Friday, 28 November 2014

4Q Interview with Brian Brennan of Calgary, Alberta.

Brian Brennan has been featured on the South Branch Scribbler this past summer with an excerpt from his book, "Brief Encounters: Conversations with Celebrities, 1974-88” which talked about his meeting Victor Borge, the renowned comedian. Brian is an award winning author and has agreed to answer 4 questions for today’s interview. His website is listed below.


4Q: We recently had a taste from the above mentioned book, "Brief Encounters: Conversations with Celebrities, 1974-88. At the time of your sharing an excerpt with us, this was an in-progress book. I would like to know how the idea for this book developed and is it completed.

BB: I have since given the book a new title – And Then I Asked: Brief Encounters with Writers, Comedians, Directors, Actors and Musician – completed the manuscript, and submitted it to an agent for consideration. The following Introduction provides the background:

This book had its genesis in a conversation I had recently with a writer friend bemoaning the fact that a Russian website was flogging pirated copies of our books online without compensation to us. I mentioned in passing that Tennessee Williams once told me he had been similarly victimized. The Russians ripped him off to the tune of thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties on plays they had translated and staged without his permission.

“You talked to Tennessee Williams?” said my friend, surprised.

Yes, I hadn’t thought about it before, but indeed I got lucky. A week before I interviewed Williams, for a story to run in the Southam (now, Postmedia) newspapers across Canada, he had left another reporter in the lurch saying, “I haven’t been paid to pass the time with people who insult me.” I don’t know what the other reporter said to get Williams’s goat, but when I caught up with him in Vancouver – where he was readying his new adaptation of a Chekhov play for its premiere production – the playwright was in better humour and ready to answer any questions about his life and work.

I did the Williams interview in 1981 and, as I hunted through my archives to find that story, I came across dozens of my other newspaper stories from the 1973-88 period that collectively, I thought, would make for an interesting book if expanded and updated. These were interviews I did with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Leon Uris, Bob Newhart, Cleo Laine and other artists who had been sent on the road to promote new books, record albums, or upcoming performances.

The interviews were conducted during a time when artists relied to a great extent on the mainstream media to get the word out about their current activities. Blogs and social media had yet to be invented so the newspapers, radio and television stations provided the only publicity outlets then available.

I was working as a full-time general arts and entertainment writer based at the Calgary Herald, and it was easy for me to establish a rapport with these visiting artists because I had worked in the theatre as an actor and also had made my living as a barroom piano player. Additionally, I had the advantage of being a writer for a Canadian, as opposed to British or American, news organization. Artists who had been victimized by tabloids digging up dirt on their sex lives and drug habits seemed to feel on safer ground when talking to a Canadian reporter. They didn’t think I was out to “get” them. In fact, to my surprise, they often dropped their guard and revealed little-known facts about their lives and careers when talking to me.

Crooner Al Martino, for example, told me he became a social pariah in Hollywood when the producers of the movie The Godfather signed him to play the troubled wedding singer Johnny Fontane – a character loosely based on Frank Sinatra – because the director, Francis Ford Coppola, wanted Sinatra protégé Vic Damone to get the part. “Coppola didn’t think I was an actor,” said Martino. “He said I was just a singer.”

Tammy Wynette was similarly candid when she told me she was finding it difficult to reconcile being a married mother of four with being constantly on the road. Recently married for the fourth time, she admitted that the marriage was already on the rocks. “It’s very hard to travel and live a normal life,” she said wistfully. She divorced soon afterwards.

 When I looked through those yellowed newspaper clippings, I thought it might be fun for you, the reader, to revisit them with me. I would give you some background, and perhaps tell you things that had to be left out of the original newspaper stories for lack of space or other reasons. For example, I can reveal here for the first time that when I talked to the movie actor Glenn Ford, it was after I had watched him doing take after take for a short one-minute scene in the first Superman movie. It took him that long because he simply couldn’t remember the line.

Most of these stories did not come from in-depth interviews. The sessions necessarily had to be truncated because the press agents had other reporters besides me lined up to ensure maximum media coverage. My interviews, therefore, never lasted for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Yet even though they were short and generally self-promotional in tone, they sometimes yielded nuggets. Richard Harris, for example, was at first more interested in talking to me about how much he missed boozing than how much he enjoyed starring as King Arthur in Camelot. And Kenny Rogers gave me an impromptu a cappella preview of his soon-to-be hit recording of “Lucille” when I asked him where he planned to go next with his music after experimenting with rockabilly, jazz, folk, country and psychedelic rock.

Occasionally, interviews fell into my lap I when I least expected them. I never thought, for example, I would ever get to do an interview with Chuck Berry because the reclusive rock star was said to be miffed at all the bad press he had received over his troubles with the law during the 1960s. Yet he agreed to talk to me before going on stage for a nightclub performance in Calgary. Why? “Because now I’m finally ready to talk,” he said, without elaboration. The legendary fan dancer Sally Rand, was also reluctant to talk to reporters, especially those who came with cameras and lights to film her show. But she happily chatted with this reporter who came with just notebook and pen until I asked her why she was still stripping at age 71. “What would I retire to?” she said dismissively.

Later events reminded me of some of these long-ago interviews. When B.B. King played the blues for President Obama at the White House in 2012, I recalled that he once told me he thought the blues was dying. When Randy Bachman reinvented himself as a CBC Radio host, I recalled asking him why he had seemingly committed artistic suicide twice, first by walking away from the Guess Who and then by leaving Bachman-Turner Overdrive. When Johnny Depp played Tonto in the 2013 big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger (a flop, by all critical accounts), I recalled that I had talked to the original Tonto, Jay Silverheels, about the racism he encountered in Hollywood during the 1950s.

I did these interviews long before celebrities connected directly with their fans via websites or social media; when it was still possible for a lucky reporter to learn something about an interviewee that hadn’t been in the news before. So in one respect you might see this book as a nostalgic exercise in time-capsule journalism, evoking a particular time and place before the era of Twitter and Facebook. But I think it’s also important to tell you what happened to these people after I talked to them. When I tell you, for example, about the problems Mordecai Richler encountered when he first had his book The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz adapted as a stage musical, I think you might also be interested in knowing the extraordinary lengths to which the producer went afterwards in an attempt to take the show to Broadway.

Why does the song “Amazing Grace” still occupy a very special place in the repertoire of singer Judy Collins? Why did Robertson Davies abandon what appeared to be a successful career as a playwright in Canada to start writing novels? Why did Sophia Loren go back to Italy to serve a jail term for tax evasion? Why did Tom Lehrer totally disappear from the scene after establishing himself as one of America’s cleverest and wittiest satirical songwriters? Why did Michael Nesmith quit The Monkees to start making music videos? Why did Shari Lewis start conducting symphony orchestras after she had endeared herself to kids all over the world with a comedy ventriloquism routine involving a cute sock puppet named Lamb Chop? Why did Chubby Checker go through 20 pairs of platform boots a year to keep his audiences twisting the night away? Those are some of the questions I’ve tried to answer in this book while simultaneously looking backward and forward.

I hope you’ll enjoy taking this trip down memory lane with me. During a golden age for newspaper journalism in Canada, I was one of the few full-time entertainment reporters who wasn’t restricted to writing just about theatre people or television people or music people. I got to talk to them all, and will be forever grateful to my editors for giving me the opportunity to do so.

I am also grateful to my editors for loosening the purse strings whenever I wanted to travel to New York, London, Vancouver, Stratford or Edmonton to conduct interviews and write stories. Many of the stories in this book happened only because the Calgary Herald had plenty of money to spend on coverage that attracted big readership in the first instance and big advertising revenue in the second. Those generous travel budgets are now – sad to say – a thing of the past, not least because of the precipitous decline in print advertising revenue following the rise of the Internet in the 1990s.

A note about the arrangement of the stories and choice of subjects: At first I thought I would bundle the interviews, with writers in one section, actors in another, musicians in another, and so on. But then I decided to simply present them alphabetically by last name, primarily for the sake of variety and contrast. I sifted through the interviews chronologically, picked out the ones I thought would still be of interest today, only to discover to my shock, after I had written practically half the book, that most of the subjects were male. Uh-oh. That meant going back to the beginning and rebalancing the sex ratio. In the process, I found myself highlighting the achievements of some fascinating and talented if occasionally little-known women such as mystery writer Bunny Wright, singer Colleen Peterson and actress Nicola Cavendish who might not otherwise have made the cut.

I covered the Canadian arts and entertainment beat for 15 years. The plus is that I got to meet a great number of charming and gifted individuals. The minus is that I didn’t have enough time to spend with most of them, so had to do many of these interviews on the run. Thus the resulting stories are by no means definitive; they are more snapshots than full-length portraits. But I hope you’ll take them for what they are, as engaging and stimulating encounters with accomplished individuals I once thought and still think are deserving of our attention.

4Q: I’m particularly interested in your book Leaving Dublin: Writing my way from Ireland to Canada. Please tell us more about this book;

BB: This is my autobiography, published by RMB – Rocky Mountain Books. Here's the Introduction:

This is a book about a guy (me) who lived in Ireland with his parents until he was 23, came to Canada for a bit of craic (the popular Irish word for fun), tried his hand at different things (including playing piano in bars and reading news on the radio), and eventually found his calling as a newspaper reporter, as a chronicler of the passing parade.

Along the way, I met some very good people. I always felt that if I ever wrote an autobiography, I would pay tribute to them. This book is my attempt to do that. The subtext is a thank-you note to those who gave me love, friendship, inspiration, amusement, encouragement or even a kick in the pants whenever I needed it most.

I use the word “tribute” because, at this point in my life, it has a special resonance for me. In 1992, as you will soon read, I started writing an obituary column for the Calgary Herald that quickly garnered more positive reader reaction than anything else I had written during my previous 24 years as a journalist. It was called Tribute: People Who Made a Difference, and, for the most part, it was about people whose names had never appeared in a newspaper before.

Why did I write about unknowns? Because I thought everyone had a story to tell and, if I discovered that story, I wanted to tell it. While fondly remembered grandmothers, retired railway workers, nurses, teachers and community volunteers might have seemed irrelevant to the news-hardened editors who filled the front page with stories about the shenanigans of politicians, crooks and millionaire athletes, there was nothing irrelevant about them as far as their families and friends were concerned.

It turned out that it wasn’t just the families and friends who enjoyed reading about the people I wrote about in the column. Everyone I met seemed to enjoy reading about them. In essence, I was practicing community-weekly journalism in the pages of a big-city daily, where by the conventional standards of newspapering, my subjects had no right to be. Yet, during the seven years I wrote the column, I felt I was producing something just as compelling as the stories about gang shootings and NHL playoff games that appeared in the rest of the Herald.

I don’t claim any special credit for making Tribute as popular as it was. I was merely the facilitator. The stories were already there; it was simply a matter of gathering and telling them. I am grateful for the success of the column because it paved the way for a series of books about individuals from Canada’s past that I wrote after leaving the Herald. Tribute also provided me with the impetus to write this book, to tell my own story in conjunction with the stories of those who have made a difference in my life.

My stories begin in Dublin, where I had a childhood that was mostly happy, peaceful and untroubled. It had none of the poverty, misery, alcoholism or philandering that seem de rigueur for Irish memoirs nowadays. My youth was Angela’s Ashes without the rain; the sunny side of the growing-up-in-Ireland experience.

That said, I cannot paint a picture of cloudless nostalgia for you because mine was a childhood full of longing. Longing to have a smaller nose, bigger muscles and the ability to be as good at hurling and football as my more athletic classmates. Longing to feel appreciated by my father. Eventually, longing to escape. Escape to what or to where? I hadn’t figured that out yet, but as I got older I felt a growing need to find something better, someplace else.

In 1966 I took that big step into the unknown. At age 23, I quit my job in the Irish civil service and headed for Canada. Was this to be the something better, someplace else for me? Indeed it was. Canada, I quickly discovered, truly was the fabled land of opportunity. There were few barriers. Once the Canadian immigration authorities opened the doors, I was home free.

In Canada, I was able to parlay my love of piano playing into a steady gig as a professional musician. I was able to use my Irish love of talking to inveigle my way into a job as a radio announcer. I was able to use my love of writing and storytelling to find a job as a newspaper reporter. In each of these instances all I had to do was knock on someone’s door, ask for work and the job was mine.

In Ireland, things were different. There were fewer opportunities and more red tape. If you wanted to work as a professional musician, you had to join the musicians’ union and satisfy a union board of examiners you could play any popular song on demand. If you wanted to work in radio, you had to earn broadcasting school certification. If you wanted to work as a print journalist, you had to prove you were proficient in shorthand and typing, and be accepted into the National Union of Journalists.

Besides, Ireland was taking me in a different direction. My destiny there was controlled by my parents, who wanted me to be a civil servant: “The best job you’ll ever find in this country.” In Canada, I was able to start over, to become the master of my own destiny. I came on a mission of adventure, with hope in my heart and a safety net in my back pocket. If my money ran out before I found work in Canada, I knew I still had the civil service job awaiting me back home.

I never went back home, of course, except to visit. My travels took me from Dublin to Cork, Vancouver, Toronto, Dawson City, Smithers, Prince George and, finally, Calgary. Two keyboards have been my constant travelling companions. On one I type, on the other I noodle. “Make the words sing,” a Herald editor told me once. “Make the music speak to me,” said my piano teacher in Dublin. Thus have the strands of my life intertwined. Thus have the stories unfolded. 

4Q: Is there a childhood anecdote or fond memory you would like to tell us about?

BB: One of my favourite childhood memories, recounted in the opening chapter of my autobiography, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, has my father and mother arguing over whether they should use the family savings to buy a car or a piano. My mother was pregnant with her third child at the time. She and my father reached a compromise: If the baby was a boy, they would spend the money on a car. If it was a girl, they would buy a piano. My sister was born in August 1950 and my father delivered on his promise. The new piano arrived a week later. All of the children learned to play and I even managed to make my living for a while as a barroom pianist.

4Q: What’s in the future for Brian Brennan?
BB: My non-fiction book of biographical sketches, Rogues and Rebels: Unforgettable Characters from Canada's Storied Past, is scheduled for publication by the University of Regina Press (trade division) in the fall of 2015.  

Thank you for being part of the South Branch Scribbler Brian. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Brian’s website is  

Check his blog for up-to-date information on his literary activities:

Next week, join me here when Guest Author, Katrina Cope of Australia talks about her novels The Sanctum Series. The truth behind the deep and dark side.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Guest author Paul Hollis. An excerpt from The Hollow Man Series.

Paul Hollis grew up during a time when the notion of a shrinking world was still in its infancy. People lived in rural communities or in city neighborhoods, rarely venturing far beyond the bordered rim of their lives. But as a kid, Paul tumbled off the edge of the yard reaching for greener grass. Having lived in twelve states and eventually working in all fifty, he fell in love early with seeing the world on someone else’s money. Since then, he has lived abroad nine years while working in forty-eight countries, spanning five continents. These experiences helped inspire the novels in The Hollow Man series. From traveling through Europe as a young man, to flying nearly three million miles which took him nowhere near home, to teaching companies worldwide about coming global implications, as a world tourist Paul Hollis brings his own unique viewpoint to his mesmerizing thrillers.
Paul has a dual BA in English literature and psychology from the University of Illinois. In addition to having worked for IBM and others in worldwide physical and video security, he is an active member of International Thriller Writers and the St. Louis Writers Guild, as well as an international conference speaker.

Excerpt from The Hollow man Series. Copyright belongs to the author. Used by permission.
It was a dream. I am fairly certain of that now. A shadowy sixteenth century cathedral emerged from the mist, and I found myself waiting for a funeral procession to begin. Except for the large rat that brushed past my leg, I was alone in the darkness, though it felt like someone was watching me. The tower bell was tolling sharply, and each numbing stroke sucked a little more confidence from my bones, right through the muscle, and it settled like sweat on my skin. I wanted to push the melting courage back inside to strengthen my spine, but I couldn’t move. I was getting weaker by the second and my body would no longer support the weight of my own thoughts.

The heavy timber doors of the church swung wide, and in the winter moonlight I saw a robed priest appear at the opening. With his head bowed over scriptures for the dead, he mumbled soothing passages as he baby-stepped down three stone stairs to the ground. Six pallbearers followed with their burden, solemnly gliding along the gravel path to the waiting coach and restless horses. Their sandals made no sound on the hard surface even though they passed so close that I could smell death on the air around them. Gaunt, hollow eyes reflected heavy hearts but the men persevered to the coach where they lowered the plain casket to the earth.

The coffin was a small mahogany enclosure made for a half-grown child. The top was covered with pale red lace that stood out against the anemic landscape. A sudden stale breeze caught the cloth and blew it into the night. A thin pallid girl of perhaps twelve sat up in the box and began clapping in time to the tolling bell. She slowly turned, pointing in my direction and I saw blood running down the side of her face from a bullet wound near the scalp. The child beckoned me toward her.

“I can help you,” she said, not quite looking at me with colorless, blind eyes.

“I’ve already told you before that you can’t. No one can help me now,” I said.

“Yes,” she emphasized.


“Come closer.” She absently wiped at the blood, but it only smeared her ashen face.

“Can you stop the bell from ringing?” The sound scraped across my raw nerves.

“You’re a strange policeman,” she smiled. “Why do you still search for him?”

“You know why. He slaughtered half the British Embassy, including you and I need to find him.”

 “Be careful of Chaban,” she said. “He is a creature of evil and he’s brought you here to witness his power over you.”

She stared past me into the dark night. I turned in the direction she was looking to see if someone was standing beside me, but there was no one in the blackness that swallowed us.

“Where is he?” I asked.

She suddenly frowned.

“He’s been watching the watcher for a long time now. Look behind you, not in front.”

With vacant eyes still fixed on the dead unknown, her watery figure faded to a thin wisp and blew through me leaving cold fear in its wake. My soul parted like the Red Sea and when it closed again, there was another scar. It was always the same. I needed more but she was gone.

The sound of the bell shook the emptiness twice more before the gray-black dissolved into total oblivion and I started to wake. The telephone was ringing; it hadn’t been a church bell at all. My head was heavy and my body was barely functioning. Unsteadily, I reached for the pillow that covered the handset.


“Status?” the voice asked in English.


“Suspend surveillance on Chaban. I need you to go to morning Mass.”

“It’s Wednesday,” I said.

“It’s Madrid. People go to church every day in Spain.”

“Who’s the mark?”

“Luis Carrero Blanco.”

“The prime minister?” I stumbled on the words.

“I’m short-handed, kid,” the voice admitted. “You’re right there. You’ll do.”

I had followed dozens over the past year but none so high ranking.

“Mass is at nine o’clock,” he said. “A dossier is in the news box next to Museo del Prado.”

A thread of moonlight filtered through the window and reflected on the clock face. Still two hours until dawn. I rubbed crust from tired eyes with both hands. It had been a long time since I’d had a full night’s sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, the little girl was there waiting for me. I desperately needed to hibernate for the rest of the winter, but for now I’d have to settle for a strong cup of coffee. December had already been a long month, and it wasn’t over yet.

For the last six months, Blanco had been the prime minister of Spain, hand-picked by Generalissimo Francisco Franco himself. He had fought with the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War and had quickly become one of the leader’s closest collaborators. After the Nationalist victory and installation of Franco as supreme commander of Spain, Blanco’s power had grown with El Caudillo’s favor. Last June when he had been appointed prime minister, Blanco had also been named top deputy to Franco. Now that the dictator’s health was failing, it was only a matter of time before Blanco assumed control of the country.

At 8:50 a.m. on December 19, 1973, I was standing across the street from San Francisco de Borja Church on Calle de Serrano, waiting for the traffic signal to change. With its large buildings and attached park, the grounds covered a city block in the heart of Madrid. The church was at its center, standing majestically in a nondescript, middle-class neighborhood. Separated by a wide passage on the right, the monastery and office complex occupied a five-story, U-shaped structure with an inner balcony overlooking a courtyard. To the left lay an unattended tract of land with a dozen barren trees irregularly clumped amid several rough patches that I believe someone once called a lawn but it was now decayed and brown from neglect. The park had become a casualty of the dry Spanish winter and big-city pollution.

The inside of the church was not unlike a thousand other Catholic churches across Europe. The altar boasted an elaborate backdrop ornately fashioned from gold and other precious metals brought back from the New World. The nave floors and pews were made of beautiful padouk wood from Southeast Africa. But the dossier noted San Francisco de Borja’s most prized possessions were its collection of sacred relics. In the treasury lay the full body of a mummified saint in holy dress and an assortment of fingers and tongues from martyrs who had stuck out an appendage a bit too far in mixed company.

Somewhere there also had to be the proverbial strip of wood salvaged from the table at the Last Supper. Every church had one, a chunk of blackened cedar or cypress nailed to a wall where every tourist might stand in awe of its place in history. If all the pieces could have been somehow reassembled, the dinner table would have been massive. I imagined Christ yelling down a hundred-meter table to Peter or John, “I said pass the potatoes, not the tomatoes! Oh, never mind!”

I was brought back to reality and no doubt from the brink of eternal damnation for my thoughts by the short, ball-shaped figure of Luis Carrero Blanco walking along the prayer alcoves lining the side of the main hall. He wore an expensive cream-colored business suit and had a flamboyant stride but what impressed me most were his bushy eyebrows which preceded him by two paces. Accompanied by his full-time bodyguard, Police Inspector Juan Fernandez, Blanco genuflected and crossed himself before settling into the second row.

Seeing a single bodyguard with a top-ranking official was not all that uncommon these days in Europe but this pair seemed more like old friends. They sat shoulder to shoulder and spoke quietly, exchanging soft smiles. The two men had been together for many years, and perhaps a little complacency had set in. After all, the last head of state assassinated in Western Europe was back in 1934. Those were wild times. Today, the world was much more civilized, and Franco was certainly in control of his own country. With harsh restrictions on personal liberties, any disruption under existing martial law would have been unthinkable.

I turned toward a hand on my shoulder.

“Sir, I see you are English,” said an unshaven man standing over me. His speech was heavily accented but understandable. The man wore a light brown, wool overcoat that would have flopped open had he not held it together with fists in his pockets. Heavy boots and a pair of loose-fitting broadcloth pants made me think he may have been a farm worker. The hair around his cap was a shiny black, though flecks of gray dotted his beard stubble, and I guessed his age was close to fifty. He was uncomfortable, apologetic standing next to the pew.

“No sir, you’re mistaken,” I said.

“Ah, yes, American. My first thought,” he confirmed to himself.

I wondered why Americans were so easily identified wherever we went. I prided myself in disappearing within the thin cultural fabric of a country no matter where I found myself but obviously, I was still being schooled on exactly how to blend into the surroundings. These lessons were important for a humble government tourist like me. Be invisible or be dead. There was no in-between when one was finding people who did not want to be found, watching people who did not want to be watched, and learning from those who did not want to teach.

“Mass is beginning.” I tapped a finger to my lips.

Pushing me down the pew with his body, the Spaniard slid in beside me and crossed himself. We sat in silence, pretending to listen to the liturgy. I heard a heavy rattle in his breath above the priest’s Latin. He was a man who needed a cigarette. For some reason, that bothered me but his five-day stubble really irritated me, mostly because it took me forever to grow facial hair. Even then, my cheek would still be as barren as the top of an old pirate’s head and feel as smooth as a French prostitute’s thigh.

“I’m a poor student. I don’t have any money,” I whispered.

“I know what you are.” My eyes snapped in his direction but the Spaniard was intent on the sermon as the priest professed something in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Finally, he said, “Tell America that España will soon be free again.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know as well as me, young one. Do not make us send you home in a box.” He smiled. “We are no threat unless we’re threatened.” He crossed himself and rose to leave.

“Do you mean because Franco’s ill and he’ll die soon?”

“I thought you were smarter,” he sighed. The man stared down at me for a long time before turning away.

It wasn’t far from the truth when I said I had no idea what he was saying. Since arriving in Spain the week before, my entire focus was on tracking the man who recently held an embassy for ransom and I was so close I could smell his aftershave. But early this morning I was jerked off course and ended up in church sitting next to a misinformed lunatic. I needed time to figure out why I was now babysitting a prime minister.

Thank you Paul for sharing an excerpt from your story. I'm hooked and looking forward to reading this novel. You can discover more about Paul Hollis at the following links.


And here's where you can see the Book Trailer
Next week Brian Brennan of Calgary Alberta will be featured in the 4Q Interview. A very interesting man.