As an Edmontonian, I have a particular Spidey-sense when it comes to criticism of my city. As a writer in Edmonton, I have to have a few arrows in my quiver at the ready at all times to thwart ignorant comments that occasionally come my way about being able to succeed as a writer here. With sound barrier-breaking quickness I can throw out a “What about Lynn Coady who won the Giller Prize?” Or “What about Marina Endicott who was nominated – multiple times – for the Giller Prize?” Or “Whatsisname who wrote that one book.'” These aren’t just names, they’re artists I look up to. They found inspiration, work, maybe even success through Edmonton in some way and that’s what I want, too. You can imagine my surprise and excitement when I received a message from one of these very writers one day telling me he’d read some of my work and asked me to lunch.
It was the most quintessentially Edmonton kind of plan you could make. A midday lunch in early summer at Sugarbowl, gem of the Garneau crown. Sugarbowl is a place I always think of as being filled with people who have Edmonton all figured out. Maybe we’d luck out and get a seat on the patio. I wore shorts, sandals and a T-shirt. He wore a suit that looked like he was heading to a garden party at Justin Trudeau’s house. It looked like I was about to have lunch with an ad for Perrier – a new kind of Perrier that had extra bubbles. Perrier Ultra. We were off to a roaring start. I don’t remember if Sugarbowl takes reservations but – let’s call him “Stanley” – looks like he always has a reservation everywhere he goes. The server takes our order. I choose the mac and cheese. It was way too hot for mac and cheese. All that dairy! He orders objectively the coolest things you can order on the menu: Huevos rancheros. I am beyond intimidated at this moment.
Stanley is as disarming as he is confident. He said some nice thing about my writing, we talked about our time at university, travel, family and his business. He asked if I thought I would ever be interested in working for a company like his some day. I answered enthusiastically in the affirmative. Maybe too enthusiastically? This was the problem in the days after our lunch. I analyzed every detail over in my head. Had I done this meeting right? Was I now officially a member of the Edmonton literati? Was it just a friendly first meeting between peers? A job interview? I was clueless.
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He didn’t offer any advice and I didn’t ask for his agent’s phone number so the meeting wasn’t a total disaster, but all these years later I still feel like I failed that first encounter with Stanley. There are still corners of my brain that think I missed out on some publishing or employment opportunity, if only I had answered his questions better or maybe dressed the part a little more. It took me five years writing, organizing literary events and projects in Edmonton to see this meeting as what it was really supposed to be: A pat on the back. The proverbial “attaboy.” Stanley just wanted to say as much in person.
After all, it has been Stanley who has been saying for years that Edmonton isn’t a creative plutocracy, it’s a meritocracy. There is no ring you have to kiss in order to succeed here. It’s what you are working on and how you go about your business that will get you the attention you deserve and then maybe somebody takes you out for huevos rancheros and then one day you are able to pay it forward.
Jason Lee Norman publishes Monto Books and edits Funicular magazine. He lives, eats and writes in Edmonton.