Stephen Clarkson - Authors - Best Political Books - What We Do - Samara

Stephen Clarkson

Stephen Clarkson is a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto and one of Canada’s preeminent political scientists. His work specializes in the evolution of North America as a continental state and the impact of globalization. Christina McCall was a much admired political writer who redefined nonfiction magazine writing as an art form with her work at Maclean’s, Chatelaine and Saturday Night. She is best known for Grits, her history of the Liberal Party. A collection of her writings was edited by her husband Stephen Clarkson and published posthumously in 2008 as My Life as a Dame.

Here Stephen Clarkson discusses their two-volume biography Trudeau and Our Times. 

Describe the genesis of Trudeau and Our Times. What brought you and Christina McCall to the subject?

In the mid-1970s, after Christina and I had fallen in love, she decided to write a book about the Liberal Party. By 1979, the organization was on the ropes. Unable to finish it before Pierre Trudeau had vaulted back into power in the 1980 election and not wanting to wait till he left the Canadian stage, she decided to publish what she had written, rashly ending her award-winning book, Grits, with the fateful words "to be continued."

When Trudeau finally took his famous walk-in-the snow on February 28, 1984, and announced his decision to retire from politics on February 29th (presumably so that the Canadian Petroleum Association in Calgary could only celebrate the event every four years), Christina asked me to help her write the continuation since I knew quite a bit about public policy in general and Canadian-American relations in particular, which I’d advised her on in Grits.

She thought that, with our combined efforts, we would have the work done within a year or two. Six years later, Trudeau and Our Times' first volume, The Magnificent Obsession appeared and, by 1994, the second volume, The Heroic Delusion, was in the bookstores.

The more we thought about how to write a continuation of Grits, the more we realized that the Liberal Party's fortunes had become enmeshed with the character and quirks of Pierre Trudeau. And, we became engrossed in developing a deeper and truer understanding of him than anyone else had produced about this most unusual of politicians.

In short, a book about the Liberal Party and its leading figures became a book about Pierre Trudeau and what he had wrought.

Your co-writer on the book was your wife, Christina McCall. How did you work together on the writing? What was your process? How did you resolve disagreements about content or form?

How: The short answer is "intensely." A longer answer is still "very intensely" since the process was completely collaborative from start to finish.

Creatively speaking, we talked and talked. I would make notes and either she or I would write a first draft which we would then rework many times discussing what was wrong and the improvements we needed to make after each change.

Research: We did the most important of the thousand interviews together, particularly those with Trudeau himself. But the majority that dealt with public-policy issues I did myself, and I did the library-based research as she had a (not unfounded) disdain for social-science research. On these matters, I would talk through the issues I felt we should deal with and might write the first draft, and then Christina would then work on the text with me. It took a lot of time. It was not as though she would write chapter 1 and I would do chapter 2 as happens in many collaborations.

The process: Mechanically speaking, we bought a word processor and we did all the work on its one keyboard. Most of the sentences and paragraphs went through at least 10 and frequently up to 20 drafts.

And yes, we had disagreements over whether to include an idea or an event or an issue or a whole chapter in (or drop it from) the manuscript and had intense discussions over phrasing, over word choice, and even over punctuation. The differences worked themselves out by the time we came to an agreement. The larger point is that the great writing talent for which she was widely acclaimed came down to her insistence that any idea, however complex, be clearly explained and made accessible and enjoyable to read by the interested, non-expert reader.

Were there any books in particular that influenced you both in your approach?

Yes. A book called the Stages of a Man's Life written by a team of Yale University psychologists had a huge impact because it was not pop psych but heavily researched and credibly laid out the normal trajectory in a male's psychological and professional development from birth to maturity. What struck us was how different Trudeau had been in most respects – something that gibed with many remarks by people we interviewed who had known him personally before he became a politician and who kept pointing out the various ways that he had been so unlike other Quebeckers of his class and generation. We did quite a lot of reading in the psychoanalytical literature, but this book was the most useful.

Tell us a little about how the book’s title was chosen.

Our first title was The End of the Trudeau Era. When we told Pierre this over lunch at what had once been his prime ministerial table in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Montreal, he immediately shot back, "So, is it going to be about the end, the era, or me?"

As our book on what the Liberal Party had achieved in government became increasingly focused on dissecting its leader and requiring us to go back to his familial roots in 19th-century Montreal, we dropped the "end." And since the subtext of the book was what had happened to our own country in our own generation, we felt that "our times" would engage readers more intimately in this – which was also their – story.

The “magnificent obsession” of the first volume was Trudeau’s quest to patriate the constitution and entrench in it a bill of rights. The second volume’s “heroic delusion” had to do with a few of his last administration’s somewhat quixotic efforts: The National Energy Program was a failed attempt to redirect Alberta’s petroleum reserves from supplying the insatiable American market to fuelling Canada’s economic development; Trudeau’s peace initiative tried to persuade Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to step back from the nuclear brink in their confrontation with the Soviet Union.

What was the response to the book upon publication?

Tremendous. It was immediately on best-seller lists. Peter Gzowski did more than one interview with us on CBC radio’s “Morningside.” The Globe and Mail published a number of excerpts which were carried in other newspapers. The book was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction while we were still promoting the book out West.

Did Trudeau and Our Times change the trajectory of your careers? In what way?

By the time we had published the second volume in 1994 Christina's health was steadily deteriorating. In effect, her major contributions to Canadian political writing – a selection of which I published as My Life as a Dame after her death – came to an end when the French translation of The Heroic Delusion was published in 1995.

For me, the biographical part of our work was a professional detour, while the extensive research I had to do in virtually all areas of federal policy-making during the 1970s and early 1980s vastly expanded my knowledge of Canadian government.

But my main interests still lay in the political economy of Canada’s dependent integration in the American imperium, and I returned to this issue, which was already being reframed by NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, and would be further transformed by the shock of US anti-terrorist paranoia, which has been hamstringing Canada now for exactly ten years.

So writing a biography did not as much change the trajectory of my career as provide a very stimulating, eleven-year-long detour from its main track. But working with Christina changed the way I write. Even though I work alone on my laptop’s keyboard now, I find it takes me many, many drafts before the text is ready for others to read. Even this one.

In your view, how has the literature on Canadian politics changed substantially since you published Trudeau and Our Times? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of?

This may be a projection on my part, but I think that writing on Canadian politics is imbued with a sense of despondency about the present and nostalgia for a past, when political leaders led because they were actually able to accomplish something. Whether or not we agreed with what they did or the way they went about doing it, there was a sense that politicians could set a goal and achieve it. Governments have now become so disempowered, whether by outside forces or by our politicians’ own actions, that there is less content to write about. This still leaves, of course, strategy, tactics, personalities, and organization as fodder for analysis; but the sense that Canadian governments can do anything significant has been largely lost, since the general outlines of many policies are determined in Washington – on climate change, on energy, on security, and so on.

What are you working on now?

I have just finished the third volume of a trilogy on North America in which Uncle Sam and Us was about Canada under NAFTA; Does North America Exist? was about the new North America after 9/11; and my new Dependent America? documents how the United States has become wealthier, stronger and more secure thanks to what it gets economically, internationally, and in anti-terrorist and anti-narcotics security from Canada and Mexico.

I am then going to work on how the world’s major regions interact with each other.


Pierre Trudeau is our most written-about prime minister and Trudeau and Our Times was the first definitive, multi-volume, award-winning biography about him. The first volume traces his childhood, his knight-errant youth and early manhood, his charismatic ascent to the Liberal Party leadership, and his dramatic first decade as prime minister. It concludes with his bittersweet triumphs in fighting off the separatists in the 1980 referendum. The second volume describes the abiding liberal Trudeau’s quixotic confrontations with his neo-conservative opponents, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Trudeau and Our Times is a masterful analysis of a leader who continues to incite a strong emotional reaction amongst Canadians 25 years after he left office.