What makes a great reader? It’s not the same ingredients that make a great writer. Someone can have the most interesting story and fashion it intelligently and lyrically. But that doesn’t mean that they will capture you as they stand on the stage reading their text. No, it takes a very special person--one who understands, among other things, timing and tone, intonation and dramatic pauses. In other words, someone who understands the stage.
So it was with a lot of anticipation that I looked forward to hosting a reading by William Whitehead. He had just written a book called Words to Live By about his life in the arts, his love of science, and his long relationship with Timothy Findley. I knew that anyone who came to the reading was in for a memorable evening. As young booksellers, my partner Doug and I had been invited to spend a weekend with Tiff and Bill at their farm east of Toronto. It was a weekend that I will never forget because we were regaled with wonderful stories about everything from Stratford, to the CBC, to their friend Margaret Laurence. Both Tiff and Bill were thinkers without boundaries and so the conversation rolled around from science to politics to art. Not only were they thinkers without boundaries, but their command of the language was so great that their thoughts came out fully formed, in paragraphs. I have rarely experienced anything like it since.
This was how I knew that the audience that came out to hear Bill that evening would find it unforgettable. On stage, Bill never read from his book but had a few notes on a piece of paper which he basically never looked at. He just let things flow...just like he did the evening that we spent with him many years ago. One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that both he and Tiff were young actors and loved the whole world of live theatre, so he knew how to trap you into listening and enjoying. The audience was enthralled, laughing one moment and listening carefully the next. They really were not just words to live by but words to listen to.
At the end of his talk (I hesitate to call it a reading), I asked him a few questions. He is such an open and sweet person that I felt at ease asking him something very personal. He had slipped one sentence into his book that quite surprised me. I’m sure that he did it for dramatic effect. The sentence described how he and Tiff only had sex very briefly but lived most of their lives together. When I told him how much I admired their tenacity and asked him how they managed, he was totally unflustered and basically said that they loved the same things and just figured out how to make their relationship work. A very unusual and refreshing approach to life. Not only did Bill have an interesting story to tell, but he told it well and with verve! Everyone felt lucky that night to be part of his conversation.