Massey College // School

Don’t let its exterior fool you; Massey College is brimming with excitement.

Puritan Publicity agent Tracy Kyncl goes to Massey College to celebrate with Robert McGill.  

On September 11th 2013, Robert McGill launched his latest novel, Once We Had a Country, at Massey College on the U of T campus. The novel, published by Random House, debuted at a lavish reception with the who’s who of publishing and academia in attendance. Alongside the elite was an equally enthusiastic crowd of MA students, writers, and fans. If one belonged to the latter group, however, it was difficult to shake the feeling that the party felt a little fancy. I could tell that Robert’s ex-students felt somewhat shy around bigwigs like Ann Collins (VP of Random House) and that we had stepped outside the realm of community support and into the higher workings of institutional big business.

Despite any awkwardness one may have felt reaching between ornate silver candlesticks for free wine and cheese, the contrast in audience seemed particularly appropriate at a party for an author so invested in examining borders. Not only does Robert McGill look as young as the students of the school where he teaches, he’s also worked and written in both countries. Last week, our Editor Tyler Willis chatted with McGill about the contrasts between Canadian and American literature and whether these perceived divides have as much substance to them as we may believe. At the launch, McGill did not go into as much (or any) depth about the theoretical nature of his novel. He did, however, begin his speech by introducing his parents and musing on the nature of nostalgia.

McGill is tapping into a yearning for the Woodstock era, and that gnawing fascination has found its apotheosis in his latest novel, Once We Had a Country. One can identify with his jealousy of his parents’ university experiences falling precisely within the mythical period between 1968 and 1972 which he calls “the greatest time to have been a student in all history.” It seems that many writers are nostalgic for a time they have never known, preferring to inhabit 1930s Paris or New York’s beat scene rather than the Ikea-cocooned decade in which we currently find ourselves. McGill has transformed his bittersweet nostalgia into a Vietnam-era story about four characters moving north across the U.S.-Canada border in search of a better life. Ann Collins commented on McGill’s aptitude for capturing an era that he had never experienced, while McGill revealed the extent to which an editor is of crucial importance to the historical fact-checking and meticulous attention to detail necessary in a period piece.

At the beginning of the evening’s speeches, Ann Collins and the Master of Massey College, John Fraser, spoke at long length about their respect for McGill and also their vehement and playful hatred for Fletcher, one of the novel’s main characters. Hordes of readers and fans later clamoured around the author for an autograph, and the crowd was buzzing with chatter and praise for the charismatic novelist. McGill was more than happy to sign copies of his book, adding personalized puns for each devoted fan. If the atmosphere of McGill’s launch tells us anything of Once We Had a Country’s future, then we can be certain that the big players in the Canadian publishing scene are watching McGill, and that his latest offering may well be courting long-term and large-scale success.

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