Egg or Chicken?

Sunday, 12 February 2012 01:11

In the fall of 2007, I was poking around in search of a juicy subject for a new book. I had just handed in the manuscript of Robert Weaver:Godfather of Canadian Literature to Simon Dardick, my publisher, and was completing my script for a Weaver documentary for CBC Ideas.

For years I'd entertained the fantasy of writing a historical novel set in 19th-century Montreal. The burning of the Parliament in 1849 seemed a likely place to start.

Only trouble was, I was bored to tears by the ins and outs of the Rebellion Losses Bill that occasioned the disaffection of Montreal's Anglo merchants whose fury sparked the conflagration.

I nixed the idea of 1849 as background for a novel, but kept on the look out for other historical possibilities. I found a pair of star crossed lovers who were artists. The male lead worked part time at the Notman studio on Bleury Street. I scoped out the Notman Photographic Archives at the McCord Museum, searching for my artists.

I came away hooked on William Notman. Here was a guy with a past, trying to reform. Here was his delightful wife and worthy partner. Here was an art/science on the cusp of revolutionizing the way people perceived the world around them.

I pitched a documentary about Notman to Ideas and got the go-ahead. But I knew nothing about photography and, anyway, I was working in an aural medium. It took a long time and a lot of research to feel on top of the material. Along the way, I asked an idle question of Nora Hague, the Senior Cataloguer at the McCord. "Were there any black sheep among the Notmans?"

Nora knows everything about the Notmans. She is my main source for "William Notman of Montreal." And yes, she knew of a black sheep. Not William, but one of his brothers.

And so I found my juicy 19th-century historical subject, but I decided to tackle it the way I know best, as creative non-fiction rather than fiction. In program two of "William Notman" of Montreal, you'll meet my black sheep. A year from now I hope you'll read my finished book about him.