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Chris Benjamin: The Cyclone of the Coast

Posted on Dec 4, 2011

Freelance writing, like old age, is not for sissies – and it seems to get harder for each generation.

I’m moved to this observation by contemplating the autumn of my friend and colleague Chris Benjamin, who is 30 or 40 years younger than I am. Chris is probably most widely known for the excellent environmental column he publishes regularly in Halifax’s weekly newspaper, The Coast. (His current column is on Canada’s deplorable obstructionist performance at the Kyoto talks in South Africa; you can read it here: http://www.thecoast.ca/halifax/earth-to-be-harpered/Content?oid=2781932.

But the column is only the tip of the Benjamin iceberg.

 Last year he published his first novel, Drive-By Saviours (Roseway Publishing) to excellent reviews; the book ended up perched on the long list for CBC’s Canada Reads competition. This fall Nimbus published his first non-fiction book, Eco-Innovators:Sustainability in Atlantic Canada, a heartening survey of environmental advances and innovations in our region – including, thank you very much, a warm account of The Green Interview. He’s been promoting the book on any number of radio, TV and web-based shows, and he’s been the subject of a feature article in Halifax Magazine. He’s done a video for the book, and he’s also done public readings and signing books all over Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

But the new book and the associated promotional whirl isn’t the whole story either. In October, Chris put in a week at a writers’ retreat working on a new project, a collection of short stories, and he’s published frequently at on-line outlets like OpenFile Halifax and East Coast Kitchen Party, where he’s a contributing writer. He’s done book reviewing, participated in reading events with other writers, and also written about Hal-Con, which he calls “the big Halifax geekfest/comic book conference.”

Oh – and, during his spare time, he also did some research and writing for The Green Interview, for which we were very grateful. And I haven’t mentioned that he’s also a devoted husband and householder, and the father of a very small, very special boy.

So that’s what Chris Benjamin’s autumn has been like. A person could get tired just thinking about the pace the man sets for himself.

But that’s what a serious freelance writer’s life is like – and apparently always has been. When I was in Chris’s position, as a young professional writer, I interviewed Thomas Raddall, who had built a fabulous career as novelist and historian from a base in the small paper-milling town of Liverpool, N.S. Raddall said he admired people like me, trying to make a living as writers in the arid environment of the 1970s. He thought it was a very tough period. In his day, said Raddall, a generation earlier, there were still major magazine markets that paid substantial fees – big, muscular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post in the States, and Blackwood’s in Edinburgh. Book publishers still provided substantial advances, and outfits like the Book-of-the-Month Club bought huge quanties of interesting new books. But by the 1970s, the glory days of book writing and publishing were clearly waning; newspapers were shrinking, magazine rates of pay were contracting dramatically, and television was scooping up the advertising dollars. Raddall didn’t envy me, starting out as a writer in those conditions.

And in truth it was not easy. Print was my love, and I published books and articles as I could – and I also did a lot of work for radio and TV. I modelled myself on my rural Cape Breton neighbours, who put together a living by driving the school bus, doing a little fishing and some carpentry, shooting a deer, planting a vegetable garden. Flexibility and footwork were the skills that got us all through.

I feel about Chris Benjamin’s generation the way Raddall felt about mine. Today, print is gasping for air, the CBC has no freelance budget to amount to anything, television is fragmenting, books are rapidly becoming low-priced Kindle files, and although the internet is exploding, it’s hard to get paid for online writing.

And yet somehow writers persist, survive, and sometimes flourish – which is probably a tribute to the addictive attraction of language, and the compulsion to try to understand a bewildering world. The very best way to understand anything is to try describing it to someone else, and that’s what writers do every day. Not everyone persists, or succeeds, which is why Ezra Pound once said that more poets fail through want of character than through want of talent. But the corollary is that writers also succeed because their character is as strong as their talent.

All of which gives me confidence that we’ve only begun to hear from Chris Benjamin. He has a big heart, a big mind, and an apparently boundless supply of energy. That’s what it takes – and the use he makes of those gifts enriches us all.

 

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