All the small town news that’s fit to print nets the Leacock medal for humour.
Mark Leiren-Young shot a stampede queen in Williams Lake and escaped to tell the tale. And write the tale, too, in Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, about his adventures as a 22-year-old small town newspaper scribe.
The book took the prestigious 2009 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, which is something the author still can’t quite get his head around.
“It’s just amazing,” says the enthusiastic Leiren-Young (who, it should be noted, hasn’t actually shot a stampede queen with a gun; the title comes from taking newspaper photos of the would-be models that grace small town rodeos).
“What was shocking for me about being nominated was, while there are a lot of funny parts, this also talks about my run-in with slum landlords, it talks about covering really horrible trials, it talks about a triple murder. It goes to some pretty dark places,” says Leiren-Young, BFA ’85 (Writing and Theatre). “I had assumed the Leacock medal was going to go to something that’s funny all the way through.”
But while not a laugh-a-minute, the book certainly has its moments. And perhaps this can be partly traced to Leiren-Young’s time at UVic, where he took a course taught by local freelance writer Sid Tafler.
“I had some amazing professors at UVic,” says Leiren-Young. “But Sid changed my life. He told me he’s a freelancer and I said, ‘You are going to tell me about this thing called freelance...’”
Tafler was impressed with his enthusiasm and recognized Leiren-Young’s knack for humour writing.
“Editors and other people who buy writing generally really like that, because it’s pretty unusual, and readers obviously enjoy humour,” Tafler says. “So he took that pretty seriously and thought, ‘That’s good, that’s something I can develop.’”
And develop it he did, through his various ventures over the years, which include his comedy troupe, Local Anxiety. There’s a book and DVD — The Green Chain — due before the end of the year, about the human side of the battle between loggers and environmentalists.
Meanwhile, Stampede Queen is being optioned for TV (although it may bear the name Local News, one of the original ideas for names for the book, which, ironically, got rejected because it wasn’t funny enough).
Still, sorry, Leacock Award folks: despite the award and despite his strengths as a humour writer, Stampede Queen is not funny through and through. Consider this: the book begins with Leiren-Young stuck in a courtroom with a man who has a bomb strapped to his chest.
“When I first started doing readings of the book, I would read from the opening chapter,” says Leiren-Young. “People were laughing. I’m flashing back to being a few feet away from this guy and I’m trying to keep my happy smiley face on. But there have been times when I’ve been reading it and all I’ve been doing is picturing this guy and I’m picturing his kids and wife and the whole trial and I’m not going to the happy funny place.”
His solution? Simple: “Now I read about the stampede queens instead.”
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