's on the Jake and the Kid

 

O.M.


That's right, in fact, the first Jake and the Kid story was 1941. MacLean's loved them, and ended up publishing six during the 40s and others later on. So, there are 10 short stories – Jake and the Kid short stories that ended up being published in Maclean's and that's where the audience first started to build for these stories.

 

DBD

Then your dad moved to Toronto to take up the job with Maclean's.

 

OM

That's right. And then when he became editor, fiction editor at MacLean’s, he made a point of reading anything that came in from Canadian writers. That stuff that came, as they said, over the transom; there was stuff that came from established writers who would come in and get published, but there was stuff that came over the transom. And in fact, one of the stories that came over the transom, and it was read by mum first and she said to dad, hey, look at this, and it was Ernest Buckler, and it was the story that Ernest Buckler ended up publishing, Penny in the Dust, a beautiful little story. To come back to my original train of thought, because of Salter’s help. He felt that he had to kind of pass on the baton. He felt that it was part of his responsibility as a serious writer to pass on whatever advice he could to younger, beginning writers.

 

DBD

Well, I'd like to talk a bit about Jake and the Kid stories. Of course, it's all intertwined with your dad's career and in the success of his other works. Did he have a relationship with a hired man when he was young or was there something he witnessed?

 

OM

Jake is based on a composite of a number of people: one of them was his Uncle Jim, who appears In Who has Seen the Wind as Brian's uncle, and another one was Jack Kelly, who was our next-door neighbor in High River. And there were also characters that he had met during the dirty 30s because he worked on threshing crews and did various odd jobs in order to survive.

 

DBD

I read in one of the bios that he spent a time is what they called a hobo. Is that true – did he ride the rails?

 

OM

Yeah, he did. And, in fact, he rode the rails out to Montreal and got on board a Greek tramp steamer. And this is in the year after his first year at university at Winnipeg, in the early 30s . In 1931. And he went over to Europe, and he hiked around Europe and he did various jobs over there. He was a lifeguard, and he was in France a lot. And then when he came back, he did continue his university. He was one course short of his degree at that point, when he went to  Calgary. He sold sheet music, sheet advertisement, radio advertisement, he sold magazines, you know, door to door.

 

DBD 

And encyclopedias to your mother's mother.

 

 

OM
Encyclopedias. That was one of the last things he did. He sold insurance. He sold oil well, royalties. He lived in Calgary and Edmonton, mainly in Calgary about this point.

 

DBD 

All that speaks to an experience that would be rich to be mined for the kind of stories you read in Jake and the Kid.

 

OM

Yeah, yeah, for sure. And he knew that farm rural life really well. You know as a kid at his uncle's place. And also during the thirties, he quite often was working on threshing crews. He was also doing a lot of lifeguarding. He was the head of the pool, lifeguarding at the Hanna swimming pool. And there's a funny story. They set up this gala where people had to pay to come in, and he's making money doing this with another guy. They did this. They did diving shows and so on. They had this horse costume. And that guy that he was working with was the hind end and W.O was the front end. And they would go up on the high board, the three-metre board, and drive off the board.

 

DBD 

Yeah, I think I saw a picture of that. Did you have a photo of that horse?

 

OM

That's right. I think it's in the biography.

 

DBD 

So, this bouillabaisse of experience - working on threshing crews and having an actor's bent. And then of course, his education. And you can see it all coming together in the theatre of those stories that made great radio as well as books. When I read the first one, it was, I believe, entirely written in the voice of the boy.

 

OM

Yep, the Kid. Most of them were a first person that Kid told; there are a few that are Jake

 

DBD

I was going to ask you about that - do you know of any reason why he did adopt Jake's voice? Or is it just a specific story seemed to lend it to it.

 

OM

I'm not sure, The ones that Jake narrates are not as effective, I think, as stories. He had a real knack for getting in the head of a kid. And he gets inside that kid. And you see that world from the Kid's point of view. And it was Salter who said to him, you know, you're good with kids and that rural world.  Salter had sent off to MacLean's to try to get them to publish a story called Eva and Annie. And it's a story based on the incident in Who has Seen the Wind when they were going to hit Pit over the head with a hammer and the kid Brian gets very upset. And it's a really neat story but MacLean’s turned it down. But they said they wanted to see more stuff. And Salter said, you know, you’re really good with the kid and why don't you do a story where you've got a hired man and the kid. And then so W.O. took it and ran with it. And that's how Jake started. Now he'd already done some stories involving a character called Jake - there was one entitled called Jake and Frobisher. We never we never were able to find it. He probably threw it out. But he had already done some work. And he had a real ear for voices and for dialogue. Oh, and the other thing that Salter said, you know, and there's nobody has done once with the tall tale thing. Why don't you play around with that? That's absolutely central to the Jake and the Kid short stories. The tall tale.

 

DBD 

I think it was in the first book that there's an episode called the Liar Hunter.

 

OM

 

That's right.

 

DBD

It talks about why we tell tall tales and exaggerate – it’s because we're trying to diminish the things that we fear.

 

OM

That's right. Yeah. And that's a central story. And it's no mistake that it happens to be the centre story because it is the center and one of the things that's working throughout Jake and the Kid when you look at them as a group of stories, it was subtitled a novel by Macmillan, which is not the case. It's more like a collection of short stories around the same characters. It's kind of like Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women or Margaret Lawrence's A Bird in the House where they're separate stories. They were published separately, sometimes years apart. But they gel when you put them together, there's something added to the whole. And one of the things that is added here in this group of stories is about the education of the imagination about the education of the Kid’s imagination, and there are two poles; there's Jake, who's telling his tall tale stories, lies, and then there's Miss Henchbaw, who wants the absolute pure truth. And what the Kid realizes, as a reader realizes, is that tall stories are built on facts. But they are a story that is built on facts then lies in order to take the reader, the creative partner reader, in and explore universal truths. So, it's kind of, you know, you move from bits and pieces of factual things, sensory images, and so on. You move from that to a lie, an overall lie such as you know, the buffalo jumping or Jake saying that, you know, he wrestled Louis Riel and three times made him say uncle each time, once in French, once in Cree, and once in English, but it then takes you further to exploring universal human truths about what it is to be human about how we maybe could live our lives in a better way. That's the kind of drift.

 

DBD 

That's really interesting to hear you say that. I think I sensed what you just said but I don't know if I congealed it in my own mind. My favorite book is Don Quixote - that interface between the real and the imagined too - it's that sweet spot where you move back and forth.

 

So, the stories that were written for Jake and the Kid were they radio scripts?

 

OM

The first ones were short stories that were published in MacLean’s. And as I said, I think there was something like six that were published in the 40s. After that, it was Harry J. Boyle at the CBC who came to Dad when he was fiction editor at MacLean's and said, you know, these would make a great radio series. Why don't you do that? And Dad had to be persuaded. And it was John Drainie and his wife, who played Jake and Ma, who, when they heard this and heard W.O. tell the story and said “Yeah, this would be good.” And so the Kid was played by Billy Mae Richards. And it was neat, because her first name Billy suggests that it is a male actually. And it was a closely kept secret at CBC for years, like the Jake and the Kid series around for at least six years. And then there were repeats in later years and series with new actors. Billy Mae was always the one who was playing the Kid. And gee she was a neat lady. I remember when Barb and I interviewed her at her retirement home, she just sounded like, you know, she could do the Kid's voice just like that. And the Kid has some very poetic prose at times, and I remember her saying she just loved it when she got those long passages and would start to read them. And then music would come in in the background, and it would lift you up. And it was just so wonderful for her to read those passages.

 

DBD 

It sounds so authentic. I remember thinking when I was reading Jake and the Kid material the first time how the Kid would use metaphors like he compared the fighting roosters to wind up toys or the color of the colt was like pull Taffy - you know it was apt metaphors, but yet something that you could actually imagine kids saying,

 

OM

There is one that I was just looking at earlier this morning, where he's talking about being on the prairie, and how it gets so still and how there's the silence. And it's as if you hit your elbow and your elbow went numb. And there are these wonderful images that kids often come up with. I remember when Dad was teaching high school at New Dayton, and he asked the kids what does it pig's nose look like? And one kid says it looks like a milk bottle. And there was that ability to see something and bring words to it that makes the image immediately click – in Who has Seen the Wind, he describes the grandmother, the backs of her hands and that the veins that look like earthworms. And he has such a knack for that. And he ascribes that to the Kids so that the Kid comes up with some of these really lovely poetic images, the way in which he sees things.

 

DBD 

So just to clarify, those stories that originally appeared in Maclean's inspired Harry J. Boyle, who, by the way, was a double Leacock medal winner himself.

 

OM

Yes.

 

DBD

to approach your dad and then we had a whole raft of radio scripts in the 50s. That initial Leacock medal winning book was mined from those or was there anything specifically so?

 

OM

So, the original Leacock collection that came out I think it was in 61 I believe, there's 10 and they were all published as short stories in Maclean's or Liberty also published a couple.

 

DBD

The According to Jake and the Kid ones, did they have similar  …?

 

OM

Okay, According to Jake and the Kid ones.  Elbow room was the first one in it.  And that was the very first short story – Jake and the Kid story W.O. wrote. And so that's as it appeared in Maclean's magazine. But then he had to rewrite a number of those stories because they were originally written as radio plays. And so he had to go the other way. So, with the first original Jake and the Kid CBC series, a lot of those early episodes, were simply taking what he had published as short stories and turn them into a radio play.

 

DBD

An then According to Jake and the Kid was the other way around?

 

 

OM

Most of the ones in According to Jake and the Kid  were the other way around.

 

DBD

Okay, so for the Leacock Medal pantheon, it makes for an appropriate kind of combination – the different stages in the Jake and the Kid stories. Yeah. Well, it's an honor to talk to you. It's not just fun, but also interesting that the 75th of Who has Seen the Wind is coinciding with the 75th of the Leacock Medal. Interesting year in Canadian literature. Yeah, worthy of celebration. 


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