Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prolific writer chronicles big trouble in little city

Mark Leiren-Young photographed by Don Denton

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 26, 2008


Mark Leiren-Young finds trouble. Or, rather, trouble finds him.

He writes a radio play exploring racial attitudes and is accused of racism.

He writes a stage play about Shakespeare and censorship and anti-Semitism and not everyone gets the point.

He writes political satires and we all know how satire is a universal language of respect and understanding.

So, you might be forgiven for thinking he has adopted as his first name the adjective controversial, as in “controversial playwright,” or “controversial political satirist.”

Mr. Leiren-Young is a one-time reporter, so he knows controversial is newspaper code word for “this is a nuanced and complicated issue about which I will not pass judgement and besides that single word does a lot of work on my behalf and might even get this story on the front page.”

He did not spend too long in the low-paying ghetto of community newspapering before finding less lucrative work pounding out plays and scripts. Happily, he also has many gigs writing for television, which he composes on his preferred midnight-to-dawn shift.

He has just published his first book, which is to be launched tonight at Biz Books in Vancouver.

The book is titled, "Never Shoot a Stampede Queen.” It is subtitled, “A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo.” It is published by Heritage House in paperback and costs $19.95.

It is going to be controversial.

The book should have been titled, “Never Shoot a Smart-aleck Writer.”

Mr. Leiren-Young — and after this let’s dispense with the double-barreled surname and go with the Hyphen moniker with which he was tagged at his student newspaper — is fair, honest and accurate in describing the good citizenry of the Cariboo. Which is to say it might not be such a good idea to stand behind him should he ever again visit Williams Lake, as the city comes across as the Wild West mixed with Capone-era Chicago with a soupcon of Jim Crow Deep South segregation and an unsavory dash of perversion.

And that’s just in the first chapter.

Hyphen is not without sympathy for the Cariboo. He knows he is the fish-out-of-water. “Apparently I had the only car in town,” he writes. “Everyone else had a pickup.” He is surprised to find that the annual stampede not only has a dress code calling for Western wear but that such an edict is enforced. The long-haired, theatre-loving, big-city environmentalist is shocked to discover Ducks Unlimited is a hunter’s group.

Soon after graduating from the University of Victoria with a bachelor of fine arts in theatre and creative writing — “recognized in better restaurants worldwide as a waiter’s degree” — Hyphen is lured by penury into entertaining a job offer from the Williams Lake Tribune. He accepts. Then, he looks on a map to find the city.

He arrives in town after midnight, stopping at a combination gas bar and convenience store, the only business still open at the hour. Three police cruisers are parked out front and he figures this is the local hangout. Instead, he learns the joint has suffered yet another armed robbery. The young female clerk pronounces Williams Lake to be the crime capital of the province.

He quotes her in his debut story. She says she did not give him permission (though she helpfully spells her name). The police are unhappy that he has not waited for their press release.

In short order, the new arrival has the city in an uproar.

“The cops wanted to shoot me, my bosses thought I was a Bolshevik, and a local lawyer warned me that some people I was writing about might try to test the strength of my skull with a steel pipe. What more could any young reporter hope for from his real job?”

What more? Among the stories he covered — a train derailment involving a load of toxic chemicals; three deaths from a ranch shoot-out involving a mad trapper; incensed relatives of beauty-pageant contestants (hence the book title); a manslaughter trial following a knifing death of a liquor store panhandler; the mysterious crash of a Piper Navajo, the pilot disappearing into thin air like D.B. Cooper; a female defendant in an assault case offering as her defence the statement, “The bitch deserved it” (“It felt less like a criminal trial,” Hyphen writes, “than an episode of Jerry Springer with Canadian accents”); another trial continuing even though the accused brings with him a homemade pipe bomb, which the judge, known for wearing cowboy boots beneath his silks (itx)orders be kept in the courtroom(enditx); and, a union drive in his own newsroom for which he received threats.

After 10 months, Hyphen pulled the plug.

These days, he wears his hair even longer, as it cascades well past his shoulders. With his beard, he looks like Ian McKellen as Gandalf were Gandalf not so white-haired. He remains boyish and enthusiastic, even when the intent of his work is misconstrued, as happened with the play “Shylock” and CBC Radio’s “Dim Sum Diaries.”

He is prolific, too. Not only does he perform a satirical cabaret as one-half of the comedy troupe Local Anxiety, but he has also recently wrote, produced and directed “The Green Chain,” his first feature film, about the debate over the forests (“Nothing is Ever Clear Cut”). At the end of each month, he takes a skewed look at current events for the Vancouver-based webzine TheTyee.

His old newspaper has yet to review the memoir. (Kamloops This Week called it “221 pages of rip-roarin’ Cariboo craziness that you simply won’t be able to put down.”)

Surely, though, Hyphen has taken comedic license to exaggerate life in Williams Lake (Official city motto: Moving Forward).

So, I moseyed over to the Tribune’s Website to check out the big news of the week.

The headline on the most-read story: Clerks threatened with bear spray in robbery.

The female clerks at the Handi-Mart convenience store on McKinnon Road described the perps as three young males in hoodies. They wore black bandannas over their faces. They demanded cash and cigarettes.

They fled on foot. Likely because they were too young to drive.

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