Telling the Story
by Susan Mayse


Arthur Mayse in the 1950s.

When my father wrote Perilous Passage as a seven-part series in The Saturday Evening Post in 1949, he was well established as a West Coast short story writer selling to magazines in the United States. He was Canadian to the bone, but he didn’t then call himself a Canadian writer. From the start he intended to make his living by writing. As Arthur Mayse—to his friends and family he was always plain Bill Mayse—he sold his first short story at twelve to The Star Weekly. It took dozens of rejections before he sold another story, but he was determined. He came of age in the depths of the hungry thirties; the only way to get where he wanted was under his own steam.

His father, Will Mayse, was a pit lad who’d escaped the Yorkshire coal mines for the Boer War and a new life as a Baptist minister in Canada, where he married Elizabeth Caswell, an Ottawa Valley girl whose family tilled stony fields to raise fine airs and little else. His parents sojourned as missionaries in rural Manitoba for the birth of their daughter Shirley and son Arthur William Caswell Mayse at St. James Mission among the Swampy Cree. Arthur Mayse was named for his mother’s ne’er-do-well uncle; as Bill Mayse he was his father’s son. The family lived by oil light and travelled by wagon or sleigh under bison robes; radio and automobiles were distant luxuries.

His first memory was of hanging in a mossbag from a branch among other babies while a young boy held up a brace of ducks that he’d shot with his bow and arrow. His wet nurse was a Cree Métis woman, Maggie Flett, whose uncle had followed Louis Riel. My dad spoke fondly of people on the Peguis Reserve, told me their stories and never ceased to miss their quiet presence; I still have his mossbag and first moccasins, faintly scented with smoke from their tanning. Every spring when I was little he showed me how to cut a whistle from a fresh sap-swelling willow bough as one of Maggie Flett’s relatives had shown him. Toward the end of his life, he missed Manitoba’s springtime chorus of frogs peeping in the green roadside ditches.

In the early 1920s the family moved to the West Coast. Bill Mayse’s school and work history was a grand tour of early twentieth-century British Columbia. His first job as a kid was picking strawberries for a Japanese Canadian farmer near Vancouver. At twelve, he won a Cowichan fishing derby with one of his mother’s silver spoons hammered into a salmon lure, fishing from a dugout canoe found for him by a Khowutzun First Nation shaman who liked his father.

At tough, multicultural Britannia High School in East Van, not fast enough to compete on the track team, he ran as a “rabbit” to set the pace for a black friend. (The black student missed an athletic scholarship because the school principal decided not to notify him.) Britannia was one holiday after another; students booked off classes claiming to be Sikh, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic or Greek Orthodox. Between holidays, friends’ mothers stuffed skinny Bill Mayse with perogies, grits, tamales, souvlaki or anything they could spare. He sold stories during high school to The Province, many about his fishing summers with his father on the Oyster River north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island. After the degraded and often privately owned streams that Will Mayse had known in England, the astonishing freedom to fish the lovely West Coast waters and camp on their banks made Canada a paradise. On the river or in town, Will Mayse and Bill Mayse remained close friends for life.

Poor boys and men were riding the rails looking for work by the mid-1930s, but it was a chancy life. Bill Mayse stayed in BC and borrowed a friend’s name for job applications, since W. Cook had already landed work. The deception got him hired on a northern Vancouver Island logging operation based at Menzies Bay. The first year he worked as a whistle punk, running a signal device out to the fallers; after that he walked the woods alone all summer as a timber cruiser, making camp wherever dusk caught him, to assess the value of standing timber. On trips to town, other loggers made him their banker; his speed as a track-team rabbit saved him at last call in the beer parlours when he outran them to preserve their wads of cash. Logging and his prize money from poetry awards paid his way through university.

It was an exciting time to be young in the growing city of Vancouver, but Bill Mayse yearned to be on Vancouver Island or upcoast. The university year at UBC was only a wet-season distraction from the logging camps and fishing camps he loved and increasingly wrote about. When Bloedel, Stewart & Welch offered him a management job at its Franklin River camp, he turned it down with mixed feelings. But as his paid-by-the-inch freelance “string” of newspaper stories grew too long, The Province saved money by hiring him as a full-time reporter.

At The Province Bill Mayse trained with legendary reporter Torchy Anderson and travelled BC by train and car, fishboat, and horseback, to cover the news. He outran a forest fire and dodged a forest ranger determined to press him onto the fire lines. He fished streams around Cumberland with blacklisted coal miners and got to know wildlife bounty hunter Cougar Smith. At a Sointula dock he found himself eye to eye with a shotgun barrel; the utopian Finns didn’t like strangers coming ashore. When he covered the police beat, he packed an illegal handgun. The cops turned a blind eye; they liked to have him along because he noticed details at crime scenes. He climbed Mount Waddington in the Coast Range with a crate of his newspaper’s carrier pigeons on his back, only to see a hawk pick off his last bird. He had to hitch a ride by tugboat to file his story on the first successful ascent to The Province.

In 1940, Bill Mayse married his childhood friend and sweetheart Winifred Davey, a telephone operator he’d met on the Oyster River. He got drafted, or joined up, or joined up one jump ahead of the draft; the story sometimes shifted. The army flagged him as a good shot and trained him as a sniper until they discovered his old TB scars. He took a medical discharge rather than sit at an army desk as a censor. Unemployed, Bill and Win caught a train to Toronto, where he found work as a writer at a trade magazine and later at Maclean’s.

After hours, pounding away at his second-hand typewriter in their small brick house on Halford Avenue, he wrote short stories, which he began to sell steadily to magazines including Maclean’s, Collier’s, Country Gentleman, and his favourite, The Saturday Evening Post. In 1947, Win and Bill adopted their son Ronald. I was born a year later. Soon afterward Arthur Mayse left Maclean’s and took the leap into freelance writing. As with any great change in their lives, Win and Bill never hesitated and never looked back. In 1949, The Saturday Evening Post bought his serial “Perilous Passage,” a thriller set in BC’s Gulf Islands and the American San Juan Islands. William Morrow published it as a novel in 1951.

Perilous Passage was sold as a mostly American story to an American magazine and an American book publisher. My dad always liked working with Americans, he told me. They were hard-nosed, capable, and courteous; they treated him well, and most importantly, they paid decently. Several European publishers also picked up and translated Perilous Passage. The book brought him to the attention of reviewers and other publishers and got him an agent. It was the kind of story that he liked best, not only adventure and suspense set on the West Coast, but a hard-luck love story with young characters and a happy ending. He would repeat this theme of a poor boy and a slightly better-off girl—or occasionally a rich girl—more than once in later short stories and novels. After all, it was his own story, and he knew it spoke to the lives and struggles of depression-era and post-war readers.

In my dad’s view there was no Canadian publishing industry worth noticing. The few novels and short stories identified as Canadian fiction, he felt, were anaemic works written in subservient imitation of English writers of the time. He wanted no part of their pretensions. (Even his fly-fishing friend Roderick Haig-Brown sold to UK and US markets.) Bill Mayse followed the respect and the paycheque. It was honest work, and he never wanted to be counted among the second-raters. If a man couldn’t make his living by writing, was that man really a writer?

Man, not woman. Most of the women and girls in his stories were feisty characters whose strength and courage drove plots and deepened their significance beyond the obvious. Bill Mayse held many women fiction writers in high regard—including Daphne du Maurier, Naomi Mitchison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dorothy Dunnett—but some he regarded as flutterbrains. As a girl, I met some of them; maybe they acted like flutterbrains faced with the low opinion of misogynistic male writers. Later my dad worked happily with women editors and directors, but perhaps because my non-writing mother deferred and demurred, being a woman of her times, he never fully appreciated women’s capabilities. Naturally, he aired his views to me; naturally, I challenged them as malarkey. We would argue frequently, but an hour later be friends. In time he grudgingly acknowledged the virtue of equal pay for equal work and other women’s rights.

Eventually, he also grudgingly acknowledged the rights of working people. He’d been “fired on the job”—deprived of his beat, his desk, and his typewriter—for helping to organize the first union local at The Province, and so went to work for the Vancouver Sun. In his own perverse fashion, he’d blamed the labour movement, not The Province’s management or the former friend who ratted out the fledgling union and was subsequently rewarded with a management job. It wasn’t a totally misguided aversion; in the late 1930s union members and especially organizers were still blacklisted or worse. But in time he came to accept the rights and dignity of workers like him who’d hauled themselves up from dire poverty by their bootstraps.

His mild misogyny and classism were ironic in someone who’d always been essentially free of racial prejudice and religious bigotry. I saw him tell a Texas senator to leave our house after he told a racist joke. I never heard my dad make a racist comment. As a teenager, I frequently misunderstood others’ words and needed to have derogatory terms explained to me. He occasionally told a questionable joke, but strangely, in a dialect that puzzled me for years. I finally asked why he always told jokes with an Irish accent. The question shocked him; he was unaware that he slipped into his Irish-Canadian grandmother’s storytelling voice. Nonetheless, in his 1940s and 1950s writing he displayed a then-common insensitivity to race and gender by using language that would rightly shock today’s readers.

British Columbians in exile eventually find their way home. Both my parents had grown up mostly in Vancouver, and they missed the slow, cool rainy springtime and the warmth of family. In 1951, with nothing to keep us in Toronto, we drove west in our shiny new maroon Studebaker, ending up in a waterfront house north of Victoria. My dad set up his typing table in front of his bedroom window, looking ten kilometres across Haro Strait to the dry hills of San Juan Island in Washington state. There he wrote many short stories, a handful of novelettes and his two adventure novels, Desperate Search and Morgan’s Mountain.

Our family lived on Arbutus Cove from 1951 to 1972. There, as a girl, I learned to fly-cast on the back lawn, tie a Royal Coachman, shoot a .22, pound a typewriter, plant a garden, and row a boat. We lived with exceptional freedom in a marvellous place. Always there were wants and worries, but I realized only long afterwards how few people could ever lay claim to that charmed life.

A child’s view of a writing parent is shaped by self-interest. My dad was the one with all the good white bond paper that I coveted for drawing. He was the one who paid fifty cents an hour to dig Netted Gem potatoes, wore his old high-top logging boots till they fell apart, knew mysterious old-timers, made herring rakes and salmon landing nets, and could repair almost anything. Most especially he was the one who told stories. I heard many stories about my father’s childhood, but fewer about my mother’s. Win Davey came from a big, noisy, happy family of engineers and inventors, so it may be that she felt less need to tell stories. Many of my dad’s earliest short stories had happy family endings, as he recreated his own experience of crushing poverty and troubles in sunnier ways. Win’s stories leaned to history and science, sparking my interest in the natural world. My brother Ron, always on the go, didn’t hang around for anyone’s stories. Both my parents had their noses in books whenever possible. Without TV, we gathered most evenings in the living room to read, or in Ron’s case, to build models.

Perilous Passage, Desperate Search and Morgan’s Mountain, were our unseen companions. It never seemed odd to speak of the characters as real people; in fact many of them originally had real-life inspiration in people that Bill Mayse knew. He never made a reporter friend’s mistake, though, of giving characters the names of people working in his newsroom. One day, the city editor exploded in a rage when he discovered his name adorning an unsavoury short story villain, who as my dad told it, looked like an angry monkey with a bald head and red hair-tufts in his ears. The fiction-writing reporter had forgotten to find new names for his story characters.

My dad told me about the pilots, fishermen, seamen, prospectors, miners, and farmers that inhabited his books while they were still on the drawing board. Sometimes he asked my mother or me what a character might do or think at some turn of the story, but he didn’t incorporate all our suggestions. My mother and I gave him a sounding board but not necessarily an answer. As often as not I had my own questions. When I was old enough to struggle through Perilous Passage, I asked what happened afterward to Clint and Devvy. As always, my dad thought before he spoke. He said they got married, had kids, and fixed up their island stump farm, and sometimes Clint worked on the fishboats. And then what? I demanded, disappointed at the lack of further skullduggery and peril. From then on my dad would answer this question, “What do you think?” and leave me to spin out my own adventures for the characters he’d fanned to life.

Having grown up largely in a world of early pre-industrial technology, my dad was a medieval thinker with a Renaissance love of learning and language. His upbringing was intensely Christian, with a minister father and visits from famous tent evangelists including Gypsy Smith, who taught him how to tickle a trout. Still he would put out a dish of milk on our back step for the little folk that he said followed our families from Ireland and Wales; if a stray cat or a raccoon drank the milk instead, that was the way of the world. One of his cousins had seen the banshee weeping beside an Ottawa Valley road. He passed on his sense of the many layers of human habitation and experience on the West Coast and anywhere else he travelled. He liked Europe, but he couldn’t stay long in the great cathedrals because of all the silent voices.

Bill Mayse was a good if quiet companion to other men, from hunters and fishers to the Catholic bishop next door; the two of them would stroll along the road or beach, hands clasped behind backs, one in black broadcloth and the other in a waterproof tin hat and coat. He gave his second-best leather jacket to Leung Foon, who lovingly improved our garden, and when he knew he was dying, Leung Foon gave his garden tools to my father. I used his hoe yesterday.

My dad wrote every weekday morning, hilled his fine spuds in the afternoons and did business on Saturdays. In the fall we nestled our seed potatoes into straw from our neighbour’s orchard in our root cellar, and in the spring we cut them up to plant. Will Mayse had been a great vegetable gardener, like his own father, eking out a mine-worker’s wages by planting his tatties in the dank plots behind narrow houses in Sheffield or Leeds.

Living at Arbutus Cove my brother and I graduated from one school to another. My dad sold movie rights to Desperate Search, and we all drove into Victoria to see the premiere. Our garage held a maroon Studebaker, then a green Studebaker and finally a sporty black Studebaker coupe with a red interior, one after the other. It was a struggle to make ends meet sometimes, but we had a roof over our heads, a good clam beach, a boat for salmon fishing and a big vegetable garden. Every year we went camping up-island at Bennett’s Point north of the Oyster River. Our black Labrador Paddy frisked around our wildlands and beach, then grew grey-muzzled, then died. Another Lab puppy and a deranged black cat called Cleopatra arrived. Life would always stay about the same. Then it changed.

Television steadily encroached on the glossy magazines that published short fiction, Bill Mayse’s mainstay, and his markets dwindled one by one. Always willing to adapt, he recast a short story about a boxer as a half-hour TV drama and sold it. But every year there were fewer magazines on the market, and my dad sold fewer stories. My mother mended her clothes. My toes curled under as I outgrew my one pair of shoes. My brother started doing odd jobs for neighbours. We bought our year’s heating oil later and later each fall. Finally my dad went back to the newspaper work he’d abandoned twenty years earlier, and a new-old byline appeared in the Victoria Times. Arthur Mayse wrote features, then the BC Legislature column, then a general interest column. For ten years he was often too tired to write fiction.

In 1965, I learned to drive the last Studebaker, and one day I was driving my dad into Victoria when we got a flat tire. Dad got out to fetch the spare and the tire iron, but he lingered at the rear of the car so long that I went to check. I found him bent over the trunk, white-faced.

“Don’t tell your mother,” he ordered. “I had a little pain in my chest. I’m hunky-dory now.”

We changed the tire and drove on. I didn’t tell, but I should have. His pains and indigestion got worse and more frequent after I left home to make my own way. A newspaper job had been great fun for a young fellow in the 1930s, but for an older man in the 1960s it meant long hours of pure stress. The Victoria Times job was killing my dad.

In 1972, Bill and Win Mayse did what they’d done before; they walked away from their beautiful house on Arbutus Cove without a backward glance. My dad was sixty, five years short of a pension that he forfeited. Neither of them had a penny. The sale of their house raised just enough to buy a tiny former floathouse that had once belonged to Cougar Smith up-island on a beach north of Oyster River. To pay the taxes my dad sold weekly newspaper columns to the Victoria Times, which were reprinted in the Campbell River Upper Islander and a few other papers. This brought in a pittance. When my parents reached their mid-sixties, they talked about not applying for Canada pensions—after all, they could make their own way—until I pointed out they’d paid for their pensions throughout their working lives. They lived on about nine hundred dollars a month, which wasn’t much even in the 1980s. A vegetable garden, a clam beach and steady supplies of salmon and cutthroat trout kept them going. They volunteered at the Campbell River museum, learned some Kwak’wala, and joined outdoors groups, having been lifelong environmentalists before the word found common use. In their seventies they lay down in front of a bulldozer brought in to raze trees in Strathcona Park on northern Vancouver Island. For twenty years they were unreasonably happy.

Meanwhile, in the long shadow of Expo ’67, Marshall McLuhan, multi-culturalism and Pierre Berton’s engaging books on Canadian history, the unthinkable happened: a new generation of publishing and television production appeared that was proudly, exuberantly Canadian.

Arthur and Winnifred Mayse, 1980s.

Bill Mayse experimented again with television writing and sold a script to a new drama with a West Coast setting, The Beachcombers. Later Win Mayse joined him as a script adviser. She’d always given him ideas and feedback, but now it was a paying job, her first since she lost her switchboard job at the British Columbia Telephone Company by marrying. No one seems to have an exact count of the Beachcombers scripts Bill and Win Mayse created—at least twenty-six, probably more. The Beachcombers was nominally a comedy, but my parents used its humour to explore their serious concerns: the injustices faced by BC’s Indigenous peoples, the threatened BC environment, adoption, women’s issues, and perhaps most remarkably in a time when few people openly discussed it, the wrongful treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.

My dad’s writing life came full circle when he sold his young adult novel Handliner’s Island in 1989 to Howard and Mary White at Harbour Publishing, a BC company dedicated to West Coast stories in fact and fiction. Finally, he was happy to be a Canadian writer selling Canadian stories to a Canadian publisher. In 1992, Harbour accepted his last book, My Father My Friend, a memoir about Bill Mayse’s fishing life with his father Will Mayse. The day my dad died in the Campbell River hospital, he was happy about his new contract. My mother died two weeks later.

On my dad’s death a few writers noted that he’d been a clear, powerful voice of an earlier British Columbia. My husband, Stephen Hume, wrote much the same in his obituary, which ran in the same issue of the Upper Islander as Arthur Mayse’s last newspaper column. People commented that he was a writer’s writer, a beautiful stylist who wrote otherwise untold stories of the West Coast. I rediscovered how seamlessly he wrote as I made minor revisions to his prose while editing My Father My Friend. For years I heard from his old friends and the many people he’d quietly given a hand up in writing or in getting through rough patches of life. Win and Bill Mayse are remembered with respect and affection by islanders.

So why is Arthur Mayse now an unknown name farther afield? One reason is that Bill Mayse never sought the limelight and didn’t like it when it happened to fall on him; he didn’t apply for awards, fellowships or grants, since he didn’t need them. He avoided interviews. The concept of platform for a fiction writer—experience and background that lend credibility to one’s writing—would have scandalized him. He had no interest in boosting his income by writing, as he saw it, over-stuffed epics or magazine puffery. On his own terms he wrote honest stories. He was proud of his work, but he felt it spoke for itself. He was a working writer who paid his own way.

Another answer is simple arrogance, I believe, not only other people’s but his own. Bill Mayse did what other people couldn’t do, selling scores of short stories and five books, mastering new media and crowning his lifetime writing career with success. He never diminished anyone else’s efforts, but he knew his own achievement.

After the University of Victoria opened in 1965, he met members of the English and writing departments. A few sought him out and asked for his comments on their work. He gave straight answers, often suggesting they beef up plot and character to make their story serve its purpose instead of striking a pose.

Some dismissed him as a regional writer, and worse, when that was still unfashionable, a genre writer. My dad was amused that men and women who’d published one or two stories in small journals would look down on his success. He could quote Chaucer and Thomas Wyatt and Chidiock Tichbourne with the best; his prose sang and struck home. For his part he regarded his critics with polite scorn. Literature was changing in ways that he didn’t appreciate, including admirable and ambitious ways, and it put other writers in the limelight that he’d avoided so long. In an era of television that conferred fame and glamour, that mattered to readers. Perhaps most importantly, his career was ending just as the internet came into existence, so his work went unrecorded in ways that readers could easily access.

In his last years he thought of selling his papers to the Special Collections Library at UBC; other Canadian writers were receiving tens of thousands of dollars or more for their archives. But the academic who assessed his work valued his papers at eight hundred dollars. In his pride and disdain, instead he gave away his lifetime’s records. UBC didn’t want everything. I have a few of his papers now, and nowhere to take them but the landfill.

Bill Mayse chose to be a quiet and courteous man who fitted easily into an Indigenous big house, a CBC producers’ meeting or the Lieutenant Governor’s levee. Kindly as he was, on the rare occasions when he showed anger in a cold stare, people would take a step back. His natural courtliness led some to think he was born to privilege; he used to say our family had oblige sans noblesse and we would do well to remember it. My dad didn’t court anyone or strive to impress. Time after time I watched young visitors find their way to him and ask questions or ask for a story. Dogs followed him happily. He didn’t love cats, especially after one time our ferocious Cleopatra clawed his sunburned feet, but cats always found him and made themselves at home. He patiently accepted the honour until he could get free.

In Perilous Passage, his first book after many published short stories, his gift of observation and his ear for language were keen. His writing grew smoother and more subtle over his later books and stories, but his first book carried a sense of freshness and excitement in his world.

One summer evening when I was a kid, as the swallows looped and twittered outside, I sat side by side with my dad on the tweed chesterfield in our Arbutus Cove house to leaf through Fifty Centuries of Art. Dad wanted to show me something important from the section on Greek pots, but he couldn’t find the right image, so instead he told me.

Inside one handle of some amphorae and water jugs, you might see a small human figure leaning, arms often crossed, to watch the world around him. A writer is that figure, my dad said, not taking much part in the activity of the day but quietly observing everything. And that is what we do.

—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)

Susan Mayse writes fiction and nonfiction on Vancouver Island, where she returned after years away. Her books include Ginger: The Life and Death of Albert Goodwin, Merlin’s Web, and Awen.

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