He drops into thousands of homes every Sunday. When his soft, slow cadence flows from public radio airwaves, families listen together. Sitting next to each other in a Toronto living room, or on opposite sides of the country, Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe offers a conduit through which listeners connect. It’s a place where laughter sometimes meets tears and this month – like every year – the author, journalist and storyteller, climbs aboard a Victoria-bound tour bus and brings that experience to The Royal Theatre.
“We go to the same places every year at Christmas, so it feels like we’re coming home, which is what Christmas is all about,” says McLean, during a trip to his home in the Laurentian Mountains of southern Quebec. “It’s like I’m getting together with family across the country every year for Christmas and I’m the one responsible for dinner.”
Twenty years ago McLean, well into his career as a radio journalist and columnist with CBC, launched a little summer fill-in program known as the Vinyl Cafe. The show, recorded in-studio, remained that way for a couple of years, made a one-year move to a live broadcast with a studio audience and by the fourth year, took its current form as a weekly staple on national radio. The stories, essays and music of Vinyl Cafe, some live and some pre-recorded, are sewn together by one host and writer, a man who, two decades into the gig, still struggles with the creative process.
“As a writer, I’m always looking for challenges,” McLean says. “You always want to be working on thin ice, where you’re not completely comfortable or confident that you’re going to make it across the frozen lake. That’s what keeps you engaged and challenged: if you’re engaged and challenged. Then you’re doing your best work.”
McLean began penning Vinyl Cafe’s stories of second-hand record store owner Dave, his family and friends, just to see if he could, to ignite the spark of an unknown challenge. He continues because, unlike his previous nonfiction work, he hasn’t yet discovered the failsafe bag of tricks to write through the problems of a world he has created. At 65, he feels his best is still yet to come. To stop fanning the flames of his fiction would result in too great a loss.
“When you create something that’s snuck up on you, you create characters who become a part of your life. If I stopped writing it right now, I would lose touch with this family who feel very, very much like my family to me,” he says. “The only real way I have of engaging them and learning about their lives is to write it down, to struggle with the writing and to wrestle with what’s going on in their lives. That’s the gift the show gives me.”
McLean constructs a world of his own within the lives of the Vinyl Cafe characters and listeners have long since seized the reins for a segment of their own. The Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange has seen droves of stories sent in over the years – from an elementary school teacher who launched into a section on the Holocaust by delivering an interactive fascist lesson to unsuspecting children, to a truck driver who duped a hitchhiker into scaling the side of his moving truck and dropped trou to pee in the dead of a northern Ontario winter. Read every week on the program, and recently compiled in the latest Vinyl Cafe book, the poignant, peculiar, humorous and heartfelt stories shared on the exchange, have grown in popularity since its inception and brought listeners closer to the shared experience at the core of the show’s longevity.
“E.B. White says humour, which is kind of the field I’m ploughing, can have, like poetry, an added dimension,” McLean says. “When it does, it can take the reader to this land where tears and laughter meet, where you can’t trust your emotions, where you’re laughing one moment and crying the next. When you go to that strange land, writes White, you’re close to the big, hot fire that is truth. Sometimes you feel the heat. When I do my best work, I’m trying to take people close to the big, hot fire that is truth. I’m trying to take them to the country where tears meet laughter and they can’t trust their emotions.”
On Nov. 27 and 28, McLean brings with him Juno Award-winners, The Good Lovelies for his annual holiday show at The Royal Theatre – an opportunity the wordsmith still relishes.
“I get to be there at the moment of giving and receiving. Most writers have to guess how their work is being received. … I’m there. I get to go in everyone’s home and read them a bedtime story.”