Ron Sexsmith was sitting in the waiting room of Penguin Random House Canada with the manuscript for his first book – Deer Life – in hand when a copy of Alice Munro’s Dear Life, sitting on a nearby shelf, caught his eye.
“It was just an accident,” laughed the Canadian singer-songwriter of the title similarities. “I had never heard of it before. And I’m just glad mine was spelled differently.”
Sexsmith, an internationally acclaimed musician with multiple Juno Awards to his name, is in London this weekend, part of the lineup for the fourth iteration of Words: London’s Literary and Creative Arts Festival, taking place Nov. 3-5. The festival is an annual event, organized in partnership with The Public Humanities at Western, bringing together Canadian authors of local, regional and national acclaim, for a celebration of creative ideas, artistic expression, and cultural diversity.
Sexsmith recently released his first book, Deer Life with Dundurn Press.
“I first got the idea in a dream back in 2012, and I kept thinking about it, as a movie at first, maybe a musical. It morphed into a children’s book with pictures, but the fellow at Penguin, when I told him about the idea, thought it was a novel. He encouraged me to write it that way, and even though they didn’t end up taking the book, he got me started,” Sexsmith said.
Just north of 100 pages, featuring illustrations done by Sexsmith, the book has been dubbed an “adult fairy tale.”
It’s “very old fashioned,” Sexsmith said, a “classic fairy tale,” about a boy who goes on an ill-fated hunting trip and accidentally kills a dog that belongs to a witch. It is meant to appeal to readers of all ages.
Accustomed to writing 10-15 songs at any given time, he didn’t exactly set out to write the book that he did. He didn’t know how to tackle it, how to execute it, how to proceed with revisions, regressions and progressions. While song-writing is an organic process that takes place during and between things like walking and raking leaves, writing Deer Life required a more deliberate approach, Sexsmith said.
“It was a challenge. I was on the road, touring a record and we had these really long drives and I thought this would give me something to do on the drives. I typed every day and was typing in dressing rooms, hotel rooms. The guy at Penguin gave me a deadline and that was good. I just worked at it, but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he explained.
“It came to light as I was writing. I didn’t know what was going on or what was going to happen. I was on the edge of my seat, actually, towards the end, especially. I didn’t know how it was going to end.”
He went through 16 rough drafts before arriving at the final product.
Sexsmith credits his love of books as both the training and impetus for embarking on this new project. As is the case with music, his literary preferences lean towards established classics – he’s “not up with a lot of current things.” He loves Charles Dickens. Mark Twain. Hans Christian Andersen. But Sexsmith doesn’t find inspiration in works of others, he noted. Music and books are about enjoying the art forms for what they are. Inspiration comes as it may and, often, he knows when he is onto something, when he has the kernel of a good idea. That’s the case with songs, anyway, he added.
“This book thing was just really different. You had to sit down and try to write every day, and get further with it, and go back and fix stuff, and read it again. There is a lot of tweaking,” Sexsmith explained.
He is working on a sequel to and a musical based on Deer Life and is looking forward to participating in Words this weekend.
“I’ve been doing a few festivals and it’s just kind of encouraging these things are happening, in the smaller towns and the bigger towns, and people are still enthusiastic about books and reading,” he added.
Words: London’s Literary and Creative Arts Festival, with events and programming scheduled across London from Nov. 3-5, is a celebration of “all things wordy,” including books, poetry, song, children’s literature, writing for the screen and stage, new media, spoken-word performances and much more. This year’s lineup includes Wayne Johnston, Terry Griggs, London’s Poet Laureate Tom Cull, Stephen Marche, Ian Brown, David Huebert, Daniel MacIvor and others.
To purchase tickets, visit wordsfest.ca.