Funny Mr. Ferguson

By Natalie Sit

Will Ferguson stole an idea from Preston Manning. It all began when Manning invited Ferguson out for lunch after a series of articles in the Ottawa Citizen which ridiculed Manning and Joe Clark. It should be noted Clark has not invited Ferguson out for lunch.

“Preston Manning invited me out and I got a free lunch from him,” says Ferguson. “So the lesson to young writers is to make fun of politicians because they’ll eventually buy you lunch.”

At the lunch, Manning suggested a potential chapter for the book How to Be a Canadian Ferguson was co-writing with his brother Ian.

“He gave us an idea and we never credited him with it,” explains Ferguson. “There might be a fistfight on stage. It depends how upset he is.”

Upset politicians aside, Ferguson has mocked, blamed and praised Canadians in his books. Satirical, funny and insightful, he deconstructs Canadian myths to discover what Canada is really about. Ferguson’s writings always begin with his assumption that Canada is a country worth looking at.

“If you can be mocked, you can be examined,” says Ferguson. “It’s sort of a validation of your country. There really is something to being Canadian if you can write books about it and point out the quirks and the foibles of a country. I think the humour starts with the assumption that Canada is something unique, is something weird and is something interesting.”

Ferguson is also intrigued by Canada’s mix of regions and languages. Canadians live near the United States yet Canadians have not transformed into Americans. Canadians have British traditions in our government and courts but Canadians haven’t become British. Canadians have a huge French influence yet Canadians are not French. It’s this sort of inconsistency that interests Ferguson.

“We’re such a regionalized eclectic place that naturally we have contradictions. A lot of humour comes out of contradictions. What we say and what we do don’t often match. Especially when you have a country that’s this eccentric but has convinced itself that it’s not eccentric.”

But Ferguson’s books are not filled with platitudes about Canadian history. Canadians have a belief that their history is relatively free from brutality experienced in other countries and Ferguson is quick to point out this is not so. Canadians, for example, do not recognize Native Canadians are Canada’s underclass.

“It’s a huge black mark in Canadian politics,” says Ferguson. “It’s our big thing we don’t like to talk about. They’re kind of our invisible caste; we think that if we ignore it and throw money at it, it’ll be fine. That’s not how it works. Whenever Canadians convince themselves this a warm fuzzy country I always like to remind them we’ve got this huge underclass that’s been created by generations of government policy.”

Ferguson took two years off between high school and university, participating in many volunteer programs at home and abroad. One program was Katimavik, a Canadian volunteer program that generated over two dollars for every dollar of investment, with two-thirds returning to communities. More importantly, it defined an entire generation. In 1985 it won the United Nations Environmental Program medal and in 1986 was promptly dismantled by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Ferguson enjoyed those two years off because it cleared his head for university.

“It’s really easy to stagger from high school to university and get swallowed up and to lose your bearings,” says Ferguson. “I would recommend after high school and definitely after university, to take some time to play with your life.”

Ferguson traveled to Japan to pay off his student loans by teaching English for a year. He ended up staying five years, and Japan appealed to him because it was so different from Canada. Canada is multi-ethnic while Japan is very homogenous. Canada is wide open and thinly populated while Japan is congested. He recommends people experience this while they are still young. Ferguson says the first 30 years are just there to play with.

“After you hit 30 it’s harder and harder to get the enthusiasm. I couldn’t stay in a youth hostel now, you couldn’t pay me enough money. There was time in my life when I lived in youth hostels and I backpacked. Do that now when you have the energy for it. I don’t have the patience now to grab a backpack and jump on a train and get in a youth hostel. I want a hotel with a coffee and a newspaper in the morning.”

When Ferguson returned from Japan, he worked in PEI for a tour company and wrote newspaper columns on the side. He began to write longer and longer pieces the newspaper wouldn’t publish. Eventually the editor said they were more appropriate for a book. Except Ferguson didn’t have a title for his works, so his brother (at three in the morning and after many a beer) said it should be I Hate Canada.

“I said ‘I don’t hate Canada.’ As a joke, my brother said–and remember his name isn’t on the damn book so it’s easy for him–you should write Why I Hate Canadians. I laughed and I said that’s pretty funny. We put it on. But of course my brother’s name isn’t associated with it.”

The reason Ferguson is slightly bitter was the flak he received from people who thought it was an anti-Canadian book. Of course those people never read the book.

“I always said there’s some people who would say ‘Well, I hate Will Ferguson. I hate you so blah blah blah.’ You’re always going to get that; people who don’t get irony or humour. It’s like calling a book Why I Hate Bambi’s Mother. I see it as over-the-top and obviously tongue-in-cheek. But a lot of people didn’t.”

The book deconstructed Canadian myths like our national animal, the beaver, what Ferguson called a “30-kilogram, bucktoothed rodent whose most heroic trait is that he thinks to slap his tail to warn his buddies before he runs away.”

Why I Hate Canadians led to Bastard and Boneheads, a book that classified major Canadian leaders simply as bastards or boneheads.

“Why I Hate Canadians was explaining who we aren’t. Bastards and Boneheads was explaining who we are. Canadian History for Dummies is like a reference book for the two books, so the three of them to me are connected. How to Be a Canadian is a coda on the whole enterprise. It’s just a fun rift.”

And it appears Ferguson is ready to move past Canadian history and politics and into fiction and travel writing. He’s started with a column in Maclean’s and HappinessTM, his first foray into fiction. Ferguson is ready for specific places in Canada.

“I’m really enjoying my column; I’m really hitting my stride. That’s what I really want to do. To be a good political writer you have to care about politics and I really don’t. I don’t care about Stephen Harper and what he’s up to. I think Paul Martin is a weasel but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

While his non-fiction titles have done very well, it took some time for HappinessTM to become a success. It took a title change and some prodding on Ferguson’s part.

When Ferguson’s book debuted in Canada, the title was Generica–however, when the UK rights were sold, the UK publisher wanted to change the title. The concern was that people would confuse Generica with Picasso’s painting “Guernica”–a problem Ferguson was sure couldn’t happen in Canada. So Generica became HappinessTM.

The book has done well overseas but perhaps wasn’t doing as well in Canada as Ferguson had hoped. Comparatively, his non-fiction books sell around 40,000 copies. A Canadian novel does well if it sells 5,000 copies and HappinessTM sold 6,000 copies but Ferguson kept pushing his publishers.

“I kept teasing them. What; Canadians don’t like satire? Why, why? Why is this book not selling and my publisher came out with a big push.”

Penguin Canada did a new print run of HappinessTM which will bring the total to about 40,000 books–a number Ferguson likes to point

out is more than fellow Canadian writer Russell Smith’s books combined.

To top off HappinessTM’s success, Ferguson was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour for HappinessTM and How to Be a Canadian, a book he co-wrote with his brother Ian. While he hoped he would win with his brother, HappinessTM won the medal and it was still an important achievement for Ferguson.

“To me, it was important because it demonstrated that Canadians do like satire. It’s not like Canadians are weird and everybody else likes it but Canadians. The Leacock to me was an important validation just to show this humour works. Obviously, they won’t give it to you if they think it sucks.”

Ferguson’s next project is a travel book with the very exciting working title of Travels in Canada. While it may bear a superficial similarity to his Maclean’s columns, he has expanded it to a full travel book. He spent the summer travelling and is sorting out his notes. But after five years of working to build up a career and a profile, Ferguson appears ready to take a break.

“I worked really hard for a career but also to get on the radar screen so people know who I am. It took a good five years before I did. That’s one of the reasons why I’m invited to Wordfest and the Vancouver festival after that. I wanted to buy a house to be quite frank. So we got a house now so I can relax a bit and slow down.”

Selected works from Will Ferguson:

"The book is meant to be light and funny and I think the Generica cover was much too dark. I think Generica’s cover is more accurate about the content, it’s a man being attacked by manuscripts. But the HappinessTM cover is more accurate about the tone."

– Will Ferguson

Sample quote: "Whether it be Native, French or Loyalist, Canada is a nation built on survival. And survival in the face of over-whelming odds is more than mere subsistence, it is an act of defiance. It needs no apology. It says to the world, ‘Fuck you! We made it anyway.’ A cause for celebration, a triumph in its own right, survival is a form of victory."

Sample quote: It is hard to hate a Bonehead. It is equally as hard to love a Bastard. (Though a few have been charming in their very Bastardness.) Boneheads join self-help groups and pyramid schemes. Bastards sell them on the idea. Boneheads are great huggers but lousy lays. Bastards could seduce a statue.

"I was at the opening [of a bookstore]. Margaret Atwood was the guest of honour. I met her and introduced myself. She heard of Why I Hate Canadians and Bastards and Boneheads. And she said to me, you know what your next book should be? A guide book to Canadians. A book explaining the Canadian mating rituals, diet and hobbies. It stuck in my head. I mentioned it to my publisher and they’re like wow, yeah cause it’s Margaret Atwood. If it’s Margaret Atwood it must be a good idea.”

Wordfest began Wed., Oct. 16 and finishes Sun., Oct. 20. You can catch Will Ferguson at the Uptown Screen with Preston Manning and University of Calgary professor Aritha van Herk on Sat., Oct. 19 at 1 p.m.

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