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  • Ontario Creates
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

Reading Time: four minutes

Brick has always been a magazine cobbled together by writers who seem to have a slanted perspective of the literary world around them. We have published articles where writers celebrate other writers—Robert Hass on Tomas Tranströmer, John Berger on Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Bolaño on Nicanor Parra, Don DeLillo on Thelonious Monk and Glenn Gould. But we have also published somewhat strange pieces: one on fishing by Graham Swift, one on writers who wrestle, and a piece by a well-known Toronto lawyer whose shoes were stolen by Jean Genet when he stayed at the lawyer’s house (what did he expect?). Over the years we have run interviews with Kazuo Ishiguro, W. G. Sebald, Anne Carson, Zadie Smith, and Mavis Gallant, as well as many others. William Gaddis has mused on Herman Melville’s impressions of Cologne Cathedral, Patricia Rozema has written about what it was like to direct Harold Pinter in a film, Jeffrey Eugenides remembered John Hawkes as a teacher, a prisoner in San Quentin interviewed the mystery writer Donald Westlake, and the son of a scientist wrote a personal memory about “How Scientists Party.” It is as if anything around us can be somehow gathered and carried in the canoe or the split-pea shell that is Brick, A Literary Journal.

To some of us it feels that Brick began in the Middle Ages. It was started by Jean McKay and Stan Dragland in 1977, and the magazine has gone on from there in various shapes and sizes in the hands of three other publishers: Linda Spalding, Michael Redhill, and Nadia Szilvassy. But throughout all these years—more than thirty-five now—its editors have always been writers. Right now there is an editorial board of six. Some prefer to act as “scouts” for what might be out there—a conversation with a writer, or some idea that can perhaps be encouraged into an essay. Some prefer the more triage-like role of judging what is really good. But most of all we are enthusiasts for what is interesting—to us first of all, and then hopefully to our readers.

One of our consistent desires is that writers from elsewhere rub up against writers from Canada, and we want established writers to meet with newer writers in our pages. So we invite artists and writers from all over the world as well as welcome the strange and random pieces that come over the transom—one man whose job it was to destroy books in a library found a book of poetry there, read it, admired it, and promptly reviewed it for us (Brick 91). We have had recipes based on road kill (Brick 77), a piece on a strange underground cult in Paris (Brick 84), and one on the souls of dogs (Brick 80). In another era we would have asked the author of Moby-Dick for a chowder recipe, or Henry James for a monthly list of his dinner invitations, or Dorothy Wordsworth for her recommended map of rural walks.

Sometimes we ask a range of writers to deal with one of those essential questions, such as “What would you have been if you were not a writer?” (“A dog,” said Robert Creeley; “A rock guitarist,” said Ian McEwan; “An actor,” said Edmund White; “Dead,” said Russell Banks.) And in a recent issue we asked writers and artists about their favourite endings in novels. Of course there are internal battles within the editorial board. I have pushed for years for the magazine to be printed on pink paper like the Financial Times, and for all of our articles to have a line at the start that gives the approximate reading time of the piece, as magazines did in 1950s England, just so that we could reprint Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and list the reading time as somewhere between seventeen seconds and twenty-five minutes. I never was able to convince the others. The final selection can also lead to fights. Even for this anthology, many of the editors wanted Helen Garner’s wilder article on experiencing a high colonic cleanse as opposed to her more reasonable piece on an Antarctic journey.

There were other problems in earlier times. The number of typos in Brick, for instance. Accusations from writers have been constant and furious over the years. A reference to a “puppy” as opposed to a “poppy” in David Malouf ’s book, An Imaginary Life. A reference to “the police at 4 a.m.” as opposed to Alberto Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m. (that article written by Alice Munro). So we were proud when we published a piece by Harry Mathews that was proofread so many times it seemed faultless to us. But Mr. Mathews wrote a terse letter from France complaining we had left out a whole page of his well-argued essay. Similarly, we did once leave out a stunning first paragraph of a piece by Rohinton Mistry, though we managed to reprint it in full in our first Brick Reader. All of this was not helped by a fictional Cecily Moos (she with the roving umlaut), who pretended to be the new copy editor for the magazine and then proceeded to publish brief editorials in Brick chiding the other editors for their bad grammar and lazy work on the magazine. Cecily Moos in fact found a large fan base among our readers, although she was the invention of one of our male editors who often writes under a female pseudonym.

We have from time to time wanted to change the subtitle of the magazine from A Literary Journal to something more inviting. Why, I don’t know. The poet bp Nichol suggested Brick, A Magazine for the Idle Rich. But of course there are too many of those already. They fill the racks, and we rather hope Brick is an antidote. We all know that there are only a few real magazines remaining, somewhat like icebergs. And newspapers tend to notice a magazine only when it dies, which is cold comfort.

So why do we carry on, “pledging our troth” to our dear readers? One reason might be that as writers we bring out a book, with luck, every four or five years, and Brick allows us to feel we have a new literary work twice a year. And there is great pleasure in making this collage-like object—this bricolage—as we are all ardently and even furiously involved in editing, lay-out, and paste-up. Producing a magazine is also a sure-fire way of merging with a larger community of artists, finding echoes of interests among them, and allowing them a place to walk, to talk, to think, to muse. While we do publish some fiction and poetry, we at the magazine are mostly interested in what lies behind those works. A culture does not reside just in books, Cynthia Ozick says, but in the tensions and the ideas behind them. We are interested in the seedbed, where the enthusiasms and cross-fertilizations occur, and we see the magazine as a stage for ideas and the personal voice.

Finally, and perhaps this is the real reason for doing Brick, there is the pleasure of making something while being part of a community. Writing is mostly a secretive and solitary act where conversation is a curse, and an open telephone or a lunch meeting is a path to destruction. But anyone who has worked in theatre or film recognizes the abundant pleasures of working in a group. Brick allows us that. The opinions and participation of all of us involved with the magazine—writers, designers, publishers, contributing editors, distributors—leads to eye-rolling and argument, but we grudgingly know that the magazine will probably become better as a result. So that, in a way, Brick is not just the representation of the community of artists around us, but also the portrait of the group that makes it.

Order The New Brick Reader.

Michael Ondaatje is the author of several books including Divisadero and The Cat’s Table. He was till 2013 an editor at Brick. He lives in Toronto.

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