The house that Jack built

It’d be stretch­ing it to say a plate of scrambled eggs launched my writ­ing ca­reer. But there is one break­fast I’ll al­ways remember.

It was 1986, my year to take risks. I quit my job and told my­self it was now or nev­er if I was go­ing to be a writer. But I had no idea how to make that happen. 

Then I saw an ad for a writer’s fest­iv­al at Strathcona Park Lodge. I signed up hop­ing that be­ing around real writers would some­how nudge me in the right direction.

At Strathcona I met all sorts of people in­volved in the BC book in­dustry.  Anne Cameron, Hilary Stewart, George Bowering, Christie Harris, Bill Valgardson and Susan Musgrave were some of the au­thors present. Publishers Howard and Mary White of Harbour Publishing were there as well. I was more than a bit awe-struck.

Strathcona Park Lodge is known for its ample and de­li­cious cuisine, all served buf­fet style with folks sit­ting to­geth­er at long tables. On the first morn­ing of the event I sat down with my break­fast and a few mo­ments later one of the “big names” of the fest­iv­al took the chair across from me.

It was Jack Hodgins, au­thor of The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, The Invention of the World and Spit Delaney’s Island.

I re­mem­ber his head of curly brown hair, the spark­ling eyes and a friendly-look­ing smile. I even re­mem­ber the clothes he was wear­ing – a white sa­fari-style jack­et and pants.

But I mostly re­mem­ber be­ing over­whelmed by an acute at­tack of shy­ness. What could I pos­sibly say to this award-win­ning writer?

And then, as I bash­fully fumbled with my fork, Jack broke the ice. “Where’d you get that?” he asked in­dic­at­ing my plate of food. And so began a cas­u­al con­ver­sa­tion that im­me­di­ately put me at ease.

In his nov­els Jack Hodgins por­trays a unique and af­fec­tion­ate vis­ion of the Vancouver Island land­scape and the char­ac­ters that in­hab­it it.


I didn’t see Jack of­ten but we kept in touch over the years. We dis­covered that Strathcona was a turn­ing point for both of us. I achieved my dream of be­com­ing a pub­lished au­thor; Jack real­ized he could teach writ­ing out­side a classroom.

This July Jack, who grew up in nearby Merville, vis­ited Courtenay where he was in­duc­ted into the Comox Valley Walk of Achievement. This award is presen­ted to former res­id­ents who have ex­celled in their field of en­deav­our and who in­spire Comox Valley youth to be­lieve in them­selves and pur­sue their dreams.

Over his writ­ing ca­reer, Jack has re­ceived many pres­ti­gi­ous awards in­clud­ing the Order of Canada. But I think the re­cog­ni­tion by his ho­met­own com­munity meant some­thing spe­cial to him. 

I know it meant a lot to those in the audi­ence. The tra­ject­ory of Jack’s kind­ness and ment­or­ing seems to stretch into infinity.

Although I’ve nev­er taken a work­shop with him, Jack has in­flu­enced my writ­ing in many ways. His work, of course, is a stel­lar ex­ample of qual­ity crafts­man­ship. But even more im­port­ant has been his con­sist­ent en­cour­age­ment and interest. 

Sitting next to me in the Sid Williams Theatre was Susan Ketchen, au­thor of Born That Way and Made That Way. She stud­ied cre­at­ive writ­ing with Jack when she was in grade 12. “I still have some of the stor­ies he marked,” she said. “They really weren’t very good but he al­ways found some­thing pos­it­ive to say.”

Harold Macy, au­thor of The Four Storey Forest, told me he’s ex­ceed­ingly grate­ful for Jack’s sup­port and guid­ance while put­ting the fi­nal touches on his book.

A plaque hon­our­ing Jack’s acheive­ments was placed in front of the Laughing Oyster Bookstore in down­town Courtenay.

During the ce­re­mony Harold read some com­ments by Matt Rader, au­thor of A Doctor Pedalled Her Bike Over the River Arno and oth­er works. “Jack Hodgins and Jack’s lit­er­ary world are for a young writer from the Comox Valley some­thing like what Faulkner and his world are for writers of the American south…He has a pres­ence in this val­ley that guides our ima­gin­a­tions. And that is a lot like love.” 

I think of the more than 15 nov­els Jack has writ­ten as a vast house with many levels and rooms. Each time a per­son opens one of Jack’s books, they enter one of those rooms. They’re dec­or­ated and fur­nished in a sim­il­ar style but each pos­sesses a unique view of the Vancouver Island land­scape and is in­hab­ited by the quirky char­ac­ters that call this area home.

How lucky we are that Jack keeps adding onto his house, re­in­vent­ing the stor­ies he heard as a child into some­thing that we can all treas­ure. And how lucky are those who have be­nefited from his gentle encouragement.




Finding Hope

I had a hard time mak­ing ends meet when I first moved to the Comox Valley. It was 1988, the eco­nomy was slug­gish, my un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits had run out and I was dip­ping into my mea­ger sav­ings. I ap­plied for many jobs but no one was hiring.

As of­ten hap­pens, I found the solu­tion to my prob­lem in a book. To al­le­vi­ate her fin­an­cial woes, the heroine in the nov­el I was read­ing took in laun­dry and iron­ing. A do­mest­ic god­dess I am not, but after cast­ing around for some skill to mar­ket, I de­cided to take in typing.

My first cli­ent was 70-year old Hope Spencer. A writer in her own right, she had yet to con­quer the ba­sics of her new com­puter. So I be­came her typ­ist in the interim.

But Hope be­came more than just a cli­ent. She knew the own­er of Blue Heron Books in Comox and sug­ges­ted I con­tact her re­gard­ing a part-time job. She also knew a pub­lish­er that might be in­ter­ested in a book I was work­ing on.

And she in­vited me to some of her parties. It seemed like Hope knew every­one and soon I began mak­ing con­nec­tions in my new home town. 

As it happened, both Hope and I be­longed to the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. Since I found it dif­fi­cult to at­tend PWAC meet­ings and so­cial events in Victoria, she sug­ges­ted we hold in­form­al meet­ings at her place. Hope provided tea, cof­fee and the use of her huge round table, which she said fa­cil­it­ated discussion.

And she was right — the brown bag lunches were lively and stim­u­lat­ing with writers of every genre talk­ing about what they were work­ing on and ask­ing for and giv­ing ad­vice. At times, PWAC mem­bers from Victoria made the trek up is­land to camp in Hope’s orch­ard, cook din­ner to­geth­er and talk about the writ­ing life.

In later years, ill health cur­tailed Hope’s activ­it­ies but not her in­terest or sup­port. Whenever she heard about a new book I was work­ing on, she’d call to give me leads I might oth­er­wise miss.

Once, she in­vited Rick and me to stop by after a late af­ter­noon book sign­ing at Blue Heron Books. When we ar­rived she served a vari­ety of old cheeses, crack­ers, a choice of $80 bottles of sherry and — ever frugal — leftover Christmas cake from the year be­fore. It was an un­usu­al com­bin­a­tion of tastes that, in typ­ic­al Hope fash­ion, proved delicious.

In ad­di­tion to mor­al sup­port, Hope of­ten pur­chased my books as gifts for friends and fam­ily. Once she asked me to come over and sign one be­fore she mailed it. She greeted Rick and me at the door wear­ing a turban and col­our­ful Chinese robe. 

Hope be­lieved col­our was an es­sen­tial part of life. 

The book’s in this room some­where,” she an­nounced, re­turn­ing to her phone con­ver­sa­tion. Hope or­gan­ized the ma­ter­i­al goods in her life by put­ting them in piles. We found the book un­der the sixth one.

Hope died a little over a week ago at age 91. Her Comox church ser­vice was packed with people from all walks of life in­clud­ing mem­bers of the Unitarian Church and the New Democratic Party. There were also writers from as far away as Victoria and Quadra Island. 

After the ser­vice there was a party at Hope’s house. She would have loved it – a di­verse group of people jammed into the small space, eat­ing, drink­ing the last of her homemade cham­pagne and talk­ing nonstop. 

Wherever Hope went, she brought her zest for life and spe­cial gift for con­nect­ing with people. Although no longer phys­ic­ally in this world, the leg­acy of her gen­er­ous spir­it lives on in the many lives she touched. I will miss her.