Peter Taylor (journalist, novelist) was born in Campbellton, New Brunswick, in 1939. He lived in this small railroad town in northern New Brunswick until he graduated from high school. His father, John Taylor, was the manager of the Fraser pulp and paper mill outside Campbellton. His mother, Katherine (Casey), was a stay-at-home parent who raised Peter and his sister Lynn, who now resides in Nova Scotia. Both his parents were born and raised in northern New Brunswick. Aside from a few close friends, Peter Taylor no longer has family living in the region.
After high school he followed in his father’s footsteps and attended Mount Allison University. He decided to leave after two years, however, to gain work experience. That decision was partly influenced by his maternal grandfather, his hero, who drove steam engine trains. In fact, much of his early ambition was shaped by his grandfather’s presence. Taylor fondly remembers his grandmother taking him to the town's railway station almost daily in 1945 to see his grandfather at the throttle of a monstrous steam engine, "bringing the soldiers home from the war," as she put it. The Halifax-to-Montreal train stopped at almost every town and village along the way to drop off soldiers returning home. His grandmother convinced him that his grandfather had something to do with ending World War II. It was no coincidence, then, that Taylor’s first work experience was as an electrician’s helper on the railroads in New Brunswick, a job he always envisioned doing. It was during his time working for CNR that he was inspired to write a novel about the characters he met in his railroad gang, and also in memory of his beloved grandfather.
With savings to help pay for a higher education, he returned to university to study journalism at Carleton University. When he finished, he began working as a journalist for Saint John’s Telegraph-Journal and then as a reporter for ten years for the Ottawa Citizen. His decision to leave New Brunswick was based on the fact that there were more opportunities for working journalists (and budding novelists) in Ontario.
Taylor’s family encouraged him to develop a love of literature, and so he spent much time as a youth reading. Among his important early influences was Jack Kerouac, the immensely popular figure around whom literary counter-culture revolved (Taylor Telephone interview). In 1967, Taylor published Watcha Gonna Do Boy… Watcha Gonna Be?, a novel fuelled by his having read Kerouac’s On The Road. The novel was later made into a film by the CBC and also a radio drama. It is currently being re-released as a print-on-demand and e-book (Telephone interview).
Shortly after publishing his first novel, Taylor was offered a job with his publisher (McClelland & Stewart) in public relations and advertising – and later named vice president of marketing. He worked for M&S for twelve years in Toronto. After leaving M&S (and following a divorce), he was a stay-at-home single parent for his son Peter and daughter Casey. In order to make ends meet, he became an independent literary agent, and while doing so he wrote several books of humour which were published between 1983 and 2002 (Telephone interview).
Taylor’s first novel continues to be his important work, however. It is a novel that predates the work of Ray Fraser and David Adams Richards, and is thus monumental in pioneering a tone and subject matter that they would adopt a few years later. Watcha Gonna Do Boy… Watcha Gonna Be? tells the story of a seventeen-year-old narrator named Peter who is also from Campbellton, New Brunswick. The young narrator leaves home after high school, torn between committing to university and getting a job. Filled with stories from his (fictional) grandfather about working on the railroad, the fictional Peter decides he will work in a railroad gang in order to save money for university. He learns from this early work experience that the “railroad sure ain’t what it used to be” and that this was not a lifestyle for a seventeen year old to grow up in (Watcha 88).
Watcha Gonna Do Boy was a long work in progress for Taylor. He took notes and kept diaries while growing up, fascinated by life in New Brunswick during the 1950s. This novel, then, was autobiographical in the sense that it reflected people he knew, places he saw, and particular events and moments from his childhood (Roberts 28). Taylor admits in an interview that behind his novel “was wanting to tell the story (albeit exaggerated) of that time as I saw, experienced, and lived it ... and as I saw it being lived around me” (Email interview).
Moreover, the novel is a product of its time and place. Taylor captures what New Brunswick life was like in the 1950s by retelling some of his personal experiences through his narrator. Watcha Gonna Do Boy is especially poignant in examining the economic state of New Brunswick at that time. In the 1950s, northern New Brunswick was a region of struggling villages and towns, which Taylor recreates in his novel. Readers clearly see the uneven economic distribution in the province through his descriptions of the north and south. He describes the rural northern areas as lower-class towns that depend solely on the railroad for work and survival. In contrast, the larger cities in the south are depicted as booming with industry and commerce (Cogswell 243).
Readers of the novel also gain a better understanding of the common values and pastimes of people in the northern part of the province. Though many New Brunswick families valued higher education, the cost of that education was prohibitive for most, especially low-income families. Consequently, many young men lost sight of their dreams to attend university. And while most of these young men dreamed of the freedoms of drinking and socializing with girls, they were prematurely forced into adult roles in order to achieve some measure of financial security. This is part of the human cost of geography and class in Taylor’s work.
Taylor’s novel is also interesting to contemporary readers for being set in a time before legislated bilingualism, and the tolerances that flowed from that. This was a time when tensions born of marked socio-economic differences existed between the English and French in the province. The language and slang that the characters in the novel adopt is a vivid representation of those tensions (Cogswell 243). Examples of this friction are frequent in the novel. One English character asks, "How do you tell the groom at a French wedding... He's the one in the clean bowling shirt!" (47). Another English boy says, “Lets you and me go fuck some frogs" (37), the cavalier attitude meant to show the chasm between both language groups.
Despite its unblinking treatment of harsh provincial realities – and, as Taylor describes it, its “dirty” content – the novel was well-received by critics. And Taylor was buoyed with the response the novel received from readers. Robert Gibbs recalls that it was “a good debut by a writer to watch closely,” and recalls also that it was a novel commonly known by people around the province (Telephone interview). Gibbs praised Taylor’s instincts, particularly his adoption of the popular “on the road” style of the era that gave the work so much cultural potency among young readers.
Another critic praised Taylor’s novel for being a topical “bildungsroman,” a coming of age story that focuses on the moral growth of its main character. Taylor skilfully incorporates diary entries, memories, and letters from his narrator to help readers witness his development from a rebellious boy to an experienced man (New 77). As Peter matures in the novel, readers see him struggling to find answers as they overhear comments like, “How old's a boy before he turns a man? How old's a man?" (33). Of course, the echo of Bob Dylan, another of the prophets of the time, resonates clearly, but that echo does not diminish the work or render it derivative.
Yet another critic described Taylor’s first novel as similar to Kerouac’s work and others of the “beat generation” in its exploration of drugs, sexuality, and materialism (Evans 27). Taylor even references the work of Kerouac in the novel: “For this is the year of Kerouac and the Beat Generation, and…since the young men of America were getting so much praise about and for so many of the things we were doing ourselves right here in backwoods New Brunswick, we would write books about it all too" (45). Taylor was clearly influenced by Dylan and the Beats, and inspired to adopt similar tones, but with a unique setting along the railroad tracks of northern New Brunswick (Evans 27).
David Helwig in The Tamarack Review agrees that Taylor was influenced by the music and literature around him, but more importantly suggests that he was able to create distinct Canadian ways of discussing issues of growth and restlessness within his own particular socio-economic context (70). It is for that reason that we are indebted to his vision of New Brunswick in the 1950s.
Elizabeth Harrison, Spring 2013
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Harris, Marjorie, and Peter Taylor. How to Make Love to a Lobster: An Eclectic Guide to the Buying, Cooking, Eating and Folklore of Shellfish. Toronto, ON: Macmillan Canada, 1988.
Taylor, Peter. Bald is Beautiful. Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 1983.
---. The Balder the Better. Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 1997.
---. Dumb Men and the Women Who Love Them: A Collection of True Stories About That “Guy Thing” and Its Effect on Love and Marriage and the Uselessness of Maps While Driving in a Strange City. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd., 2002.
---. Email interview. 28 Jan. 2013.
---. Telephone interview. 17 Jan. 2013.
---. Three Bricks Shy of a Load: A Collection of True Stories About People Doing Really Dumb Stuff. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Ltd., 2001.
---. Turkey Soup for the Rest of Us: Hilarious Anecdote About Average People Doing Really Stupid Things. Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 1999.
---. Watcha Gonna Do Boy… Watcha Gonna Be? Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1967.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Cogswell, Fred. “English Prose Writing in NB: WWI to the Present.” A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Ed. Reavley Gair, et al. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead, 1986. 229-44.
Evans, J.A.S. “Critic’s Notebook: Centennial Spurt.” Commentator 11.3 (Mar. 1967): 27.
Gibbs, Robert. Telephone interview. 20 Nov. 2012.
Helwig, David. “Pay Your Money-Take Your Choice.” The Tamarack Review 43 (Spring 1967): 70-1.
New, W.H. “Politics and Bedfellows.” Canadian Literature 33 (1967): 75-7.
Roberts, William. “An Interview: A Young Writer Esteems Spontaneous Expression.” Ottawa Citizen 29 Oct. 1966: 28.