Years and years ago I had it figured out that Robert Kroetsch was the writer to read, and looked forward to whatever he might write in my lifetime. The first time I met him was at Government House in 1970. He was getting the Governor General’s Award in fiction for The Studhorse Man. Then for a year or two I would get to hear him at a festival here and there.
Then one day in the early seventies someone phoned and asked whether I would be his minder for a day. The idea was that I would pick him up at the Vancouver airport, keep him company for several hours, and then drive him to the B.C. Ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay.
Oh boy! Here was the funniest and smartest writer in the land, and he was on record as being an admirer of the great bullshit artists in prairie beer parlours and horse barns. I’d bring him home and feed him and persuade him to accept a beer and let him loose.
I was married at the time to a very talkative woman. She once admitted, “I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept on talking.” So when I showed up with Kroetsch she started telling him about everything she had noticed in her life. “Shortly after the start of the Peloponnesian Wars,” she said, and off she went. Kroetsch smiled and listened, and more than that, he appeared to enjoy listening. He listened all afternoon, smiling that old-fashioned prairie German-Canadian smile.
I was itching and scratching and ruing my luck. I get my first chance to hear Robert Kroetsch the talker, and he turns out to be a listener.
And that is how I remember Bob. I was lucky enough to hang with him in beer parlours and other sites of culture. We even went on a tour together in the late eighties, visiting universities in Australia and Ontario. That was a dream, I can tell you. I learned a lot during those weeks. But it wasn’t easy making Kroetsch do his share of the talking. Chuckling yes; talking not so easy.
That’s what Bob Kroetsch was: the great listener. People who sat around a table with him will remember his saying “Is that right?” Or “I’ll be darned.” Or “No kidding?” Dennis Cooley does a terrific imitation of Kroetsch listening and saying one of these things from time to time.
Kroetsch was a great writer and a great teacher. When he sat there with a bit of a smile and listened, he was teaching you what you needed to learn.
Photograph of Kroetsch by Michael Ondaatje