JLH: You’ve had a fascinating career, including time as the editor of Books in Canada. Could you map that out for us?
PS: My first published work consisted of music, book, and movie reviews written for the Chevron, at the time the University of Waterloo’s student newspaper, where I somehow ended up as Advertising Manager in the early 1970s. You’ve probably heard the jokes about those who remember the ‘60s and ‘70s not really being there, and that’s pretty much how it was at the Chevron, where we had a rollicking good time while intermittently publishing an organ occasionally related to campus events. Since writing reviews was a great way to get free copies of books and records that I wanted, I wrote tons of them and developed an all too facile facility at the rapid churning out of acceptable copy.
In 1974 I moved to Toronto to open a second-hand bookstore near the U of T, and gradually expanded the scope of my writing to include feature articles and interviews as well as reviews. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing editor at Books in Canada, Doug Marshall, and in retrospect much of what I know about editing I learned from Doug. As I became more knowledgeable about the Canadian literary scene I was struck by the degree to which the thematic critics descended from Frye and Atwood had lowered the level of literary discourse, resulting in my 1984 rant Clearing the Ground, which caused a small – and brief – sensation among the nation’s literati; Frye and Atwood seemed to survive my attack well enough, however. I was then asked to contribute a monograph on Hugh Garner to ECW Press’s “Canadian Writers and Their Works” series, and it is here that my work began to take an academic turn, as I went on to contribute to journals such as Essays on Canadian Writing, Queen’s Quarterly, and Canadian Fiction Magazine while writing a popular biography of Hugh Garner (The Storms Below, 1988) and completing his unfinished mystery novel (Don’t Deal Five Deuces, 1992).
This bifurcated career continued through my 1990-95 tenure as editor of Books in Canada. A key event was meeting Stan Fogel in 1991, who asked me to lecture on crime fiction in his U of W class, which went so well that I decided to acquire an M.A. at the University of Toronto so as to be able to teach as an adjunct. Completing this in 1993, I taught two summer courses in crime fiction at Waterloo and found that I felt both challenged and rewarded in ways that I had not previously experienced.
JLH: What made you decide to return to school for a Ph.D., and why Waterloo?
PS: During my time at Books in Canada it became clear to me that literary journalism did not satisfy my need to engage with serious writing in a deeper and more profound way. I had an epiphanic moment at a book launch when one of my colleagues said, apparently without irony, that if I continued on this journalistic path I might well become book-review editor of either the Globe & Mail or the Toronto Star. Although this should have excited me, I found it sobering, not to say depressing, and my previously vague thoughts about going on to the Ph.D. began to take sharper form.
Throughout this period I spent many an hour discussing the pros and cons of returning to graduate school with Stan Fogel, and the prospect of having him as an advisor and thesis supervisor was the primary reason why I decided to apply to Waterloo.
JLH: How soon after your graduation in 2000 did you secure a full-time position, and what was the job search like?
PS: It took me two years to secure such a position, during which I replied to over 200 job postings. Initially I limited my search to Canadian institutions, but it quickly became apparent that there were too many qualified applicants chasing too few openings. When I expanded the range of my search to the U.S., I eventually received three offers of employment, and in 2002 chose Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont as the best fit.
JLH: After teaching in the U.S. for several years, what, in hindsight, stands out about your education here?
PS: I was fortunate in being able to teach twelve classes as an independent instructor at Waterloo, including the standard British and American surveys as well as crime-fiction, science-fiction, and introduction to literature courses. Since I ended up at a small (700 students) liberal-arts college with a four-person English department, the ability to teach across the curriculum was crucial. It was also possible to make areas for which one had no particular preparation one’s own, and so I ended up being the departmental specialist in the history of the English language and advanced critical theory. This would have been unlikely to happen at Canada’s typically much larger universities, and so I’m grateful that Waterloo gave me such a wide variety of teaching experiences.
Waterloo also provided me with several excellent role models. In addition to Stan Fogel’s guidance through the Ph.D. process, Dave Goodwin and Murray McArthur exemplified the kind of scrupulously informed teaching that was also sensitive to student needs. This was also true of Lynne Magnusson, who made such good use of the “Issue Card”—a method of eliciting classroom responses that minimized student anxiety – that I appropriated it for almost all my Green Mountain College courses.
JLH: Finally, now that you are retired, are you reading and/or researching for any future projects?
PS: Having by now made some progress in lowering the pile of books I want to – but don’t have to! – read, I am contemplating a memoir with the working title “Small Pond, Small Frog: Confessions of a CanLit Outlier.” Thank you for the opportunity to crystallize some of my thoughts on this topic!