4 min

The forgotten generation

Arthur Motyer's ode to his pre-Stonewall days

Credit: Xtra West files

In the literary world there’s this well-known theory: that although young prodigies are not uncommon in the fields of poetry and short fiction, it takes a person of a certain age to write a good novel.

So if life experience, and all that that entails, are the distinguishing characteristics of a good novelist, then Arthur Motyer must by all accounts be a pretty darn fine one.

The New Brunswick-based English professor-turned-author has just released his first novel, What’s Remembered, at the healthy age of 78.

The novel chronicles the lives and loves of Peter, a small-town Ontario college teacher. Recondite affairs, guilt, frustration, secrecy in the workplace, drug and alcohol addiction, unrequited love-such are the conundrums Peter experiences in his closeted life.

The novel provides valuable insights into what might be called “the forgotten generation” of gay men, those who came of age in the 20 or 30 years before Stonewall and before Trudeau yanked the state out of our bedrooms.

Talking from his home in Sackville, New Brunswick, where he is Professor Emeritus at Mount Allison University, Motyer expresses some surprise that his first published book should be a novel. “To be truthful, I’ve never taught a course on the novel. I’ve never been a great reader of novels. I’ve read a lot of poetry in my time and a lot of plays…

“But as a form, I found [the novel] difficult, because there’s so much in it. And writing this novel, because I was unused to the form, was a real challenge for me. There were so many characters and just keeping track of everybody, and making them all fit-you can’t just have them all doing nothing, they have to contribute in some way to the overall story-I found that a challenge. So the novel for me was something kind of fearsome.”

It took Motyer 10 years to write the book. “I began it the year I retired. I thought, well, I have all this time, so I better do something with it.”

In 1994, he submitted an early draft of the work to a competition sponsored by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, where it won first prize. One of the competition’s judges urged him to get it published. Eight years and dozens of rejection slips later, the book finally found a press willing to take it on: Cormorant Books, a literary publisher based in Toronto.

The difficulty Motyer had in getting the book published may have something to do, he thinks, with the fact that it may well be the first book of its kind ever published in this country. “There hasn’t really been a literary gay novel published in Canada,” he says. “That was one of the challenges, to write a novel about the world of gay men in Canada. It hasn’t been done. There have been gay writers, there are gay writers. Timothy Findley was a gay writer, but he didn’t write this kind of thing. Ann-Marie MacDonald is a gay writer, but she hasn’t written this kind of thing…

“I began to wonder whether this was why it was being rejected. It may be a bit of paranoia on my part, but when you get rejection after rejection you think, well, what is it?

“A lot of them said, ‘Well, this is very good, I like this and that, but.’ So I wondered, well, because it hasn’t been done in Canada before, maybe they’re leery about it.”

Though just about everyone would agree that life for queers is better now than it was 40 years ago, there are those who bemoan the passing of pre-Stonewall culture-a culture that, in response to societal oppression, was rife with an artistic and imaginative energy that some would argue no longer exists.

“No one wanted to be in the closet, but at the same time there was, not exactly a sweetness, but the fact that you created your own world, and there was something there that no one else knew anything about,” says Motyer. “And it was rather special. The world is much more open now, and we’ve made a lot of progress, but there are always losses in gains.

“But I think the gains are greater than the losses. I don’t bemoan the passing of all that. I cherish it. I wanted to say something about it, and hence the title [of the book].”

Although the novel is not a memoir, Motyer knows what it’s like to toil in the closet. “I was married. I have children, and I have two grandchildren. I got married back in 1955. I was gay long before that, but at that time it didn’t seem to be possible to lead a gay life such as I lead now.” When he came out to his wife, “she didn’t really believe it, and it created a lot of difficulties. But I was married and I produced two wonderful children.” He now lives with his partner, a classical composer 29 years his junior. They’ve been together for 27 years.

As for coming out of the closet, which he did in the late ’70s, Motyer says that “a lot of people always knew [I was gay].” He chuckles about a convocation ceremony he attended recently at Bishop’s University in Quebec, where CBC journalist Don Murray received an honorary degree. “He was a former student of mine, and he was asking me about my book. So I was telling him [about my being gay] and he said, ‘Well, of course, we all knew.’ And I assumed that they knew, even though I was married at the time and one didn’t talk openly about it.”

So what can younger gay men, who grew up in a more permissive age and for whom the difficulties of coming out may not have been as pronounced, get from this book? “It seems to me that no matter how old one is, straight or gay, closeted or open about one’s sexuality, love is always something we have to learn about. It doesn’t come easily, but the search is forever worthwhile; and I hope readers of any age might think it important to be reminded of that.”


Arthur Motyer.

Cormorant Books.