Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Helen Burstyn

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Helen Burstyn

Helen Burstyn is the author of Eleven Out of Ten: The Life and Work of David Pecaut (Dundurn), which celebrates the life of the beloved, visionary city builder David Pecaut. This is no ordinary biography however; rather, Helen, David's wife, collaborated with her husband prior to his death to shape a book that would be his legacy.

We speak to Helen today about David's achievements and ways to keep his good work going, as well as her civic and charity involvements and plans for the future.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Eleven Out of Ten: The Life and Work of David Pecaut.

Helen Burstyn:

The book was inspired, or to be more accurate, assigned to me by my late husband, David, who was best known as a civic leader and city builder, the co-founder of Luminato, the Chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance and “the best mayor Toronto never had.”

Though David was well-known, he was not really known well. David had a really interesting story and writing Eleven Out of Ten gave me the opportunity to share many different and lesser known aspects of his life and work. It’s the story of how this native of Sioux City, Iowa chose Toronto as the beneficiary of his formidable enthusiasm for city-building. It’s the story of a business leader and management consultant who majored in Sociology and Philosophy, and whose undergraduate thesis at Harvard on how “the strength of weak ties” mobilized an East Boston community and informed so many of his civic projects in Canada. It’s also the story of an exceptional life partner, father and friend whose personal legacy was as profound and compelling as his achievements in public life.

It was all these elements of his life that made it possible for David to negotiate effectively with every level of government and every political party, both in and out of power. It’s what gave him that unique ability to work as easily with the homeless, new immigrants, and poverty activists as with billionaires, cultural czars, corporate CEOs, educators, bank presidents and labour leaders. It’s what made him so keenly aware of inequality of opportunity and so effective in bringing educational and social resources to the GTA’s poverty pockets with the Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force, the Pathways to Education program, and the monumental task of modernizing income security.


How did the project come about? What drew you to writing as opposed to other methods of sharing David's life and legacy?


David wanted to be remembered. But more important, he wanted to ensure that the important civic projects he began would continue after he was gone. In the natural order of events, David would have written his own memoir. When it became obvious even to him, the supreme optimist, that his time was running out, he began to make copious notes in the spidery hand only a few of us could decipher. He eagerly recorded interviews with friends, colleagues and family, including me and our daughters. When his lungs became so choked by cancer that he could barely speak, he whispered and coughed out his words because he still had so many things he wanted to say.

This book is a memoir, written in the first person. But it is also a collective effort that has many contributors, many authors, and certainly David is first among them. In the final weeks of David’s life, he composed a letter that was published in the Toronto Star shortly before he died. Since crafting this important document at such an advanced stage in his illness was a difficult task for him, both physically and mentally, much of it was dictated to and edited by me — all twenty-plus versions. Known as David’s “love letter to Toronto,” it was a thank you, a rallying cry and a goodbye. Being David, he wanted to write the last chapter of his life himself and instruct us in how to face the future together. That’s why Chapter 18, the last chapter of this book, belongs entirely to David, speaking in his own words.


David's influence and abilities encompassed so many disparate issues, from greening the city to the arts to youth activism. In your opinion, how was he able to work so widely and effectively?


David’s ability to connect all the dots, merging personal, professional and public pursuits, was the hallmark of his civic leadership. He described himself and others in this mode as seeing the most important thing we do, outside of our families, as the work we do together in building a better society, and doing it collectively.

David discovered that Toronto was a uniquely open city that allowed people like himself to cross boundaries more easily than in other places. Being an immigrant himself, he no doubt felt that quality was due, in part, to the fact that Toronto has so many newcomers from so many different cultures. It was also the openness of this city, and of this country, that made it easy for David to connect with others on civic projects.

Though he inspired many people, it’s important to recognize that David was also inspired by all of us. He saw Toronto as a city filled with civic entrepreneurs practicing collective leadership, an unstoppable force that could “face any challenge and do all kinds of great things on economic issues, social issues, education, the arts, the environment, leveraging the richness of our diversity, and much much more.”


Was the rest of your family involved in this project at all? What sort of support or encouragement did you receive from your friends and family while writing?


I probably would never have written if David hadn’t asked me to write it and I am grateful to so many others for making it possible for me to carry out this difficult, but ultimately rewarding assignment. I am deeply indebted to Anna Porter for being my mentor and suggesting that I apprentice myself to a seasoned writer, Sylvia Fraser, to get the hang of writing something so personal and difficult as a memoir. My publisher, Dundurn Press, took a big chance on me and said yes to a book by someone whose publishing history up until this point had included government reports, political platforms and, long ago, the Coles Notes that had helped students cram for their English exams.

I also had a record number of readers and an army of volunteer editors who helped me get this book right. My very first readers were our four daughters, Lauren, Amy, Sarah and Becca. As anyone who’s ever been a parent or who’s ever had a parent knows, the worst thing you can possibly do is embarrass your kids. Fortunately, my girls gave me not only the approval to go ahead, but the encouragement to keep going.

I relied very heavily on the stories, the memories and the wisdom of many for source material, and I quote them extensively. I quote John Tory, who said: “No matter what computer is invented or how powerful, David Pecaut proved the superiority of the human brain in his ability to imagine.” It was Allan Broadbent captured David’s confidence and networking style when he said, “I can imagine David cold-calling the Pope and expecting a call back by the end of the week.” Naki Osutei from the City Summit Alliance coined the expression being Pecauted — the act of being taken “from the impossible to the possible in three to five steps, including an action plan.” And it was Dr. John Evans, one of David’s mentors, who noted that he had an EQ that was off the chart and a network so extensive that RIM had to install additional memory on David’s BlackBerry.”

David’s brother and sisters helped me capture the Pecaut family lore, including the iconic story that gives the book its title. When David and his brother Dan were kids, they were shooting hoops with their high-achieving and highly competitive grandfather Sidney Kent. “Grandpa Sid (called Grund by his grandchildren) was in his late sixties and challenged them to a basketball contest. To their dismay, he sank ten out of ten baskets from the free throw line, then told the boys, ‘Don’t come into the house until you can make eleven out of ten!’ That became a family saying: eleven out of ten. It refers to making the impossible, possible. That was what David tried to do a lot of the time. And lucky for all of us, he often succeeded!


Were there other biographies you read while working on this project or that you've admired in the past?


I have no real precedent or model for what I was trying to achieve with this book. It’s a unique collaboration among many, but also it’s a book that David and I wrote together. He was whispering in my ear the whole time I was working on this. As in our lives together, we had some very spirited discussions about this project — which anecdotes to include, which stories to keep private, that kind of thing. But when it came to who would hold the pen and who could best tell his story, I was the undisputed author and arbiter. David gave me that assignment because he trusted me. No one knew him better than I did, and no one could capture his voice or tell his story better than I could. I think he would have been very pleased with this book, our final collaboration.


What recommendations would you have for those readers who want to continue to David's work and honour his legacy in the city?


Because I see David’s story as a collective project, and an ongoing one, I hope readers will visit the website,, and share a memory or an example of Pecaut-style community building. I would also encourage people to exercise the kind of collective leadership that David would have wanted from the city and the country he was proud to call home.


What are you working on now?


I’m a co-founder of the Pecaut Centre for Social Impact and the Ontario Government’s Special Advisor, Social Enterprise. I also sit on a number of not-for-profit boards, including CAMH, TIFF, Luminato, The Learning Partnership, The Canadian Journalism Foundation and The Walrus Foundation. I’m a relentless philanthropist and community-builder with an abiding interest in public policy. Some day, I may take another run at public office. And with the publication of Eleven Out of Ten, I’m now an author too. I guess that’s enough to keep me busy for a while.

Helen Burstyn has enjoyed a 30-year career in government, business and community service. She served as the chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation and president of the Canadian Club of Toronto. She is currently a director of several non-profit organizations, including Luminato, CAMH, TIFF, the Canadian Journalism Foundation, and The Pecaut Centre for Social Impact, an organization she recently co-founded. Helen has four daughters and a granddaughter. She lives in Toronto.

For more information about Eleven Out of Ten: The Life and Work of David Pecaut please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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