Last month we asked our Notable Neighbour Don Mabie to nominate the next person to be interviewed. He chose Rod McGillis…
In the children’s section at Meritxell Used Books on Broadway, there’s a beat-up copy of Classics of Children’s Literature. One of the stories in the phone-book-thick anthology is a Victorian-era fantasy called “The Light Princess” by George McDonald.
Mostly-forgotten today, McDonald was a big deal in the second half of the 19th century, mentor of Lewis Carroll, friend of Mark Twain and other luminaries. His stories evoke long-lost worlds, epic and mythic, with occasional doses of Victorian moral lessons. Think Tolkien meets Charles Dickens meets the Brothers Grimm.
For one resident of Nakusp, however, McDonald was the key to a long and successful academic career.
It’s hard to overstate Rod McGillis’ academic accomplishments. Retired professor of English Literature at U of Calgary; visiting professor to universities around the world, from Puerto Rico to Queensland; editor of 22 literary journals and contributor to dozens of academic publications on poetry, romantic literature, fantasy, and children’s literature. He has spoken at international panels and been nominated for a dozen prestigious awards for his contributions to studies of the genre. He’s written four books, overseen the creation of 10 others, and has six more in the hopper. His works have been translated into five languages.
And that’s just pulling random things from his resume. His entire c.v. runs 41 pages long.
In the face of such excellence, it’s comforting to know McGillis started off a lousy student, and lousy employee.
“I have always run into difficulties with authority where ever I have been,” says McGillis, who grew up in Smith Falls, a town southwest of Ottawa. His conflict with authority came at an early age.
“My father was an ugly person, I didn’t see him for 30 years,” he says. “I didn’t go to his funeral.”
McGillis made his way to Toronto after high school, attending U of T. While he says the experience was “life changing”, he says at best he was a middling student.
“Much of my education was on streets,” he admits. “I hung out as much on Yonge and Dundas Streets at 2 a.m. as in class.”
But one thing he was thankful for was being taught by Northrop Frye, a giant of Canada’s intelligentsia in the 20th century. Graduating from the honours program (“how I got in, I don’t know”) 35th in a class of 70, McGillis tried teaching for a year. That didn’t work so well, so he tried to get into graduate school in Toronto.
“I could never pass the system here,” he recalled. “I couldn’t pass the exams- I failed my MA comprehensive twice.”
But the requirements in England, he heard, were different. Pitching his interests in studying literature, faculty at the University of Reading said they would accept him — if he would write his PhD on George McDonald.
“I didn’t know anything about George McDonald, nothing,” he recalls of the application process. “But I wanted to go back to school, and I wanted to go to England, so you fall into it.”
Just two job offers came at the end of his studies- one in Baghdad, one in Calgary. In what was likely a good call, McGillis chose the latter, and he was on his academic way.
Though much of McGillis’ work seems pretty arcane to the layman (“Textual Aporias: Exploring the perplexities of form and absence in Australian verse novels” and “Mind and body: a sort of teratology” are among his works) he is by no means unapproachable. You can chat with him about Alan Moore, the author of Swamp Thing and Watchmen, or Roy Rogers and John Wayne (he has 106 Wayne movies in his vast video collection). He’s seen most of the Marvel and DC comic book movies. He’s also read the Goosebumps series (not a fan) and Captain Underpants (big fan).
You don’t get the sense that McGillis sees popular works any less valuable than the ‘high’ literature he’s studied. Or that his word is to be revered because of his position.
“I used to tell my students, talking about authority- it means in context of what I do, becoming comfortable with a subject area, let’s say cowboy movies, so you can share that. Not that you use it to command. It is a communal thing, authority, it brings you into a community. That’s what I’ve always thought.”
72 years old now, with his small mountain of books, papers, achievements, grants and awards behind him, much of the pressure to be an “authority” is gone.
“I don’t have to worry about it too much now,” he says. “It’s a non-issue.”
And ultimately, he achieved his true goal.
“When I was a young person I was very clear-sighted,” he says. “During my teen years I hung around with a cousin, Dave. The two of us decided we wanted a life where we didn’t have to wear suits, or live 9-5. What we used to call the rat race.
“I thought there were only two ways of doing this. One was the way Dave eventually did: go into the bush, near Golden, living off the grid.”
But McGillis says he knew that wouldn’t work for him.
“I’d be dead in six weeks. I have no skills whatsoever. None, except maybe writing.”
So he chose academia.
“There was no dress code. I dressed in jeans and a sweat shirt by whole career. Mondays I didn’t go to the office, I worked at home. Didn’t drive in rush hour. None of that stuff.”
McGillis says he spoke to his cousin years later.
“He pointed out his life has its stresses. He has to worry about weasels in his chicken coop, how to pay for this or that.”
“But in my case, there are few stresses.”
But why did he choose to live in Nakusp?
He and his wife, Frances Batycki, have lived here on and off since retiring in 2011. They fell in love with the local landscape on trips in the 1990s, and owned property by Arrow Park before moving into the village. McGillis says he loves to ride his bike around town, and holding movie nights with a circle of close friends.
We step out onto his balcony. Set on a hill, the building’s elevation puts you eye-level to the tree tops, with a view of Saddleback Mountain across the lake.
“What more do you need?” he asks, looking around.
After a lifetime of achievement, ultimately, not much.