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Tyee Books

'Never Shoot a Stampede Queen'

Author Mark Leiren-Young on small town newspapers, Cariboo culture, country loving, and more.

By Heather Ramsay 22 Dec 2008 |

Heather Ramsay is a Tyee contributing editor based in Queen Charlotte City.

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Mark Leiren-Young: 'It makes you more human.'
  • Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo
  • Mark Leiren-Young
  • Heritage House (2008)

Once a city boy has gone country, does he ever go back again? Mark Leiren-Young hasn't. Sure he spends time in the city, but when we caught up with the hardworking screenwriter, comedian, playwright and freelancer (who often writes for The Tyee) to talk about his new comic memoir Never Shoot a Stampede Queen -- A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo, Leiren-Young was once again enjoying a rural life.

From his window in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, he can see chickens scratching and a miniature horse grazing. "They're in the neighbour's yard," he says, but so what? He spends half of his time in Maui anyway ("If I say it, it will come true," he incants after a recent six-month stint there). But don't think he's luxuriating in the posh beach resorts of Kaanapali -- he's in the upcountry village of Haiku, where the noise of cattle lowing at the ranch across the road ensure he gets a cowboy's start to the day.

Leiren-Young, who grew up in Vancouver, may never have intended to continue the rough and ready lifestyle he first found in the Cariboo and, as writes in his book, he certainly never intended to be a small town reporter. But the experience stuck.

It was all an accident, he writes. Sometime back in the 1980s, clutching his "waiter's degree" (a double major in theatre and creative writing from the University of Victoria), the enthusiastic young man trundled off to Toronto to take a job as the artistic director of a children's theatre company. When the company dissolved before he'd even gotten through the front door, he, at the ripe old age of 22, was left with very few options. (Read the book to find out more about his close call at becoming a cookie scab.)

A phone call back to B.C. led Leiren-Young to a job at the venerable Williams Lake Tribune, the flagship paper of Cariboo Press, a chain owned by local press baron David Black (no relation to Conrad). Although Leiren-Young didn't even know where the central-Interior town was, he soon became immersed in Williams Lake's gas station hold-ups (it's been called the "crime capital of B.C."), grisly road accidents and rootin' tootin' rodeo stars.

In just a few short months, the city boy sat nervously across the courtroom from a man accused of sexual assault (he had a bomb strapped to his chest); he'd investigated a slum landlord's scheme, which resulted in threats to his person involving a steel pipe, and he'd walked a rail line in a blizzard to investigate a deadly toxic gas leak. On a less life-threatening note, he encouraged his co-workers to form a union, felt the rush of forcing a local politician to step down and pissed off a posse of Stampede princesses by taking terrible photos of them.

He got to like his small town reporter's beats, but he didn't stay. Before a year was up, he went back to the city. "It had more to do with what I wanted to go off and do. I still wanted to go and do theatre. I wanted to do freelance. Office jobs have never really appealed to me and that's pretty much the only one I've ever had," he says.

Ironically, he says, now that he's in charge of his own work hours, he works more than he ever did at the desk job, "But they are my hours." And he gets to choose his own stories, like the ones he tells in The Green Chain, a film he wrote, directed and produced about issues faced in dying logging communities. After winning awards on the festival circuit, it's set to hit Canadian theatres early in 2009. Leiren-Young has also written several plays and scripts for television (including one he is being quite secretive about now), not to mention he's a columnist at The Tyee.

On the book jacket, Will Ferguson calls Leiren-Young "the funniest writer you've never heard from" and Peter C. Newman says Never Shoot a Stampede Queen is a mixture of Leacock and Freud thanks to his "wry humour" and his efforts at "psychoanalyzing the rural psyches of his cast of kooky characters."

After sitting on the stories for the last 20 years, friends finally encouraged him to send the manuscript to a publisher and the new book in B.C.-based Heritage House Publishing's fall line let others experience Leiren-Young's wild ride through a newsroom in the Cariboo.

Over the course of our conversation, here's what Leiren-Young had to say:

On the crazy things people are willing to do for a job when they're 20:

"You do all sorts of stupid things and don't realize how stupid they were until way later. Re-reading and editing the book (which he did in Maui, by the way), there were certain things where I went, 'Oh my God, the radio reporter and I really did trudge through snow looking for a toxic gas spill. He and I never blinked at the thought that we were going to walk through the snow, in the middle of nowhere, following a rail line, so that we could find a toxic gas spill and report on it. And honestly it didn't cross my mind until writing the book how crazy that was. There was no point during the whole time I was in Williams Lake that my friends and I ever turned to each other and went 'wow, we could have died!'

"I do think there is something about when you are a reporter, you think you are invulnerable. Because you are not part of the story, you think that you can just go and watch and you'll be okay."

On the power a reporter has in a small town:

"I think reporters have much more power in small towns and small beats. For the most part, reporters and reviewers pretend that they don't. If you talk to, let's say, arts critics, they will absolutely deny they have the power to destroy a show or a theatre company. But when the difference between success and failure is 1,000 bodies, of course you can make a difference.

"In a university paper or a small-town paper, of course your voice has more clout, because everybody is reading it -- the whole community. If you are writing for the Ubyssey, pretty much everybody at UBC is going to pick up that paper. So if you attack a student politician, that hits harder, in some ways, than if you are writing for the Vancouver Sun and you attack a politician."

On living the rural life:

"It comes back every so often. I go through phases of cities and then I go through phases of small towns. As for Gibsons? I always thought it would be a fantastic place to live. I shot the first day of my movie here, so I had my first day as a movie director here. I stayed out here for a couple of days to do that and I thought, 'I want to live here some day,' so I contacted the friends whose house we shot the movie at and said do you know anywhere to stay and they said, 'yeah we're actually renting out the house where we shot the movie.' So how could I say no to that? If I ever sleep in my bed, I'm in the same bed as the first night when we shot The Green Chain. But there's a wood stove in the living room and its very fun sleeping next to the wood stove, so I end up there instead."

On city people's stereotypes of rural life:

"When I was 16 years old, I went across Canada to St. John's, Newfoundland. I stayed at a youth hostel there and ended up in a conversation about the seal hunt. This was at the time when the seal hunt was 'the ultimate evil in the entire world.' I said all of the things that I'd ever learned as a young Vancouverite with Greenpeace in my blood. Stuff like, 'Well you don't even eat the seals.' And they turned around and said 'You want some flipper pie? We'll give you some right now.'

"[At the time] I had never seen such a level of poverty in my life, as when I was in St. John's. I hadn't even imagined it. So when I came back and I was in some high school class, I remember the teacher trying to explain the concept of consensus. She said there are certain things that everybody believes, like, 'Everybody believes the seal hunt is wrong. Right?' Mine was the only hand that didn't shoot up, because I wasn't sure anymore. I knew [hunting baby seals] was mostly wrong. I knew it upset me, but I didn't know what you were supposed to say to those really poor people I'd met in Newfoundland who weren't eating. And I went okay, this isn't as simple as I thought and I want to know more.

"The Green Chain came out of that as well. You've got a whole generation of people who used to be able to get out of school and go straight into jobs that paid an insane amount of money and then those jobs just disappeared. So going, hey, you can go plant trees for $12 an hour, that's not necessarily going to excite everybody [in rural BC].

"I met loggers in Williams Lake who had jobs and I met loggers who had lost their jobs and the stories really stuck with me. I was coming from Vancouver going, 'logging bad.' 'Loggers bad." Then you go there and you go, 'oh, hmm, this is how somebody pays the bills, it's a little more complicated than I thought."

On why city people should get out in the countryside to learn a few things:

"I've always been a really proud British Columbian. When I was in Toronto, I thought if I stay here any longer I'm going to become a B.C. separatist because I would listen to people and they knew nothing, nothing, nothing about B.C. And I would start to seriously resent the level of stereotyping and the level of ignorance. I think when you are living in a small town or a smaller community like Williams Lake or Smithers or take your pick of communities outside of Vancouver and Victoria, I think you've got to start to resent the people in the city who are telling you how you are supposed to be living your life."

On why Williams Lake was known as the crime capital of BC:

"It's the hub of the Cariboo-Chilcotin. I don't think it's so much that all the people who live in Williams Lake make it the crime capital, but I think it's the fact that Williams Lake is where you come in to party from everywhere around. If people are looking to let off some steam, it's the big city for pretty much everywhere around there. So you get vandalism, petty theft, fights -- your general rowdy crime."

On why there were so many sexual assault cases in Williams Lake while he was there:

"There was a reason for that, because Campbell River was also seeing the same kind of thing. I tried to figure out the rationale and what the police explained to me is that they used to set up these sexual assault units. They would go into communities and educate people about the signs, what to look for, and tell them that if these things are happening you need to report it. So they were catching stuff that had been going on for years. It's not that there was a sudden outbreak, which is what it seemed like in the 1980s and 90s, but there was a sudden awareness that this has been going on forever. Suddenly it was being reported and the laws were changing and somewhere in there teachers were ordered to report things that they didn't used to report, too, so there was an incredible rise in awareness. That wasn't the only crime that was there, but as the court reporter, that was a lot of what I was covering."

On how it felt, just before he left Williams Lake, to attend a Valdy concert and see "everybody" -- the police, the families he'd interviewed from the slums, people he'd seen in court and others -- smile like they knew him:

"I kind of loved it. It's one of the reasons that I've drifted back to smaller communities where everybody knows everyone. But it's an interesting challenge as a journalist. At its best I think it makes you more human as a reporter. At its worst I'm sure it scares you off stories."