The following interview first appeared on the Open Book Toronto website on 30 October 2014.
Contrary to popular belief, Canadian Literature was already a robust discipline before the great voices of the sixties came to define our national literature.
No one knows that better than Benjamin Lefebvre, the editor of the Early Canadian Literature Series published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The series returns to print rare texts from the early canon of Canadian English literature. With novels, memoirs and creative non-fiction, the series showcases texts by Indigenous peoples and immigrants from a range of ancestral, language and religious origins. Each book features an afterword offering a new interpretation in a contemporary context. Five titles are already available with a sixth forthcoming.
Benjamin speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing (and in this case, editing) processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.
Today Benjamin tells us about Nellie McClung’s forgotten novels, the challenges of typography and the classic CanLit author (and her beloved ginger-haired protagonist) who will feature in his next project.
Tell us about the Early Canadian Literature Series.
The idea for the Early Canadian Literature Series started several years ago as I was putting together an outline for a proposed undergraduate course in Canadian literature published between 1895 and 1914. There aren’t that many books from the period still in print, so while some professors get around this by providing students with photocopies or scans, for the most part it’s a small number of texts — and a small number of voices — that get taught over and over again. Researchers in the field are writing about a much wider range of texts, but when there aren’t any reliable editions, it’s impossible to include students in those conversations, let alone the general public.
Is there a question that is central to the series, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
The central thematic question for the series has to do with the canon of early Canadian texts. In my own research on L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), which has involved going through old periodicals on library shelves and as part of digital archives, I’ve come across a vast amount of authors who a century ago were popular with readers or critically acclaimed or both, but few people today have ever heard of them. Nellie McClung, for instance, is celebrated today for her political activism, but her novels are virtually unknown now. Why is it that some texts survive across time and others don’t? And what are today’s readers missing, in terms of both literature and cultural history, in the texts that have fallen through the cracks? What can we learn about diversity, power, relationships, and the land from these forgotten texts?
Did the series change significantly from when you first starting working on it? How long have you been working on this project?
The project took a few years of conversation before it became concrete. Eventually I started consulting with an advisory board of colleagues working in the field, and together we hammered out some parameters and selected six texts to start with. Given that the goal of the series is to expand the canon, we purposely decided not to impose any limits on our three keywords: “early,” “Canadian,” and “literature.” The six initial texts in the series consist of five novels and one book of social history, but I hope that in future volumes we’ll see some short fiction, poetry, essays, life writing, or even political tracts.
What do you need in order to work on a book — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
My job as series editor has four components: selecting texts in consultation with the advisory board and the press; soliciting an afterword from a prominent scholar working in the field; preparing a short preface that introduces the author and the text; and then typesetting the text and proofreading it against the original edition to ensure accuracy. For most of these tasks I sit in front of my laptop in my messy office at home, surrounded by piles of paper and books and with a cup of coffee within reach. For the proofreading, which is the most time-consuming task, I actually leave my laptop behind and sit at the dining room table with two piles of paper, two rulers, and several pens—also with a cup of coffee within reach! Most days I like to listen to instrumental music while sitting in front of my laptop (such as the Downton Abbey soundtrack, which I’m listening to right now), but for the proofreading I need natural light and silence to help me concentrate.
What do you do if you’re feeling discouraged during the editing or writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
Typography has a number of rules that are meant to be invisible to readers. You can’t, for instance, have a paragraph whose last line appears at the top of a page, and you can’t have three lines in a row that end in a hyphen — that creates a ladder and it’s distracting to the eye. And, too, the bottom of the left-hand page has to line up with the bottom of the right-hand page — this is called balancing spreads. Sometimes fixing one problem creates another problem, though, and sometimes you just can’t get all the text to fit on the page! Usually, if I get stuck somewhere, I’ll take a break from it and return to it later, and that helps.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
To me, a great book consists of both what’s on the page and the book itself as an object, which means that an attractive design is just as important as the content. I say that both as an editor and as a book collector. My reading interests are pretty eclectic, but one series I’ve particularly enjoyed over the last several years is The Complete Peanuts, which Seattle publisher Fantagraphics Books has been publishing since 2004. Each volume consists of two years of Charles M. Schulz’s beloved comic strip and is beautifully designed by Seth. Because I grew up with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, reading the older strips for the first time and rereading the ones published during my childhood has been a treat, and certainly the beautiful packaging has contributed significantly to the fun. Twenty volumes have appeared so far, and I’m looking forward to the next boxed set, which will be released later this fall.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m finishing up a three-volume critical anthology entitled The L.M. Montgomery Reader for University of Toronto Press. Much of my own research has focused on the author of Anne of Green Gables, and this critical anthology places primary texts, most of which have never appeared in book form before, in the context of Canada’s literary legacy. The first volume includes essays by Montgomery, interviews with her, commentary on her work, and extensive coverage of her death and funeral, whereas the second volume focuses on her literary legacy in the seven decades since her death. The third volume, which will be out in December, focuses on reviews of her books as part of the coverage Montgomery’s books received in print media dedicated to supporting the book industry. The project has been several years in the making and has involved a fair bit of detective work and a tremendous amount of patience, but, as always, seeing a project evolve from a half-baked idea to a full manuscript to a finished book that can be shared with readers is tremendously satisfying.
Dr. Benjamin Lefebvre holds a Ph.D. from McMaster University and has held fellowships at the University of Alberta and the University of Worcester. He has taught at the University of Winnipeg and at Laurier Brantford. His area of specialization is twentieth- and twenty-first-century Canadian literature, with secondary interests in literature and media for children, television studies and gender and sexuality studies. In addition to the Early Canadian Literature Series, he has edited an edition of L.M. Montgomery’s rediscovered final book, The Blythes Are Quoted, a restored and annotated edition of her First World War novel Rilla of Ingleside, the collections of essays Anne’s World: A New Century of Anne of Green Gables and Textual Transformations in Children’s Literature: Adaptations, Translations, and Reconsiderations as well as the critical anthology The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Volume 1: A Life in Print.