Author Tags: Fiction
The editor of the bestselling non-fiction anthology Bad Trips, fiction author Keath Fraser was born in Vancouver on December 24, 1944. Royalties from Bad Trips--a collection of travel stories about unwanted experiences abroad--surpassed $150,000 since publication 1991, and he has donated all proceeds to the Canada India Village Aid Society. Keath Fraser won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award for Popular Anatomy in 1995. His 1985 collection of stories, Foreign Affairs, was short-listed for a Governor General's Award for Fiction and won the Ethel Wilson Prize. Eighteen of his short stories from a 25-year period were reissued as 13 Ways of Listening to a Stranger (2005).
Fraser lived in London, England from 1970 to 1973 and taught in Calgary for five years. He returned to Vancouver and began writing fiction fulltime in the 1980s and became literary friend to the reclusive Sinclair Ross. Having long suffered from a rare vocal disorder which caused him to sometimes lose full control of his voice, he was told by some doctors that his illness was psychological. Some 20 years later, he discovered a cure in botlinum toxin, a drug plastic surgeons use to remove wrinkles. The diagnosis was Spasmodic Dysphonia, a misfiring of the vocal cords caused by faulty transmitters in the brain. In his memoir of regaining control of his voice, The Voice Gallery, Fraser recounts his journey from Canada's West Coast to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Great Britain, Ireland, the US, India, and Sri Lanka in search of others who had also lost their voices.
Taking Cover (1982)
Foreign Affairs (1985)
Popular Anatomy (1996)
Bad Trips (1991) - editor
Telling My Love Lies (1997)
The Voice Gallery (Thomas Allen, 2002)
13 Ways of Listening to a Stranger (Thomas Allen, 2005).
[BCBW 2005] "Fiction" "Literary Biography"
from Vancouver & Its Writers, 1986
Keath Fraser was born in Vancouver on December 24th, 1944. The remarkable range of his stories has drawn high praise from the country’s most discriminating critics. He has traveled extensively throughout the world, lived in London, England from 1970 to ’73 and taught in Calgary for five years. He gave up a tenured position teaching university English and began writing fiction fulltime in 1980, returning to live in Vancouver where his wife is a teacher. His first collection of stories, Taking Cover (1982) prompted Canadian Fiction Magazine to devote an entire issue, number 49, to publish two of his novellas. His work has been recognized relatively quickly by his peers and the country’s leading literary magazines but Fraser remains almost unheralded in his hometown. “The Vancouver Sun is just pitiful, the book pages they have. It’s just tragic, the lack of solicitation to local writers,” he said in the 1980s. “We are now getting reviews by Margaret Atwood which I read one week in The New York Times, appearing the next week in the Vancouver Sun. So we are getting book reviews by Canadian writers now through the filter of cheaper, American wire services. Until that situation improves at our largest newspaper, local recognition of our writers isn’t going to improve either.”
Fraser’s stories are primarily set in Vancouver and are assertively local to an unprecedented degree. Only Vancouver readers can possibly catch all the nuances of offhand references to personalities such as Tony Parsons, Ron Zalko or Chunky Woodward, or locales mentioned casually and without explanation. (“I pinch the odd tie off Chunky Woodward but listen. It stops there, eh?”) His style is deeply serious and condensive, apparently colloquial and slapdash, yet riveting and strange, as he invites his reader into a maze of clues which cumulatively evolve into a non-linear story.
The diversity of characters and approaches to storytelling in Foreign Affairs, and his original prose techniques, prompted Toronto critic Ken Adachi to recommend the book for a Governor General’s Award in the Toronto Star. The first story, ‘Waiting’, enters the mind of a Vancouver Hindu who is a waiter in a high class French restaurant. ‘The Emerald City’ unravels the turmoil of an adulterous TV gardening show host. ‘Teeth’ is about a fatal camping expedition by two retired brothers in mobile homes who encounter a bizarre sect in the woods north of Pemberton. ’13 Ways of Listening to a Stranger’ captures the communal atmosphere of a Vancouver boarding house where the male residents unite each evening to watch the CTV evening news.
The best and longest story, ‘Foreign Affairs’ succeeds in making attractive the complex problems of a frustrated invalid and the confused social alienation of his waifish, punk-haired companion. Passing the English Bay bathhouse during Sea Festival, “His gaze is determined to covet everything. The filmy blouses of thin-strapped, heavy-breasted girls in white jeans and black heels. Helium balloons shaped like silver salmon tied to the wrists of oriental infants. Bowling pins in the air around a juggler’s head. The mincing steps of male couples in pressed jeans and white sneakers. Sloops and yawls of drinking revelers anchored offshore in the twilight. An apricot sky turning tomato, and the mountains of Vancouver Island standing up to a pink apocalypse.”
Fraser is understandably concerned that the literary culture of Vancouver has yet to cohere and his reputation at home is almost non-existent. Besides blaming the Vancouver Sun, he describes the cultural policies of the B.C. provincial government as “philistine. It’s pitiful when you think that I’m getting more money, more support, from the government of Ontario than I’ll ever get out of the government of B.C. When you consider that we have such a strong artistic constituency on the West Coast, it’s absurd.” But he is simultaneously devoted to local turf. “I can’t imagine living elsewhere and trying to write about it. For all the drawbacks, this is a privileged place to be for a writer. It’s such virgin territory.”
In 1986 Fraser is tending an infant son and completing a novel. He is a close literary friend of Sinclair Ross.
Editing Bad Trips
from CIVA newsletter
[This article about the anthology Bad Trips appeared originally in Canada India Village Aid’s 20th Anniversary Newsletter, Spring 2002. Since 1991 all authors’ royalties go to projects in rural India sponsored by CIVA. Author Keath Fraser has served on the CIVA board for many years.]
Like elephants, editors never forget, but come equipped with thick skins designed to overcome this disability. What’s merely unmemorable, a dozen years later, can be bulleted:
• six-month indifference of hotshot Toronto agent to proposed anthology, before someone else agrees to sell bright idea out of New York (memorable assists from Michael Ondaatje and Ed Carson)
• voice of Andrew (“the jackal”) Wylie, representative of one or more invited contributors, demanding to know who’s profiting from this collection: What charity? And how ‘bout you, what’s your cut?
• editorial pressure from not-so Big Apple feminists hoping to suppress a less-than-empowering journey into Central Park extracted from Murray Bail’s novel Homesickness
• sales-rep insistence on changing title from Worst Journeys to oddly retro Bad Trips
• a long forbearing letter, written one Christmas Day to rights officer at Viking Penguin US, who has just withdrawn permissions to reprint several well-known authors, whose stories this same week you’re correcting in galley proofs and can’t delete without mangling book, can’t pay for without betraying other contributors
• continental hanky-panky, following American and Canadian publication of Bad Trips in spring 1991, by someone your agent accuses of sharp practise with regard to …
I can’t recall exactly what now—certainly to do with ripping off anthology rights to the book in German. After three years of pestering authors, agents and publishers for free rights in English, I myself could find no more time to write another hill of letters pestering them for additional rights after they’d agreed to donate their royalties once.
Subsequently, though, one did come to feel Canada India Village Aid deserved a slice of the rich German pie.
This feeling arose when the Germans published at least three anthologies of bad journeys, from three different houses. Shamelessly, one of these from Byblos Verlag Berlin is even called Bad Trips—in English no less, and with some of the same contributors as in the original Bad Trips. Still more of same contributors (14) and same contributions (12) were shoplifted by a Frankfurt house, Eichborn Verlag, for its anthology.
CIVA received nothing from these, except via Timothy Findley, whose “An Unforgettable Journey to Russia”—one of the stories reprinted in two of the German books, and to which I’ll return—had been specially written for Bad Trips (the original). The devoted Findley was uniquely loyal not to say generous in forwarding his share of spoils from the German rip-offs.
It is the American rip-offs that amused me more. One of them, besides copying the bad trips angle, also copied the good charity angle, as if to excuse its piracy by promising to give away “most” of the royalties its contributors received, even to make “a contribution” from its publisher—who, curiously, was also editing the anthology and must have been responsible in the first place for deciding the size of the royalties. This disingenuous fellow, in pilfering the concept of “worst” trips in his first imitation (scrounging up 51 “great” writers to the 50 merely good ones in my volume), concocted two succeeding volumes of misadventurous tales, first by scientists and then by sales- and businessmen (his entrepreneurial voice, one imagines, finding perfect pitch with the last).
No one, of course, could copyright a concept or even a title, though one could still envy money lost to unconscionable copycats. (I kind of like that: unconscionable copycats. Flatters my moral umbrage.)
I had nothing against repeating the success of Bad Trips when Vintage suggested a follow-up volume in the US a year or so after the first one appeared and was still disappearing from shelves. But the energy to repeat myself had expired. So I really had no right to complain when other editors hustled to fill the apparent appetite for travel anthologies. I complained anyway—about my laziness as a fundraiser when fresh funds were going elsewhere.
Someone recently said Bad Trips had led the way among travel anthologies in the 1990s devoted to adventure stories. I wondered. The simple commercial fact was, as publishers in different countries kept discovering, they sold, no doubt because vicarious travel especially of a disruptive nature is agreeably easier than the real thing. It was only a matter of time before “disaster” and “extreme” travel collections became as widespread as they did. These were easier to read than the protracted, but also more organic, books of tough travel by writers such as Thesiger and Greene, Lewis and Gellhorn, Theroux and Asher. (Each of whose books I had plundered for my own, agreeably easier collection.)
If Bad Trips played any part in the evolution of an already popular genre, I’m sure it was in helping to make the buffet approach to travel reading feel as satisfying as a real meal.
Gossip about the book heated up when the UK and Commonwealth edition, called Worst Journeys: The Picador Book of Travel, was among a packet of new books sent to Buckingham Palace for the Royal Family’s annual summer reading. The Daily Telegraph later reported the Queen as commenting that these volumes had been among “the worst” her family had ever received for their vacation at the cottage. I was naturally delighted by her epithet, as she had to be thinking (surely) of my book and its particular brand of holiday fare. Another column in the Daily Mail, entitled “Balmoral’s boredom-busters,” imagined the Princess of Wales, who was “known to dislike visits to Balmoral,” as consoling herself that summer with Worst Journeys, even as Her Majesty and Mum competed for the latest collection of anecdotes about horse-racing.
(After donating a copy of The Picador Book of Travel to this illustrious ESL centre, the editor and his publisher waited for a small but remunerative imprimatur to arrive, along with permission to stamp it on a new edition in benefit of Canada India Village Aid: “By Appointment of the Royal Household.” The distinguished seal of patronage, dispensed readily to growers of tea and makers of marmalade, never came.)
Royal buzz notwithstanding, the memorable anecdote surrounding the editing of Bad Trips involves Graham Greene’s particular generosity in allowing the book’s use of an excerpt from his Mexican travel book The Lawless Roads, and then what happened when it appeared.
Greene was among the first of Bad Trip’s contributors in agreeing to give their work for free, and certainly the most influential one, acting as a magnet to other writers such as Redmond O’Hanlon, Joseph Brodsky, John Updike, Carolyn Forché, J.M. Coetzee, David Mamet, Paulette Jiles, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Raban, Martin Amis, Anne Michaels, Russell Banks, and many others. In this way, an awareness of Canada India Village Aid was slowly spreading. Vintage (Random House) offered publishing contracts in New York and Toronto, followed by Picador (Macmillan) in London. And with Greene’s name to drop, the editor was able to attract previously unpublished essays from—among others—Anita Desai, Jan Morris, P.K. Page, William Trevor, George Woodcock, Rohinton Mistry, Edward Hoagland, Alberto Manguel, and Timothy Findley.
It was Findley’s piece, about his storm-tossed winter flights to Russia in a pair of propellor-driven airplanes, as a member of Peter Brook’s all-star cast of the 1956 production of Hamlet, which continued the story of Graham Greene. Continued it, unfortunately, in not quite the way one expected.
A reader of Bad Trips will remember a requirement for inclusion had been that contributors be living. A postcard from one of the invitees, Bruce Chatwin—“I am terribly sorry, I just simply don’t have anything. You’ve caught me on a blank”—had struck me as disingenuous, until unexpected news of his death two years prior to publication meant he was in miserable shape when he’d scribbled this card, dying of AIDS. He’d been living his worst journey—knowing he couldn’t write it up because he could never finish it. (In the event, Peter Straus at Picador asked if it would be all right to include Chatwin’s fictionalized travel piece, “A Coup,” in the edition which appeared a year after the New York edition. By this time, the “living” requirement had somewhat shifted; moreover, the fact that Chatwin’s adventure wasn’t as “true” as it might have been only meant it complimented the occasional excerpts from novels and poems.)
In Findley’s memoir, the young actor observes behind him in their bucketing plane to Berlin a fearful, white-knuckled man who apparently wants not to be recognized. He recognizes this passenger as Graham Greene. Findley speculates that possibly the famous novelist is—given the spy rumors of his past, not to mention the shady subjects of his fiction, and a mysterious Russian-speaking woman Greene pretends not to know among the company—on espionage business for the British Secret Service. Maybe, suspects Findley, he is planning to meet up with recent British defectors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. The young Osric can’t be sure. In bringing his story wonderfully full-circle, Findley concludes that he, too, met up with Guy Burgess that same month in Moscow. “… But that is very much another story—not to be told until I’m old. The real adventure was in getting there.”
The “real adventure” for a vicarious editor was in waiting for the circle of his contributors to come together on publication. The circle was wide and crowded. Conspiratorially, I was looking forward to Greene meeting his younger self, some 35 years later, as he read for the first time the account in Bad Trips by the young actor (and now novelist) he’d never met, about their shared shuttle flight to Russia during the Cold War. But there were other contributors.
I later had a postcard from Dirk Bogarde, who was delighted to have been included among such distinguished company (I think he mentioned Graham Greene). Ditto the delight of American novelist Mary Morris, so galvanized she went on to edit her own travel anthology, as well as to write an introduction to one of the copycats. Ronald Wright, having read Mary Morris’s story set in Palenque, felt compelled to correct certain historical dates. John Metcalf, himself an inveterate anthologist of literary writers, was mildly puzzled by the inclusion of rocker Bob Geldof and his singular account of Bangkok. Eric Hansen phoned to say he’d recognized himself in Martha Gellhorn’s piece—as one of the bored hippies with whom she spent time in 1971 inside a discarded water tank in Israel. Gellhorn herself, incidentally, was furious the editor had mentioned in a biographical note her marriage to Ernest Hemingway, demanding to know who had given him license in the first place to include her piece in the anthology. I returned a copy of her charming letter of permission, which apparently she’d forgotten mailing from Nairobi to Vancouver.
Mainly, though, I was waiting to hear what if anything Graham Greene would say of his covert trip to Moscow. He’d had lots of bad trips and it was possible the one narrated by Findley hadn’t rated high on his personal index of wretched travel. He might even have considered it a good trip. His own contribution to the anthology was a splendid story of miserable travel by mule, in which his younger self is sick in Chiapas where life has come full-circle: “It seemed to me that this wasn’t a country to live in at all with the heat and the desolation; it was a country to die in and leave only ruins behind…. One was looking at the future as well as at the past.”
Lamentably, an hour before receiving the first copy of Bad Trips, and after advance copies had gone out from New York to all the contributors, I heard over CBC radio that the author of Journey Without Maps and The End of the Affair had just died in Switzerland. (It was the fourth of April, 1991, as a recent reading of Shirley Hazzard’s memoir of Greene has reminded me.)
Obviously, this was not the circle of closure I had looked forward to on publication. The coincidence of Greene’s death and the birth of Bad Trips seemed instead merely portentous. My “fifty living writers” suddenly weren’t, nor were the dead any longer contained by the book’s Introduction, where they were meant to remain and leave the limelight to the living.
More than a decade has now passed since publication and I’ve come to view Greene’s death as auspicious. The deaths of several more contributors, like concentric circles, have somehow widened the appeal of Bad Trips and refined its premise. I don’t want to overstate this. But as the late George Woodcock, who founded CIVA and to whom the collection is dedicated, concluded his own tale of a fearful voyage in the South Seas: it was “the worst of my worse journeys. But not the worst journey. That is yet to come.” In other words, like Bruce Chatwin’s unwritten piece, the ultimate via dolorosa will only be written by the dead. Thus the book seems to grow closer to its original theme. Already a period piece, its medley of misfortunes continues to sell, possibly as a quaint classic.
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