Will Anybody Care? by Mark Sampson


I’m not very good on the archival side of things. I throw away my manuscripts. You’ve got to understand, I can’t take all that stuff. I hate that instant memorializing—your used beer mats and used typewriter ribbons and tax returns—little shrines erected in some university library around the handkerchief in which Graham Greene blew his nose in 1957. One can have too much of that. That’s “Eng. Lit” carried to the point of absurdity.
—J.G. Ballard, Re/Search anthology, 1982.

The first page of the manuscript for J G Ballard’s Crash.

As far as anyone knows, British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard never wrote on a word processor. The author of the cult classics High-Rise and Empire of the Sun preferred instead to hack out his novels and short stories either longhand or using a typewriter. And while the above quote might send a chill down the spine of any future Ballard scholar, fans of the man’s work now know that it was a bald-faced lie. Throughout his career, Ballard kept an extensive archive of his manuscripts and other literary ephemera—a photo of the messily revised first page of his breakout novel, Crash, pops up regularly on writers’ social media feeds as the very paragon of a work in progress—and, following his death in 2009, the Ballard family donated these materials to the British Library in an “Acceptance in Lieu” scheme to settle the man’s unpaid tax bill, which totalled some £350,000. Had Ballard made the switch to a word processor in the 1980s, when personal computers first came into mainstream use, there is no doubt that much of that archive would be in a different form. Indeed, had he written Crash on a word processor, that iconic image of the manuscript’s first page likely wouldn’t exist.

Digital technology is changing the very face of archival materials, as there emerges a new generation of authors who’ve never known what it’s like to pound out a book on a typewriter or scribble one out longhand. I certainly fall into this category. I have always written on a computer, from the earliest days when, as a fifteen-year-old in 1990, I decided that my destiny was to become a prolific author of commercially successful genre fiction. Throughout my high school years in Charlottetown and undergraduate years in Halifax, I proceeded to churn several novel-length manuscripts (I hesitate to label them “novels,” as they were all, without exception, unreadable garbage) that included: an unfinished romance trilogy; a sci-fi/thriller hybrid set in a fictitious American town; a horror novel about a haunted tourist village on PEI; a hockey novel set in the year 2088; and a 500-page Tolkienesque fantasy epic, loosely based on Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, about a prince who sells himself into slavery to rescue the girl he loves. All of them were written on a computer.

My first tool of trade was a boxy, black early-model laptop computer on loan from my father’s government job. After witnessing my steadfast commitment to write for at least two hours every day, my parents supported my newfound ambition by purchasing, as my main Christmas gift in 1991, a used desktop computer that, even then, would have been several years old. The machine was a massive, pus-yellow hulk with a toothy, dust-grey keyboard and a monochrome screen. It ran MS-DOS that had to be loaded via eight-inch floppy disks, and was attached to a grinding, capricious dot-matrix printer. Following each writing session, I would cover it in an opaque plastic shroud that fit over the machine like a condom to protect it from dust, which, I had learned from the computer-geek rumour mill, could prove disastrous to a computer’s mysterious inner workings. The name of the word-processing program that came standard with both my father’s work laptop and this new machine eludes my memory, but it did require elaborate hot-keying to create effects like italics and boldface. The process for double-spacing text remained forever beyond the grasp of my teenage brain, thus hamstringing my ability to submit to publishers.

Despite my early adoption of this new-fangled and revolutionary technology, two paradoxical things happened at once: I became enamoured of the look and tactile feel of the physical object that was a printed-out novel manuscript, and I also grew suspicious of the seemingly unstable, untrustworthy digital code from whence these printouts originated. Even with this fear, I confess to developing some pretty poor backing-up habits right from the start. While I did occasionally save my work to floppy disks, my main back up was to print off each completed chapter of a novel. I had read in a writing manual somewhere (no doubt published before the invention of the personal computer) that authors should re-type their manuscripts from scratch at least once during the revision process—a habit I maintain to this day—and so I wasn’t too fussed if I had to re-enter text in the event of a computer crash. (This lackadaisical attitude soon bit me in ass. In 1992, my father invited me to take the laptop and join him at his rustic, remote fishing cabin overlooking a lake in the backwoods of PEI. The idea was that I would write in the cabin while he fished out on the water, and this would qualify as father-son time. But while he was gone, the laptop’s battery borked and I lost approximately eighty pages of the second volume in my romance trilogy. After rebooting the machine and discovering that the work was irretrievable, I seriously considered drowning my seventeen-year-old self in the very lake that my father insisted I’d find so inspiring.) Yes, I pretty much treated the word processor as if it were a typewriter, marking up pages with a Ballardian fervour and preserving each slightly-less-atrocious draft of each atrocious book.

Another confession: I still have these printouts today, every last one of them. I have kept them, not because I think they will one day settle an unpaid tax bill, but rather out of a sense of personal posterity. Posterity, I’ve learned, is a powerful force in my packrat mentality. I have kept much ephemera over my now twenty-five-year writing journey. During my undergraduate years studying journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, I wrote regularly for several j-school publications as well as the campus newspaper, The Watch. I have preserved many of these. I have an entire shopping bag full of handwritten correspondence—indeed, if you sent me a letter after about 1993, or even wrote more than three sentences to me in a birthday card, chances are I still have it. I worked as a magazine staff writer for three years after graduation, and have kept all my bylines. By the late 1990s, I realized my fate did not lie in genre writing, and I made the long-overdue transition to so-called “literary fiction” (a term I have a major issue with, but that’s a whole other essay). I did a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Manitoba. By 2002, I had published my first professional short story. By 2007, I had published my first novel. Other works soon followed—their materials all finding their place in my swelling archive.

Today, I am five published books down the line, but all are with small presses offering three-figure advances and thus have a crapshoot chance of connecting with even a modest-sized audience. Still, in 2013, after putting the final touches on a short-story collection but before beginning a new novel, I decided to take a break and organize all these materials. I broke my archive up into various epochs of my life and moved each pile into a bankers box, which I then assiduously labelled with the names of works and dates of composition. The archive is by no means complete. Future scholars of Mark Sampson Juvenilia will note that there is no copy of a four-and-a-half-star review of a 1993 Michael Bolton album that I published in The Watch; nor is there a typescript of the theatrical adaptation I wrote of the opening chapter of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, produced by the King’s Theatre Society in 1994. There are misspent youths, and then there is my misspent youth. But I know that, should I ever actually amount to anything in the writing world, this growing pile of bankers boxes may one day be worth, well … something?

From left: the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s FRED with Jess Whyte, Natalya Rattan, and Grant Hurley.

If you want to see where the plug meets the socket of literary immortality, you could do a lot worse than visit the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. This large, brutalist building, located near the centre of campus, is where many prominent Canadian writers deposit their authorly materials—or “fonds” as they’re referred to in the archivist’s lingo. For many centuries, author fonds have been almost entirely paper-based: reams of manuscript pages, copies of books and periodicals, handwritten correspondence and diaries, publishing contracts and royalty statements, and so forth. The personal computer having complicated the creation, gathering, and curation of such objects, archivists the world over are developing principles to preserve and provide scholarly access to materials that have only ever existed in a digital form. Thomas Fisher is at the forefront of this struggle, grappling with the various challenges that come with archiving in our digital age.

I have been fortunate enough to get an inside track on how this struggle is going. Grant Hurley is a former day-job coworker of mine who has since taken up a position specializing in digital preservation at Scholars Portal, a unit of the University of Toronto Libraries. A natural-born librarian, Grant talks about digital archiving the way most Canadians talk about hockey. He happily leads me down into the belly of Thomas Fisher, where his colleagues are hard at work capturing and cataloguing recent acquisitions. To visit this space, I must first surrender my trusty Uni-ball Vision Blue pen and my Indiana Jones-style man-purse. Such objects are not allowed anywhere near archival materials. I can take notes, but I must use the pencil provided to me by the receptionist. The room that Grant takes me to more closely resembles a low-level HelpDesk department than ground zero of CanLit immortality, but it doesn’t take me long to realize something magical is happening in this space. Grant and I sit down to have a chat with two of his colleagues: archivist Natalya Rattan and digital preservation intern Jess Whyte.

On the day of my visit, they happen to be working through materials donated by author Lawrence Hill pertaining to his debut novel, Some Great Thing (Turnstone Press, 1992). The sight of these materials floods me with nostalgia: they consist of a small box packed with 3½-inch floppy disks from the 1990s, exactly like the ones I had used to back up my own writing in those days (when I bothered to do so). I can see that Hill has meticulously written down the contents of each disk on the lined label on the front, marking the various drafts of his novel while it was still a work in progress. Jess’ job is to extract these documents from the disk (what she and Grant call “old media”) and copy them into a more permanent and presentation-friendly form. She has a variety of devices scattered around her work desk that allow her to do this: programs that can create a uniform look for documents in MS Word, WordPerfect, WordStar, and even older word-processing programs; machines that will read 3½-, 5¼-, and 8-inch floppy disks. One is a FRED, or Forensic Recovery Evidence Device, a large black machine resembling a droid from Star Wars. Used mostly in police investigations and forensic accounting, a FRED can read and extract data off any hard drive out of any personal computer.

Digital archivists use these technologies to recreate an author’s entire computer desktop from years or even decades gone by (complete with its arrangement of files, folders, and cutesy background photo of the family cat), lending Ballard’s snarky quote above a twenty-first-century perspective. Indeed, you could say that this is where the fonds jumps the shark. But Grant, Jess, and Natalya all tell me that there’s more than enough scholarly interest to warrant this level of effort. Information coming off old disks and hard drives can also be run through software called Archivematica, an open-source digital preservation system that renders electronic materials into a more permanent form that’s then made available to scholars and historians through various electronic portals. Grant and the gang assure me that Thomas Fisher is continuously acquiring fonds from Canadian authors of note and making sure they’re available to any scholars—current or future—who might have interest in them.

What trips me up is the phrase “Canadian authors of note,” as I’m not yet one myself. How does an institution like Thomas Fisher decide that a writer’s materials—both print and digital—are worth preserving in the first place? For a writer of Lawrence Hill’s stature, it’s a no brainer. I’m also not surprised to find out that there are scholars working every single day in Thomas Fisher on materials acquired from Margaret Atwood. But what about the rest of us? Sure, I’m an obscure, C-list small-press author today, but who knows how the next century or two will judge me? And what sort of value can we attach to an author’s materials anyway? Thomas Fisher doesn’t give out cold hard cash; authors receive, at best, a tax credit for their archives. But how does one decide what that archive is worth?

These are tricky questions for Grant and his colleagues to answer, and they suggest I ask one of the people who does author-material valuations for Thomas Fisher. So I go talk to Robert Wright of Robert Wright Books in Tamworth, Ontario. Robert has been doing these sorts of appraisals for twenty-five years. In addition to Thomas Fisher, he works with York University, Queens University, and other institutions. To my ear, it sounds like a fun gig: Robert has gotten to the point where he can, for example, recognize Leonard Cohen’s handwriting on sight. His day job as an antiquarian-book seller lends him a unique perspective and set of skills for deciding what an author’s archive is worth. So I put the question to him: What are some of the guiding principles around these sorts of valuations?

“It’s about the value of the writer in the literary marketplace at the time that the archive was acquired, for sure,” he says, “but it’s also about the perceived research value of that archive.” Robert tells me tales of materials grossly underpriced at acquisition: the writer probably thought the tax credit he or she received was a handsome sum at the time, but it ended up being worth nothing, or next to nothing, compared to the research and monetary value of that archive in the years or decades since.

I interpret this thusly: Yes, you need to have some level of reputation as a writer—maybe win a national award nod or two, or spend time on the bestseller list, or become an officer of the Order of Canada—but ultimately the value of your archive is based on how thoroughly and meticulously you’ve maintained it. Some authors, Robert tells me, are better at this than others. We go back to the topic of Cohen. “[He] was an example of someone who saved a lot of things,” he says. “Manuscripts, correspondence from his time in Greece, interesting things from Cuba. He referred to his archive as ‘the mountain.’”

Clearly, Cohen began amassing these materials before he knew he’d be a big wheel down at the CanLit cracker factory. But how are the rest of you doing? If you’re reading this you’re likely an author yourself. So let me ask you: Are you saving drafts of all your manuscripts? Are you keeping old emails? Are you printing off proofs of your books or PDF versions of your royalty statements? How is your “mountain” coming along?

These questions fill me with a not-untraceable sense of unease, as I know the answers diverge wildly among my fellow scribblers, especially those of my generation or younger. Despite the maxim, “Everything is forever once it’s on online,” the digital age has imbued many of us with a paradoxical sense of impermanence. Issues around missing, corrupted, or altered computer files have been around for as long as authors have been using word processors. One of the first major popular writers to embrace the technology was novelist Stephen King, who purchased a Wang 5 Model 3 Word Processor in 1982 for $11,500 (about $29,000 in today’s money). The bad news for King scholars is that the old machine, on which he had written several of his classic horror novels, went to California in the late 1990s for data retrieval and never returned. The tale, recounted in a 2011 Associated Press article called “Searching for Stephen King’s Wang,” talks about a University of Maryland English professor, Matthew Kirschenbaum, who has acquired dozens of old word processors for a book he was writing on the subject.

Stephen King on his 1982 Wang computer

But the mere procurement of computers, hard drives, and “old media” files ignores the larger issue. Having access to these items won’t necessarily tell you how a manuscript was written. As mentioned above, I will retype every book I write at least once into a fresh Word doc, and I make a point of preserving both a digital and physical version of each discrete draft, which can total five or six by the end of a project. I do this partly because I’m terrified of cutting something out of, say, draft two that I’ll want to reincorporate come draft five; but I also know that a future scholar might be interested in the evolution of a manuscript over the course of its composition. Yet how many of my fellow authors are this obsessive, this neurotic? I suspect many of them simply open a Word doc and then write, revise, edit, and proofread directly into that one file. The progression from first to final draft can, therefore, potentially disappear into the electronic ether. Do people even print off their manuscripts anymore?

Having no idea, I decide to check in with a couple of writer friends about their practices.

The first thing Terri Favro tells me is that I will be “unimpressed” with the massive hoard of materials that comprise her archive, and that she’s very hesitant to call it a system. “It’s a mess,” she says instead. “It’s an absolute mess. I thrive in clutter.” Terri is the author of several books, including a novella, The Proxy Bride, published in 2012 by Quattro Books, and a new novel, Sputnik’s Children, released this past spring by ECW. I visit her at her east-end Toronto home, where she lives with her partner, artist Rod Edding, with whom she has collaborated on a number of projects. Terri takes me down to her writing office, a narrow room in the house’s basement. Along one wall is a large cubbyhole-style shelving unit loaded with what looks like manuscript printouts as well as notebooks and even an old laptop. At the far end of the room is a Mac computer on her writing desk.

Like King, Terri was an early adopter of word-processing technology, and she has been a committed user of Apple computers since 1987. This is because she has a day job as a freelance ad writer, and most of the art directors who hire her are also on Macs. Like me, Terri believes in the importance of backing up and preserving output from one’s creative life. In fact, despite her attempts to downplay what she does, I can see that her system is far more sophisticated than my own. She uses an external device called a G-Drive to back up versions of her work, which are taken as a daily snapshot from her Mac using its “Time Machine” function. By contrast, I email drafts of my writing to myself using my Hotmail account, which, after getting a tour of Terri’s method, feels antiquated at best and reckless at worst.

Next, we move to her shelving unit to explore the papers and notebooks therein. “Why do I keep this stuff? I don’t know. They seem significant,” she tells me, shuffling through the mounds. “Part of it is for doing rewrites, etc. But another part is just for me. You do this because it’s a record of your lived experience.” I ask whether potential scholarly interest plays a role in her packrat-ism, and she admits that it never occurred to her that someone might want to look back at her materials as an academic exercise. Later, though, she confesses that her books are already garnering some academic attention via a professor in Spain with an extremely niche specialty interest—writing by Canadian women of Italian descent, a category into which Terri falls. And then there are the manuscripts themselves. The Proxy Bride, for example, didn’t start out as a novella. There on her shelf, Terri has preserved an earlier, full novel-length version of the text for anyone who might be interested in looking at it.

And for those who would pooh-pooh the saving of juvenilia, Terri has a story to counter your misgivings. Following the death of her mother, which occurred a few weeks before my visit, Terri found a box of stuff her mom had kept since Terri’s youth. In it was an essay Terri had written as a high school student in the 1970s. Composed on an old typewriter and perfectly preserved, the essay tells a story about a first cousin of her father, who was also of Italian background, during World War Two. Terri reread the piece (“It’s actually pretty good,” she says, and points to the top of page one. “You can see here I got 95 out of 100 from the teacher”) and believes it could form the catalyst for a major new non-fiction project.

To get an entirely different perspective from my (and Terri’s) approach to archiving, I next visit my friend Koom Kankesan at his north-end Toronto condo. Koom is the author of three books, including the hilarious and criminally underappreciated masterpiece, The Rajapaksa Stories. (Seriously, go seek it out. There’s absolutely nothing like it in the entire CanLit marketplace.) Despite his obvious talent, Koom admits that he has “mixed feelings” about archiving for either posterity or academic reasons. He’s not even sure he even sees himself as a “career writer.” Part of it, he says, is that he just doesn’t have the required fastidiousness for this sort of thing. For example, he wrote a novel back in 2008-09 that was rejected, and he’s not even sure he still has a copy of it anywhere. Koom is more likely to preserve artifacts related to his hero, comic-book artist Alan Moore, with whom he has corresponded.

But there is something larger at play with his story. Koom and his family had to flee war-torn Sri Lanka when he was a kid, and they lived in England and Peru before settling in Canada. Because of these often-trying immigrant experiences, saving items for posterity—and not just a budding author’s juvenilia, but also family photos, beloved books, and so on—became a luxury they simply couldn’t afford. A life affected by war, he says, is not conducive to hoarding. Koom carried this apathy into his writing practices as he moved from Ontario to Quebec and back again. “At some point, I just got rid of my old notes and stuff,” he says. “It becomes kind of futile, all that moving around.”

This was something that hadn’t even occurred to me. During my own travels, I was lucky to have parents willing and able to stash my archive in their PEI attic while I finished grad school and then went jaunting around South Korea for two years, paying off student loans and having adventures. An archive—even a digital one—needs a safe, stable space in order to exist. It needs room. While Koom has kept a couple binders of journalism from his Montreal days, he doesn’t dedicate a lot of square footage—which is limited, he admits, in his cozy Toronto condo—to the altar of posterity.

For Koom, it ultimately comes down to a question of value. Like many authors, he finds it difficult to reread his old writing, and that ambivalence hampers his desire to save it. “I really wasn’t interested in preserving old work,” he says. “I find it very hard to read my stuff. I get a mental picture of someone who hasn’t matured.” If his writing does have value, he says, then scholars or literary historians interested in his work will need to locate, archive, and preserve primary materials on their own.

J.G. Ballard was probably right. This whole notion of archiving has a certain fetishistic, even narcissistic, quality; and this is especially true when it comes to the digital realm. In 2003, Hotmail announced it was expanding users’ storage space to near unlimited capacity, and I haven’t deleted a single non-spam email since. Why? Do I honestly think there will be some future academic or historical interest in lunch plans I made with, or feedback I received from or gave to, my writer friends? I confess I spend much of the day living in a paracosm where my work is more famous than it is—famous enough for someone to one day want to go pawing through my trove of materials. Not only have I named a literary executor in my will—my wife and fellow author, Rebecca Rosenblum—but I’ve also named a backup literary executor in the event that we pass away together. My friend Aaron, whom I’ve known since we were toddlers and who has been a rabid supporter of my work since I began writing at age fifteen, has instructions to offload my archive to an academic institution as quickly as he can. However, if he finds no takers for it after a sufficient amount of time has passed, and those bankers boxes become too much of a burden on his own life, then my instructions are clear: Get rid of them. Burn them all. There’s no point in passing along my neurosis in his own will to somebody else.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my Hotmail account. Time to back this article up.

—From CNQ 100 (Fall 2017)

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