As an acclaimed novelist, Bill Gaston knows how to dream up an interesting origin for a character.
He might also know a little something about concocting his own backstory.
It all started about 20 years ago, when he was far less known for his work as a writer. He was asked to fill out a biography questionnaire for an obscure publication, possibly Canadian Who’s Who.
“I said I was born in Flin Flon,” recalls Gaston, a 60-something man with white hair and an inquisitive face, who was in fact born in Tacoma, Washington.
“It was spontaneous. Mostly I didn’t want to be seen as American, and Flin Flon was the best place I could think of.
“I’ve never felt American, I lived there only nine months before I escaped [when his father transferred to Vancouver], and I hate their politics, despite it
being a land full of marvellous people, not to mention all my relatives there.”
Gaston had never been to Flin Flon – still hasn’t – but was aware of the community.
“Mostly, I liked the name,” he recalls of his choice for a fictitious birthplace. “I grew up in Winnipeg, and was aware of it as an exotic place, way up there where the Northern Lights came from, and also where Bobby Clarke played. I didn’t like Bobby Clarke, but he was the toughest little guy around.
“I don’t know why, maybe from hearsay, but I had a sense that Flin Flon was a kind of wild place, full of very hard-working people who also liked to have a good time.”
After Gaston’s initial fib, other sources began referring to his faulty bio. Over time he became known as “the Flin Flon-born Gaston.”
“Now it’s the first thing on a website when I ego-surf and Google ‘Bill Gaston,’” says the Victoria, BC resident.
Flin Flon was again mentioned as Gaston’s birthplace when he was profiled in the Winnipeg Free Press last month.
That’s when The Reminder contacted him for an article about his career and Flin Flon roots. In an email, he opened up and agreed to share the real story.
Asked why he wanted to set the record straight, Gaston says, “Because it’s kind of embarrassing. And a lie is a lie, so it’ll be good to be free of it.”
Of course there’s much more to Gaston’s backstory than a birthplace fib. In addition to writing over a dozen books, mostly fiction, he has been a professor of writing at various universities, including his current post at the
University of Victoria.
He has won or been nominated for prestigious honours such as the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Relit Award and the Ethel Wilson Prize, among others.
The Globe and Mail once suggested Gaston “deserves to dwell in the company of [Timothy] Findley, [Margaret] Atwood and [Alice] Munro as one of this country’s outstanding literary treasures.”
Earlier in his life, Gaston was a logger, a group home worker and even played hockey in Europe. He is a father of four.
So is there anything else to add as we close out this article?
“Well,” Gaston says wryly, “I have an absurd fantasy of being adopted by Flin Flon, and then I [can] say I’m from there and not be lying anymore.”