Far More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Jason Schoonover—the Bic Parker interviews, May 15, 2016:
Q: It’s been 10 years since we sat down. You had just finished Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives and had sent it to your agents. Rocky Mountain Books published it internationally—
A: —Which is to say in the US, Canada and England—
Q: Right. And it made a stir.
A: Yes, it did well and the reviews were excellent. It’s still selling on Amazon. It caused the biggest stir in the adventure and exploration community and kinda put me on the map, and that’s its greatest perk and reward. It led to me being awarded a Citation of Merit from The Explorers Club. Interestingly, my most enthusiastic buyers were mothers at readings I gave from Saskatoon to Manhattan. They were invariably really excited to find something inspirational like this to give to their kids. I received a lot of emails from mothers praising me writing the book as well.
Q: That must have been gratifying.
A: Indeed, very much so. That and some writers and people I respect have flattered me by describing it as an “important book” and I think it is. It’s gratifying to produce something like that. It leaves a legacy. I think the book I’ve just published is one too, since it’s a spinoff.
Q: That’s An Adventurer’s Seven Point Guide to Living an Interesting Life.
A: Yes. I’m at an age—about the same as the old guy in those Dos Equis beer commercials—so I’ve lived and experienced enough that I can write this book with authority. I’ve been told so often in the last 40 years that I live an interesting life that I’ve come to take it for granted, though I’m always flattered. A few old friends tell me I’m the most interesting person they know, which really takes me aback because this is simply my life and I’m used to it, though I do know I live an interesting life. I made a vow to myself at the age of 12 to do just that and, to my delight, it worked out. However, I’m not as interesting as the white bearded guy. He’s won the lifetime achievement award twice, and I haven’t even won it once!
Q: Can you tell us what the seven points are?
A: Well, they vary from how to set yourself up financially fast, which is what I did in three years, three months and three weeks of concentrated work in my 20s, saving and investing in revenue producing real estate. And I offer my personal roadmap to follow. The book really spins off of Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives when I expand on the “following your dreams theme,” and how to avoid getting caught up in the rat race.
Q: “Rat race.” I haven’t heard that term in years.
A: It’s still applicable, isn’t it? Everyone running around in mazes, being programmed. Back to the seven points, there’s controversial points, like not having kids. It makes some parents defensive. But it’s true: when you have kids, your whole life refocuses on them, and you can say bye bye to following other interesting dreams—ones that are certainly more interesting to me.
Q: I know you don’t have kids.
A: There were brief periods now and then when I felt the pull, but the pull of the world out there was far stronger. I write about a survey Ann Landers—remember her?
Q: The old fuddy-duddy who wrote the advice column in the papers that everyone hated but everyone read?
A: Well put, and I have to laugh too. She asked her readers that if they
had the choice to have kids again, would they do so. A vast majority replied with a resounding no. She was so shocked she repeated the experiment again sometime later. Same result. Raising kids is overrated, and fraught with emotional risk. My friend Peter Rowe, who produces Angry Planet and films and writes books and is an artist as well really lives an interesting life, objects. His kids are now adults and doing very well, but he’s an exception. He’s managed to have his cake and eat it too. But I still question how much time he had to be away from them as kids and if they didn’t feel it accordingly. I’m sensitive to fathers not being around since mine was a deadbeat dad when I was a kid, though he did help me through university.
Q: Do you think of it as a blueprint then? It’s obviously autobiographical.
A: Yes, I’d say so, a blueprint. I obviously use my life as the primary example. I’d like to point out that I reference a lot of other interesting lives too of people I know or am acquainted with, many famous like Buzz Aldrin, Robert Ballard, James Cameron, Meave Leakey, Jean-Michel Cousteau and Bertrand Piccard. One of the seven points is where you can rub shoulders with people like this because, incredibly, there is a place, because hanging with interesting people is an important part of living an interesting life, of course. But I delve deeply into mine as it evolved, so the reader can grasp the journey, and the challenges and turning points from a living, breathing person. Too many autobiographies and biographies list a lot of stages without delving into how they came about. Without that, there’s no meaning. I really tried to connect with the reader, to show them my mindset. Because that’s what it takes: a certain free and focused mindset.
Q: Who is your reader, by the way? Obviously the young.
A: Yes, it’s of most benefit to them because they haven’t gotten sucked down the vortex yet. There’s still hope for them—if they’re shown the door with light behind it. But I also detail how those who have dug themselves a deep rut can cut footsteps in the side and clamber out. I also address many people I know who have the means to live extraordinarily interesting lives but don’t, because they’re just too programmed to keep doing the same mundane things they do year after year, while lamenting that life is boring. They’re often friends and I give them nicknames, like a wealthy retired farming couple I know who I call the Ol’ MacDonalds. They just don’t have experience traveling, so in one chapter I describe in the simplest terms what to take, even how to book flights and accommodation, and describe some adventures I know they could easily handle—such as the trek to Mt. Everest, which is the most awe inspiring trek in the world.
Q: You mentioned it was a spinoff of Adventurous Dreams. Is—
A: Yes, but the seeds were planted at least two, if not three, decades earlier. I could always sense that my life provided fodder for a unique book. One that could possibly provide inspiration for people to break out of their boring lives and really live an interesting one. It’s something only maybe five percent of the population do, it’s awful. But I knew that I had to wait until I was in the back nine of my life to make it as meaningful and rich as possible. For the last six or eight years, there was a buildup. Each year I could hear the muse demanding louder and louder that this was a book that I had to do. Finally, the time came when I was satisfied that I wasn’t writing it prematurely. It flowed out. Sorry, I interrupted you.
Q: I forgot what I was going to ask. I’m turning into a geezer too! Does this mean you’re at the last hole, to extend your golfing metaphor?
A: No—far from it, or at least I hope not. Because I’m, well, wealthy because of decisions I made early, the world is my oyster. In the last 19 months I’ve only been home three. The rest of the time I’ve been out playing in the grand sandbox that is the world.
Q: I’ve known you all my life and I agree you live life to the fullest. I know I’m not the only one who lives vicariously through you.
A: Thank you. As Bob Ballard said, and which I ended Adventurous Dreams with—the best is yet to come.
Far More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Jason Schoonover—the Bic Parker interview September 14, 2006:
Q: Let’s start with your most recent book. What is it?
A: I just finished a fascinating one year project called Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives: Today’s Explorers Recall the Youthful Dream Launching their Remarkable Lives. I’m a Fellow of The Explorers Club and active as the Communications Director of the Canadian chapter. There’s 30 internationally, and at the 100th black tie fete at the Waldorf-Astoria in 2004, ours was awarded the Best Chapter Award. It’s a hell of an exciting chapter with people like Bob Bateman, Jim Delgado, Les Stroud, Philip Currie, Pat Morrow and Pat and Rosemarie Keough to share laughs and adventures with. Because of my affiliation, I have access to the world’s greatest living explorers. I’ve always followed my dreams and realized this is a defining trait of all adventurers and explorers. I started phoning and emailing high profile members from Sir Edmund Hillary on down and found I was right. Everyone was highly enthusiastic about the idea. They’re a down-to-earth bunch anyway, but they dropped whatever adult pretenses they had and reverted to that boy or girl who first had the dream to do something exciting with their lives, and I got outstanding contributions from everyone.
I have 116 from a Blue Ribbon international Who’s Who of adventurer-explorers that includes Robert Ballard, Buzz Aldrin, balloonists Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, Hugh Downs, Louise and Meave Leakey, Don Johanson who discovered Lucy, Bradford Washburn, Thom Pollard who discovered Mallory’s body on Everest, Wade Davis, Jack Horner, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Philip Currie, Sue Hendrickson who discovered the T.rex Sue, Don Walsh who went down in the Trieste in 1960, The Sea Hunter’s Jim Delgado and . . . and the list just goes on and on at that level. A favorite was Norm Vaughan who died in early 2006 at 100 and was on Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Antarctica Expedition. He was a delightful man to talk to, so full of enthusiasm for life, and still an adventurer all the way.
Q: Any surprises?
A: Yes. I was startled at how many had to overcome significant obstacles to reach their goal. Did you know that paleontologist Jack Horner and Gossamer Albatross inventor Paul MacCready faced dyslexia? Meave Leakey couldn’t find a job in the then male dominated field of marine biology so she switched to paleontology, and the rest is history. Warren MacDonald, with both legs amputated at mid-thigh, not only climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, but El Capitan in an astounding 2,800 pull ups! And then there’s my favorite, Sue Hendrickson, who shot to fame when she discovered the largest T. rex discovered to date, the one now in Chicago’s Field Museum. Sue was a high school dropout who now holds an honorary degree from the University of Illinois as well as several other honors. She was so shy as a child that she used to walk with her head perpetually down, unable to meet anyone’s gaze. But while doing so she discovered a passion and remarkable talent for finding “things.” And it grew into finding not just dinosaur bones; she’s been the subject of several National Geographic articles and documentaries for her marine archaeological finds, such as the Manila galleon San Diego in the Philippines. This is a high inspirational group, one I’m exceedingly proud to be part of. Developing this project made for one of the most fascinating year of my life, and I’ve had a few of those. My agents, Mike Hamilburg and Maryann Karinch, are shopping it around. Interested? Call him in LA at 310-471-4024 or Maryann at The Rudy Agency in Colorado at 970-577-8500. (Laughs)
Q: It sounds like a terrific idea, indeed, and it’s an incredible lineup. You live an interesting life yourself. How does one come to do so? Let’s go back to the beginning. Where were you brought up?
A: Well, thanks. It seems pretty normal to me. I grew up all over north-eastern Saskatchewan, from farms to hamlets to villages to towns. I did part of Grade One in Ontario, but from Grades Two to 12 I was in Carrot River. Go ahead and laugh (laughs). I’m used to it. I think it’s corny too. Well, carroty. But then this is a province with names like Moose Jaw and Climax. (Laughs) Carrot River was a small town of a 1,000 at the end of both the road and the railroad in the north-eastern corner of the settled southern half of the province, backing onto Crown Land boreal forest sweeping up to the tree line.
Q: How’d it get a name like that?
A: Hemlock, the poisonous kind Socrates drank, is a member of the carrot family, believe it or not. So is cow parsnip that we used to make blowguns out of as kids. And Queen Anne’s lace. All grow along the banks. Carrot River was mentioned several times in early Hudson Bay Company journals, and Henry Kelsey, the first white man to see the Canadian prairies and buffalo in 1689, is believed to have returned down it. It’s not much of a river anymore because of farming, except during spring runoff. It’s maybe 25 feet across and dries up in the summer now. I don’t know how Kelsey survived the mosquitoes (laughs). They’re like something out of Hitchcock’s Birds.
Q: It sounds pretty remote. What’s it like growing up in a small town called…Carrot River?
A: …Americans have a myth about the Deep South and how the heat and humidity creates equally hot and passionate emotions. Well, Carrot River is in the Deep North and the bitter cold and dryness breeds a cold, hard, dry people. But that’s how it is everywhere in the world: the closer to the equator, the warmer and looser people are, and vice versa. But for someone skinny and hyper-sensitive, it was a brutal place to be brought up. The town was founded on lumbering during the Dirty Thirties when desperate people migrated there to find quote land that wouldn’t blow away unquote. It was a place of mud, muskeg and mosquitoes the size of vultures when it wasn’t locked in a bitter deep freeze for five months at a time. Lumberjack culture was everywhere. The local hockey team was called the Loggers, the main café, Logger’s Inn. It was a rough, crude frontier town where I used to chop wood for our McClary stove, carry in snow to melt for washing clothes, and haul drinking water by pail from the pump behind the church manse next door—and we were relatively well off because my mother was a teacher. Our fridge was a washtub in the snow out back we stuck meat under. Even the inhouse was an outhouse that needed weekly carrying out. Actually, I have very fond memories of all that. I still love chopping wood, and I’m damned good at it.
But I’ve never been anywhere that had so many mean spirited people. The place just seemed to breed them. I started Grade One in my mother’s village, Yellow Creek, and used to spend Easter and summer holidays there all through my youth and people of all ages were exceedingly kind and warm, but Ukrainians are that way. I simply loved it there. I didn’t have to be on guard all the time. It was such a contrast. I know a lot—a lot, Carrot was that kind place—of people who found growing up there as distasteful as I did and never looked back. At the same time I hasten to add that the town’s improved radically. I don’t want to paint a wholly negative picture. Some of the finest people I ever met came from there and most are still dear friends today and I still have close friends there. I’ve kept virtually all my friends from all eras of my life. When I turned 50, I threw a birthday party at the Saskatoon Club and invited virtually every friend I ever had in my life, which I counted at 350, including several old girl friends, and 125 of them flew in from all over hell. It was the most incredible party I’ve been to—my entire life flashing before my eyes! My best friend all through high school, the Viking, is one of my regular canoe trippers today and one of my regular hunting buddies has been a friend for over forty years. Several kids I grew up with are on my Voyageur List, the pool I draw canoe partners from.
Q: It sounds like you left and never looked back too.
A: No, that’s not true. I certainly wanted to get as far from it as I could and I’ve certainly done that, and it’s partly responsible for lighting that fire under my ass to do something with my life. But the fires of Hell are far in the past now. The ‘50s were a tough, greaser period everywhere in North America, kids are often cruel bastards everywhere, and there’s a different ethic today. The fifties were a pretty anally retentive era at our parents level, sex being something dirty and all that. But I am one of the very few who goes back regularly who doesn’t have family ties there anymore. My mother has long since moved to Calgary.
Q: That surprises me, that you return.
A: It’s partly the writer in me, to study character arcs over the years. And there’s the anthropologist in me that’s curious too, to study human development, the different stages we pass through a la Gail Sheehy. (Laughs) If I ever write one of those generational epics, I’ll have done my research. Also, prosperity and modern times have changed the town radically, it’s mellowed and so have I. The puckered up older generation are mostly planted in the graveyard southeast of town, but there were exceptionally good people among them though too, exceptions. Also, for better or worse, it’s my home town. I’ve always had a sentimental streak. I return every fall hunting and fishing, and to visit. They’re invariably friends I had as a kid, or at least respected. People who treated me like shit years ago kiss my ass today, but I’ve only got so much time for them outside of my character-slash-anthropological study. (Pauses) But also the town has matured. It’s evolved into a very good hearted, tight-knit community. If someone has, say a house fire, you can count on there being jars to receive donations at businesses all over town. I have a lot of respect and admiration for that spirit. Unlike most prairie towns, it hasn’t disappeared but rather flourished, though that’s a matter of geography. It’s a prosperous place now, with a big sawmill and a peat moss industry as well as some of the best land anywhere. That first tough, physical generation of pioneers laid the foundation and this one is reaping large rewards. The new neighborhoods look like they were transplanted from the city. Some of the farm houses look like something off the old Dallas set. No more outhouses and honey wagons. Instead of Main Street being a mud sucking morass in the spring, the roads are all paved. It’s still a town where no one locks their doors. Gotta love that. I take pride in the place.
Q: Any outstanding writing or anthropological observations?
A: . . .Some people get worse but most, like wine, improve with age. Even the kid who bullied me mercilessly all my youth is respectful to me today and I think he regrets having been such an asshole, though I think he’s a bit in denial about it too. I don’t really have issues with him, though I can’t forget or forgive entirely how he darkened my growing up years to satisfy his prodigious mean spirited appetite. He’s still there. He was pumping gas when we finished high school and he moved up the ladder to running the bulk fuel depot, (laughs) still pumping gas. He was Metis, a half breed Indian in other words, and I think that was part of his problem, overcompensating for a sense of inferiority by bullying someone a fraction of his size. Though I don’t really know why. The town was color blind. Because we lived on the edge of the forest, only 70 air miles from Cumberland House, the first inland trading post of the Hudson Bay Company, we had lots of descendents of the fur trade living in town. We played with kids with names like Laroque and Letendre whose ancestors were voyageurs and took Indian women as wives, and we didn’t see them as any different than we were, just other kids. I didn’t associate them with the fur trade until years later, and I take a deep interest in it, part of my canoeing. My high school girlfriend, my first love, was part Indian. But he had issues to deal with, no doubt. (Grins) However, to finish my analogy, a bad seed still can’t grow into a vintage wine-producing grape, some remain cheap port all their lives, and a few turn to vinegar. (laughs). How’s that? Philosophic enough?
Q: You mentioned your mother taught. What did your father do?
A: Drank mainly. He was one of the town drunks. (Laughs) Carrot had so many it could have made an industry supplying towns in the province short of one, or even two. He was a jack of all trades and a failure at virtually everything—business, husband, father, a man. He eventually discovered sales and he was talented at it because he had charisma and was a great talker. He was a man whose IQ in the army tested in the stratosphere, but he had dropped out of school after only Grade Seven, despite his own mother being a teacher. But then maybe that why (laughs). She was a classic battle axe at home. I can’t imagine how she was in the classroom.
He was one of those we’ve all met who everyone says had tremendous potential, but ended up in the gutter, on skid row. He suffered from arrested development and was badly screwed up, locked in a mindset where he couldn’t grow, couldn’t learn from his mistakes. Wound up so tight he needed the booze to break his bonds. I’d say now he had a major anxiety disorder, but he brought much of it on himself. (Laughs) I always say the reason I’ve had the relative success I’ve had is because every time I had a decision to make, I’d ask myself what Vern would do—then I did the opposite. Fortunately, he was more out of my life than in and my folks split up for the final time when I was in Grade 12. When he finally burned out completely and was staying in a home for, well, burn outs, I took care of his affairs the last sixteen or so years of his life. He died in 1992 at 68 going on 98. He was the only dad I had, so I kept up a relationship with him too, though he really didn’t deserve it, although he did help me financially through university one year, and gave me his old car when I was in radio, which turned out to be a good vehicle. He tried his best to make up to me in later years. He really felt remorse, and even apologized. I’m grateful for that. Same with the battle axe grandmother who helped out one year in university too. He was a terrible father, really destructive in the early years, but sometimes I miss him. He grew up but he grew up too late. Though he did grow up in time to die with peace of mind, and that’s something.
Q: So your mother brought you up?
A: Yes, me and my sister Karen who, incidentally, is also an artist. She’s prominent in the Saskatchewan arts community, runs a gallery in Regina, adjudicates, that sort of thing. I love her stuff. She has a great eye.
Q: Coincidence? That there’s two artists in the family?
A: No. Artists tend to emerge from unconventional backgrounds. When everything is fine around home, children tend to grow up conventional. When there’s turmoil, children are forced to think creatively, out of the box, and for themselves. Mom was the opposite of my father, very stable, mature, calm, if naïve to have married Vern in the first place, but she was only 21 and he was a talker and the Schoonovers were a damned good looking bunch. She taught me in Grade Two and she retired from teaching Grade Two in ’87 and is the single happiest person I know. She’s got a fabulous home in Calgary and an unbelievable pension and is incredibly active, taking art and dance classes and going to dinner theater. Keeping up with her ever changing interests is a challenge. When she turned eighty, she was all, woe, my life is over, then she walked into an art supply store and when she asked for the senior’s discount, they asked for proof of age. She’s still blond, blue-eyed and moves with the fluidity of a kid. That ended her woes on the spot. Her side lives forever, a grandmother on one side and an aunt on the other both hit 105. Hope I inherited that.
She majorly helped put both of us through university before she finished her B.Ed, with marks in the High Distinction level. She’s Ukrainian and came from one of the best families I’ve ever seen, just a great functioning unit, unlike my dad’s which, although they were the most prosperous farmers in the area, were dysfunctional. The parents constantly battled, with Hilda, older and better educated, browbeating grand-dad Len into submission. Her house always felt like an icehouse, even in summer, because of the vibes. Mom’s folks ran a village general store and post office, he was the mayor for some time, and enormously respected by all who knew him, a real outstanding man. Same with my baba, as we call grandmothers in Ukrainian. My mother loved kids and teaching. She was a great mother—the perfect balance to our father. Our parents were a devil and an angel, black and white, and I can see all the shades in between today. That’s very useful for a writer.
Q: Let’s talk about writing. How did that come about?
A: I had a brilliant teacher in Grades Seven and Eight. He was something of a writer himself, having published a play, and loved the English language. I hated school intensely and found all the subjects thunderously boring, but somehow managed to stay in the A class, though my marks were mid level. How can you do well at something you hate? Have no interest in whatsoever? But he opened up the world of writing to me—and I loved it—and in those two years he laid the entire foundation of my writing. That’s where I got my only straight As.
My favorite exercise was when he’d give us several elements, such as from The Walrus and the Carpenter, and tell us to spin a story using them. While others groaned when he told us to write a composition of our choosing, I reveled. My imagination knew no bounds, and the escape from Carrot’s ugly reality into worlds I created was hugely liberating and pleasureful. I was the kid who regularly read his compositions to an enthralled class. I decided at the age of twelve I wanted to be a novelist.
Q: Becoming a novelist . . . that’s a big stretch from a place called . . . Carrot River.
A: You better believe it! (Laughs) But that’s how dreams are born. Too many people let their dreams go. I didn’t. I don’t understand people who don’t follow their dreams, I really don’t. We only have one life—why not live it doing what you really want to do? Maybe that teacher should have followed his dream, whatever it was, despite how brilliant he was as a teacher. He, sadly, died a miserable, lonely drunk. People talked about him in the end like they did my dad, he had such talent. . . .
Q: Why adventure fiction? Why don’t you write, like so many Canadian novelists, novels about the difficulties of growing up Canadian? It sounds like you certainly had the background.
A: Zero interest. I’m not a fan of Canadian lit, most of which is utterly boring, naval gazing crap. As a matter of fact, the more boring and difficult a book is to plow through, the more often it’s touted by the self-deluded university crowd as being a great work of literature. Canadians have a tremendous need to raise ourselves onto pedestals, because of our inferiority complex vis-à-vis the States, though that is disappearing rapidly. One way we do it is by fooling ourselves into thinking we’re more “cultured” than they are, by becoming snobs and, in particular, literary snobs. But that’s shallow and transparent, as people like this invariably are. I like Americans, despite their terrible shortcomings in international history and geography and their foreign policy. (Laughs) And I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m a snob!
Q: You think Canadian’s inferiority complex is disappearing? Why?
A: The Bush years and the rise of China and, to some degree, India. After finding few differences for years, we’ve taken different forks in the road. An astonishing percentage of Americans profess to be born again Christians compared to Canadians. That’s people who profess faith over reason, as Martin Luther noted. Our education system has long been international in outlook; theirs focused almost solely on the U.S. Every person in Canada knows where Gibraltar is, and its significance; few Americans have even heard of it.
George Bush is a reflection of that system. Never having left the States before becoming president, he really has no understanding of other cultures, like Islam, and we Canadians see that so clearly. His dangerous mishandling of the Moslem world while being supported in that by a majority, thin though it is, has caused Canadians to loose fundamental respect for America and their ability to lead, which is the case worldwide actually.
We’re finding ourselves much different than Americans. We don’t have anywhere near the level of violence, that’s an outstanding difference. There’s a sense of peace in being Canadian and relief having that border there to keep their gun culture on the other side of the fence. We tend to stumble along with second rate people running the country but we’ve done a lot of things right. We have a civil society for the most part. I find American’s individuality and optimism highly attractive though and I enjoy their company. We Canucks tend to do things with consensus in mind, and that buries the individual. I’m more American in that regard, perhaps because I have ten generations of ancestors who were American, who were at every stage building the country, which is, in so many way, phenomenal. I feel an affinity.
And, regarding our long standing inferiority complex, it’s dissolved because, for better or worse, America’s brilliant century in the sun is passing. The twenty-first belongs to China. By 2020 it’s going to dominate the globe. We see, and feel viscerally, that Americans are going to experience what we’ve always experienced—being second tier. That hasn’t sunk in yet in America, and that’s because of the tragedy of their education system which is still locked in the isolationist years, which didn’t keep pace with their military and economic expansion globally after World War Two. They live in a bubble. It’s a tragedy really. America could have done so much more of benefit in the world if they knew about it.
Q: Let’s go back to writing.
A: Fine with me. I hate politics and politicians too. (Pause) When I was a kid back in Carrot, I also escaped into comic books and had the biggest collection in town. All the other kids came to my place to trade. I absolutely loved Walt Disney comics, especially joining Huey, Duey and Louis on their wonderful adventures. They were my introduction to the adventure story form and, strangely enough, I’m writing adventure fiction today. That’s where my interest lay—excitement, the thrill of discovery, adventure, being out in that exciting, vibrant world I prayed existed beyond the boring confines I was brought up in.
Q: You said you weren’t a great student. It’s surprising how many artists weren’t good in school. John Lennon comes to mind.
A: I’m an artist? Okay. A graphic artist then (laughs) as some critics have said about my writing. Not really. They teach less than two handfuls of subjects while there’s thousands out there. Writers naturally have enormous curiosities and write about what they’re interested in, and what bores them bores them totally. You don’t find writers writing fiction novels about algebra and chemistry because there’s no book there. They’re boring except to those very few interested in algebra and chemistry. At the same time, there’s other artists that excelled academically, like Michael Crichton who’s a doctor. My sister was a straight A student like our mother. But school was a dreadful experience for me. Doing well in it can actually be a hindrance to healthy development.
Q: I don’t understand.
A: Let me give you an example. 95% of kids I knew who excelled academically in Carrot River had their personalities and characters distorted because they developed massive superiority attitudes, which is recognized as a personality disorder. As these people became haughty, they also became cold and insensitive. That’s doesn’t make for an attractive human being. A writer, by nature, is sensitive. That’s his instrument. Interestingly enough, among those same 95% who had such high opinions and expectations for themselves, few achieved anything higher than mundane middle-class careers and lives, but many still carry the ragged garment of that early attitude, like something faded and ridiculously out of fashion. ‘The failure of minor success,’ as Sinclair Lewis put it. That’s another thing I’ve observed about Carrot over the years, to further answer an earlier question. Part of my Grade 12 I did in the city and I didn’t see that same attitude among the brains. There they were treated more like geeks, for some reason, and responded accordingly. High marks are highly over-rated unless you’re heading for a profession. The two most successful people from my generation from Carrot are both oil biz millionaires—one’s worth over 45 million—and both are brothers and dropouts and both are still as down to earth as you can get. They came from one of the poorer farm families, and there were a lot of them in the ‘50s.
Q: University. Did you study creative writing?
A: No. I could see even then that like many critics, it was manned by failed writers, and I didn’t want to learn bad habits. I also didn’t want to study journalism because that would destroy my nascent style and lock it into the rigid journo one. I chose English lit so I could study the great writers, and I did a history minor, because I’ve always loved history, a close cousin of anthropology. I would have minored in anthropology, but Simon Fraser University was so new it didn’t have a department. Actually, I’m just as happy about that. Once I launched my anthro career, I wasn’t contaminated by latest-theory university thinking.
Q: That was the late ‘60s?
A: Sure was and SFU in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, was our Berkeley, and I was one of those raging, acid-gobbling, dope-smoking, “New Left”-wing pinkos. I had the best psychedelic painted Krautcan van in the Lower Mainland. There was much to rage at, the unbelievable hypocrisy of society, but after I left the cloistered, rarified air of university and descended to the ground, then my real education began. I have a bachelor’s degree—Christ, I even won a scholarship one year, me—but I have no respect for academia’s narrow pedestal mentality. I loved university, unlike public and high school, but it was hard then to come out of university without being bent to the left. Today, all the narrow-minded, Politically Correct bullshit emanates from universities. Very disappointing. Today, my politics are all over the map. Business—I’ve owned a few—taught me the value of free enterprise.
Q: But you started out as a disk jockey, right?
A: Yes, in 1970 after a year bumming around after graduation in Vancouver, Mexico and Europe I moved to Saskatoon. I couldn’t take Vancouver’s rain. I’m a prairie boy brought up with that big bright sky. They don’t call it the Wet Coast for nothing. I went to the local rock station, CKOM, looking for a job copywriting—writing commercials. They didn’t have a position—but they had an opening for a weekend swing, or all-night, jock. They gave me a voice test, said I had good pipes, and stuck me on the air. This segued into the regular all-night show, but I’m not a night person and I couldn’t take it after a year. The groupies were great but it was destroying my health.
In ’72 I moved to the Number One station, middle of the road CFQC. And I mean Number One. A year later, when I was Music Director, we commanded 82% of the Available Listening Audience. Put those last three words in caps. We tied with a 50,000 watt giant in Windsor booming into Detroit for the highest ratings in Canada. We were a hell of a creative team and CFQC was my multi-media university. Then I quit and traveled in Europe and the Middle East for a year and wrote a training bra novel in Victoria, B.C. The boss—
Q: A training bra novel? Let’s hear—
A: Forget about it. Every writer has one in the dresser. But it introduced me to the form. The boss had recognized my knack for writing after I’d done several documentaries, some, like with the Everly Brothers I’d interviewed, that had gone national, and the station kept a position open for me. I returned in ‘74, now in management as Promotion Manager, basically a producer. With our rating staying in the stratosphere, I produced documentaries, stage shows like Miss Teen Pageants and other promotions, one of which made national news on April 1, 1975 when I introduced Larmancaller Time, claiming that Canada, which had just finished switching from Fahrenheit to Celsius, was now switching from a 12-hour clock to a metric 10-hour one. The uproar in the province was such that Time magazine even called us! April Fool! Christ, it’s over a third of a century later and it still comes up in Toontown (Saskatoon).
All this opened freelance opportunities, like writing, directing and producing John Diefenbaker’s 80th birthday party at the local auditorium in ‘75. Dief was Prime Minister in the ‘50s, a Saskatchewan boy. Clearest mind I’ve ever encountered, brilliant speaker and unbelievable memory. He never forgot a name. The production involved over 300 people, and led to co-producing a TV special. After an article I wrote on another subject, I was invited to write a column for Westworld Magazine. I was writing the odd article for the local paper, and doing opinion pieces and the occasional documentary for CBC radio too, because we didn’t compete for the same audience. And since 1975 I was investing everything I made into revenue producing real estate, the start of the Mighty Holy Schoonover Empire as I jokingly call it, and managing it.
Q: Sounds like you were pretty busy!
A: Unbelievably so, but it was great. I was also entertaining with taped music at dances, weddings and parties. I wanted to be independent and I was in a hurry. When I was twelve back in Carrot, I remember standing on our lawn in the summer of ’58 looking around mentally at all the boring, wasted lives in town—how so many of the adults had dead eyes, that the curiosity had gone out of them—and I made a vow that I would live the most adventurous life I could. I also recognized the fact that I was lazy and wasn’t cut out for a working life, and since I didn’t have a rich dad that I’d have to work my ass off early so I could make enough so I could go back out to play again, and that’s more or less what I did—and I had fun doing it. I don’t know anyone successful who didn’t work twice as hard as the average Joe or Janet.
Q: Did you have any time for a social life?
A: Of course! That’s something that never, ever suffered, believe me. I’ve always loved to party. I had lots of girl friends during that great bedroom of opportunity between penicillin and AIDS.
Q: When did you cut free?
A: Of work? November 1977 and, as I like to brag, I’ve been gainfully unemployed ever since.
Q: What’d you do then?
A: Hit the road. Jack. I’d already been to Europe a couple of times and across Canada, Mexico and the Middle East—but now I started to travel big time. I’ve wanted to travel ever since my Grade Two teacher, my mother actually, built up the suspense, saying she was going to show us what the world looked like, then dramatically rolled down one of those maps of the world with chocolate bars in the corners. There was a bit of showbiz in Mom that time that’s normally not there, and her build up made an impression. I remember that moment distinctly. My first reaction was, wow, so that’s what it looks like. I didn’t even know there was a world minutes before! My second thought was disappointment at all the water. My third was, wow, I want to see it all! I’ve been a traveler all my life—my number one passion, even before writing. Well, after sex of course.
I headed off alone around the world. It’s the only way to travel unless you have someone finely attuned to the same interests as you, and that is rare indeed. I’ve traveled with four women and three of them were disasters. One had no interest, the second was a high strung, self-absorbed cactus and the third had different interests though we’re still close. The Dragon Lady and I melt into one person on the road, we’re at our very best on the road, it’s an enormous pleasure traveling with Su (Hattori).
I bused through Chicago to New York, then Europe, then the infamous Asia Overland Trail starting at Istanbul’s Pudding Shop, across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass and down into India and Sri Lanka. I left Tehran a month and a half before the Shah flew into exile, and it was in the midst of revolution, and a year after I left Afghanistan the Russians rolled in big time. They had a presence even then. In Kabul, I’d break curfew to sneak around at night and see Russian military vehicles moving. India was a challenge, let’s say, but Sri Lanka was incredibly beautiful. Burma, and especially Thailand, blew my mind and from there I flew to Manila, then back to Vancouver.
It was the greatest adventure of my life—and I’ve had a few—and it changed my life. I discovered anthropological collecting for museums—and Southeast Asia, the most exotic chunk of real estate on the planet. And when I got home after nine months and added up my checks from stringing travel to newspapers and my expenses I found that I’d made $3,900.00 while it had cost me $3,600.00 to go around the world! I had more than paid for it by stringing travel! That was a big boost to my confidence as a freelance photo-journalist and writer.
I also found that the Empire had doubled and, in one case, tripled in value while I was gone. So I sold one, bought another five, renovated them, and launched a 49% position in an art gallery-slash-jewelry store that summer of ’79.
Q: Did you continue to write travel?
A: Yes, of course. That was the most exhausting summer of my life but the one that really set me up—and I hit the road back to Asia, Oz and the South Pacific that fall. You can not go to Thailand just once, it’s so incredible. I was doing two things I truly loved—traveling and writing about it. I had all the major Canadian papers and three American, most notably the LA Times, picking up my stories. I specialized in the adventurous and exotic. Back then on the road, I’d go to the nearest Canuck embassy, borrow a typewriter to hammer out my stories, put together sixteen packages with photos I’d shot and mail them out. 5-6 papers could always be counted on to pick each one up, and I’d send out one a week when I was on the road. Mind you back then, a good paycheck was $125Cdn, some paid as little as $65, and the $225US from the LA Times was a big one. And I started to write for magazines too, though that was a narrower, tougher market, and they weren’t always honest. Scuba Times used one of my collaborator’s photos for their cover as well as my article and stiffed us. If you do business with the previous owner, M. Wallace Poole, or his editor, J’n Roberts, count your fingers afterwards.
Q: It sounds like a great life.
A: It was, and it got better. With my tearsheets (newspaper clippings), I plugged into the travel writing junket circuit and I can’t tell you how many free trips I’ve had to how many corners of the world. From sipping nautilus shell cocktails at the five-star Tambuli resort in the Philippines, to cruising down the Nile, to scuba diving in the Barbados. But junkets were too stifling, rigid and hectic so I began designing my own. Because I had tearsheets from all these major papers, anywhere I wanted to go all I had to do was contact the appropriate airline and I’d have a ticket comped. Then I’d contact the country’s tourism board and they’d set me up with five-star and resort hotels and tours doing whatever I wanted—scuba diving, trekking, sailing, you name it. It was an unbelievable life, traveling in luxury on a shoestring.
The wind went out of it in the early 1980s though, during that bad recession. Most papers switched to ripping stories off the teletype, which was free. After the recession, they never went back. Because I had the tearsheets, I could have continued forever, but when I couldn’t be assured of repaying my hosts, I stopped junketing. But by that time I was onto other things anyway.
Q: And that was?
A: Museum collecting. Actually, I was doing both for some time.
Q: How’d that get started?
A: On that first trip around the world in 1978, I discovered the Devil Dancers of Sri Lanka, an exorcist healing cult in which dancers wearing hideous masks and wild costumes dance before ill patients all night, cajoling disease-causing demons to leave their body. It was unbelievably colorful and dramatic! I had stumbled upon the beautiful beach town of Hikkaduwa in south-western Sri Lanka and was staying in a $1 a night room just inside the jungle. Like out of a movie, I could hear distant drums one evening deeper in the jungle, little knowing that they were sounding an important turning point in my life. There wasn’t any electricity. It was pitch black but for my little oil lamp. I asked the owner what was going on. (Does an accent.) “Devil dance, sar,” he replied, wobbling his head. “Driving the devil from a sick person.” I asked, “Can I go. . . ?” thinking it would be impossible. “No problem, sar, I’ll be very happy to take you.” He led me to a backyard clearing lit by Coleman lamps. The entire village was standing there and there were these wild dancers, drums, the whole catastrophe!
Q: And they let you stay?
A: To my delight, I was treated with the greatest respect, ushered to the front, given a chair and a cup of tea! As an honored guest, I stayed until dawn, enthralled. The patient swooned, had convulsions. It was incredible.
As I stumbled home at daybreak, weary, roosters in my ears, my mind was flying. With my multi-media background in documentaries, photo-journalism and love of anthropology—I’d read every available National Geographic before I finished high school—I couldn’t see how if I put together a major ethnological collection, documented it, shot Kodachromes and took sound recordings so that a museum could mount a multi-media exhibit that it wouldn’t find a home. And that’s exactly what happened. I spent one or two months rummaging around the jungle piecing together a 97-piece collection which UBC’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver scooped up. Two months later the Smithsonian Institution phoned asking if I still had the collection. For once, I was thinking fast and said, “No, but if anyone can collect another for you, it’s me.” There’s was a pause on the other end, then, “. . .That’s a good idea!” They sent me a contract and half my fee in advance and I threw my toothbrush back into my pack and I was off. After that, I spread out to museums around the world, but I had, and have, a long association with UBC’s MOA. In fact, their largest collections after their primary West Coast Native art are my Devil Dance collections. I’m particularly proud of that as it is an outstanding museum.
Q: I presume you moved to Asia then?
A: It’s funny, I never had any interest whatsoever in Asia before—but it totally surprised me and changed my life completely. You can’t understand what the word “exotic” means until you’ve been there, especially Thailand, as you can’t explain what it’s like in Asia without experiencing it personally. The unbelievable is regularly believable, the absolute opposite of my experience growing up in then stifling Carrot River and even North America, which has a spike up its ass in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I moved to Bangkok in ‘82. It’s at the hub of Southeast Asia and from there an equal distance to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines, in all of which I collected. In ’86 I realized another of my early Carrot River dreams when I was elected a Fellow of The Explorers Club of New York.
Q: Does the tropics have anything to do with the move?
A: Are you kidding? After all that forty degree below bullshit, as Lee Rivers says in Thai Gold? Like him, I headed to the tropics like a heat-seeking missile, and still have perma-frost in my bones. Like him, my favorite Canadian winter sport is scuba diving in the tropics. I hate snow and cold, both four letter words.
Q: It’s been noted that the similarities between Lee and Jason are pretty close. . . .
A: (Laughs.) He’s a little taller, but I think I’m little smarter. There’s a great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin is writing a fictional autobiography, the story of his life but with parts completely made up, as he says. Hobbes asks, “Why would you make up your own life?” Calvin replies matter of factly, “Because in my book, I have a flame thrower.” (Laughs.) That’s me—Calvin! But, yes, both Lee and I share the same anthro collecting background and, yes, both of us lived pretty debauched lives in Bangkok and have pretty debauched senses of humor. As least Lee still does, live a debauched life that is. Believe it or not, one actually grows out of all of that—taking four or six laughing, incredibly sexy girls home for a drunken all-night romp—after ten years. You find very, very few old Bangkok hands still into it after that.
Q: Getting into writing, when did you start seriously? I mean books?
A: 1983. Believe it or not, having Constant Fatigue Syndrome helped me make the decision that now was the time to try to write that novel if I was ever going to do it. I was one of the first people hit with CFS—before anyone knew about it. One day I woke up with what I thought was the flu. I thought, okay, I’ll just slow down on the housing work until it passes . . . but it didn’t pass. Two weeks went by, then three, then a month. I thought, okay, you have mono, but two tests came up negative. I took a battery of tests, all negative. I didn’t now what the hell was wrong with me, but I felt like a ton of lead, absolutely drained, no energy at all. I dragged myself around like that for a year and a half before I began reading snippets about other sufferers. That was a moment of enlightenment. All the doctors I saw, and there were several, proved themselves slow-to-catch-on and not a little arrogant. First of all, they thought it was all in my head—which all early sufferers experienced before it was finally recognized as a legitimate, if mysterious, ailment. Then, when it was popping up a lot in the press around ’85, still none that I saw were even aware of it, and I asked them. Then later, when I was one of the few to recover, I was haughtily told by Saskatchewan’s resident doctor specializing in it, my next door neighbor and a guy pretty full of himself, that I couldn’t have had it “because no one gets over it.” Well, it took four years, but I recovered, sorry. And I know two other people who have too. The medical community has its share of ignorance. I was glad when he moved.
Q: How’d you do it? Get over CFS?
A: My partner in the art gallery-slash-jewelry store proved to be, well, let’s say disorganized, so I pulled the plug and took my losses. It basically cost me a house. I also dumped an import biz I had in the early stages, and put the Empire under management. Then I rented a $1 a day bamboo hut on the white sand beach at Ko Samet in Thailand and began writing The Bangkok Collection, which reincarnated as Thai Gold. All day I’d happily sit on my tiny veranda on that island paradise and write. The next year I moved to Pattaya where I could rent an early Apple computer at Father Ray Brennan’s orphanage where he ran a computer school. He had read my manuscript, liked it, and said, ‘You’re a writer, writers don’t have any money, pay me when you get published,’ which I did. That’s why the Catholic Church isn’t dumped on in the book while practically every other religion takes a poke as a bad guy.
Q: Do you have something against religion?
A: Organized religion, with the exception of Jainism and Buddhism, I have no respect for. Christianity has always been a manipulative, controlling and limiting force in Western Civilization, and now that Pakistan has irresponsibly let the nuclear cat out of the bag, it’s just a matter of time before pious Islamics blow up New York or Washington or London or all of the above and more in the name of God. I’m on record with my friends for predicting a major attack like 9/11—actually greater, from an atomic bomb—for years and they all thought I was a little addled. 9/11 changed that. Catastrophe is inevitable now. The nuclear Pandora’s Box is open. In 5 years? Ten? I can’t imagine beyond twenty at the most. George Bush has stuck a thorn the size of the Space Needle in the side of the Islamic lion by invading Iraq, spawning hoards of future terrorists. He wasn’t able, after 9/11, to ask, ‘Now why do they hate us that much? I wonder if there might be a justified reason? Maybe I should have a look?’ No, everything was painted instantly as good versus evil, like in a simple-minded white-and-black hat Western or Star Wars. Sadly, that’s very shallow thinking. Islam has a very justified reason for being choked. The Palestinians deserve a state. They had their land taken from them. At the same time, the Israeli have justification on their side too. That’s what makes a conundrum. (Pause) I’m glad I’ve made it to the portals of my geezer years with so many good ones behind me because there’s hard times a’ comin’. Enjoy it while you can. Where were we? (Laughs) And we better hurry!
Q: You were telling us about your health. CFS.
A: Right. It took two and a half years before there was any change, then I began ascending a gradual incline and after another year and a half I, with enormous relief, pronounced myself healed and healthy again. I was in Acapulco then, in 1986. I had all my energy back. I can only attribute the combination of a beautiful, healthy environment, healthy Thai food, total relaxation, no stress and having something fascinating and creative to do that I loved. Unlike many, I suffered no mental diminishment. Perhaps because I didn’t have that far down to go anyway. (laughs)
Q: You’re lucky. I had a friend who lived in a fog.
A: I thank my lucky stars. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to come out of it. It was as much a mystery doing so as getting it, and still is. I thought I was going to be dragging myself around and looking haggard for the rest of my life. It was a low point physically, if not mentally. It didn’t really depress me either, like it does many others, I just felt like I was made of lead. And just as I was coming out of that, I nailed a big publisher—Bantam.
Q: It was that easy?
A: Hell no. I’d spent over a year sending it to 54 U.S. publishers “over the transom” as they call it. All rejected me. Then in 1987 I wrote to Jack McClelland, Canada’s foremost publisher and a Canadian legend who has made everyone from Leonard Cohen to Mordecai Richler famous, telling him of my woes—that I’d lived this life, written this adventure-thriller book using my background, with this hook, that I spelled colour c-o-l-o-r and my protagonist was American because I wanted to break into the U.S. market, but I was having doors slammed in my face and what’s the matter with them?
Jack wrote back, said my letter was “fascinating,” and asked me to send my manuscript and if he liked it, he would help me. In no time, he wrote back that he loved it! He was just selling his stake in his family business, McClelland and Stewart Publishing, and launched a career as an agent and I was his first client. Suddenly—another turning point—daunting doors that had been closed and welded shut, swung open like barn doors! In 1987 I flew to New York while Jack directed from Toronto. Simon and Schuster offered only $15,000, but that wouldn’t even cover the $17,500 I’d run up on my line of credit, since I’d stopped anthro collecting because of the fatigue thing, and to write. S&S wanted changes that ripped at my guts. Jack said, no problem.
Then while duck and goose hunting in Southern Alberta that fall with Leak, an old buddy I’ve been friends with since we were kids in Carrot, I—“
Q: Leak? What kind of a name is that?
A: A nickname. We all had one. I was Skin, short for Skinny which was my defining characteristic as a kid. (Laughs) Yes, kids are cruel. All us old kids still refer to each other with our nicknames. Luney-bin, Viking, Ol’ Griz. (Grins) It keeps us in touch with our youth. Anyway, I took a call on Leak’s truck mobile from Jack in Toronto and he asked if I was sitting. I said, I am now. He told me we had a $50,000US advance from Bantam for English speaking rights, which means world-wide rights, and another $12,500Cdn from Seal-Bantam in Canada. I couldn’t shoot straight for the rest of the day.
Q: That must have been quite a day! What was the average Canadian advance at that time?
A: About $3,000. Every writer has that JFK Dallas moment to tell, about hearing when their first book has been accepted for publication. The first book is always the toughest to get published, the second the hardest to write. But, yeah, finally my dream was coming true. 54 rejections!
After I returned from Bangkok the following spring, Jack called and said Bantam’s president and the editor-in-chief wanted me to fly to New York for lunch. Okay. So after passing Jackie Onassis walking out of the Bantam Building while I was walking in, I had lunch with them high over Manhattan. They were going to “super-list” the book—put out 750,000 copies, promote the hell out of it, make me a star. Heady stuff for a kid from Carrot River.
Q: Not a bad start!
A: Not bad at all. I did a month long cross-country promo tour in Canada first, some 52 radio, TV and newspaper interviews including Vicki Gabereau, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, but it unfortunately didn’t translate into sales for the hardbound edition. This caused the Bantam mother ship in New York to have second thoughts. I dunno, maybe I was boring on the air, but I was an old radio guy who hosted the highest rated show in the province, Sunday morning’s Best by Request for a time, but I’m being defensive. There were other factors. New York couldn’t see that although Seal-Bantam also super-listed it in Canada, that I was up against—for possibly the first time in Canuck publishing history—competition from most of the Canadian heavyweights bringing out books the very same fall. It was terrible timing for a first time author. So whose $30 hardbound are you going to buy for a Christmas present? Jason Who or Pierre Burton? Or Mordecai? Even ancient Morley Callaghan came out with a novel after many years. And Canadians just don’t have the same adventurous spirit as Americans, and I’m writing adventure. It was disappointing.
Anyway, New York pulled their superlisting, suggested changing the name to Thai Gold, which I liked from the start and agreed to. They did that because some reviewers called The Bangkok Collection, The Bangkok Connection—a drug story, which it was not. Thai Gold still did very well, selling 125,000 internationally and it’s since sold another 5,000 for Asia Books.
Q: Tell us about your second book.
A: Jack said my next novel would be my $500,000 book, but I just couldn’t get it to standards.
Q: You mentioned that second books are hard for writers.
A: It wasn’t just that. The Mighty Holy Schoonover Empire, besides being neither holy nor an empire wasn’t mighty either and had never been a real money maker because I carried high ratio mortgages, and managers are rarely motivated to work as hard to make as much as the owner can. I must have fired six incompetent or downright sleazy managers over the years. Toontown was just too small then to have good professional managers. There were times when I was carrying the mortgages on my then 8 multi-unit properties to some degree while on the road. Plus rents were steadily sinking throughout the ‘80s, which is another reason why I had to use my line of credit to stay afloat. I was taking a hell of a chance doing that, but I believed in the book. I knew it had a good chance for the brass ring. But it was a hell of a risk.
Q: You must have believed in yourself.
A: Me, the book, whatever. I even got a call from Revenue Canada in ’86 informing me that they planned to audit me. Completely perplexed, I asked, “Why are you auditing ME?” The man on the other end, actually sensitive for a tax guy, said that they noted a distinct drop in revenue in 1982. “Oh! That’s the year I moved to Thailand!” I replied. After three months of intermittently answering his questions, he was satisfied that there was a genuine reason for the drop and the audit was dropped. Christ, I didn’t have to cheat, that’s how little I netted in those shoestring days. I had an impressive gross, but a terrible net. I even declared my international anthro collections. I just don’t like legal hassles. I like peace of mind.
Anyway, just then, when Thai Gold was breaking, the vacancy rate bottomed out at 11.5% which is enormous. Schoonover Properties was teetering on the edge of insolvency, and I’d put too much work into it over the years to let it go back to the banks and destroy my credit rating to take a flyer on a second book. Between keeping it afloat and paying off my line of credit, I also didn’t have a lot of advance money left—but the real estate was “real,” as opposed to show biz, which ain’t.
Also, Thai Gold had squeezed me like an orange. The well was dry, parched and cracked at the bottom and, for the first time in my life, I had a horrendous case of writer’s block. I began to understand why Hemingway swallowed his shotgun. It’s depressing as hell for a writer when he can’t write. I opted to save my real estate and had to move back to Toontown from Bangkok to personally manage it. For the first year and a half, if a fridge didn’t go somewhere, and no one skipped, I netted $550 (Cdn) a month. It was not a situation conducive to writing, even if I wasn’t blocked. It was ironic, I had all this success, but I was plunged into a black hole. The universe instead of continuing to unfold as it should, folded up.
Q: You did write a book though?
A: Oh, yes. I wrote The Manila Galleon. I had a great idea, if nothing else. I wanted to challenge myself, to strike out into new fields and, boy, did I do that! I had two stories dovetailing, one in 1704, one in present times, and the research was immense. It’s really an anthropological-slash-archaeological adventure-thriller, and it’s deep into both, deeper than any book every written. That proved to be a problem because it’s perceived as too deep, although it has non-stop action as well. But the bottom line was I had bitten off more than I could chew. I’d never experienced this before either. The writer’s block and challenge were a rock and a hard place. Seal and Bantam justifiably turned it down. I rewrote it several time but Jack wasn’t able to flog it. He was willing to keep trying—he was beautiful man who loved writers, he’s since passed on—but I was the one who pulled the plug.
Q: But it’s been published? What happened?
A: Well, it’s a long story. The short of it is, I got over my block and did a re-write that booted it way up, to the levels and ever higher that I’d imagined in the beginning. The long of it is, after a couple of years, the economic climate began to turn around and people began moving back to Saskatoon. By this time Su, who works as a nurse three-quarter time running an ICU team, and has a half time position doing research, was nursing me back to health. I’d been acquainted with her for over ten years but didn’t know her very well, then came to realize how much we had in common. (Laughs) And she truly has great legs. In ’92, we bought a couple of properties in prime locations. By 1994, the Empire had moved well back from the edge, enough that I could return to writing part time.
Then I had a great idea for a book pop into my mind, headed downstairs, presented it to the Dragon Lady, she thought it over for a few seconds, then agreed, hmmm, good idea. But after the nightmare I had gone through with Manila, I was gun shy and extra cautious approaching Opium Dream. I pledged that I’d take all the time I needed writing it, free from outside pressure. Jack had retired so I didn’t have an agent telling publishers that I could spit out a book every 18 months. And I didn’t want an agent or a publisher at that point. I needed to satisfy myself that I could write another good book.
First of all, research trips were needed to Vietnam and Egypt—tough life being a writer! (Laughs) That took up a couple of winters. I was still managing the Empire in the summer, doing renovations and such, and a friend babysat it during the winter, when tenants tend to stay put and the biz is more stable. Then in ’98, I sold my worst property and paid off the rest and was suddenly afloat in money! No more fucking mortgages! I promptly hired a professional manager—one had finally risen through the rank ranks—and retired wholly from that ugly business with its too often ugly people. I instantly went from 5-6 Tums a day, down to 1-2 a week and eventually to 1-2 every few months.
Since Opium Dream was set in Asia, I began spending winters back in Bangkok writing while Su stayed in Toontown pulling plugs in ICU, though she’d fly out for six weeks in the middle and we’d do a research trip somewhere. I’ve got a rare, mature, intelligent and understanding woman, I’ll tell ya, one of the keepers, and then there’s those legs as a bonus—and the book is deservedly dedicated to her. As I nervously tiptoed deeper into it, I realized that the block had dissolved, and that indeed the well was full and overflowing again. It still took me a long time, because I savored the writing, and Opium Dream turned into one hell of a book, sweeping from Saigon and Bangkok to Afghanistan and Egypt. I knew writing it that I would never get the chance to work with characters and a plot this good again. . . .
Q: I’ve read the book. Tell me about the characters?
A: Three of them were modeled on the most fascinating people I’ve ever known. It’s no secret in Bangkok that The Lion and The Lion’s Den in Thai Gold are based on Tiger and Lucy’s Tiger Den. It’s the ex-pat bar I hung out in and was the one frequented by retired spooks, ex-special forces, mercenaries, foreign correspondents and the like. It was a deep well of characters for a writer. There’s an Air America reunion scene in Thai Gold where, for color bg, I wrote thumbnail sketches of three guys attending, and it was based on a real AA reunion by the way.
All three were models for major figures in Opium Dream. One of these was the legendary CIA paramilitary operative Tony Po. He’s the single most incredible man I have ever met—unbelievably brave and outrageous, and at the center of most major Asian CIA operations in the ‘50s to the ‘70s, from parachuting agents into Red China to whisking the Dalai Lama out of Tibet.
His almost equally legendary partner became a very good friend of mine, Jack Shirley, so good I almost did his biography which we were going to title CIA Hitman, because he had done a dozen sanctioned hits from Asia to Europe. For one, he was awarded the Intelligence Star by CIA Director John Foster Dulles, though the reasons given were different. We didn’t because we couldn’t figure out a way to write it without laying him open to murder charges, despite some of these hits being decades old. “Zapping” Jack used to call it. (Laughs) Like out of a book.
Both spooks were instrumental in the CIA’s Secret War in Laos in the ‘60s. Tony was touted in the international press a few years ago as the model for Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now, down to his bald head, and both did run rebel armies deep in the jungle, and Tony did drunkenly tell the American ambassador in Vientiane to go fuck himself on secure radios. He was so brave his loyal Hmong wouldn’t fight for anyone else, hamstringing the furious ambassador. In one legendary shootout at an airfield, he popped something like 17 North Vietnamese regulars before being seriously wounded himself.
I think the Brando-Po connection was a coincidence. Coppola, and certainly Brando, couldn’t have known about Tony while in the Philippines shooting the movie in the mid ‘70s. Dennis Hopper’s war photographer model, Tim Page and a friend of mine, thinks so too.
The third was Jimmie the Belgian, one of the few genuine mercenaries I’ve known. There’s a lot of wannabee Soldier-of-Fortune bullshitters passing through Bangkok, but he was the real thing, with a career arc from the Congo to working for the Thais. They all passed on during the writing of Opium Dream—that’s how long it took! (laughs)—which is why I can reveal their names and Jack’s sensitive background. (Pauses) Both Jack and Jimmie had their livers pack in, a not uncommon Bangkok hazard.
Q: So that’s why the characters rang so true.
A: That’s Bangkok—it attracts the most fascinating, adventurous people in the world. Lucy’s Tiger Den is gone so today you find most of them at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand where you’ll find me Friday nights when I’m in town. I have a stool engraved: Jason Schoonover, Resident Lounge Crocodile And Pornographic Writer. Put the last bit in caps.
Q: I’ve lost my thread. I think we started out talking about how you got The Manila Galleon published?
A: Right. About then, two good friends of mine surreptitiously lent a hand. Unbeknownst to me, Jerry Hopkins and Collin Piprell independent of the other talked to Rich Baker. Rich is the editor at Asia Books where Collin is published. They suggested that he should republish Thai Gold, since it was the only novel at that point by a Bangkok based writer to reach an international audience. That was especially generous of Collin because he writes in the same genre as me, adventure-thrillers with a tongue-in-cheek twist. Collin’s got a great sense of humor on and off the page and is one of my favorite Bangkok people, and there’s a lot of those. Amazingly enough, his roots are in stubble-jumping Saskatchewan too, though he left as a baby, and Canada after high school and a Rhodes Scholarship and never returned, never having felt at home in Canada, which I understand. I used to get reverse culture shock for years when I flew back to check on the Empire and visit family.
Q: The Manila Galleon?
A: Getting there. So I rewrote Thai Gold, booting it up to a considerably better book, and Asia Books published it. It was at the top of their bestseller list for some time, and on and off their top ten list, I’m pleased to say. When I finally was satisfied with Opium Dream, they published it next, and the reception and reviews have been excellent.
Q: When do we get back to The Manila Galleon? (Laughs)
A: Right now. At this point I revisited Manila after ten years—the book I had cut off more than I could chew with. And—to my delight, considerable relief and satisfaction—found that I’d grown considerably as a writer, enough so that I booted this up into a hell of a book too, one I’m particularly proud of. Writing is a subconscious thing, no author dares to arrogate that he writes the book, rather that he’s a medium between the subconscious and the paper. My subconscious learned a lot during that dry period when it was reconstructing, and during the writing of Opium Dream and rewriting of Thai Gold and all that found fruition in The Manila Galleon. However, Asia Books shied away from it because it was set in the Philippines, beyond their area of interest. Filipino publishing just isn’t profitable. My agent didn’t think it would sell because of the unconventional structure, the use of accents, which are out of favor right now, and because it’s simply too deep into esoteric anthropology and archaeological themes for a broad readership to swallow. Yet, I think if anyone is interested in National Geographic, they’ll be interested in this. But It’s a very tough market for fiction right now. So I did what a lot of my friends and colleagues in Bangkok do, from Stephen Leather to Dean Barrett, Christopher Moore and Steve Van Beek and many more, I published it myself. Traditional U.S. publishing has entered a Dark Age, forcing fiction writers to take care of themselves. Fortunately, for every door that closes, another opens, and that opening door is opening out onto the world through the Internet. It’s a brave new and exciting world.
Q: What’s happened to New York publishing?
A: The New York biz has changed dramatically since Thai Gold. Sales are way down, especially for fiction. We had one editor in New York who thought Opium Dream was quote simply a great book unquote but couldn’t get it past the editorial board because there was so much time between novels, despite the 125,000 sales, which he said were figures today they’d normally “die for.” Thanks to competition from a zillion cable channels, the Net, video games and decreasing reading standards in schools, readership is going down the tubes, though non-fiction continues to hold its own. But unless you’re a name fiction writer, fergit it. Publishers won’t get behind you. Some of the major houses are even laying of staff, it’s that bad.
Q: But your career seems to be taking off again. What’s this about a movie?
A: Yeah, I’m happy. The Phoenix seems to be taking flight and may it continue. Though when I look at many of my friends like Steve Van Beek and Chris Moore with 25-30 books, I feel pretty insignificant. I also signed a contract with Pilgrims books in Nepal and India for Nepal Gold, another retread of The Bangkok Collection.
Q: Movie, movie, movie.
A: I’m getting to that. After Thai Gold was republished, I was contacted by an LA indie with a good track record. I wrote the screenplay in collaboration with one of the producers, Bangkok based Kevin Chisnall who has 30 years experience in the biz, mainly doing special effects for everyone from George Lucas to Mutiny on the Bounty, but also producing. Unfortunately, like the vast majority of projects in development, it stalled. At one point we had investment of 18 million and just needed the other 15% when it fell through. My Hollywood side producer Lars—that’s Lars Bjorck who produced Havoc in 2005, written by academy award winner Stephen Gaghan—is still keeping it alive. Hell of a flick, Havoc. Hollywood High gangstra wannabees meet the real thing in East LA, a brilliant reflection of the times piece, like East of Eden, The Wild Ones and Easy Rider. Why New Line, who produced the hobbit triology, sent it straight to video is difficult to understand. Both Lars and Kevin were delightful to work with, two of the most fluid, creative minds I’ve met. We had tremendous fun and make a great team. Hopefully We’ll still get to work together. We’d love to.
Q: Well, good luck. Let’s change the subject. You obviously enjoy the outdoors.
A: That’s one of the great legacies of Carrot River. Since the forest started two blocks from where I lived, I grew up in it and early fell in love with nature. I grew up building huts in the bush, snaring rabbits, camping, canoeing, fishing. Boy Scouts was my greatest childhood experience. Outdoors means adventure—following Huey, Duey and Louis around, like I did religiously when I was a kid with those great Walt Disney comics. Every boy got a .22 rifle when he turned 14 as a rite of passage. I was the top marksman in Army Cadets in a shoot-off among regional towns one year, though a friend got the bronze medal because a befuddled kid had mixed up signed targets before we shot. The only reason I say this now is because both the friend and the kid have passed on. I beat him by a point. I wasn’t athletic and outside of being a pool shark, I didn’t win many awards. Wait a minute, I cleaned up on swimming and diving awards one summer, but that’s because I was the only kid to take Red Cross swim courses at summer camp, where I learned to do the crawl and so on. I’m like a fish in water. Anyway, his wife gave me the medal. I think you call that a pyrrhic victory. I’ve always wanted to use that word in a sentence. Not sure if I pronounced it right though. (Laughs)
I’ve got a gun rack in my Fishing Room, shotguns for birds and various rifles for small and big game, but I hunt for the table, not the wall. I’ve always had trouble with the actual kill, and try to make it fast and clean, but I feel the primordial urge to hunt. It’s in our male genes, and as an anthropologist, I answer that call and revel in it. I can feel man’s earliest roots when I’m in a forest or field with a gun, senses honed. And I love venison and game. The deep freeze if full of elk, moose and whitetail right now, as well as grouse, ducks and geese. We eat gourmet all year. It’s also healthier.
Q: You’ve mentioned canoeing a couple of times. Something about a Voyageur list?
A: I’ve trekked all over the world, in the Himalayas several times, including to Everest twice, into jungles all over Southeast Asia. But as much as I love all those other outdoor activities and as rich as they are culturally, there’s no better way to get as close to nature, to recharge those batteries, to feel so whole, and full, and alive, as crossing a couple of portages to leave civilization behind and live by the weather. Canoeing is a great teacher. It teaches you that it’s all about the journey, not the destination. You can think you know someone for 30 years, then you go canoeing with him and learn you didn’t know him at all. Likewise, it can bring out the best in yourself, meeting the physical, and even more important mental challenge. It’s a great crucible.
We’ve got a gorgeous, red, Kevlar 17.5 foot, Hellman prospector canoe with golden ash trim, and 26-ounce, 4-wood laminated Voyageur paddles, that glides at a blistering 3.5 mph and over 6 in bursts. It weighs only fifty-four pounds. Each summer I lead groups of friends on two canoe expeditions into northern Saskatchewan, one a flatwater, the other a whitewater.
Saskatchewan doesn’t have much to brag about, but it has the best canoeing in the world. Minnesota boasts on its license plates about having 10,000 lakes. We have 100,000 in the northern half and try to keep quiet about it. Saskatchewan was also the heart of the fur trade, and all the explorers from Franklin to Fraser to Thompson to MacKenzie passed through on the river highways, crossing the very same portages as I do—and the country is as pristine today as the day they passed by. It’s especially exciting to follow rivers and portages that Alexander MacKenzie did on his way to the Pacific in 1793. It was his then famous journals Jefferson studied before sending Lewis and Clark on their expedition in 1805.
I have over 100 friends on my Voyageur List, and people fly in from all over North American and Bangkok. Did you know you can paddle clear across Canada with only one 12-mile long portage? That’s why the canoe is synonymous with Canada. It should have been called Canoeada. (Laughs)
Q: What are your other interests?
A: Gosh, just about everything except opera and Brussels Sprouts. The ologies mainly. Besides anthropology, there’s archaeology, paleontology, genealogy, certainly gynecology (laughs). I’ve got a great dino bone collection from numerous expeditions to the Alberta badlands. Philip Currie and his wife Eva Koppelhus and others at the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller are friends and I’ve been in the field with them. I’ve been scuba diving since ’67 and have dived all over the world. Trekking we both love, and traveling certainly, an integral part of ours lives. We go somewhere in the world every year. One of our favorite treks was heading way back in Laos shortly after it opened to the world and we found an untouched Hmong village to stay with. By that I mean they still wore their traditional costumes and lived traditionally. It was an extremely rewarding experience. I’ve trekked numerous sections of the Death Railway in Thailand and find it absolutely fascinating. The karma in the air there is incredible, turgid with man’s inhumanity to man, the suffering and the cruelity. I’ve found all kinds of things, spikes, rods, shrapnel, even a long spoon shaped device for cleaning grit out of holes being drilled for blasting. To hold these in your hand and wonder about the last man to hold it, what he was going through, who he was, is something. Each piece has an aura.
I love fishing, a rod in one hand, and a cold beer in the other. I love tromping around in forests and wild mushroom hunting is a good excuse. I know enough about them that one rainy summer, we ate sixteen different species. I know a lot about wild food gathering. I find cooking very creative and do most of it around home. I love sailing and crewed in the Phang Nga Regatta for some years. We did quite well, winning a bronze one year, a silver another.
Q: Where’s that?
A: Near Phuket, in Thailand.
Q: Where the tsunami was. Were you there for it?
A: No, I was in Bangkok that morning having coffee. I was on the main floor of my usual restaurant reading the morning papers and didn’t feel anything, but as I walked home, workers were streaming out of high rises under construction. They had been swaying. When I got back to my place the receptionist was on her cell, all excited. There’d been an earthquake. I didn’t think anything of it. I’d experienced tremors over the years and this one I didn’t even feel. I took the Skytrain to the Weekend Market and when I got home, switched on BBC—and, boom, there it was. The tragedy we all watched for weeks afterwards. Fortunately, none of my friends in Thailand were affected, though many friends in Sri Lanka were devastated. We managed to raise money for them, but it wasn’t enough. . . .
Q: We were talking about your interests.
A: Right. And, of course, I’ve been a collector all my life and never threw anything out. I’ve still got the ball glove I got in Grade Four and my Boy Scout hat on the Fishing Room wall and everything in between. I’ve always been partial to jazz, though I love rock and pop, of course. Being Music Director was the best job I ever had and I once had hundreds of albums, all free. The music today, if that’s what Hip Hop or Rap or whatever it is, is, is the shits. More a boring repetition of the same beat with lyrics I can’t understand and when I do, sound negative and violent. But then I’m over fifty. The geezer generation always hates the new wave. (Laughs)
Q: You’re very much into genealogy. What nationality is Schoonover?
A: Dutch actually, though we left in 1652 for New Amsterdam. It was originally Van Schoonhoven, named after the gold-smithing town in the south near Rotterdam. Schoonhoven translates as either “beautiful garden” or “beautiful harbor” and both are applicable. I started sleuthing in 1968 when I was still in university, and it’s unbelievable the amount of material I was able to dig up in 35 years. I’ve even got period drawings of two houses built by Klaus, the earliest Schoonover to come to New Amsterdam, where Wall Street stands today! One of his plots was where the entrance to Trinity Cathedral is today, at the foot of Wall Street.
Other ancestors came even earlier. The earliest was Phillippe Wiltse and his wife in the spring of 1623 on the ship The New Netherland. They lived in Brook’s Land, what is now Brooklyn, until he moved to a new colony at Swaanendel on the Delaware where he was massacred by Indians in 1632. Their daughter married the notorious Kit Davids, who came over from England in 1638. Kit was such a colorful, independent rascal that he’s has chapters devoted to him in two separate books. He was a founding father of Kingston on the Hudson, sold brandy to the Indians, brawled, was often at loggerheads with Peter Stuyvesant but when Peg Leg needed an Indian translator or guide when there was Injun troubles, it was always Kit he turned to.
We moved west in 1857. In 1862 we were chased out of Minnesota for a year in the Great Sioux Uprising. We were in Missouri when Jesse James was running wild. My great-grandfather was an actor, playwright and producer and ran a tent show up and down the Midwest out of Missouri for 25 years until the Depression destroyed him. It was his first wife, a Norwegian-Swede mix who hated show biz, who brought my grand-dad up to Canada in about 1904. The actor’s father fought in the Spanish-American war in the Battle of Manila in 1896 and spent a lot of time in the brig for disobeying orders and raising hell. Proud of that lad.
It’s all in a book called Westward from New Amsterdam I wrote which is so long and full of photos that it’s on DVD. I offer it on my website and the Schoonover Master Tree website Milwaukee Mary runs, and part of the revenue goes to maintain it. It’s useful not only to Schoonovers everywhere but anyone doing their genealogy. This is because I put the historic background behind all the generations to breath life into them and this can be used by anyone. For Schoonovers, they can plug in their own branch and make use of it, plus we all share the detailed early years. We’ve been around so long we’re allied to the families of three presidents, and Mayor Lindsay of New York was a distant cousin and so is Captain Beefheart. There’s about 50,000 of us in North America, mostly in the U.S. After so long in the New World, I’ve got over ten nationalities chasing each other around in my blood. A real mongrel. (Laughs)
Q: What’s next?
A: I’ve got an idea for another non-fiction project, actually the one that led to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives but I don’t want to talk about it.
For now I’m looking forward to another summer of canoeing. (Laughs) Su tells people, with a shake of her head, about the time we were descending Peru’s Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest and it’s incredibly spectacular and I was counting down the days until we could go canoeing in Canada again.
A: Not a bad lifestyle for a kid from Carrot River.
Q: For a skinny kid from Carrot River.