Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

An Author’s Wild Ride

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An Author’s Wild Ride

Six years ago, I began work on an unauthorized biography of Conrad Black. I didn't know I was destined to become a rodeo star. Writing Robber Baron in English (for ECW Press of Toronto) and Le baron Black in French (for Editions de l'Homme of Montreal) – both of which are coming out this fall – has turned me into something of a bronco rider.

Of course, at the end of 2001, Black was on top of the world. Rich, famous, influential, controversial, ferociously right-wing, his introduction into the British House of Lords struck me as weird – especially since it had come after two years of surrealistic legal wrangles with Jean Chretien and the federal government.

So when a Montreal publisher, Pierre Turgeon, asked if I would be interested in writing a biography, I proposed something about Black. He offered an attractive advance and we agreed to terms.

robber baron

There are many ways to write a biography. I wanted my book to be independent, rigorous and evidence-based. Given my experience doing documentaries for CBC and Radio-Canada (I have long worked in both languages), I wanted to be sure to interview and get to know the key people in the story, and base my narrative on the eye-witness accounts I could gather, with fairly long quotes that gave a flavour of personality. In the documentary style, it is important to state one’s point of view.

Moreover, with my nerdy science background, I felt all evidence should be rigorously evaluated. This would be no scissors-and-paste job, based on press clippings, other people's work or unverified gossip. I wanted to tell an honest story about Black, and to use his life and times to explore the nature of media power in the world today.

To my surprise, Black wrote back after a few months, offering me an initial meeting in Spring 2002 to discuss the idea of a biography. Naturally, he wanted some form of control, and just as naturally I was determined to steer clear of various traps and get interviews while maintaining the strictest editorial independence. In the end, I got my way.

Once I started working on the Black book – and this is where the bronco riding comes in – all hell broke loose. Following his meteoric rise and disastrous fall was like describing the trajectory of a bullet, or the crash of a jumbo jet. The story kept changing, as his American shareholders blasted him for hundreds of millions of dollars of questionable payments, and I had to scrap whatever I wrote and start all over again. As I built up a mass of evidence in the form of interviews and documentation, I heard about other biographies on the way, whose authors had better publishers, better editors and more financial resources.

How could I produce something definitive with a reasonably long shelf life about a moving target? How could I "figure out" Black, who seemed to toy with journalists and authors the way a lion would toy with his prey before devouring it? I felt the key lay in decoding his personality, rather than in limiting my account to all the financial shenanigans.

In 2003, there were growing signs that my publisher was about to go bankrupt. He tried to shuffle book titles between different companies. On each visit to his Montreal office, I noticed unpaid interns drawing up long lists of accounts payable, and trying to fend off irate creditors who yelled on the phone or hammered at the front door. Rather than acquire the rights to photographs, an assistant merely scanned them out of the newspaper – sometimes the fold in the newspaper actually showed in a reproduced picture.

Turgeon tried to reassure me by saying my book was destined to be a bestseller, in the million-copy range. Serialization in British papers would net a further $500,000, which we were supposed to share. However, I was very uncomfortable when he pressured me to give him Conrad Black's personal email address – his desire to develop some sort of venture with Black could create a conflict of interest. This was a direct threat to my independence.

"Are you aware that your publisher is facing 30+ lawsuits?" a reporter from Quill & Quire told me. "There is a very good chance your book will never be published." This was discouraging. Then one of the main creditors called me to a meeting and threatened to slap my book with an injunction, for reasons that had nothing to do with the book itself. This was simply catastrophic.

george tombs and conrad black

Attending lawyers' meetings and drafting legal documents, in order to clarify terms of my contract, took up more and more of my time in late 2003 and early 2004. I discovered meanwhile, reading the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir, that Turgeon was claiming my book on Conrad Black would do so well that it would rescue his company from insolvency. This put unbelievable pressure on me.

Of course, given the possibility of no sales of my biography – and no royalties – I continued working as a journalist. In early 2004, I went several times to Mauritania and northern Mali to do a three-hour radio documentary series for CBC (and another three hours for Radio-Canada) – I actually had to keep in touch with my lawyer from an Internet café in Timbuktu!

An additional challenge was that some very powerful people I had interviewed called me back to have their names taken out of the book. Peter C. Newman wrote in Here be Dragons that "George Tombs who had spent several years writing a Black biography and had talked with dozens of his associates, started to get midnight calls from his interviewees. They surreptitiously begged him to let them alter their testimony, now that Conrad was under water. It was typical of Canada's psyche that Black's downfall created ill-concealed joy."

Black meanwhile kept predicting ultimate triumph over his adversaries. Sometimes he seemed like the Black Knight in the Monty Python sketch, who loses both arms and legs then yells out: "Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!"

I managed to complete the manuscript by the summer of 2004. The book, Lord Black, came out in August 2004 under a new imprint, and was serialized in the National Post and many other CanWest papers. It was a relief to bring it out two months ahead of the competition. The book briefly got onto Maclean’s bestseller list, and I was told the first print run of 9,000 copies had completely sold out, so I was willing to spend three weeks at my expense doing author's interviews and then two more weeks researching and writing an updated edition. So far, so good.

If you ask people what is meant by the term "vanity press," they invariably say that some authors are vain enough to cover the costs of publication of their books. (I am not one of them.) Actually, after a few years of interactions with half a dozen publishers in Toronto and Montreal, I have come to the conclusion that the term "vanity press" applies to vainglorious Canadians with access to government grants, but utterly no business sense or ethics, who decide to call themselves "publishers," and then charm, cajole, manipulate and threaten authors into giving away their intellectual property.

By the end of 2004, it turned out I had been completely misinformed. Only half of the first print run had sold; the updated edition was never printed; in February 2005, my Montreal publisher folded; and I received no royalties on sales. By some quirk of fate, Black's career melted down at exactly the same time.

Now began a bizarre new chapter. When companies go bankrupt, receivers are appointed by a court to liquidate the company's assets and preserve them for the benefit of affected parties. I was an affected party, but I did not get invited to the creditors' meeting. Moreover, the receiver took the position that my book was the only asset left with any value and that my contract was still valid with the bankrupt company. He wrote me that if I managed to sell a new edition, the new publisher would have to pay the receiver $10,000 for each new country where the book was distributed, as well as 50 per cent of all author's royalties.

Two Montreal-based publishers contacted me in 2005 to acquire French-language rights to my book. I thought this was good news, but when I told them the receiver expected $10,000 for distribution in Canada, $10,000 for distribution in France, plus $10,000 for distribution in Belgium, both publishers balked. "This is an absurd condition – we want to pay you, the author, not some receiver to help clean up the mess Turgeon left behind!" The receiver’s demands actually blocked republication of my book.

george tombs and conrad black

Even so, as readers of Robber Baron and Le baron Black will discover, I kept in touch with Conrad Black during 2005 and 2006, on the off chance that somehow I would be able to resurrect a writing project that was now clearly dead.

With Black’s criminal trial due to start in Chicago in mid-March 2007, a British publisher started fishing in late 2006. Once I joined the Quebec Writers’ Union – l’Union nationale des ecrivains du Quebec – the union’s copyright lawyer met me in January 2007. He told me, in the clearest terms possible, that under Quebec law I had automatically got all my rights back in February 2005, once my initial publisher had gone bankrupt. This took a while to sink in, since it was so different from what I had been hearing for nearly two years.

"You don’t need anyone's permission, whether the receiver’s or anyone else's," the writers' union lawyer told me. "From the date of the bankruptcy onward, this book belongs to you 100 per cent. You are free to sign with whomever you like. Make sure you read the contract carefully, before signing. The problem with copyright in Canada is not the law – our laws are perfectly adequate. The problem is that our culture, whether in English or French Canada, does not respect the legal rights of authors."

Given this new situation, I wrote a few sharp letters, telling various parties to bug off. Then I began researching where to publish. Why not rethink the book from A to Z, making it into much more of a story, and bringing the biography out in both English and French?

I sent an email to Jack David at ECW Press. He had been thinking of bringing out something on the Conrad Black trial in Chicago, which was due to start in mid-March 2007, and he says my offer just came in "out of the blue." We quickly agreed to terms, which would include five trips to Chicago to cover the trial, and I set to work on a completely rewritten version of my book. Pierre Bourdon at Editions de l'Homme in Montreal offered me a contract to do the French version myself.

Readers will have to wait for the book, to find out what it was like to cover the trial, and occasionally speak to defendant Black. In one twenty-four-hour period in mid-March, I did twenty TV and radio hits live from Chicago, for CBC, CTV, Global, Bravo, BBC World, CNN International, PBS and Radio-Canada. TV networks had me running so hard, that I burned through a pair of shoes and had to go to Payless to pick up some bad-ass sneakers that would hold up to some wear and tear.

Black's guilty verdict on July 13th called for a new update of the manuscript, and I managed to complete the English version of Robber Baron and the French version of Le baron Black by the first week of September, blowing all my fuses in the process.

As a native Montrealer, I have always had an odd relationship with language. I see English and French as different but interchangeable. I live in my private utopia, where I switch from English to French and back again, 40 times a day. Much of my work as a journalist has been devoted to building bridges between communities and cultures, and yet I am a free spirit – I don’t really "belong" anywhere. As a dual Canadian/U.S. citizen, I am a Quebecker in Ontario, a Canadian in the United States and an American in Quebec.

Writing Robber Baron/Le baron Black has been a tremendously exciting experience. Switching back and forth between English and French since July 13th, to finalize a new edition in such demanding circumstances, has nearly thrown me for a loop. The deadlines have been tough and the environment fiercely competitive.

What an incredible ride this has been for an author.

george tombs

George Tombs, author of Robber Baron: Lord Black of Crossharbour, is an award-winning journalist, and has worked for TV, radio, newsmagazines, and newspapers, in both English and French. He has reported first-hand on disappearances, refugees, hostage-takings, terrorists, aboriginal societies, desert nomads, Nobel-winning scientists, inventors, and heads of state and government. He served as editorial-writer at the Montreal Gazette, has produced several documentary series for CBC and Radio-Canada, and has a PhD in history from McGill University. He is a visiting professor at Athabasca University. Tombs is a contributor to The Guardian about Conrad Black, and has spoken about Black on CNN, BBC, CBC, CTV, and Global News.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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