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Mark Leiren-Young’s rookie-reporter recollections make for great reading
He’s an acclaimed journalist, playwright and screenwriter who has penned for the likes of Time, Macleans and the Utne Reader—hell, he even got his start as a freelancer here at Monday—but now Mark Leiren-Young is going back to where he cut his tale-telling teeth: a small Cariboo newsroom in the 1980s, where dealing with surly stampede queens, tracking down poison gas spills and being pegged as an “enviro-metalist” were just part of a long-haired rookie reporter’s job at the Williams Lake Tribune.
“The thing that really struck me—and this is the difference between writing this in your 20s and writing it in your 40s—was how utterly insane it all was,” laughs Leiren-Young from his part-time home in Haiku, Maui. (How perfect is that, a writer living in a place called Haiku?) “Tromping through the snow for miles looking for a poison gas spill just because it was a good story—what was I thinking? I was a reasonably bright guy . . . but, damn, that was nuts.”
Still, as Leiren-Young relates in his always engaging and often hilarious debut book Never Shoot A Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo (Heritage House, 221 pages, $19.95), it was all simply part of a job he accepted without knowing much about. Just 22 and fresh out of university, Leiren-Young had driven across the country to start a promising position with an Ontario theatre company, only to have it fall through upon arrival; faced with looming unemployment, he accepts an out-of-the-blue offer from the editor of the Tribune and hauls back to Williams Lake, only to get thrown in at the deep end of the community-newspaper world—where the freshman journalist has to do everything, fast and now. And, as he relates in the book, the Trib “was 24 pages, filled with lots of news about city hall, lumber mills, craft fairs and local sports. It was my worst nightmare. I was about to start work as a newspaper reporter in a town with no news.”
Sure, it’s all funny 25 years later—and indeed, Stampede Queen is an absolute charmer in the Stuart McLean/Will Ferguson vein—but now that he’s a West Coast staple (his comedy troupe, Local Anxiety, is legendary, he’s a regular with the Tyee, the author of such hit plays as Escape to Fantasy Gardens and Shylock, and The Green Chain, his first feature film as writer-director, is just about to debut), did it make Leiren-Young feel old to release his early-days memoir?
“Not really,” he says. “But it was really wild looking back at the 22-year-old me. I actually wrote it two years after leaving Williams Lake, but it had never felt like a book; it always just felt like a collection of anecdotes. And while there’s not a single story that has changed, the storytelling has changed and my perspective has changed . . . I sounded a whole lot cooler back when I wrote it.”
Still, Leiren-Young says the manuscript would likely have never left his desk had it not been for noted humourist Ian Ferguson (How To Be A Canadian), who’ll be joining him at this week’s reading in Fernwood. “Ian’s, like, a stud. There’s a handful of people who are responsible for this book coming back to life and Ian’s near the top of that list,” he says. “If he had read this and said, ‘Yeah, don’t bother,’ I probably wouldn’t have.”
And while his Monday days might simply seem like a publicist’s excuse to land an article, Leiren-Young is totally sincere about his time in these pages—first under then-editor Peter Ladner (“My first big freelance story was about the Songhees developments,” he recalls) and then under the guidance of Sid Tafler . . . who, no shit, he continually describes in the book as “Sid Who Is God.”
“If I had not met Sid, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” he says, “because until I met Sid, I didn’t know freelancing existed.”
When asked for his thoughts about the current sad state of the newspaper industry, Leiren-Young doesn’t hesitate. “‘Terrifying’ sums it up,” he says flatly. “A reporter from the Martlet interviewed me and said she’d interned at a community newspaper last summer and felt like my book was about ‘the good old days.’ I mean, we had a six-person newsroom in Williams Lake in the ’80s and I thought that was pretty sad then.”
Oy, don’t get me started.