Oolichan Books: A literary legacy

(Left) Randal Macnair

For many, it would seem like an unusual move to transition from municipal politics to book publishing, but for former Fernie mayor, and current city councillor, Randal Macnair, the move was in a sense pre-destined.

Macnair was working on his first book – Uirapuru by P.K. Page – for Oolichan Books, when his literary past wove it’s way into his present.

“It was a real pleasure to work on that book, because P.K. was still alive, and I was working on it with her and Ron, and the illustrator Kristi Bridgeman. P.K. was a contemporary of my grandmother’s, and they had an interesting relationship. So it was working with people who were part of my childhood.”

In a sense, Macnair grew up in the literary industry. His grandmother, Dorothy Livesay, was a celebrated Canadian poet, who was awarded the Governor General’s Award twice and was named the “senior woman writer in Canada” during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Growing up in the industry has been very interesting because of my grandmother,” said Macnair. “A lot of people that I meet now in the industry knew my grandmother, worked with my grandmother, partied with my grandmother, or argued with my grandmother. She was in her hay day in the 60s and 70s. I listened to a speech by Mona Fertig at the B.C. Book Awards. And Mona talked about being a young woman, partying in a hotel room with my grandmother and Tennessee Williams. And these kinds of stories keep coming up.”

Oolichan got its start in Lantzville on Vancouver Island in 1974 by Ron Smith (who is still the press’s editor.)

“Ron is a central figure in B.C. and particularly Vancouver Island literature,” said Macnair. Smith also started the publishing program at Vancouver Island University.

While still serving the City of Fernie as mayor, Macnair began moving towards publishing.

“I had started a small publication and was on the board for the Fernie Writers Conference. But eventually I decided I was going to leave the mayors chair to start a press,” he said.

In December 2008, Macnair was at a meeting for the B.C. Arts Council in Cranbrook, where he met Ron and his wife Patricia Jean Smith.

“They were on their way to Calgary where Pat was going to be doing a book reading,” he said. “So I suggested she come to Fernie to do a reading, and Ron said ‘Well, why don’t I do a reading in Fernie?’”

Ron had recently published his celebrated children’s book, Elf the Eagle, and Pat was promoting her book, ‘A song for my daughter.’

“In a matter of 36 hours I arranged a reading for Pat and two for Ron, one at each of the elementary schools. And then they went off to Calgary,” said Macnair.

While Ron had been in Fernie, Macnair had shared his aspirations of opening a publishing house in Fernie.

Shortly after, Ron was reading the Vancouver Sun and came across an article about how Macnair was no longer the mayor of Fernie.

“He called me and said, ‘I want to retire soon. Do you want to buy the press?’ And I said ‘Sounds cool, sure.’”

Macnair bought Oolichan at the end of 2008. Ron has stayed with the press as a minority partner and the editor.

It was about this time last year that Macnair officially took over Oolichan Books.

Even though it’s been about a year since the move, Macnair and his assistant Christa Moffat are still settling into their new industry.

“We had to move a business from Lantzville, that had been there for 37 years,” said Moffat. “There were boxes full of hand written notes because Oolichan was started before the age of computers.”

Wednesdays for Moffat and Macnair are spent away from manuscripts and books, and instead are spent sifting through boxes that have yet to be unpacked.

Oolichan books does not print books in their small office above Board Stiff on Fernie’s Second Avenue. But they do receive 500 to 700 manuscripts annually.

From the hundreds of manuscripts, Moffatt, Macnair and a collection of enthusiastic readers help weed through the potential titles.

“The first cut is the easiest, but you have to be really sensitive because someone has invested a lot of time and emotion into the creation of something,” said Macnair.

“The final decisions are the most challenging ones. They are typically gut decisions. You are often choosing between a couple of really good books.”

The selection process is time consuming, requiring several reads of each manuscript. Macnair and Moffat have tapped into a group of enthusiastic readers in the community to help them read and analyze manuscripts.

“The reading community has been really supportive of this and it’s been fun. People are kind of jazzed on the whole concept. I think that’s how we will continue to do our evaluations, is to draw upon the valued opinions in the community,” said Macnair. “We’re in Fernie and we want to be a Fernie press, and it’s part of our community and we want to include them in what we’re doing.”

Macnair is passionate about making sure that Oolichan reflects the community it calls home.

The press recently published the first book by Lisa McGonigle called Snowdrift.

“Where I want to move the press is to writing that focuses on the human relationship to the landscape. We live in a mountain town, and we want to incorporate that into what we do. We’re gradually moving there, some coincidentally and some by design,” said Macnair.

Even though Macnair and Moffat are still new to the publishing industry, they are already embracing the changes facing the industry.

“Books aren’t going anywhere. The written word isn’t going anywhere. But the medium by which it’s transported is going to change,” he said. “We are now in a time in human history when that medium is changing at a phenomenal pace. And we intend on being part of that. Ebooks are a part of the future and who knows how human beings will begin to capitalize on that. It’s really a dynamic time. When you have that dynamism there’s opportunity.”

Oolichan is working with a Calgary-based designer to format a few of its titles to ebooks that will be used for a test.

In addition to ebooks, unpacking, skiing, and publishing books, Macnair and Moffat are busy getting ready for the Fernie Writers Conference, running July 17 to 24.

“Oolichan has been involved with the Writers Conference even before I was involved because Ron came up and taught poetry in 2009,” said Macnair.

Oolichan will also be publishing another Fernie author in the fall.

“We see it as an opportunity to celebrate Fernie and the Kootenays,” he said. “We want to publish more books that speak to mountain life. And simply we want to publish more books, last year eight books, and by the end of this year we’ll be at 14.”

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