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"Never lose your sense of wonder"

That history doesn't have to be dull is a point made by Simon Winchester, featured guest author at the fifth annual North Words Writers Symposium, which was held in Skagway last week.

That history doesn’t have to be dull is a point made by Simon Winchester, featured guest author at the fifth annual North Words Writers Symposium, which was held in Skagway last week. Many of Winchester’s recent books have featured “eccentric obsessive geniuses.”

The symposium is a gem of an event, and I’m surprised that aside from myself and writer and columnist Dan Davidson, of Dawson City, there haven’t been more Yukon writers in attendance. The symposium consists of three days of panel discussions on subjects of interest to writers, writing workshops, readings and social events designed to make the participants’ time both productive and enjoyable. University credit is also available for taking in the symposium.

The event organizers invite a prominent writer with a national (or international) reputation to join the faculty, participate in the panel discussions and deliver the keynote address at the end of the event.

This year’s guest author and keynote speaker was English-American author Simon Winchester. Among his string of

best-selling non-fiction books is his latest release, The Men Who United the States, as well as The Professor and the Mad Man, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, and A Crack in the Edge of the World (about the San Francisco Earthquake).

The faculty otherwise consisted of a dozen talented Alaskan writers including Lael Morgan (The Good Time Girls), Heather Lende, author of the New York Times Bestseller, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name (about life in Haines), and Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, who have authored several books devoted to the Tlingit language and oral history. I was the sole Canadian on this year’s faculty.

The symposium began with a taco bar reception and an informative and exotic brothel tour at the Red Onion Saloon. The serious work commenced the following morning with a series of panel discussions, each comprised of a selection of faculty members. The faculty are also assigned to a book signing and consultation session. The latter allows participants a one-on-one meeting with the faculty member of their choice.

A public reading by the faculty members was offered at the U.S. Parks Service auditorium the first evening. I chose a selection from my most recent book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail. The readings were followed immediately by a “Night Owl Writer Workshop” with faculty members in the bistro at the Skagway Inn. This event, which proved to be very popular with the participants, was continued in additional “early bird” and “night owl” sessions during the three days of the symposium. In addition to the faculty, the participants were also invited to read from their own work - and most did, demonstrating their remarkable talent and diverse interests.

Dinner the first evening was “on your own” although in reality, everyone ate together. An open air dinner at the Alderworks Alaska Writers and Artists Retreat in Dyea was offered the second evening, complete with live music, food by an open fire, and a tour of the Alderworks facilities. Scheduled for the final afternoon was a short trip on the White Pass and Yukon Route followed by a campfire discussion, or, for the more activity oriented, a brisk hike up the Denver Glacier Trail to Elway Falls.

A banquet took place on the final evening in Poppies Restaurant at Jewell Gardens. The food was excellent, with vegan and vegetarian selections for those not content with steak and lobster.

After dinner, Simon Winchester began the keynote address by noting that to be a writer, you need some talent, a tremendous amount of persistence, dumb luck, and the kindness of strangers. He benefitted hugely from the latter and proceeded to tell the story of how he became a successful writer.

He had secured a degree in geology from Oxford University, but not of sufficient standing to be advanced to graduate school. His aspirations of a career in the Royal Navy were dashed when it was discovered that he is colour blind. A job as a geologist working for a Canadian mining company in Uganda failed to produce any discoveries of copper, although he enjoyed rock climbing on some of Africa’s tallest mountains.

There, by chance, he read a book written by James Morris, the English journalist who accompanied Edmund Hillary (later Sir Edmund Hillary) on his ascent of Mount Everest, and Winchester decided that he, too, wanted to be a writer. Morris was to become Winchester’s “kind stranger.”

“Quit your job immediately,” he was advised by Morris in a letter, “and get a job with a newspaper.” Winchester did that and eventually covered the civil unrest in Northern Ireland, and then later, the Watergate Affair in Washington D.C. His work took him all over the world, including several years spent in India and China. Over the years, he wrote a number of rather unsuccessful travel books, but eventually became interested in the remarkable story of the Oxford English Dictionary, and its most prolific contributor of words, an American surgeon named Dr. W.C. Minor, who was confined to a lunatic asylum for committing murder.

Published as The Surgeon of Crowthorne in Britain, it was to be released under the title The Professor and the Madman in the United States.

While waiting for its American release, Winchester was researching his next book by pulling a sled across Ellesmere Island in April, 1998. He received an urgent radio message to call his publicist in New York. Three days later, he reached a geological camp that had a satellite telephone. His agent advised him to fly to New York as soon as possible to have lunch with a literary reviewer for The New York Times.

This, he was told, was the gold standard for publicity in the publishing trade. A flight by Twin Otter got him to an airport where he could fly to Montreal and connect from there with New York. Three hours of lunch and conversation, and a photograph session, were followed by his return to Ellesmere Island.

Months later, he learned that the review, which was filled with praise, was to be published on the front page of the arts section of The New York Times. This was both good news and bad news.

Ordinarily nobody would read the Labor Day edition of the Times, but here was his bit of good luck: on Labour Day 1998, it pelted down rain from dawn till dusk. “There was nothing for people to do,” stated Winchester, “...but read The New York Times.” That evening, his book went to the top of the bestseller list, and it stayed there for 51 weeks. The book remained on The New York Times bestseller list for well over a year. At age 55, his flagging career took off like a rocket, and he has since produced a string of fascinating bestselling books of non-fiction.

“Never lose your sense of wonder,” he was advised by mentor James (now Jan) Morris, and he never has.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at