Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Kelly McParland

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Kelly McParland

Journalist Kelly McParland is the author of The Lives of Conn Smythe (McClelland & Stewart), an appropriately titled book about one of hockey's most influential figures and a man who seemed to pack more into a single life than seems possible. War hero, controversial figure, founder of the Toronto Maple Leafs and builder of Maple Leaf Gardens, Smythe was a polarizing figure during his life, but his legacy is far-reaching.

Kelly speaks with Open Book about Smythe's legendary toughness, fanboy moments and what he learned from the late great Mordecai Richler.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Lives of Conn Smythe.

Kelly McParland:

It's the first full biography of Conn Smythe, the man who founded the Toronto Maple Leafs, built Maple Leaf Gardens in the midst of the Depression and turned hockey from a game played before limited crowds of (often drunk and brawling) men in cold arenas, into the national obsession we know today. Though Smythe has been mentioned in many books, no one had ever addressed his life in full and the extraordinary events he was involved in, not only in hockey but in war and politics. He was an amazing man — not always likeable, but admirable in many ways.

He fought in both world wars — at Vimy, Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme in the first war, and at Normandy in the second. He was shot down, captured, escaped and recaptured in the first war. In the second, he insisted on joining up despite being a wealthy man in his 40s with a wife and four kids, not to mention running the country's favourite hockey team. He refused every offer of a safe job doing PR work and insisted on going to the front lines with the other men; just before D-Day he injured his ribs but insisted on landing anyway, and was lowered to the beach strapped to a chair. When he returned home, injured for life, he promptly set off a crisis that almost brought down Mackenzie King. All this was news to me and I thought other Canadians would be interested as well.


What prompted you to write about Conn Smythe?


I came across an “as-told-to” autobiography, written by Smythe and Scott Young just before Smythe died in 1980. It was filled with Smythe's character and details I knew nothing about, and made me want to read more. But I discovered little had been written about the man (though a lot about the team) since the 1960s, although a vast amount of information and documentation was available. Smythe took all his records with him when he finally quit the Gardens in the 1960s — angry at the way his son Stafford and Harold Ballard were running the team — and it was donated to the Archives of Ontario. It's filled with fascinating details of the man and his life, most of which has never been published. It was all there, just waiting to be assembled.


Tell us about a favourite hockey memory.


What's great about hockey is how it grips you as a kid and never lets go. Someone who was a hero when you were 8 remains a hero forever. When I was writing the book I emailed Frank Mahovlich to see if he would talk to me. One day the phone rang and a voice said “Hi, it's Frank Mahovlich.” I was so excited I could hardly ask questions.


How did you get your start as a journalist?


When I was a kid in the 1970s I went backpacking (like everyone did then) and got as far as India, where I met an Australian who noticed all I kept reading all the local newspapers even though I had no idea what they were writing about. He said: “You oughtta be a journalist mate.” Made sense to me. If he'd told me to be a doctor I'd be a lot richer.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


Mordecai Richler, because he writes like he's not really writing, just telling funny stories. I also spent years editing other people's newspaper copy, which taught me a lot about how not to write.


Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?


Lots of them. I like when it when someone can take a subject that doesn't strike you as wildly interesting on the surface, and can keep you interested all the way through the book. I recently read a book on the life of Cleopatra by Stacy Shiff. The thing about Cleopatra is that, like Jesus, hardly any actual first-hand information is available. No one is even sure what she actually looked like. Yet the author manages to keep you reading through 300 pages, and make it exciting. I read another book, by John Boyko, on R.B. Bennett, who was prime minister in the early 1930s. No one had ever written his biography, and I'd long thought someone should. But it wouldn't be easy and it would require someone who could bring to life a politician who was viewed largely as a failure, and died more than 60 years ago. I thought Boyko did a good job, and created a real person out of what had never been more than a caricature before.


What are you working on now?


Conn Smythe just came out, so I'm trying to decide between a couple of other ideas. I'd like to write something fictional but I'm not very good at making things up, which might come as a surprise for someone who's been in the newspaper business for 30 years.

Kelly McParland is a writer, editor and columnist at the National Post and a member of the newspaper's editorial board. He has worked for more than thirty years at newspapers and agencies in Canada, England and Hong Kong. A lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, he is old enough to remember the winning goal in the 1967 Stanley Cup, and young enough to live in hope of seeing the next one as well. He lives outside Toronto with his wife and daughter.

For more information about The Lives of Conn Smythe please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

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

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