JAMES STRECKER: If you were asked for 50 words for an encyclopedia to summarize what you do, or have done, in the arts, what would you say?
DAVID LEE: Born in Mission, B.C., after studies at UBC, in Toronto David Lee became known in the Canadian arts community as an editor, publisher, writer, and player (double bass and cello). His books such as Commander Zero (novel) and Chainsaws: a History reflect a highly personalized perspective of Canadian culture.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
DL: The need to create systems to which everyone can equally contribute and have their contributions acknowledged, and in which there is no one who does most of the taking and least of the giving. This is above all important on the level of the planet itself, where so much of the population has been conditioned to think of “success” as a state where one can take as much as possible, and give little or nothing back.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
DL: Duke Ellington. A great musician who conceived of nothing in isolation: his compositions, for example, were very much about how the score and the improvising players can work together. He saw his music as being closely connected to the culture and politics of African American people, and he could fit that culture, in turn, into a broad global vision of humanity.
Gary Barwin. Talented both as a musician and writer, with a generous and inclusive attitude towards the work of others, whether they be beginning students or experienced professionals. He maintains a great deal of integrity in working across a range of disciplines.
Both Ellington and Barwin were, and are, very hard workers.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
DL:I think I gradually have acquired a clearer picture of who I am.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
DL : Probably the biggest challenge is the discipline of taking the time to do the work. There are so many distractions, chief among them the need to make money.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
DL: When I was 24, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. I had been procrastinating about following my interest in the double bass, but very soon after her death, I found a bass advertised in the Buy and Sell and bought it, and have played it ever since.
In 1989, my wife Maureen and I were running Nightwood Editions on a shoestring, and our first child was born. I found that all my nurturing interest went into Malcolm (joined a few years later by his brother Simon), and into raising children in general, and I lost all interest in being a small publisher.
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
DL:I think the most difficult thing for most people to understand, and the most difficult thing for me to explain to them, would be where one finds the courage, the cunning, and the craftiness to manage to follow one’s interests, and still survive. I think a lot of people put a tremendous amount of energy into suppressing their interests, and never make the leap of faith (or more accurately, one leap of faith after another) into following their own interests, and trying to build those interests, and their accompanying tactics-for-survival, into a lifestyle.
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
DL: I wrote a few stories and so on as a child, because I liked reading and so I wanted to be an author. I think that’s why many people begin writing: they want to be writers. The test is whether they develop a similar affinity for actually doing the work. Later in my teens, as I developed an interest in music, I decided to develop that – partly because I wanted to have some sort of social life in the arts, and I was afraid that writing was a terribly solitary pursuit.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
DL: I would like to write a novel set on the Canadian prairies.
I would like to write something about the Northwest Rebellion.
I would like to write some kind of critical work about the three 1950s Quatermass serials by Nigel Kneale, and even write a screenplay for a new adaptation for one or more of them.
I would like to compose musical settings for improvising groups of various sizes.
I would like to devote serious study time to the double bass.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
DL: Successfully raising two children to adulthood and especially being able to enjoy raising a young family as much as I did, especially in the serious financial straits in which my wife Maureen and I often found ourselves. Sustaining a working marriage for over thirty years. Writing books that people have actually read and enjoyed, books that have been important to at least some of the people who read them. Given my patchy musical background, and the fact that I started late, being able to play and record and associate with some really excellent musicians. Contributing to a number of very different cultural groups in a wide range of communities. After a couple of decades working in publishing, taking on blue-collar jobs in the resource-based businesses of a small west community, and finding I could actually do them well.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
DL: Go after what you really want to do in life and try to do it. If you’re lucky, you will fail. Then you will need to fall back on a plan B. It is the plan Bs that really make a career.
JS: Of what value are critics?
DL: Critics are of immense value for their ability to infuse some degree of cultural importance to works of art. There is a shortage of critical outlets both for writing, and for alternative musics these days, and that is a disaster for the artists. The success of a book, for example, can often depend on a handful of reviews. Without those reviews, a book can, in some ways, effectively not exist. Similarly, if a musician issues a recording, one or two reviews can make a huge difference.
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
DL: When I look at or listen to a work of art, I try to judge it on its own terms. What were the creators trying to do? Once that question is answered, the next question is, how well did they do it? Speaking for my own work, I find it hard to say who the audience might be. It is best to make music that will work with, and for, the other musicians. As for books, as far as fiction goes, I feel like my imagined readers for each book are the characters who are in that book … I supposed because I feel like I am trying to tell the story in their terms.
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
DL: In Canadian writing, a few more periodicals are needed that would critique literature from across the country on its own terms. In general, Canadian literary media are dominated by a relatively small number of writers and publishers (often big multinationals) who have entered the CanLit canon.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
DL: I remember the publication of my first book as being exhilarating. It was a guidebook to the back roads of southern Vancouver Island, so it wasn’t a literary milestone, but still, it was a book with my name on it. I had met pianist Les Fowler and percussionist Jim McGillveray and trumpet Monty Rolston at the Pender Harbour Legion, where I think we were meeting to discuss the Pender Harbour Jazz Festival, but I brought the book and it dominated the conversation for some time. I have a book out! The great thing is, if one continues to write books and have them published, one can relive such an experience a number of times.
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
DL: Once a book has given me a presence in the news media, every time afterwards that I look at news media and I am not presented there, it seems like an absence, as if either the people at the media have screwed up, or I have somehow fallen short. This is one reason that writers keep producing books!
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why
DL: I would like to spend a few months in some Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking place, where I would be forced to learn the local language. I have never really travelled to such a place.
My wife and I went to Paris a couple of years ago and I would like to return there – again, for a residency of some kind where I would really have to exercise my French. It would be great to get some sort of artistic or teaching residency – I am not much of a tourist and prefer working trips. I also would like to visit Batoche in Saskatchewan.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us.
DL: I have just had the 300-page draft of my PhD dissertation scheduled for defence. It is an account of improvised music in Toronto from founding of the Artists’ Jazz Band in 1962 until the years that I was active with the Bill Smith Ensemble and other Toronto groups, ending in 1985. Because I was active as a musician and writer in that scene, it is a very personal work for me. It is also a scene that has been largely undocumented.
This summer I hope to write a decent first draft of a sequel to my 2015 YA novel, The Midnight Games. Writing this book was very enjoyable, since it enabled me to launch a fictional premise in which H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos comes to life in Hamilton’s east end. I believe it opened up new possibilities for the publisher, Wolsak and Wynn, as well as for myself as a writer. Most inspiringly, I have met several young people who enjoyed the book and want to know how it continues. The idea that a book of mine might be, to these young people, one of those Big Important Books like the ones that I read as a kid is touching and exhilarating, and motivating.
I play double bass in a trio with guitarist Chris Palmer and saxophonist Connor Bennett, and we’ve recently released a CD called The Phantom Hunter. I would very much like to continue working, and expanding a repertoire, with this band.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
DL: I began working in avant-garde jazz/ improvised music in the late seventies and the community was tiny – maybe a couple of dozen people across Canada. Now the community has grown and improvisation’s expanded musical language has spread into a wealth of different musical forms.
I have also just published a novel in the Young Adult category, a genre that is being encouraged by the publishing and education industry, as it is so important to get young people into the extended realms of thought that one can enter by reading books.
The rise of the internet and digital media is at once exhilarating since we all, particularly artists, love information, and now we have all we want. It is also depressing because, economically, it seems to work to reinforce the “”one percent” rule that is becoming so prevalent, where a tiny number of people make a huge amount of money, and everyone else makes little or nothing.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
DL: I am always stunned and embarrassed when someone says they like or respect my work.