The Word on the Street interview series: William Whitehead

Share |
William Whitehead

For today's edition of Open Book's The Word On The Street interview series, we are speaking with William Whitehead.

William is an award-winning actor, producer and writer (amongst his many credits he counts dozens of episodes of the beloved CBC show The Nature of Things), and his most recent publication is a memoir, Words to Live By (Cormorant), which details William's 50+ years of engagement with Canadian arts and culture, much of it shared with his late partner, CanLit icon Timothy Findley.

William talks with us about the dangers of using language, his first kiss and fundraising via pornography.

Open Book:

Tell us a about what you’ll be reading in the Vibrant Voices tent.

William Whitehead:

I will be reading from Words to Live By, published by Cormorant Books in 2012. I am now 81 years old.

In this book, I have taken the skeletal structure of my life and treated it as a Christmas tree, decorating it with anecdotes about using the wonders of language to become one of Canada's busiest documentary writers (until my retirement in the 1980's.) Most of the book, however, is about the dangers of using language — the many different ways in which the meaning intended is not the meaning perceived — with results that can range from the hilarious to the disastrous.

OB:

Have you attended The Word On The Street in the past? If so, tell us about a favourite memory. If not, what are you most looking forward to?

WW:

My only experiences with The Word on the Street involve my accompanying Timothy Findley on his visits. I look forward to seeing familiar faces at the event — including my first kiss, fellow Cormorant author Margaret McBurney.

OB:

The Vibrant Voices tent celebrates Ontario authored and published books. Tell us about a favourite Ontario author or book.

WW:

Needless to say, my favourite Ontario author remains Timothy Findley. One of my favourite novels, however, is Bear, by Marian Engel. Not many people know that in the early days of the Writers' Union of Canada, founding members decided to try a fundraising scheme by each publishing a piece of pornography. The only writer to carry this project to completion was Marian. I think the result is absolutely splendid. I enjoyed reading Graeme Gibson’s recent anthologies.

OB:

What’s the best advice about public readings you have ever received?

WW:

The best piece of advice I know about public readings is to remember that you're not here to satisfy yourself; you're here to entertain an audience. Therefore, keep it short and, if at all possible, keep it funny. Also, I dislike long rambling introductions.

OB:

Word on the Street is happening simultaneously in Toronto, Lethbridge, Saskatoon, Kitchener and Halifax this year as well as in Vancouver from September 28-30. If you could be in two places at once, which WOTS festival (in addition to Toronto) would you attend?

WW:

If I could not be in Toronto for The Word on the Street, I would choose to be in Saskatoon where, in the 1950's, I spent seven happy years at the University of Saskatchewan. I am still a prairie boy at heart.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

WW:

My next project is to attempt to stay alive long enough to see if there is any public response to the publication of my book!


Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1931, William Whitehead grew up in Regina. He holds a B.A. in both Biology and Theatre Arts and an M.A. in Biology. In 1957 he turned down a scholarship to Yale and became an actor, with credits from CBC and Stratford. He worked as a producer and then, with partner Timothy Findley, left the theatre in 1962 to become documentary writer for radio, television and film. He has received the Ohio Award, the Wilderness Award (later called the Anik Award) and the ACTRA Award (later called Gemini Award).

For more information about Words to Live By please visit the Cormorant website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Related item from our archives

University of Guelph Creative Writing

Humber Scapa

Kingston Writer's Festival

Humber Literary Review

Open Book App Ad