Question: how long is twenty-one years? The answer could be 1,092 weeks. Or 7,665 days. I’ll leave you, the reader, to perform your own math to determine the hours, the minutes. While you fumble with your calculator — you’re not really doing this by longhand are you? — let me give you a writer’s answer. Twenty-one years is the time it takes for a news report to become an idea, grow into a short story, threaten to expand into a novel, revert to short story once again, and finally be published by one of Canada’s distinguished independent publishing companies. That journey is a story itself, of a career being crushed by SARS (does anyone remember that in these days of COVID), of a writing scholarship won, and a subsequent career taking the writer to the doorstep, literally five days a week, of a professional editor who would shepherd the writer to publication. The short story is “Mocha El Grande”, the writer is Daniel Bryant, and we’ll title his journey “Story El Grande”.

I first met Dan at an authors event in October, 2019, where he was one of the guest speakers discussing his recently published short story collection Rerouted. I knew a couple of things about him. His publisher was The Porcupine’s Quill who had committed to publish my novel, Fair, the following year.  He was employed full time with Canada Post, as a letter carrier, and two women on his route in the Beach/Danforth area of Toronto were Lee Parpart, Co-President of Canadian Authors-Toronto, and Chandra Wohleber, a freelance editor instrumental in both Dan and I being published. What I learned during that evening and, later, as I read his stories, was his sense of wry humour, a guy whose ironic understanding encompasses himself within this strange world we inhabit. A guy who titled his story collection Rerouted as if winking to us all that everyday life, not just his current career, changed his route along the way.

Dan’s father, Cliff, in uniform

Born in Montreal, 1963, Dan was an unexpected second child — his brother Mark had been born in 1954. His parent’s had emigrated to Canada from England after marrying although they were always vague about the marriage. A slight bit of arithmetic between their anniversary and Mark’s birthday exposed the fact his mother was three months pregnant on her wedding day, a much greater concern in those days given she’d been born in Northern Ireland on a farm in County Fermanagh, raised as a strict Catholic. Dan’s father, born in London, was stationed in India during World War Two. After returning to London he met his future wife and in order to marry he converted to Catholicism: not his last conversion. Although the move to Montreal was to find a better economic life, Dan’s father wasn’t really skilled in any trade but that didn’t prevent him from starting a career that carried him through the rest of his working life.

“I think after the war dad worked in some factory in London England that had nothing to do with printing so when he landed in Montreal and applied for a job at a printing press he basically lied about having any experience. He was hired as a compositor (lead type) and had to fake it until he figured out what he was actually supposed to do. Dear old dad liked to fly by the seat of his pants.” 

Dan’s mother, Bernadette, also in uniform

In the mid-60s, when Dan was three years old, his father obtained a better job at a press in Richmond Hill and the family moved to Aurora (both communities are suburbs north of Toronto). Along the way his father converted to Jehovah Witness — his mother did not. Dan remembers his “mom engaged in a form of ideological guerrilla warfare by always pointing out JW theological inconsistencies on the sly. Of course, the Catholic POV wasn’t much better.” Dan never bought into the new religion — for that matter, neither did he buy into the old one — but he “laid low” in contrast to his older brother.

“Mark was the open rebel that wore dad down enough that when I came along I could be the quiet rebel and not attract too much attention or outright condemnation. At one point when Mark said that he was leaving the religion at age seventeen-ish, dad handed him a kitchen knife and told him that he might as well kill himself now because god would show no mercy! I loved dad for sure but I knew that the religion thing was skewing his emotional response. So by age sixteen I was able to start growing my hair long and successfully avoiding the door to door proselytizing on weekends. I still went to church three times a week though and wore ill-fitting polyester suits.”

Baby Dan looks like he’s a born writer – he came into the world eyes wide open

Laying low seems to be a Dan speciality. A quiet and studious person, he got along with most people in both elementary and high school but had very few close friends. As Dan put it, he “mostly flew under the radar” but then adds that ironic twist which later morphed into his writing style: “At one point  in grade ten I fell in with a group of juvenile delinquents at our school and became the go-between for liquor sales because I flew under the radar. I ran a speakeasy from my locker.”

Dan with big brother Mark and his friend – about to send Dan down a creek in a bathtub

For a time he worked at the same print company as his father, driving fork truck, saving money for university. When he was accepted at York University he moved into residence and never left for off-campus living. In fact he so enjoyed studying literature that he took six years to complete his Honours B.A., becoming a “floor rep” for two years at Founders College Residence and then Don for the last three years. In order to round out the timeline, let me again quote the ironic Dan as he informed me that he’d been “a regular schmo for the first year.” The career trajectory of Daniel Bryant, Esq.: moving from regular schmo to floor rep to Don!

To be fair, part of the reason Dan took six years to complete a four year degree had to do with the fact he often worked two jobs beyond his role as Residence Don. But in talking with him there is readily apparent an enjoyment, a large element of fun, of being creative, that arose over those years. Looking back on his life he says, “I have a lot of artistic friends and the truth is that most people have an artistic bent but not everyone can make a living that way. During my university days, if you wanted to do something fun and creative I was all in. Same holds true today. That is why I write. That is why I’m in a band. It is fun. And hopefully will delay the usual cognitive decay associated with getting old.”

Dan holding a pair of disembodied hands at York University with future Canadian filmmaker Sean Garrity. I assume those hands are a symbol of their friendship.

Two of Dan’s artistic friends from his university days are Will Ferguson and Sean Garrity. Will Ferguson became known for his non-fiction books and, later, his first novel which won the Giller Prize. At York he studied filmmaking. Working on his final year project, Ferguson reached out to Dan for assistance and he eagerly became the guy holding the boom. When the sound guy bailed, a completely inexperienced Dan found himself with a new role. With zero training, he spent a week reading the Nagra Recorder manual and it all worked out — Ferguson graduated and the two remain friends to this day, attested by the fact that the endorsement blurb on the back of Rerouted reads:

“An impressive debut. Tightly written, darkly comedic, wholly original. Canadian gothic at its best!” — Will Ferguson, author of 419

After graduating, and with all that sound experience, Dan found himself as the boom guy on one of Sean Garrity’s no budget projects. However, Dan “lost touch with him a couple years after university mostly because Sean moved back to Winnipeg and generally he had no reason to visit Toronto as he became totally immersed in the indie film scene out there. I got an invite to show up for his first big feature at TIFF but I was working on some show here.” For those who aren’t familiar with Garrity, he has directed half a dozen Canadian feature films including Inertia that won the Best Canadian First Feature Film in 2001.

As for the fact Dan had been “working on some show here” requires explanation. After graduating, and being Garrity’s unpaid boom guy, he found work in transport — within the Toronto world of television and feature filmmaking. The first job was as a driver for the last two seasons of the TV series E.N.G., a Canadian television drama set in a fictional Toronto television news station. After that show finished Dan’s career in television and film transport continued for fifteen years. During this time he started a family. In 1992 he married Nancy Willoughby, a women he’d met in first year university. She went to Kingston for a degree in education at Queen’s and has been teaching kindergarten since 1990. Their son Nate, now a stonemason, was born in 1997 and daughter, Lydia, born in 1999, studied Art History at Ottawa’s Carleton University then moved on to Horticulture at Algonquin College.

On the set of E.N.G. Dan is lower right.

For those years Dan was an essential worker in the entertainment business although not, strictly speaking, on the artistic side. But, embedded, he saw the whole thing from the inside. What was that like? I asked Dan that question directly. For me to paraphrase his answer would be to deny you that distinct Daniel Bryant voice, so let me fully quote his written reply.

“TV/film production is like the military run by the circus. That is the first thing you learn on set.

“YOU: get the actors on set on time or you’re fired. Drive those trucks to the next location and set them up or you’re fired.

“OTHER DEPARTMENTS: set up the camera, lights, and sound five minutes ago — or you’re fired.

“EVERYBODY: hurry up and…

“Wait — the actor is locked in the motorhome and refuses to come out because he/she can.

“Wait — the director has done too much blow and is talking gibberish.

“Wait — the producers have skimmed too much from the budget and the equipment houses won’t release anymore equipment.

“Never mind — we’ll fire the production assistant and that will teach everyone a lesson.”

He goes on regarding his daily routine as a transport member:

Wake up at 0 dark thirty.

For the next three hours: go to yesterday’s set location, get in equipment truck, drive to the new set location, help set up Honeyland (where all the ‘talent support’ trucks are located — wardrobe, motorhomes, star wagons, hair make-up, craft truck, food truck) and hustle to actor’s hotel to pick them up, engage in conversation if required, drop them off at Honeyland).

For the next ten – twelve hours: hang out in food truck or van, gossip, nap, occasionally pick up/drop off actors/equipment as needed.

For the next three hours: sit on pins and needles waiting for them to call a wrap, prep/swab out trucks for next day, drive actors home while constantly pinching self to stay awake.

For the next five hours: marvel at how it is possible to be so exhausted and yet so unable to sleep.

Wake up and do it all again.  

“It was a super fun job. Everyone I worked with at the crew level was a character worthy of their own novel. I hung out with bikers, ex-cons, artists, musicians, retired mercenaries, academics, undiagnosed sociopaths. And don’t get me started on the actors and producers . . . Ok, I’ll start on the actors and producers.

“All great people.

“Ok, some not so great. I have realized that some actors only really play variations of themselves. If they are always typecast as assholes . . . well, you get the picture.

“Notwithstanding, I had a lot of fantastic laugh-out-loud conversations with most of the actors I drove. You could say that I was able to access the hidden reality of people, places, and things. Different from the public facing façade.”

Beyond all that, Dan says, there was simple enjoyment like playing hackie sack or volleyball at lunch in various parking lots across the city every day while filming, and finding yourself in interesting locations.

“On some shows I could explore Toronto’s hidden architecture. Before Gooderham and Worts became a cultural hub, it was a derelict series of buildings that we would explore whenever we used it as a location. I remember that it had some very interesting architectural bones and a lot of abandoned vintage lighting/furniture lying about. On a Canadian TV remake of Total Recall, I remember being in the basement of one of the buildings up by the Downsview military base and it was filled with water which could be pumped up to the flat roof overhead so Russian bombers might think they are passing over a lake and not a military installation.”

During the time he worked on Due South, he started reading all their scripts and the revisions. “It was an interesting process,” Dan says and this is when his first story began to emerge, somewhere around 1998. “Mocha El Grande started out as an idle musing after reading a short news paragraph about some entrepreneurial thieves in California? Seattle? Florida? Who were caught robbing a coffee shop because — instead of cutting and running — they decided to run the store themselves, disappointed with the amount of money in the till. Greed? Stupidity? American exceptionalism?” He approached it as a short story with mostly dialogue and fleshed it out later. And later. And later. After all, it was published in 2019 which is a full twenty-one years. As comedic as Dan can be, he can also be self-reflective — and brutally honest. “The truth is: I constantly write and tinker and rarely finish off a project.” Well, he did eventually finish off that project, but Story El Grande it is.

With the family. L-R: Grace Nguyen  (girlfriend of son Nate), Nate Bryant, Lydia Bryant, Nancy Willoughby, Daniel Bryant

Let’s chunk out the years, including some of Dan’s self-reflection along the way. First, the TV and film transport career met a deadly enemy in 2003 — SARS. Lost in our delirium of today’s current plague we may not remember that Toronto, for a short period, was seen as the epicentre of that one. All of sudden, Hollywood cancelled productions and very few returned for an entire year. Out of work, and needing income to contribute to paying the mortgage and raising two children, Dan found himself applying to Canada Post and, to his surprise, being quickly hired as a letter carrier. A new career that would, eventually, reroute him in his artistic endeavour.

The first step in that endeavour is that a friend who lived down the street told him she was applying to the Humber School of Writing. If she could apply why couldn’t he? And that made him decide to knuckle down, to which he adds, “Insight to my personality not flattering.” Self-observation that perhaps is a tad too hard. Anyway, whatever the motivation, he not only polished Mocha El Grande to send in with his application, but in requesting financial assistance to attend he created a cover letter based on the Monty Python skit about the Scottish poet Ewan McTeagle (the uninitiated can watch here). 

His humorous approach, and the quality of his story’s draft, worked: Dan was awarded the Timothy Findley/William Whitehead Scholarship. In 2006, with novelist/playwright/screenwriter/filmmaker/musician Paul Quarrington as his mentor, he used the short story to anchor the first chapter and embarked on “a sprawling novel length version of petty criminality and filmic larceny”. However, the sprawl rendered the story “unable to pick itself off of the floor, so I buried it in my own slush pile and forgot about it.” Crestfallen, he laid it to rest for years and returned to his “write and tinker and rarely finish off a project” approach for a number of other short stories. He continued to deliver the mail and slowly came to realize that one of the people on his route received a great number of packages and letters from publishers. When he decided to approach this woman about her writing career he learned she was an editor.

Chandra Wohleber remembers the guy delivering her mail as “chatty and friendly.” One day, when she informed him she was an editor, he responded with “the dreaded sentence: ‘I have a manuscript, maybe you could look at it sometime.’”

In the world where unpublished writer stumbles across professional editor, this can be a sentence dripping with dread because most often the writer expects the editor to perform the task for free, as if there is no greater reward for the professional than to read this unrealized brilliant manuscript. With Chandra, of course, it compounded because she “really liked Dan, and what if I didn’t like his writing and then had to try and find how to say that in a such a way that he wouldn’t henceforward chuck my mail into the bushes!” Dan solved this problem for Chandra in two ways — he volunteered that he was willing to pay for her time and when she agreed he delivered short stories that hooked her in the first couple of pages.

Dan with the publishers, Tim and Elke Inkster, The Porcupine’s Quill.

“I could tell immediately that Dan could write because VOICE. And STYLE. And unusual plots. And distinctive characters. Short stories are difficult to write — I find most start out sounding interesting but then peter out and leave you wondering where the rest of the story is. Not so with Dan’s stories; even where a little work was needed, they still felt fully conceived and the endings do something — leave the reader with something powerful, even if it’s something light or funny or just plain wacky. A wonderfully dark sense of humour and just that storytelling ability that he has aloud as well.” 

Dan’s recollection is “that fateful conversation with Chandra” caused him to pull Mocha El Grande out of his self-created slush pile and rework it “for her critical appraisal.” Her positive response “also forced me to focus on finishing a bunch of stories that were ‘kinda almost there’.” All in all: “It was a blessing to cross paths with Chandra.”

When they finished their work together, she sent the completed manuscript to The Porcupine’s Quill for whom she has a freelance work relationship and “they were onboard right away”. There is one additional thing that Chandra told me about what she liked: “Daniel’s stories were so very Canadian, but NOT in the usual CanLit way, not at all. And not limited or limiting in their Canadianness. Wonderfully refreshing!” A sentiment which I wholeheartedly agree. When I reviewed Rerouted on my FaceBook page I noted the landscape which is Canadian, of course, but without any of the clichés.

“What you’ll encounter is gothic horror that eschews the gothic for a contemporary drive up the Trans-Canada to Thunder Bay, taking all the side roads, skirting Marathon for Sibley Peninsula and Ouimet Canyon. Or a deadwalk postal route in the barrens of Toronto that exists somewhere between the world-class downtown and the sprawling suburbs — the Toronto where abandoned factories now haunt the urbanscape. Rock ’n’ Roll bands, slimy movie producers, dumber-than-a-bag-of-hammer bandits holding up coffee shops, ghosts, micro-dose acid trips, and, of course, postal walks.”

Daniel Bryant: man of letters

These days, aside from trying to stay safe and sane in the COVID world (which has not eliminated his current job!), Dan and his wife Nancy are in retirement plan mode, having just downsized to a condo within the same neighbourhood they’ve lived for thirty years. These life events have disrupted his writing, though he says, “right now I am slowly getting back into the rhythm.” With that perspective, Dan also shares another, and again to my ear he’s far too self-critical: “The struggles of a part-time dilettante. Yes it is real. I think I am too easily able to find happiness and contentment in the moment. It is a frigging curse mate.”

In one of our last email exchanges for this profile, I challenged Dan on that perspective and he re-worded it into a rhetorical question: “I seem to be easily amused and distracted, and perhaps that is where happiness lies?” Throughout my life I’ve met far more people who struggle to find happiness than those who have found it. Perhaps Dan took a long time to get that first story published, but he did get it professionally published in a book that contained a collection of his stories, and that accomplishment is shared by very few would-be-writers. All the while, he easily finds happiness and contentment in the moment — a place in life so many people collectively provide billions of dollars to self-help gurus in their search. Perhaps in selecting a name for Dan’s profile I should have stood the old film noir movie title on its head: The Postman Always Finds Happiness and Contentment.

Next up is Ron Dizy. His fourth year theses on Artificial Intelligence, while studying Industrial Engineering, led him to be the “A.I. guy” at the consulting company that hired him out of school. In a few short years, at 28 years old, he found himself redesigning the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan’s administration system that uncovered “a shocking error rate” in entitlements. His reward? They ended up hiring him as an employee and launched Ron in his career as a venture capitalist where he eventually focused on the advance energy sector, travelling the world searching for new ideas and offering new solutions.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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