25th Trillium Award

Writing in the Family: Max Layton and Barry Callaghan on Can. Lit. Childhood

Share |
Irving Layton, circa 1960 (photo credit: Sam Tata; www.irvinglayton.ca

By Erin Knight

A boy sits in the back seat of a car behind his parents, the hot summer sun beating through the glass. From the driver's seat, his dad tries out lines of poetry, tapping the rhythm on the steering wheel. The summer destination is forgotten by now, but the memory of those words floating from the front of the car remains. Is this the beginning of a writer's education? It was for poet and singer-songwriter Max Layton. "If I opened the back window a crack and listened," recalls Max, "I could hear what sounded like angels singing in the rushing wind."

A writer's apprenticeship begins early and lasts a lifetime. For some, such as Max Layton and Barry Callaghan, training literally began at their fathers' knees. Sons of iconic Canadian writers Irving Layton and Morley Callaghan, both had the benefit of childhoods steeped in creativity, as well as the added challenge of having to define themselves as writers on their own terms. The anxiety of influence must be all the more electric when your influence is the man who raised you.

Max Layton, for one, "tried desperately not to be a poet." For a while, it looked like he might have succeeded. The former owner of a bookstore and a publishing house, Max's first full-length collection of poetry, When the Rapture Comes, is forthcoming from Guernica Editions this fall.

Though his first book has been a long time coming, Max has been writing poetry his whole life. Once, in his early twenties, he chose his favourite poem and shared it with his father. The two had often discussed others' creative work (they shared an interest in film), but never their own. Irving Layton took his son's poem and rewrote it himself — not exactly what a writer is looking for when he asks for editorial advice. But Max took it in stride. "We spent hours in a restaurant going through cup after cup of coffee while he explained his changes line by line," he says. "I learned almost everything I know about the craft of poetry from that experience — it was the greatest gift he ever gave me." Max also learned something else that night. It was the last time he made the mistake of sharing his work-in-progress with Irving.

So how is a writer made? Is it a particular sequence of genes? Early exposure to the wonder of words and stories? There are enough famous Canadian writer pairs to suggest that growing up in a writing home certainly tilts the odds, whether you want to end up that way or not. Confesses Max, "I never wanted to be a writer — at least not the way I wanted to be a logger or a car mechanic or a decent, faithful lover. All those things require an act of will. They are things that one becomes. But being a writer was what I was — behind everything else, informing everything I did — even if I never wrote a line."

Similarly, Barry Callaghan (whose father, Morley Callaghan, is remembered for his Governor General's Award– winning fiction and also for punching out Ernest Hemingway in a boxing match) has writing in his blood. Known for his novels, short stories, poetry and journalism, Barry didn't have to make a conscious decision to turn his attention to the craft. "Many of my high school teachers and university professors said to me, 'What you write reads too easily.' I knew then and there that I was dealing with knuckleheads and that I was somehow a natural writer. Which is different from having a story to tell," adds Barry. The story still has to be hard-won, despite a young writer's pedigree.

Barry found himself searching — and finding — stories as early as age six or seven, though Morley had reason to be relieved when his son tired of telling them. "Our family would often go to visit for Sunday supper with my mother's maiden sisters," recalls Barry. "I would sit on a little stool in front of the consul radio and before my aunts made us all listen to Bishop Fulton Sheen on the radio, I would tell stories. These became known in my family as the "My Downtown Stories." At nine I gave up my downtown stories and became a baseball player pitching in Christie Pits. My father was happy to watch me play baseball rather than have to listen to Bishop Sheen."

There is a give-and-take in the father/son writing relationship. Surely Morley was grateful to have the opportunity to let his thoughts wander while he watched his son pitch balls in the park. Surely Irving learned something about writing himself after the night sharing coffee in the cafe over his son's rewritten poem.

Max and Barry continue to be inspired by their writer-fathers, even if it isn't always directly. Max organized the Irving Layton Centenary celebrations this March, an experience which left a deep impression on him. "Most things I’ve done in life have somehow involved my own ego, but organizing Dad’s nation-wide centenary was not one of them," says Max. "In a strange way, it had nothing to do with me. His were the words though mine was the voice. I was merely the instrument, like a guitar in the hands of Eric Clapton. And it was beautiful to see how many people my father still touched across the country. I felt I was obeying the Biblical injunction to honour my father. I felt I was repaying whatever debt I owed him. What I felt was pure, selfless, pride. What I felt was joy."

As for Barry, he finds he's been more influenced by Morley's attitude and stubbornness than by his father's writing. "His actual work has not influenced me. I wouldn't know how to achieve the effects on the page that he achieved. In fact, I don't write at all like the story tellers who have influenced me," says Barry. "Morley's refusal to be anything but the writer he believed he was influenced me, and the way he stood so firmly apart from the Presbyterian streak that ran and still runs down the back of [Toronto], his home city, cheered and still influences me."

Perhaps this refusal — to be anything other than the writer you are — is the most important lesson a writer can learn, no matter who his father is.

Born in Montreal in 1946, Max Layton now lives in Cheltenham, Ontario. He is a singer-songwriter and has worked at jobs ranging from a B.C. lumber camp to laying track in Saskatchewan, picking tobacco to apprentice car mechanic. Later, he owned a bookstore, managed a subsidiary of McClelland & Stewart and owned his own publishing house. When the Rapture Comes, forthcoming from Guernica in Fall 2012, is his first collection of poetry. To read more about Max's childhood and career, visit him at maxlayton.com.

Barry Callaghan founded the internationally celebrated literary quarterly, Exile, and imprint, Exile Editions, while he was a war correspondent in the Middle East and Africa in the 1970s. He is a novelist, poet and man of letters and his work has been much anthologized. His numerous awards include Toronto’s One Hundred Outstanding Citizens Award, the inaugural W. Mitchell Award and the Foundation For The Advancement of Canadian Letters Award for Fiction which he was honoured with twice. His most recent novel is Beside Still Waters (McArthur & Company, 2009). Find out more about the life and work of Barry Callaghan at barrycallaghan.com.


Erin Knight is Open Book: Ontario's Contributing Editor. Chaser, a collection of poems on tuberculosis and manic economy, has just been published with House of Anansi Press.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Advanced Search