From this week's Cape Breton Oran...
Writer Ray Smith leans back in a chair at the kitchen table of his family home in Mabou, takes a puff on his cigarette and begins to recall some of his earliest experiences with the written word.
“When I was a young boy the older folks got me a series of books by Thorton W. Burgess, and they’d read to me even before I learned to read. In many of the stories the characters would always go to see the wise old Grandfather Frog to help them solve their problems. I was up over the hill here one day as a child, and I looked at those frogs, and it became pretty damn clear to me that they couldn’t talk. That meant it was all made up. I thought that was pretty interesting, but I realized I was still involved in those stories, and it still seemed like a lot of fun to me,” he recalls.
Born in Inverness in 1941, Ray is the eldest of the three Smith boys born to Fred and Jean (MacMillan) Smith.
“Dad was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Mom and I lived here in Mabou during the war years until he got out in '45,” he says.
Fred worked as a banker but qualified for flight training during WWII and piloted Liberator supply planes on some of the longest and most dangerous missions of WWII in places like Ceylon and Malaya.
Ray began school at age five in Mabou at a small school near the Hawley house, just a few houses down from what is now the Red Shoe Pub. At that time the schools were still segregated by religion, and the Smiths were members of the Hillsborough United Church.
“The Red Shoe building was built in 1865 by Colin MacMillan, my mother’s great-uncle. Colin ran it as a store until it passed to Allan MacMillan from 1868 to 1905, and from that time until the early 1940s it was owned by my grandfather, Jimmy MacMillan. So it just feels like going home when I go down to the Red Shoe to enjoy a drink or listen to some music, and I really enjoy it when my sons Nicholas and Alexander come home and they want to go there or to the dances in Glencoe or West Mabou,” he says.
When the war was over, Fred returned to a career with the Royal Bank, and Ray attended schools in Sydney, New Glasgow and Halifax. The family always spent summers in Mabou, and Ray’s parents continued to live there after Fred’s retirement. Fred kept up his commercial pilot license until his death in 1993 and logged as many as 2800 hours in the air in his career. Ray still keeps his father’s two flight logs and wrote a fascinating feature on his father’s life as a pilot for the Inverness County Partici-paper in 1993.
Smith attended Dalhousie University where he completed a BA with honours in English and years later completed his master’s at Concordia.
“My first serious attempt at being a professional writer was in a hotel in Spain in May of 1964. I used to write poetry but moved to short stories and novels after that. I knew that not too many people make a living from writing, so I soon got into teaching, and I taught at Dawson College in Montreal from 1971 until my retirement in the spring of 2007. Mordecai Richler once told me that I should get out of the teaching business. He said it would just eat you up, but I knew I wasn’t like Mordecai. Besides being a novelist, he could make a decent living as a free-lance writer, but I write slowly, I follow my own interests and I knew that working as a free-lancer wasn’t for me. So I stuck with teaching,” Smith adds.
Smith’s first book of short stories, Cape Breton Is The Thought Control Centre of Canada, won him early critical acclaim. It was considered a postmodern work, but Smith decided after its publication to adopt a style less demanding on the reader.
“I decided after that I would write things that were a lot more user-friendly, and if I was going to play games they would be more underneath the surface. As far as major influences, I always enjoyed Nabokov’s playfulness, Jane Austen’s beautiful economy and Tolstoy’s power,” he says.
For a couple of years in the early seventies Smith was part of the Montreal Storytellers group of writers that began to bring their works to larger audiences through public readings. Living in Montreal and being part of the literary community there and the Writer’s Union, Ray met and befriended many of Canada’s most influential writers, including Richler, Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Mavis Gallant.
Upon retiring from Dawson College in 2007, Smith decided to “retire” to the family home in Mabou. Writers however seldom retire, and Ray is no exception. He set up an office in the family home that he inherited and is now busy working on another novel, a sequel to The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among The Virgins. The new work, It Floats: Jack Bottomly Among The Politicians, is typical of many of Smith’s works in that it features various locales.
“There’s a section of it in New Zealand; it moves to Edinburgh, London, Berlin; and then ends up in Venice. Still, I’m a Canadian and it’s a Canadian novel,” he says.
He admits he surprised some people by returning to Mabou after forty years in Montreal.
“I suppose conventional wisdom should have dictated that I’d stay in Montreal and perhaps help my landlord pay off his mortgage, but my health is good. I guess the timing was right. It’s home after all, and I can garden in the mornings and write in the afternoons. I have some old friends here, and I’m meeting new people all the time. And I enjoy having friends and family visit throughout the year. My two sons are grown, they’re busy in Montreal, they’re able to take care of themselves, and we keep in touch by phone, e-mail, and we visit and travel together on a regular basis,” he says.
Many of Smith’s books are being reprinted and re-released by his publisher, Biblioasis, giving him the opportunity to gain new audiences around the world. He still travels frequently, conducting readings throughout North America, Europe and the world but appears somewhat uneasy about promoting his work.
Smith says he considers Century his best work, and for the most part, the critics have tended to agree.
“Century got some pretty solid reviews, and I believe it’s my best work but as a novelist. It’s not uncommon for your works to be received in Canada with stony silence. I once asked Farley Mowat why he wore that kilt, and his answer was: “Have you ever tried to get any attention in this country?” But if I had to do it all over again I don’t think I’d do it any differently,” Smith concludes, perhaps with a feeling that his best work may still lie ahead.
Ray Smith’s published works include: Cape Breton Is the Thought Control Centre of Canada (1969), Lord Nelson Tavern (1974), Century (1986) and A Night at the Opera, which won the QSPELL Hugh MacLennan Award for Best Novel of 1992, The Man Who Loved Jane Austen (1999) and The Man Who Hated Emily Brontë.