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Tofino writer releases memoir about adventure and working in Canada’s backcountry

New author’s book tops Amazon’s Best Seller list in its first week
Tom Stewart palms the first print copy of his book Under Big-Hearted Skies. (Nora O’Malley photo)

‘Under Big Hearted-Skies: A Young Man’s Memoir of Adventure, Wilderness, & Love’ is a hit on Amazon’s Best Seller charts.

Written and independently published by Tom Stewart, the memoir was released on Aug. 11 and within two days it was running up the charts in several categories: Canadian Travel, Outdoors & Nature, Travel Biography & Memoirs, and Canadian Biographies. At one point, it was ranked number eight in Best Selling New Releases Memoirs in North America alongside Alex Trebek’s new memoir.

From his Tofino home overlooking the mouth of Clayoquot Sound, Stewart palms the first copy of his book and says that all in, that inaugural copy cost him about $7,000 to make.

The new author and former professional poker player said he submitted his manuscript to a handful of publishers, but couldn’t stand to wait over half a year to hear back nor did he want to give up creative control.

Stewart is attune to the fleeting nature of Amazon’s bestselling book world, but shows simple delight to watch his book do well in its first week. He even bought stickers to tack on to the cover of the 100 or so books stacked on his dining table.

Much like he did while playing poker for a living, notes Stewart, he treated writing ‘Under Big-Hearted Skies’ as if it was his full-time job for a year, diligently putting in long hours every day at his computer. He now finds himself spending as much time navigating the publishing world and marketing the piece of Canadiana.

Stewart opens up his 230-page work of non-fiction with punchy morsels of life as a young fishing guide working alongside the local First Nations at Sabourin Lake Lodge in Northern Ontario.

Q&A with Tom Stewart, author of Under Big-Hearted Skies

Tell me about the work you put into each story.

Over the course of a year I’ve read all these stories over 100 times, played them all back via audio dozens of times. I’ve ripped them apart and put them back together. I’ve cut whole stories. I lost some sleep over it at times—I’d rather not publish than publish shitty writing. But after all the effort, I can say I’m happy with it. I like the book and the stories that stayed are there for a reason.

Some of your stories are very short. Why?

If you’re going to hit someone with a bat you don’t have to run the field for a windup.

In Book One: Summers at Sabourin, you are given the nickname ‘Blonde Indian’. Does that resonate with you to this day?

No, it doesn’t resonate much with me now. It was 20 years ago. I say in the book, “When I heard that for the first time, I glowed the rest of the day. I walked taller. It’s a fond thing and I choke up now writing it.” It meant a lot to that boy at the time. But the memories of those old friends do matter to me. It still glitters.

The Sabourin crew. (Submitted photo)

You spent many seasons living and working with First Nations. What advice would you give people to make deeper connections with Canada’s First Nations?

I’m not here to give advice; read my stories, like them or don’t. See what I’m trying to do or don’t see it. It’s up to the reader now. For better or worse I didn’t put people into boxes. One person within a culture might not identify with all aspects of that culture so why should I pretend to know who she is? I just tried to act honestly and genuinely and treat people equally, be a decent person—even if I wasn’t always. If someone treated me unfairly, I’d push back. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’m a humanist and an optimist. You go back far enough and this was all darkness and coldness and hard things—somehow conscious beings grew up out of that to a world where kindness can be created. You tell me how I can’t be an optimist. I believe in human beings. I marvel at us. The beauty we make every day in kind acts, in creative ones, in effortful things and risk taking: farmers, entrepreneurs, mothers, artists—all irrespective of race. I see humankind as a shiny thing.

You used to ask your guests the question ‘What three people living in at any point in history would you bring on a boat?’ What is your answer to this question?

I’ve asked it a thousand times but am still not sure of my answer. I never expected the overwhelming singular response, “My dad.” But because of that answer I acted on it.

I got my dad flown up there and we fished the day. Yeah, okay, I’d put him in my boat. And now you made me choke up. Ha. It wouldn’t be writers or philosophers—you’ll probably get the best out of a writer or philosopher by just reading the book. So may as well fill the boat with lovable things, or funny ones. Or, y’know, I’m not religious but let’s get to the bottom of this already: Jesus, grab your pole, bro.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

I didn’t want to give up ownership or creative control of these stories. They’re mine. And margins are higher if you are willing to front the costs and seek out the professionals yourself. I emailed 50 editors the same questions trying to find one I vibed with. I held a cover contest and worked with over 30 designers. There’s a lot of money and time spent on this book without even talking about the year of writing. It represents 2020 publishing at a high level and I don’t take any credit for that. It’s the work of the professionals listed in the book.

What hopes and dreams do you have for your first book?

I don’t want to sound dramatic or that this is a burden—it’s not. But I don’t crave the spotlight. I don’t mind it for the time being. And the inflow of love coming my way was something I didn’t expect and that makes this a very unique time in my life. It’s nice. But some of this book is at my own expense. Sharing of true stories feels challenging at times. I’m doing this because there is humanity displayed on the pages: sacrifice, humour, generosity. Those stories are worth telling. I wrote this because I believe in the power of art, words. I believe that trying to make beautiful things is a reasonable use of our limited time. I’d like people to connect with the writing and feel something.

That would matter to me. If people like the stories they’ll tell other people and the book should do alright. If not, well… I’ve done what I can do. Good luck, book.

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