Paul Wells, journalist and political pundit, talks about his book Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper’s New Conservatism.
Describe the genesis of Right Side Up. How did you come to write about Paul Martin and Stephen Harper?
Beginning with the 2006 election campaign, we decided at Maclean’s magazine that we would provide a very ambitious retrospective article, hot on the heels of every federal election, explaining how the election was won and lost. The election of 2006 was the first one where we tried this. The resulting article filled about 30 pages of the magazine, and it became obvious right away that (a) this had been an unusually important election (b) I’d basically already written the middle three chapters of a book about it. So I wrote the rest.
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
Right Side Up took about six months to write, which was twice as long as I had hoped. The goal was to write a book quickly without simply producing a quickie book, if that makes any sense. I tried to bring some fresh reporting and, as much as possible, some analytic depth to the project. The main challenge was to stay focused and organized, two things that don’t come automatically to a weekly columnist.
Were there any books that influenced you in your approach?
I kept two great Canadian books in mind--Jeffrey Simpson’s Discipline of Power and Christina McCall’s Grits--and one little-remembered American book, Michael Lewis’ account of the 1996 U.S. presidential election, Trail Fever. I wanted to be as smart as Jeff and Christina, and as funny as Lewis. Even if I failed three ways, it was worth a shot.
Tell us a little about how you chose the title Right Side Up.
I wanted the title to be provocative. Especially in 2006, Harper beating Martin looked like a huge upset, and to many people it seemed a fluke. I liked the play on words: the political Right had ended up on top, and at least to the Conservatives’ partisans, that was the proper, or “right,” result. My editor was toying with Topsy Turvy as a title, but to me that would have been too conventional: only if you assume Liberals need to win elections would you find the 2006 result disorienting.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
I was so happy with the response Right Side Up received. The closest thing to a negative review came from Peter C. Newman in the Literary Review of Canada, and it was so gentle I could easily have strip-mined it for paperback cover blurbs if there hadn’t been so many more enthusiastic reviews. Sales were solid. Best of all, people are still reading it five years later.
Did anyone get upset about what you had written? Did you hear from any of the main players in your book?
I have no idea what Paul Martin thought of the book. I assume he didn’t read it. Stephen Harper told me in 2008 he hadn’t read it, but that he had heard good things about it. One of Martin’s lesser advisors was very upset at me, not for writing the book but for showing up at a joint promotional event with Eddie Goldenberg, whose memoir referred to Martin as a “boil” that should have been lanced. Except for that person, everyone else reacted like grownups.
Did Right Side Up change the trajectory of your career? In what way?
Right Side Up didn’t change my life much. It came along at a time when I should reasonably have been writing a book. I did write it, I didn’t screw up too badly, and now I’m ready for bigger challenges. I think.
What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?
I think a lot of serious long-form political reporting in Canada is migrating from newspapers, where you used to be able to expect it, to magazines and especially books, which have always been an option but are becoming a last redoubt. The ability to step back and set current events within the context of broader historical trends is not something young newspaper reporters are asked to develop. I still think there’s a place for those big meaty analytical pieces in our daily newspapers; I just think too many editors are selling their readers short.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favorite book and why? Are there any other books written in the last 25 years that you would suggest people read?
Just for the quality of the writing, Ron Graham’s One-Eyed Kings stands out. It’s the book that will give a reader the most pleasure. There’s room for all kinds of argument about which book on that list is more important or enduring. I encourage readers who understand French to read the two most ambitious Canadian political journalism projects I’ve seen, Pierre Duchesne’s three-volume Jacques Parizeau biography and Jean-François Lisée’s two-volume screed against Robert Bourassa, Le Tricheur / Le Naufrageur.
What are you working on now?
I’ve barely begun work on a bigger book about Harper in power. The working title is Harper in Power.
Right Side Up documents the historic shift that occurred during the Canadian federal elections of 2004 and 2006. Paul Wells dramatically recounts the stunning decline of the Liberal Party and the reemergence of a cohesive right-wing party through the figures of Paul Martin, once thought to be an unstoppable machine, and Stephen Harper, a supreme political operator forever underestimated by his opponents. The author lays responsibility with Martin and his overconfident team of advisors who were incapable of controlling the agenda, and credits Harper for running a strategically adept campaign that turned Martin’s woes into an improbable Conservative victory.