Prolific writer chronicles big trouble in little city

By Tom Hawthorn

(From the Globe and Mail, Nov. 26, 2008)

Mark Leiren-Young finds trouble. Or, rather, trouble finds him.

He writes a radio play exploring racial attitudes and is accused of racism.

He writes a stage play about Shakespeare and censorship and anti-Semitism and not everyone gets the point.

He writes political satires, and we all know how satire is a universal language of respect and understanding.

So, you might be forgiven for thinking he has adopted as his first name the adjective controversial, as in “controversial playwright,” or “controversial political satirist.”

Mr. Leiren-Young is a onetime reporter, so he knows “controversial” is newspaper code word for, “This is a nuanced and complicated issue about which I will not pass judgment and besides that single word does a lot of work on my behalf and might even get this story on the front page.”

He did not spend too long in the low-paying ghetto of the community newspaper before finding less lucrative work pounding out plays and scripts. Happily, he also has many gigs writing for television, which he composes on his preferred midnight-to-dawn shift.

And his first book is to be launched tonight at Biz Books in Vancouver.

The book is titled Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo. It is published by Heritage House in paperback and costs $19.95.

It is going to be controversial.

It should have been titled Never Shoot a Smart-aleck Writer.

Mr. Leiren-Young – and after this let’s dispense with the double-barrelled surname and go with “Hyphen,” with which he was tagged at his student newspaper – is fair, honest and accurate in describing the good citizenry of the Cariboo. Which is to say it might not be such a good idea to stand behind him should he ever again visit Williams Lake, as the city comes across as the Wild West mixed with Capone-era Chicago with a soupçon of Jim Crow Deep South segregation and an unsavoury dash of perversion.

And that’s just in the first chapter.

Hyphen is not without sympathy for the Cariboo. “Apparently I had the only car in town,” he writes. “Everyone else had a pickup.”

He is surprised to find that the annual stampede not only requires Western ware but that the edict is enforced. The long-haired, theatre-loving, big-city environmentalist is shocked to discover Ducks Unlimited is a hunter’s group.

Soon after graduating from the University of Victoria with a bachelor of fine arts in theatre and creative writing, Hyphen is lured by penury to the Williams Lake Tribune.

He arrives in town after midnight, stopping at a gas bar and convenience store, the only business still open. Three police cruisers are parked out front and he figures this is the local hangout. Instead, he learns the joint has suffered yet another armed robbery. The young female clerk pronounces Williams Lake to be the crime capital of the province.

He quotes her in his debut story. She says she did not give him permission (although she helpfully spells her name). The police are unhappy that he has not waited for their press release.

“The cops wanted to shoot me, my bosses thought I was a Bolshevik, and a local lawyer warned me that some people I was writing about might try to test the strength of my skull with a steel pipe. What more could any young reporter hope for from his real job?”

Among the stories he covered – a train derailment involving a load of toxic chemicals; three deaths in a ranch shootout involving a mad trapper; incensed relatives of beauty-pageant contestants (hence the book’s title); a manslaughter trial in the knifing death of a liquor store panhandler; the mysterious crash of a Piper Navajo, the pilot disappearing into thin air; a female defendant in an assault case offering as her defence the statement, “The bitch deserved it”; and a union drive in his own newsroom for which he received threats.

After 10 months, Hyphen pulled the plug.

These days, he wears his hair even longer. With his beard, he looks like Ian McKellen as Gandalf were Gandalf not so white-haired. He remains boyish and enthusiastic, even when the intent of his work is misconstrued, as happened with the play Shylock and CBC Radio’s Dim Sum Diaries.

He is prolific, too. Not only does he perform a satirical cabaret as one-half of the comedy troupe Local Anxiety, but he also recently wrote, produced and directed The Green Chain, his first feature film, about the debate over the forests.

At the end of each month, he takes a skewed look at current events for the Vancouver-based webzine TheTyee.

Surely, though, Hyphen has exaggerated life in Williams Lake.

So, I moseyed over to the Tribune’s website to check out the big news of the week.

The headline on the most-read story: Clerks threatened with bear spray in robbery.

The female clerks at the Handi-Mart convenience store on McKinnon Road described the perps as three young males in hoodies with black bandanas over their faces. They demanded cash and cigarettes.

They fled on foot. Likely because they were too young to drive.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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