Curtis Gillespie (’85 BA) has many talents, but to put it simply, he is a storyteller.
His stories can be found on bookshelves and newsstands, in the form of five published books and over 100 articles on travel, sports, politics and the arts. He is also a guiding force behind other writer’s stories through his work as co-founder and editor of the much-celebrated Eighteen Bridges magazine.
But at a time when people regularly question the future of print and are increasingly accustomed to expressing themselves in 140 characters or less, there is nothing simple about telling stories — particularly the substantial, in-depth kind that Gillespie loves to write and that he and fellow editor Lynn Coady feature in Eighteen Bridges.
Meeting with Gillespie in the days leading up to the U of A’s annual Alumni Awards event, where he is receiving an Alumni Honour Award, he reflects on the both the challenges and inspirations that have shaped the career that earned him this honour.
To begin with, there is his connection to the university — the most obvious topic at hand as he thinks ahead to the awards ceremony on Thursday night. “I’ve always been proud of being a U of A grad, since it was here that I kind of figured out a few things about who I was and what I wanted to be,” he says. “It was an important time in my life.”
He speaks fondly of a handful of inspiring professors who would later become close friends — English professor Patricia Clements, for example, and the late history professor Phillip Lawson, whose influence was a factor in his decision to pursue graduate studies in history.
After leaving academia, Gillespie ended up working in social services for a number of years, but it was at the expense of pursuing a writing career — a decision he now admits was due to a fear of failure. “When something means so much to you, you almost don’t want to try because if you fail, you don’t even have the fantasy part of it anymore,” he explains.
But at the urging of his wife, he finally decided to make writing a serious focus, which led him back to the U of A in the early 90s. He enrolled in a graduate-level creative writing class taught by English professor and award-winning fiction author Greg Hollingshead, and it ended up being a turning point.
“Greg made me feel like a writer,” Gillespie says. “In fact, of the eight stories I wrote for his class, six ended up in my first book.”
The conversation turns to his more recent success with Eighteen Bridges, and Gillespie talks about how he and Coady first set out on their quest to keep long-form narrative journalism alive in Canada — and how their journey ultimately brought him back to the U of A yet again.
Fuelled by mutual despair over the recent announcement that Saturday Night magazine was folding, and the void this left on the Canadian literary landscape for writers and readers alike, the pair began to talk about ways to remedy the situation. A business plan and the grueling work of pounding the pavement for funding soon followed; they were eventually able to find a home for the magazine at the U of A, as part of the Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de littérature canadienne (CLC) in the Faculty of Arts, and to raise enough funds to publish their first issue in 2010.
The response from across the country was, and has continued to be, nothing short of phenomenal. Eighteen Bridges has attracted internationally-acclaimed writers like Richard Ford, while simultaneously helping to launch the careers of up-and-coming local writers like Omar Mouallem and Sophie Lees, and has garnered an impressive and lengthy list of National, Western and Alberta magazine awards for writing excellence.
While Gillespie freely admits that the business side of publishing a magazine is difficult, it’s clear that, for him, the editorial rewards make it worth the effort.
“When I finally get to sit down and work with a writer and help them realize their vision for what it is they want to say, that’s the most exciting part,” he says. “I almost enjoy the editing more than writing myself.”
“The awards are nice,” he adds, “but all they do is give us public feedback on a process I already knew was working. The articles were just as good the day before the awards.”
By giving life to these articles — which have covered topics as diverse as science, marriage, street art, food, sports, fiction and politics — Gillespie is widely viewed in the writing community to have achieved what CLC Director Marie Carrière calls “unique and essential work.”
“He has given international award winners, bestselling authors and talented emerging writers a place to tell their stories,” she says. “And he has given us, the reading public, a place to find and savour smart, fearless narrative journalism, and to think harder about the things that affect and change us as a society and individuals.
“He makes our lives richer.”