In the spring of 2020, Lesley Choyce will publish his landmark 100th book, an essay collection entitled Saltwater Chronicles. Which brings us to a question: how in the world can a human accomplish something so Herculean?
It’s one thing to read 100 books. Or write 100 poems. Or, for that matter, surf 100 waves.
To write and publish 100 books is, for most mortals, an impossible feat. Could it be something in the saltwater?
“Surfers tend to age gracefully in case you didn’t know.”
I first met Lesley Choyce at a Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia Halloween party in 2006. He came as an obsessed Star Trek fan, his eyes covered by some kind of gold vacuum filter. The conversation was fittingly spacy, pinballing from the size of the universe to the metaphorical implications of black holes.
I was in thrall; Choyce’s verbal energy felt like a comet streaking through the night. Who was this mad-masked philosopher? What planet was he from?
I didn’t know it then, but I was in the presence of a man who had already published a constellation of books.
I ran into Choyce numerous times over the years, each encounter as weird and wonderful as the first. I’d see him in the surf at Lawrencetown Beach in his signature dry suit, knee-paddling into clean waves, dancing down the face like a stylish praying mantis.
I’d catch a glimpse of him at his Pottersfield Press booth at the Word on the Street festival, looking literary in his glasses and trademark wild, curly hair. I’d visit him in his spartan, technology-free Dalhousie office, Zen calm exuding through his firmly planted bare feet.
As time ticked by, Choyce kept writing at warp speed, to the tune of nearly three books a year.
Now, Choyce and I are perched in his kitchen overlooking Lawrencetown Lake, placid ocean shimmering in the distance. As he hands me a glass of beer, I try to get a closer look at his hair, which I wrongly assumed would be deep into grey territory. Not so much—lots of pepper, very little salt.
Choyce, now 69 years old, appears as if he’s never grown facial hair. Must be the surfing, I think. The ocean has always been his fountain of youthful exuberance.
I’ve just finished reading the manuscript of Saltwater Chronicles and I’m bubbling over with stoke. Like every experience I’ve had reading Choyce’s work—which runs from adult fiction to poetry to children’s stories to local history, and, most prolifically, young adult fiction—I find his words strike a gong of truth in my head.
Most of the essays in this collection come from a series of columns he wrote for the Chronicle Herald between 2014 and 2017, pieces I remember enjoying as they landed on my doorstep. My favourites are his meditations on things like surfing, napping, reading, hiking and plumbing the subconscious for stories. What keeps me coming back to Choyce is his deep and abiding love for his adopted home, his muse, fair Nova Scotia.
The vast majority of Choyce’s 100 books are set in the province, usually within shouting distance of the omnipresent Atlantic Ocean. My well-worn copy of his 1995 book of poems, The Coastline of Forgetting, taught me everything I know about walking on cobblestones.
From a historical perspective, it’s hard to surpass his 1996 living history, Nova Scotia: Shaped By The Sea. And then there’s his most successful novel, The Republic of Nothing, which stamps the eccentricity of the rugged Eastern Shore in a reader’s mind forever.
Choyce may have come here from New Jersey as a responsibility dodger in 1978, but almost everything he has created since then is an ode to the place where he first planted his freak flag.
“Good writing and a good story will not only survive but prevail.”
As we settle into our pints, I ask him how it feels to have his 100th book coming out.
“The fact that it’s my 100th book worries me a little,” he replies, leaning back on his stool. “People might say, ‘Oh, he just cranks them out, this is just another one.’
“Never feels that way to me. I just feel so privileged that I get to write another book.”
Feeling brave, I ask him if he thinks an author can write 100 quality books.
“I doubt it.” He shrugs. “I’m sure there’s a few that aren’t so great. But I don’t go back and judge. To be honest, I don’t even read my books after they’re published.”
Aside from a few wonky covers, Choyce says he has no publishing regrets.
Part of Choyce’s magnetic personality is his lack of cynicism. He tells me, “It’s a beautiful thing to write a book and have people read it.”
When I bring up the topic of legacy, he pauses and turns his eyes to Lawrencetown Lake, chewing on the question. “I’d be pleased if people saw I was diverse,” he says, “that I tried many different things. Maybe that I didn’t fit into any standard literary roles of the day.”
I tell him I consider him a trailblazer, but Choyce deflects my praise, turning to the future instead.
If his writing career was a baseball game, I ask, what inning would he be in now? “I feel like I’m in the middle of the game. So, 4th or 5th inning?”
“If you are a writer or an artist, you damn well better be good friends with your subconscious.”
Out the window we catch the sun suspended above the treeline. Afternoon slips into evening. I ask for some writerly advice.
“Keep your mouth shut and write,” he tells me straight, dousing my hypothesis that he possesses some kind of super power. “Don’t talk your story out before you write it. Create and then revise.
“Write the books you want to write. Start close to home and build. Keep coming back to the stories that are most important to you.”
I get the sense that writing is nourishment to Choyce, a compulsion he must follow if he is to stay vital.
In a stand-out essay from Saltwater Chronicles, “The Care and Feeding of the Subconscious Mind,” he shares his belief that one’s dreams, wild irrational thoughts and inner voices all come from that deep, unruly place in the brain. When faced with a plot line issue or a real-life problem, Choyce believes that filing it away in the subconscious is key.
“Don’t keep chewing it over in your rational mind like a piece of gristle you just chomped into at the Steak and Stein,” he writes, “just let the ole boy do the trick.”
Though he is careful to remind us he is no neuroscience expert, I find his suggestion revolutionary. Choyce trusts his subconscious, or “gut,” unconditionally. If you nurture your imagination and treat it with respect, art will have no choice but to flow.
“I, myself, like getting off the main trails and just walking in the woods.”
As we near the bottom of our respective beers, I share an observation with Choyce: his 100th book contains more than three references to getting lost on purpose. He laughs and drains his glass.
I picture him hiking down a worn footpath through wind-battered Nova Scotian scrub spruce. He barely hesitates when he gets to Robert Frost’s famed fork. Instead of choosing one of the set paths, he strides straight ahead, punching into raw forest until he is good and swallowed by the green.
Choyce navigates by inner vision, chasing the future as he creates. A hundred books is an incredible accomplishment, surpassed only by Isaac Asimov and a few others. Mad props are in order.
Based on the sheer amount of juice left in his veins, he’s nowhere near the finish line. Riffing on the importance of getting lost, Choyce whispers me his secret.
“As you know, there’s no straight lines in a Nova Scotian forest—just a mass of trees all bunched together. Really, though, you can’t get lost here. All you have to do is listen for the sound of the ocean. The coast will always bring you back.”