Vander Zalm: From Immigrant to Premier

(Harbour Publishing 1986)

Vander Zalm book coverThe following article appeared in Canada’s publishing trade magazine, Quill & Quire, in 1986 to mark the publication of Alan Twigg’s biography of British Columbia’s newly-elected premier Bill Vander Zalm. It’s the first critical biography of a B.C. premier published during his first year in office.

The book was researched and written in just seven weeks. Twigg met Vander Zalm twice; first in Prince George, then he conducted a morning-long interview with Vander Zalm in a Richmond hotel. The character study sold 80% of its 5,000-copy run in a month-and-a-half. This so-called instant biography was written at the request of publisher Howard White. Bill Vander Zalm was not elected for a second term.


It was like being shot into space. You go straight up, feeling heroic and dumb, suddenly lodged in a spaceship of your own social significance. My mission was to bring back a biography of a premier who had just assumed office. I did not have a scrap of research.

Two or three weeks later, my well-intentioned publisher, Howard White, read some chapter drafts and advised me I was off the mark. He had already advertised a hoped-for date for our moon landing.

Things got hairy fast. Howie, I think, wanted a book that would chiefly recall and examine Bill Vander Zalm’s politics. With a background in literary journalism, I felt I was best equipped to do a character study. But each of us was similarly motivated by a fear that Premier Vander Zalm was a potentially dangerous man for B.C.

It was our perception that when Vander Zalm was designated premier, his volatile past was suddenly forgotten. We didn’t feel that the public was getting a realistic portrait of him. An election was in the wind: the sooner we made his story available, the better.

I began living and sleeping with Bill Vander Zalm, a human being I didn’t particularly like. I found my brain wouldn’t turn off. Parts of the text were literally drafted in my sleep. If you wanted to have a conversation with me between the middle of August and the end of September, it was Vander Zalm or nothing. I joked I was becoming as driven as a politician, but it wasn’t funny. Family turned into a memory. Sometimes I came home for breakfast. Sorry, kids, Daddy’s busy, Daddy’s going insane.

Don’t ever write a book about someone you’ve never met unless he or she is dead. I eventually flew to Prince George and found the premier on a ninth-floor hotel-room balcony. Vander Zalm used my first name too much, a salesman’s technique; I touched him reassuringly on the shoulder, an interviewer’s technique. We tried to out-charm each other. Several weeks later we went face to face for several hours in another hotel room. After interviewing the likes of Robertson Davies and Leonard Cohen, it was weird: this man was not given to self-analysis.

Meanwhile, Howie had put two researchers at my disposal. We were digging up dirt. But I was still having communication problems with Cape Canaveral. The author, having yet to see any of his advance or even a contract, made overtures to an agent and considered selling his soul to Toronto, making mega-bucks with a spring book. Lunacy, idealism and friendship prevailed.

The author promptly went into his dying-swan act, delivering 300 pages of factual material on The Zalm, and collapsing over his Kaypro 2X, having taken one small step for man, one small step for mankind.

Howie proceeded to delete my foreword, add his own foreword, add his own conclusions, delete a chapter, and fiddle with the transcript of the author’s reasonably brilliant 50-page Vander Zalm interview. I still love him. He was, in his way, trying to match my level of input. He had a libel lawyer read every word. He managed to check facts with Premier Vander Zalm (who by this time was smelling a rat).

He produced what may be the first instant book ever printed without a single typo. And he personally took “our” manuscript to Friesen Printers in Altona, Manitoba, which obligingly tackled our book immediately.

Allan Fotheringham did a favourable full page review on the book in Maclean’s (he was also quoted on the jacket). Then the axes started grinding and the sour grapes began spilling out. Who was this Twigg, anyway? My favourite disparaging review was from B.C.’s David Mitchell. While completely trashing our book in The Globe and Mail, W.A.C. Bennett’s biographer failed to pass along the fact that he had been commissioned to produce a rival book on contemporary B.C. politics for Douglas & McIntyre.

I travelled around the province. I did 20 interviews for promotion. Only one interviewer had read the book. I felt like a politician. I saw how easy it is to be Vander Zalm. (In the book I labelled The Zalm as a media Frankenstein, saying the B.C. media, with their glorification of the leadership race, were partly culpable for the rise to power of a narrow, charismatic and cunning salesman.

My promotion-tour experience tended to uphold the book’s criticism of the electronic media in general as being increasingly self-serving, lazy, superficial and overly respectful of power).

– Harbour Publishing