© Philip Marchand and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Marchand was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on September 3rd, 2010
Philip Marchand was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, but moved to Canada to study at the University of Toronto and has since spent his adult life — with the exception of six years spent in Vancouver during the 1980s — in Toronto. His first magazine article — ”Moments of Grace in Sinful Toronto,” about a commune of Jesus Freaks, as they were then known — appeared in 1971, launching his career as a free lance magazine writer. During that career, he wrote for every major general interest periodical published in Canada, including Maclean’s (as radio and television columnist, 1974-75), Saturday Night, Toronto Life, and numerous others. In 1989, he became books columnist for the Toronto Star, a position I held for more than 18 years. In June, 2008, after a six-month stint as movie critic, he retired from the Star to pursue other interests, chiefly writing books. He is known to Media Ecologists for this McLuhan biography, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger.
When I was preparing for this interview, the first thing that caught my eye about you is the fact that you were born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Since you have a French name, I had thought all along that you were French Canadian…
Both of my parents are of French Canadian descent. Their families moved from Québec to New Hampshire around the turn of the 20th century, to work in the textile mills or, in the case of my maternal grandfather, Fred Touchette, to work a poultry farm and labour part time in a foundry. My last book, Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America deals very much with my French Canadian heritage.
You moved to Canada from the US as a young adult to study at the University of Toronto, and you are by now definitely a Torontonian; but I am aware that you also lived in Vancouver for six years. I was wondering what your experience was like…
My wife and I moved to Vancouver in 1983 more or less on a whim. Actually, we were tired of Toronto. My free lance magazine writing career was in the doldrums (the economy in those years was very bad). I had written a crime novel which failed to find a publisher and I was generally at loose ends. I thought the change might do me good. We also chose Vancouver because my sister-in-law lived there and she was able to help ease our way into the local scene.
Much of Vancouver I quite enjoyed. I remember in 1987 I was working on my McLuhan book and every time I finished a chapter, I rewarded myself by taking the bus – the bus stop was just around the corner from where we then lived, at Granville and Broadway – to Tsawwassen. There I would board the ferry and go to one of the Gulf Islands, where I would spend the day hiking.
I felt acutely however that the journalism and publishing scene in Vancouver was very much inferior to what I had known in Toronto. Still, I might still be there if I hadn’t received a phone call in June, 1989, from then Toronto Star editor John Honderich, asking me if I might be interested in becoming the Star’s book columnist. It was too good an offer to turn down.
Let’s move on. I read your Marshall McLuhan biography three times from cover to cover: first as an undergraduate, then twice as an MA student. What made you decide to write a book about McLuhan? Had you read his work systematically as a university student?
One day in 1984 I got a phone call from David Colbert, who was then working for the Colbert literary agency run by his parents, Stan and Nancy. He asked me if I had any book ideas and I thought about that for a while. Eating lunch at a cheap Vietnamese café, I was suddenly struck by the idea of doing a McLuhan bio. It was a fine idea from many points of view – I knew I could get a U.S. publisher for it, as well as a Canadian (it’s very rare, as you know, to find a Canadian topic which is also of interest to our friends south of the border) – and I had actually taken a McLuhan class in my fourth year at the University of Toronto, so I had some first-hand knowledge of the subject. I had taken a stab at Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy, but had not read his work “systematically.” Still, I thought – correctly, as it turned out – that my journalistic skills would work in my favour much more than any academic knowledge of McLuhan. That stuff I could find out while researching the book. After all, I was writing a biography for the laity, as it were, not a critical study of the man.
In a recent interview I asked Eric McLuhan a question related to a statement from your biography concerning the tetrad, and I felt as though he was somewhat annoyed by my question: “I don’t want to quibble with Philip Marchand at this point,” he said. “I believe he is a bit wiser now than he was at the time he wrote the biography.” In retrospect, I should have asked him whether he thought your biography misrepresented his Father’s life and legacy, and if so, in what ways. How’s your relationship with Eric and the McLuhan family?
Eric mentioned that interview to me, and we exchanged friendly emails over it. He has been generous in praising my book, although I’m sure there are parts of it he may not be keen about it. I would say Eric and I have a good relationship. I quote from Eric’s work from time to time and find his ideas always worth listening to. I also visited the McLuhan home from time to time when Corinne was alive and we would chat for an evening. I have also met Michael McLuhan who, again, has been friendly towards me and helpful in certain respects. And I’m on good terms with Terry, who is a film-maker, as you know.
I’m curious as to how you prepared for the biography: what kind of research did you conduct, how many people did you interview, and what were some of the challenges you ran into during the research phase of your project?
I ransacked libraries to find everything ever written by or about McLuhan. I came across an early bibliography of McLuhan’s works, which helped me considerably. I interviewed over 110 people – just about every living source I wanted to speak to. A few declined to be interviewed because they knew that the literary agent for the McLuhan estate was opposed to my writing the biography. My greatest resource, however, were the McLuhan papers, just then (1985) acquired by the National Archives in Ottawa. I was hired by the archives to organize that material, so I had ample time and opportunity to examine the papers closely.
Let’s change the subject. You’ve been a columnist with the Toronto Star since 1989, but in June of 2008 you left the newspaper to dedicate yourself almost exclusively to writing books. What were some of the most important lessons you have learned after almost 20 years of working for a major Canadian newspaper?
As book columnist I learned how very rare good contemporary fiction is. I learned how difficult it is to be just to a book while at the same time writing a lively review. Other than that, I’m not sure what I learned except practical newspaper stuff such as the importance of “art” (i.e. photographs) in getting people interested in reading a story.
What do you see major newspapers “reversing” into, to paraphrase McLuhan, given the serious challenges posed by the blogosphere, citizen journalism, and social media?
I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen to newspapers, because the younger generation seems to have an allergy to print. They just prefer to go online than browse through a newspaper or magazine, which is the opposite tendency of my own. Perhaps some readers will get tired of tweeting and twittering and blogging and look for more informed commentary but that still might be on-line commentary they look for.
At some point newspapers will stabilize and find a niche in the news economy, the way printed books still have a niche in publishing as luxury items, or something approaching luxury items. Perhaps our newspapers may reverse into newspapers like the 19th kind, with long articles, strong input of informed opinion – almost a print fest for those tired of short sentences, short paragraphs, short memory spans. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Since distancing yourself from the Toronto Star, you became a book juror and you also took on acting. How do you enjoy these new experiences so far and what did you learn about yourself?
My experiences as a book juror (for the B.C. Achievement Award in Non-Fiction) were tolerable. It is harrowing to go through 150 books, to be sure, but fortunately my fellow jurors – Andreas Schroeder and Vicki Gabereau – were very good and we had no trouble in coming up with our choices. It would be hell, however, to be a litrary juror and not get along with your fellow jurors.
The acting is a combination of fun and tedium. But even the tedium is curiously soothing because you have no responsibility except to sit around and wait. Even when you do your acting – and my acting has been for television and films I should state – you’re only following orders. The director tells you where to put your arm, how many beats to wait before delivering a line, and so on. I don’t think I’ve learned anything new about myself.
What are you currently working on?
I want to do a history of the New England Puritans. It will be a study in contrast between these Calvinists and the French Canadians I wrote about in my last book. There will be a McLuhan angle to this history, by the way, since McLuhan often referred to the Puritans as dialecticians. In his mind, they were part of the on-going war within the trivium, the war between dialectics and grammar/rhetoric. In the United States that has meant an on-going war between the New England mind, formed by the Puritans and Harvard University, and the mind of the South, formed on the more oratorical model of rhetoric and grammar.
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