April 12, 2022: John MacLaughlan Gray, Canadian Author, composer and performer. Topic: John will discuss his latest book, Vile Spirits, a thriller set in 1920s Vancouver

John MacLachlan Gray
Author, Composer, Performer

John MacLachlan Gray, OC, playwright, composer, writer, actor, pianist and broadcaster is a multi-talented artist across many media. As a playwright, composer and theatre director, he is best known for Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978), one of the most popular and successful works in the Canadian theatre canon, which he created in collaboration with Eric Peterson. Gray’s work as a broadcaster, magazine writer and newspaper columnist also established him as a respected commentator on Canadian cultural issues. An Officer of the Order of Canada, he has won numerous awards and accolades, including wo Dora Awards and the Governor General’s Literary Award.

Gray’s artistic ability first found an outlet in music. He took piano lessons from a Second World War refugee who had studied with Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. While earning his BA in English at Mount Allison University (1964–68), Gray played Hammond organ and trumpet with The Lincolns, a popular R&B band in Nova Scotia. He went to Vancouver in 1968 to study directing at the UBC, and graduated in 1971 with a master’s degree in Theatre.

In 1972, Gray was a founding member of Vancouver’s Tamahnous Theatre, which specialized in avant-garde works, including one of Gray’s early efforts, Salty

Tears (libretto by Jeremy Long). He directed plays at Tamahnous until 1975, when he moved to Toronto and joined the innovative Theatre Passe Muraille as a composer and occasional director. From 1975 to 1977, he wrote music for eight of the company’s shows, including the collectively conceived play, 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.

The number of awards given, plays, musical compositions and books written is too many for this brief biography of John MacLachlan Gray.


Presentation on his latest book, Vile Spirits, a thriller set in 1920s Vancouver


John MacLaughlan Gray was never a big fan of school but he has always had a way with words. In particular, he has had a very successful career as a theatre director, composer, magazine writer, screen writer, newspaper columnist, public speaker, CBC satirist, and now novelist.

John gave us a wonderfully informative crash course on writing historical crime fictions in addition to sharing some captivating facts that will surely have everyone picking up his next book, Mr. Goodevening, upon its release.

John’s writing process starts by picking a time, a place, and a situation that he feels is sufficiently amusing to keep him interested for a couple of years. For him, this means a situation with conflict, irony, and comedic satiric possibilities. He then starts collecting what he endearingly refers to as “holy shit facts”. For example, Canuck House once serving as the KKK headquarters, the coverups of BC WWI veteran suicides, and government prohibition practices that led to the poisoning and death of 2,000 people in 1925. Each fact is written on individual 5” by 3” cards which John carries in his back pocket. Once the stack is big enough, he flips through and instinctively places the cards in a vague sequence. From here the story starts to form. This process is delightfully unpredictable and John admits that he has never accurately foreseen the end of one of his novels at this stage of the process.

When it comes to characters, on the historical front, John uses real people who really existed at one point. On the fictional side, he takes these people and their characteristics, and casts them in the appropriate role. The character, with a slightly modified name, may have never actually said or done something described in the novel, but the manner in which they are written to do so, is true to what we know of their real-life character. He also sometimes constructs characters that make sense for the flow of story. These characters come together in a Petri dish, where often surprising interactions and conflicts start to emerge to create his historical fictions.

Creativity, or as John prefers, receptivity is obviously incredibly important when writing novels. However, as with everything, it works best when there are some boundaries or a frame to work within and push against. For poets, this boundary may be iambic pentameter. For novelists, genre serves as the boundary. When it comes to post WWI Vancouver, it was clear to John that the crime genre, right at the intersection of thriller and mystery, was the right frame for his writing. After all, L.D Taylor, Vancouver’s mayor at the time, had initially come to Vancouver to flee embezzlement charges against him in Chicago!

Now that the story has come together in a rough draft, it’s time for the deductive, methodical part of the brain to enter for the editing process. Editing has three aspects: the story edit, the voice edit, and the line edit. The story edit determines who is telling the story. An omniscient narrator may make it difficult to build suspense, while a first-person narrator may be too limited. John prefers to use a close third-person narrator, where the author sticks very closely to one character, revealing only their inner thoughts and emotions, and using that same voice to colour other scenes even when the character is not present. The narrator essentially imitates the character it follows.

Each character also has their own voice and the author needs to consider whether they speak in short sentences or long sentences. Do they have an accent? Do they speak a certain way because of their class or profession? Do they have a mental or physical impediment? This voice edit overlaps with the line edit which is used for action scenes. The line edit focuses on the content, style, and language used to improve readability and pacing. John’s preference here is English Prime, a version of English that excludes all forms of the verb ‘to be’.  A sentence will almost always be stronger and more specific if you can replace the verb ‘to be’. As a musician, John also is keyed into the rhythm of his sentences, and strives for a musicality in his writing that pleases the inner ear of the reader even at the sub-vocal level. It’s easy to see why the editing process alone can take months to complete.

John’s creativity and passion for writing really shone through and he plans to continue weaving stories together for as long as he can. Should dementia set in, John plans to listen to a lot of music and repeatedly watch his five favourite movies as if for the first time.

Recommended reading: Billy Bishop Goes to War, the White Angel, and Vile Spirits

Qs & As transcription:

Question from Peter Scott and Jack Zaleski: What are your five favorite movies?

Answer: Oh! North by Northwest by Hitchcock would be a must. The Lady Eve directed by Preston Sturges with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. A Fellini documentary called Roma., which I loved very much so and, I don’t know, two others! Lady Eve I still watch again and again because it’s just so brilliant and it’s just so damn funny. That Fonda doing slapstick – it’s just outstanding. Of course, North by Northwest because the hero, Cary Grant finds himself in an impossible situation where both the police, and the spies, and everyone is after him, and he finds a way out. He digs his way out of the situation somehow. Cary Grant is just magnificent. He’s just wonderful. The crop-duster scene! There’s no forgetting the crop duster scene. That whole sequence where Grant has to stand on that highway with nothing around. That’s just confidence. It’s just wonderful and great to watch.

Question from Bill Hooker: What are your favourite Canadian novels?

Answer: Well, certainly, the top would be, off the top of my head, would be Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. The whole trilogy, less so with Manticore, but I think it’s one of the great Canadian novels. There’s another one, this one’s personal, but it’s called The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroetsch, an Alberta guy. I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. God that’s a funny one. Margaret Atwood’s novel, the Robber Bride, which is set in Toronto. In that one there’s all kinds of people you can recognize in Toronto. It’s a wonderful tatty kind of novel. With Atwood, I get a little weary of the novels with a strong woman with a weak husband. She has a crisis, she goes through some sort of death symbol, and then she comes out the other end as a sort of a larger and more complete woman… I’m tired of that. Oh God, I’m done, my 75-year-old mind I got those three. I’ll come up with more when we’re done here and it’s too late. But anyone who hasn’t read Fifth Business should read it. It’s a wonderful novel and his eye for the Ontario conservative mindset and all that is just marvelous. He has a great satirical head.

Question from Carolyn Armstrong: What do you think of writing with two leading characters?

Answer: A two-hander? Well, that would be a play. I would lose interest in a two hander. Well maybe I wouldn’t lose interest, but if I’ve got to get them to do something, I’d be pretty lost. I need at least six characters minimum in order to get a Petri dish that’s going to spark things. With two characters, it’s going to get inevitable sooner or later. Plays don’t take that long to write really. Noël Coward wrote Private Lives in a weekend you know. It’s a whole different sort of thing.

Question from Dominique Prinet: How do you go about finding a publisher?

Answer: Well you get an agent. That’s how you do it. An unsolicited manuscript will get to people who can say no, but not to the people who can say yes. If you can find an agent, the agent can get you to somebody who can say yes. And the agent can place you with a publisher, who is also quite likely or possibly interested because it’s the sort of thing that they do. I had an agent for many years named Helen Heller, and she got me a bidding war at the bookfair in Belgium between companies because they thought I might be the next Caleb Carr, who wrote The Alienist. As it turned out, I couldn’t be the next Caleb Carr. Turned out that even Caleb Carr couldn’t be the next Caleb Carr! But I got a bidding war going and that really got me going. She got me my first publisher, Random House Canada. And my editor was just the best editor a person could possibly have. So, she did a really good job of kind of getting me in there and getting me going. Now I don’t use an agent because I’m not interested in the money and the agent wants you to be interested in the money because that’s how they make their living.

Question from Norm Weitzel: What’s your opinion of my all-time favourite movie “Casablanca”?

Answer: Casablanca! Oh, gosh, there was a screenwriting course that was given for years and years. By God, every executive at the CBC and every film class, everything based entirely on Casablanca as a structure, It’s kind of the perfect movie. I don’t know what makes a perfect movie. Oh god and the casting.  Sydney Greenstreet, there is no one like Sydney Greenstreet. It’s just a terrific movie.

Question from John Madden: Why, of all places, did you pick Waldo, BC as the childhood home of your detective? The small church you refer to was built by my grandfather. It was moved to Baynes Lake when the dam was built?

Answer: Oh, my good god! Well, there’s a place in Nova Scotia called Mushaboom, it’s somewhere in Halifax County, and in Nova Scotia, it’s the equivalent of nowhere. Wawa, Ontario is also nowhere and it’s for a good reason, because Burwash Penitentiaries is near there. If you’re hitchhiking, and you get stuck in Wawa (I’ve been stuck in Wawa), well, you’re there for a good long time. No one will pick you up. There are stories of people who were hitchhiking along *Wawa for so long, that they settled down and got married! So, in BC, I had to find a sort of equivalent, and I liked Waldo because it was near the railway. It was right down there where the railway was being built, so I knew what his father probably did and I knew I could sort of get Waldo together. It was also far enough away that he wasn’t going to go back and forth. He came from the middle and nowhere. Waldo. Isn’t that funny? I’ve seen pictures of the church there. Google Earth is great for that sort of thing. I’ve been to Waldo.

Question from Bill Hooker: Could you anticipate a film or play about Simon Gunanoot? 

Answer:  I wrote a treatment for a film on Gunanoot. And of course, it never got made. They never do. You know, you write a treatment, and a treatment is like 3/4 of the work of writing a screenplay, and you get paid like 50 cents. You don’t get paid much as a screenwriter until the first day of principal photography, when you get paid 1% of the budget, which could be a really good taste, so, it’s worth trying. But Gunanoot is a wonderful, wonderful story. Of course, you could do it. It would be a question of POV, and your POV could not be Gunanoot. He’d remain mysterious because he managed to hide out from his pursuers on a murder charge, with an extended family of like 12-14 people in in the woods, in the forest up in North by Northwest. That’s an area the size of France! The Pinkertons would send people after him. They sent agents after him because the BC government hired the Pinkertons before they had the provincial police. The Pinkertons themselves would get lost and they would get into trouble. Gunanoot would leave food for them and stuff. In town, there was a lot of sympathy for Gunanoot.

Eventually, after 22 years, this is after his wife died, he just had it. He decided to give himself up. And so, the sheriff, named *Sperry Klein, put him in touch with *Stuart Henderson, who was one of these hero lawyers who traveled all over the province. He defended Native people. He defended Chinese people. He had a great record for getting people off. So, *Stuart Henderson came in, and he got the trial to be moved to New Westminster. The trial happened, and Gunanoot was acquitted in 20 minutes. It’s a terrific story and there are three really good characters. You’ve got somebody with the Pinkertons, you’ve got Sperry Klein, and you’ve got Stuart Henderson. So sure, you’ve got a movie there! Of course, you do. And then you’ve got flashbacks to the thing itself. The shooting of those two guys who had, that night, hurt him really, really badly. I think he probably shot them. But anyway, that’s a great, great story. Yeah, absolutely. No question. That’s Gunanoot!

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