The Shanachie

There it is – that voice. Even over the phone, the tone and timbre of Stuart McLean’s deep drawl is unmistakable. In truth, the Montreal-born author, journalist and broadcaster hasn’t stopped talking since first signing on with CBC Radio in 1978. The creative tour-de-force has since carved-out a permanent place for himself in Canadian consciousness, first with a regular role on Peter Gzowski’s popular Morningside radio program, and later as the voice of The Vinyl Café. Even with a bevy of awards and accolades to his name, the now 65 year-old Toronto resident hasn’t lost any of the homespun humour or well-worn wisdom that Canadians from coast-to-coast-coast have come to love him for.

Do the rewards of your profession still outweigh the challenges of the job?
Yes, absolutely. Otherwise I would no longer be doing what I do. There are really only two core components to what I do; writing and reading. One of which is work, while the other is sheer pleasure.

Which is which?
I have come to accept the fact that the writing will always be something that I struggle with. It’s not the inspirational part that I find difficult. There is always something to write about. In fact, many of the ideas for Dave, Morley, Sam and the other Vinyl Café characters come from the observations of my own everyday experiences. However, that being said, it is another thing altogether to take these experiences and put them to paper. It isn’t uncommon for me to get all tangled up in sentences and paragraphs while I’m trying to piece together a story in a way that is both cohesive and entertaining both to readers and listeners. There are plenty of times when I’m ready to just toss the damn keyboard into the garbage can.

And then the readings make it all worthwhile?
Yes – then we’ll take these stories out on the road and I’ll look out from the stage and see smiles and laughter coming from people of all ages and backgrounds who feel as close to these characters as I do. These are the moments I live for, when the walls between performer and audience are torn down and we can share something that is special for both of us.

Do you speak with your fans at shows?
Yes, all the time. I make it a point to connect with as many people as I can before and after a show, or maybe during the intermission. I am always quite touched when parents stop in with their children to say hello, or by grandparents who want to introduce their grandkids to me, or brothers and sisters coming by to chat or offer a few kind words. I can’t begin to tell you how heartwarming it is to hear so many people tell me how much they love dropping into The Vinyl Café each week.

Have you ever considered bringing the stories to the big screen?
I have had many people approach me through the years about adapting them for television or for movies and I keep saying no.

Why is that?
I am not so sure that I know the answer to that question. I think that part of it is because I am very protective of these characters, almost like they are members of my own immediate family, and I’m scared to let them go off into the big old world. The Vinyl Café is a safe and wholesome place for them – and for me also – and there is a part of me that wants it to always stay that way. And the other reason is that, believe it or not, I couldn’t even tell you what Dave and Morley look like. I know that sounds ridiculous, considering how long they have lived in my head, but it is the truth. I could describe parts of their kitchen to you, and maybe a few other bits and pieces around the house, but they are still as much a mystery to me as they are to listeners, and that is part of the magic of it all. A movie version might spoil that experience.

To that end, do you purposely leave things out of the stories?
Yes I do, and that is one of the ways that I have grown as a storyteller. The joy of storytelling – and one of the big reasons why I am so content on keeping The Vinyl Café on the radio and in print only for the time being – is that it invites listeners and readers to actively participate in the story by filling in the blanks with their imaginations.

That’s a bit of an anomaly in today’s mega-media world don’t you think?
I suppose that’s true, although there are many advantages to living in the digital age also.

Can you give me an example?
I have an e-reader that I am using more and more. At first I was a little resistant to having one because I have always been such a big proponent of books. However it occurred to me at some point that the medium is less important than the message it is conveying, and that if this kind of thing is going to get more people reading – especially young people – then that’s a good thing. On top of that, I find it extremely convenient. I no longer have to lug these heavy books around with me wherever I go.

Does it concern you that what you do might be overshadowed at some point by all of this technology?
Not at all. Look at movies. People said that cinemas would be empty when DVDs hit the marketplace, and theatres have never been more popular. We crave community – and that is something that people here in Atlantic Canada understand better than anywhere else in the country; that sharing our experiences, our thoughts and our feelings with each other brings us closer together as people – especially at a time when there are so many things out there that tear us away from one another. I really believe that so long as we can keep on connecting with each other, keep talking and listening to each other, keep sharing our stories, then our world will be a better place.

Reprinted from the Fall 2010 edition of Celtic Life International Magazine