By Brian Brennan
I applied to a provincial government agency – twice — to fund my next history book project, and was turned down, twice. Why? First, let me tell you the reason I applied for this money.
You don’t make big money writing history in this country. It is the sport of amateurs. Amateurs, that is, not in the sense being inept but in the sense of loving what you do and not expecting to get rich doing it. There are some exceptions, of course. Pierre Berton was one who made good money from his history writing. Margaret MacMillan is another. Her books are New York Times bestsellers, translated into several languages, and the winners of many prizes. But MacMillan doesn’t start earning big money from her books until after they are published, and they take several years to research and write. How does she keep body and soul together in the meantime? Through the support of the various universities with which she is associated. In her published acknowledgments in Paris 1919, for example, she thanks Ryerson University and St. Anthony’s College, Oxford for their help.
I am not a university-based historian. I am a freelancer who relies on government grants to fund my historical research. Otherwise, I simply could not afford to do this work. As enjoyable as it is for me to spend my days conducting interviews and sifting through the valuable historical resources of the Glenbow Library and Archives, I still have to pay the utility bills.
A writer’s work is never done. I propose to devote my full attention to the history book project after I finish the rewrites for my current autobiography-in-progress, scheduled for publication in the fall of 2011. The history book will be a sequel to my 2002 title, Scoundrels and Scallywags, which became a Canadian bestseller and was nominated for a few prizes. As successful as that book has been, however, the total returns from it have been far less than what I would have earned in a month working — say — as an executive assistant to Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett.
Mr. Blackett, you will recall, is the politician who made headlines across the country in June for dismissing much of the film and television projects his government funds as “shit” and “crap.” He didn’t say anything about the book projects his government funds, but you have to wonder about them as well. He obviously likes his constituents to know what’s on his mind because he posts regularly to Facebook and Twitter.
When I began formulating plans for my proposed history book project in the fall of 2009, I applied for funding from this agency that reports to Minister Blackett. I had received funding for the other seven books I have published about the social history and colourful characters of Alberta, so I did not imagine there would be a problem with this application. However, much to my surprise, my funding request was denied. Minister Blackett said in a letter that my research was “unlikely to provide new understanding or add to the knowledge base of Alberta’s history.” I found this explanation a bit hard to take, so I resubmitted my application in February 2010.
In my second application, I referred to the original research I would be conducting to add to our collective knowledge of Alberta history. Again, my request for funding was denied. “The proposed research is still unlikely to result in new knowledge about Alberta’s history,” wrote Minister Blackett.
This time, I decided I would not take the rejection lying down. I wrote a letter to the minister spelling out exactly how my research will result in new knowledge about Alberta’s history. Here are two examples:
In my chapter on Winnifred Eaton Reeve, a hugely successful romance novelist of the early 20th century, I will use material obtained exclusively from her grandson. How did I get this material? By travelling from Calgary to Toronto and conducting an extensive interview with him. The government did not pay for this trip; I did. The material I obtained will add to our collective knowledge of Alberta history, because no other historian has focussed on the years Reeve spent as a leading figure in Calgary theatrical and writing circles.
Similarly, in the case of the Peace River vaudeville pioneer, Hal Sisson, I have done a number of interviews with his daughter to fill in the many gaps in his story. I was drawn to his story initially when he published his own obituary in the Victoria Times Colonist. He did so, I discovered, because he simply didn’t trust the media to get his story right. His daughter helped me correct the misinformation about him that had been published in newspapers prior to his death.
There are many other examples, but you get the picture. Each interview will bring forth new information about the subject that will add to our collective knowledge of Alberta history. It disturbs me greatly, therefore, to be told that my funding applications are being rejected because some unidentified government appointees reporting to Mr. Blackett have told him my project will have no value as a contribution to Alberta history. I will prove them wrong, of course, when the book is published, three or four years from now. In the meantime, I find myself wondering if the minister’s much-publicized remarks about “shit” and “crap” have been interpreted by his minions as a directive to stop giving money to people who have proven they can popularize Alberta history and put it on the Canadian bestsellers list?
I wrote my letter to Minister Blackett on July 10. I am still awaiting the courtesy of a reply.
First posted at brianbrenn.wordpress.com.