The author of a new mystery/thriller series about a journalist trying to uphold the principles of his craft in the era of Donald Trump says his “strange” background compels him to write stories that are both entertaining and thought provoking.
“I was a playwright who specialized in comedy before I became a journalist,” said Gary Engler. “I really enjoyed sitting in the theatre listening to an audience laugh and have a good time. So entertaining readers has always been a priority.”
“But then there’s always been a serious side to my work and I think that comes from my time as a union organizer and a whole series of tough working class jobs before I became a journalist.”
Engler, who was born to poor working class parents and raised in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, before moving to Calgary, Alberta, at 13 when his father was laid off from the Robin Hood flour mill, says trying to help low-paid workers gain union wages and benefits gave him an understanding of the unfairness that many people feel in their day-to-day working lives and an appreciation of the importance of fundamental change in the way our economy works.
“I worked on a number of assembly lines — an industrial bakery, a car battery manufacturer, a truck builder — and the way I survived the monotony was by imagining ways to make the job, my life, the world, better. I never forgot that and dreaming about how to make a better world has informed everything I’ve done since, including my writing.”
Engler was “discovered” as a playwright when he won a scholarship to the Banff Centre at the age of 20. A year later his play Sudden Death Overtime debuted at Toronto’s Factory Theatre Lab and then Theatre Calgary.
“I had a brief fling with ‘fame’ and didn’t like it,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but it didn’t feel ‘authentic’. People were treating me like I was someone special just because there was a big picture of me on the front of the Toronto Star entertainment section. It seemed so superficial. I wanted people to pay attention to my ideas. I wanted to tell ordinary people that they needed to make a revolution, but of course that’s not the audience who attends the theatre.”
So Engler abandoned writing for a few years and decided to get a real job and a real life. He got married and tried a series of working class jobs — truck driving, postal worker, labourer in a steel mill — then went to school to become an industrial mechanic. After moving to Vancouver his training led to jobs as an apprentice millwright and then marine engineer on an Alaska cruise ship and coastal ferries. But the writing bug continued to bite and then with two children he decided to train for the one job that could provide a steady source of income from ‘putting pen to paper’. Upon graduation from the one-year journalism program at Langara College he managed to get a summer job as a sports reporter at the Vancouver Sun.
“I wrote a feature about a former Olympic athlete who was working as a taxi driver on my first shift and it made the sports section front,” Engler remembers. “I discovered that in the sports section you could write about class, race, women’s role in the world, colonialism, parenting and other important issues so long as you also entertained readers.”
“Because of our union the newsroom was one of the best paid in North America and it turned out I was pretty good at all sorts of reporting and editing.”
Engler says he covered general news, sports, entertainment, business and politics during his two decades at the Sun as well as rising up in the editing ranks to news editor, and was very active in the union representing newspaper workers across British Columbia. He then spent six years as a full-time elected union official. His time in union leadership coincided with a dramatic drop in newspaper advertising, widespread job cuts and the disappearance of over half his local’s membership.
“It was like we were witnessing the death of newspaper journalism,” said Engler. “Our members were the ones who reported about what governments, businesses and other organizations were doing. How could democracy function without us?”
“It was very depressing, both the disappearance of good jobs and the weakening of the already limited democracy that quality journalism was essential to.”
Four years ago Engler retired early from his term as union secretary treasurer and two years ago sold his house in an overpriced Vancouver real estate market and moved to be closer to his three grandchildren.
“Looking after my grandkids and writing are two of my favourite things,” he says. “If only the public sphere — the environment, government, politics, economy, society — were not so damn depressing, I’d be living the perfect existence.”
On the other hand, Engler adds, working towards a better world is also one of his favourite things to do and can be very fulfilling.