by Staff Writer, SamaraCanada.com
At the end of June, Samara (a charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with Canadian democracy) in partnership with the Writer’s Trust, announced its nominations from people across the country—and the political spectrum—on their picks for the Best Canadian Political Books of the Last 25 Years.
Here is an interview with John Duffy, a public policy consultant, about his book Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada.
Describe the genesis of this book. What brought you to the subject?
I’ve always loved elections and politics in general. One of my earliest memories was of Pierre Trudeau winning the Liberal leadership when I was four years old, and I have been since participated in almost 50 campaigns from college elections to national ones. So it’s not so much that I’m a writer who did a book on politics, as that I’m a political activist who happened to write a book. That’s part of why I’m so honoured to have Fights nominated among so many serious, wonderful books by professional writers whom I admire very much.
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
Fights took two years to write — and about 20 years of campaigning to get a feel for the subject. There were two major challenges. First, figuring out the political strategies of the players. Most history/biography books don’t really go into the mechanics of seeking and retaining power, so it took a lot of hard thinking to get at the games that folks like Laurier or Mackenzie King were trying to play. Second, the visual program of the book was a huge undertaking. Sara Angel at Otherwise Editions led a great team of researchers, and I did everything I could to make their lives miserable. “Get me the good Diefenbaker button.” “Is that the sexiest picture you’ve can find of Margaret Trudeau?” I think some of the visual researchers still have nightmares. I should also mention that during that period my wife had our first child, my mother died and I held down a day job. How it got done is beyond me.
Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?
Grits, by the late Christina McCall, is the main one. It’s simply the best story ever written about Canadian politics. The style, the verve, the characterization, the wit. I wanted to write Grits. Doesn’t everyone?
Fights of Our Lives has an original format and look for a political book. Can you describe it and explain why you chose that look?
My favourite books when I was a boy were these giant Thames & Hudson histories of Europe’s great eras. Lavishly illustrated, hundreds of colour plates, intelligent captions and really smart essays by those great postwar British historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper or JEH Elliott. I wanted to make a book that a casual reader could enjoy just by surfing the visuals and captions, which was how I first got to know those massive tomes of my childhood. That, and a driving narrative, was my idea of what a history book really ought to be, and that’s what Fights tried to emulate. Phyllis Bruce at HarperCollins deserves a medal for getting behind a pretty unconventional product.
Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen.
I worked hard for John Turner when he was Liberal Leader. And I always remember him describing the ’88 election as “the fight of my life.” I admired his spirit and thought it captured the essence of what political life is about: preparing your whole life for a five-week battle. I tweaked the phrase into “OUR lives” because I wanted very much to make the point with the book that politics is important, honourable, and a huge part of what this country is about.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
The response was very gratifying. The political community really took it to heart and made it their own, which was really nice. As well, students immediately saw it as the resource it could be for them. I still get folks telling me they cribbed their senior essay from a point they picked up in Fights. And when it won the Shaughnessy Cohen prize, that was just another thing altogether. I was so surprised to win I forgot to thank my wife! We’re still together, but again, I have no idea how.
Did Fights of Our Lives change the trajectory of your career? In what way?
The organized, systematic thinking that went into Fights still is at the heart of any campaigning that I get involved in. Also, sometimes in my work as a public policy consultant I can see some of the regional dynamics I wrote about playing themselves out, and respond accordingly. So doing the book — especially its ‘political playbook’ dimension — really built a foundation for a lot of subsequent activity I’ve been able to play a part in.
In your view, how has the writing on Canadian politics changed substantially since you published Fights of Our Lives? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?
Sadly, it seems there are fewer books about electoral politics each year. And of course, there are just fewer books of this kind at all. Technology is reshaping the literary industry so radically it’s almost impossible to point to this or that dynamic without getting caught up in the much larger discussion. More should be written about Canadian politics. In every medium.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favorite book and why?
Hard to choose, especially with several friends who have great books on the list. If absolutely forced to pick one, it has to be Ron Graham’s One-Eyed Kings. I remember reading it when it first came out in the mid-80s. I had just graduated from university, had been through a few elections and some stints in Ottawa, and thought I knew a bit about how Canadian politics worked. You know: left, centre, right… image vs reality… Then, wham! I picked up Ron’s book and his depiction of the regional facts of life in the 70s and early 80s made me feel like I was turning around in Plato’s cave and finally seeing what was really going on. To be on a nominees list with the author of a book that literally was part of one’s political formation is really humbling.
What are you working on now?
Rebuilding the federal Liberals. Some work on environment and civilizations that could be a book at some point. My day job, which is fascinating. Raising my daughters with my wife. These are interesting times.