THOUGH she's made her name as a crime writer in Regina, Saskatchewan, Maggie Siggins was born and raised "in the heart of Toronto." She attended local schools and did a year of pre-med at the University of Toronto before settling into the journalism program at what is now Ryerson Polytechnical University. Her first job was as a reporter with the Toronto Telegram, and she began it the day she graduated from Ryerson, in 1965. From then until 1983 she was "basically a journalist in Toronto," doing everything from freelancing for magazines such as Chatelaine, Toronto Life, and Readers Digest to reporting, researching, and producing news stories and documentaries for CITY-TV, CTV, and the CBC. Along the way she won a Southam Fellowship for journalists at the University of Toronto (197 3-74), married the Canadian journalist Ron Haggart and had a baby daughter, and wrote four books.
Siggins says her first book (A Guide to Skiing in Eastern North America, McGraw-Hill, 1969), published when she was 27, came about because "I had been assigned as a ski reporter for the Telegram. I hated skiing, I still do, because I think everybody tried to give me a lesson. But I was asked to do the book, and right from the beginning I was interested. It gave me a taste for books."
Siggins, who uses "timid" and "feminist" to describe herself as a young reporter, explains that her second unlikely title also appeared because someone asked her to do it. "We had a very interesting newsroom at the Telegram; it included people like Ben Wicks, Peter Worthington, DuBarry Campau, Marq deVilliers, John Galt. And Ben Wicks, who was always a go-getter, decided he was going to ask people to write books. For example, he got DuBarry Campau, the drama critic who had never picked LIP a mop in her life, to do one on housekeeping. And Peter Worthington, who had never boiled an egg, he asked to do one on cooking. And I did How to Catch a Man [with cartoons by Ben Wicks, Trojan Press, 1970]. It's actually quite a funny hook. I just made it all up; I consider it fiction. It was how to catch a man in the laundromat. It was on the crest of the women's revolution."
Book number three was Bassett: His Forty Years in Politics, Publishing, Business and Sports (Lorimer, 1979), which Siggins, her strong sense of justice rudely awakened, began writing shortly after the demise of the Telegram in 1970. Bassett "has never forgiven me for that book," she declares. "It's really an expose more than it is a biography. Two things really bothered me. He closed that paper when he didn't I iced to and threw a lot of people out of work, and the second thing, Which now when I look back on it bothers me even more, is that lie got [the first private television licence in Toronto for] station CFTO and he promised all this wonderful Canadian content. He was instrumental in the CTV network; it Could have been the flagship to make Culture in this Country really important on TV" she concludes indignantly.
Switching to freelance and contract writing after her jot, at the Telegram ended, Siggins soon discovered that it suited her ("I've always liked freelancing far more than I liked working for anybody. I'm a gambler, in a way. I always quit my jobs very quickly and go and do my own thing"), and that her chief interest as a journalist was the subject of civil liberty.
"I don't consider myself a crime reporter so Much as a person interested in justice and the underdog," she explains. "For example, I did a couple of pieces for 'Fifth Estate,' One of them involving a Jamaican who'd been convicted of Murder an put in jail and he Couldn't have committed that crime any more than he Could fly. I began to do things like undercover police informers. Murder came into it in a lot of instances, but it came from a kind of social-justice angle."
Siggins's fourth book, Brian and the Boys: A Study of Gang Rape, was published by Lorimer in 1984. "That was the time of a lot of feminist writing about tape," she explains, "and I decided I wanted to write a book on why young men rape in groups. So I picked a case that had occurred in Toronto. But the more I researched it, the more I came to conclude that they had not done at all what the police had said -- in fact, I knew they hadn't -- so I found myself, at the end of it, really upset in a way because I was going across Canada having to defend these young men and they are not darlings, right' It was really a mess. But you have to let your humanitarian and legal principles prevail; you cannot just go and prove that it's gang rape. I thought those young men were treated horribly. It was an interesting case."
Siggins looks thoughtful for a moment, then leans forward with an ire in her eye that's clearly evergreen. "I thought I had a really nice book, she says, "but the editor cut it. And I will never allow that to happen to tile again; it's in my contracts. They spoiled the book. That book also was the first time I started to get into creative non-fiction, the kind of writing that I like to do."
111 1983, her marriage over, Siggins accepted a one-year appointment as the Max Bell Chair Of Journalism at the University of Regina, and renewed her acquaintance with Dr. Gerry Sperling, Who heads the university's department of Political science. I let face radiates tier excitement as she describes what happened next: "I married him and then I decided to stay. I liked it here! I couldn't believe it! Here was somebody who was born and grew up in the heart of Toronto, my whole career had been there, and I thought, 'Well, I'll come here and then I'll go hack and he'll find something there.' But I'm quite amazed how much I liked it and I still don't know what it is I like about it - it's fascinating."
Perhaps Siggins finds her new surroundings so compatible because she's had extra help. "You know," she reveals, "My entire family moved to Regina -- my mother, who's 70 and lived in downtown Toronto Al her life, and my older brother, who followed me to China' He married a Chinese film director whom he brought here. And my younger brother's an artist; he just followed everybody else, I guess.''
Siggins is quick to agree that professionally she's also been lucky In Regina. She had just completed her term at the university when Colin Thatcher, tile former provincial Conservative cabinet minister and son of Ross Thatcher, the late Liberal premier of the province, was arrested for the murder of his wife, JoAnn. The date was May 7, 1984, and almost at once the calls from Toronto started coming in "because they knew I was here, and they knew the story was incredible." Siggins signed a book contract with Macmillan that gave her one year from the day of the arrest to her final manuscript. Though few people in Canada could have realized it at the time, the Colin Thatcher "story" was made for Siggins. During that frenzied year of 1984 to '85, it would demand all the intelligence, courage, perseverance, sense A drama, and love of a good story that she had discovered in herself and honed in her years as a Toronto journalist With A special interest In justice and crime. And it didn't help at all that she was also reporting the story, every night for three weeks during the trial, for CBC Radio's "As It Happens."
"I wouldn't do it again,"she explains, "because writing a book in a courtroom and having to report are two different things. When you write it book on a crime, you get the trial transcripts afterwards. So what you're looking for at the time is the twitch in his eyebrow and tile colour of the tie and the gesture of the criminal lawyer. But if you're writing for `As It Happens,' you have to pay constant attention to the evidence; it's an entirely different thing."
As she began to research the book that would lead her into a whole new phase of her career (A Canadian Tragedy: Jo Ann and Colin Thatcher, a Story of Love and Hate, 1985), discovered her luck was still holding: "Because there many trials, not to do with the murder. For example, there were two long court proceedings to do with custody and tile matrimonial property, that sort of thing. I'll never forget it. I walked into tile courthouse and I said, 'There must be transcripts of these things.' And I walked into the room and they were stacked up to the ceiling with this much [indicating close to an inch] dust on them, and the clerk told me nobody had ever looked at them. And they were a gold-mine," she confides. "Not Only did they have information, but they had the voice of JoAnn, the wife; tile voice of the mother; the voice of Colin Thatcher; it was the actual words, what they were saying. If I hadn't had that, it wouldn't have been nearly as good a book, but I had that, and it was just wonderful. And then I did 130 interviews and went to all the court hearings, 22 of them, besides covering the trial."
She also hired a researcher who combed through newspapers and "just chased after all this stuff. We were working under incredible pressure. If you look at that book, it's 500 pages and it's a vast, vast research job." She pauses, and her voice takes on a note that is almost reverential: "But it was such a wonderful story, it really was. I Mean, it wasn't just the murder. That was a small part; but that family is a dynasty of political power and history, and then the marriage breakup -- it was wonderful. I don't think a journalist could have a better story than that."
Evidently, the world agrees. A Canadian Tragedy was produced by the CBC as the four-hour TV mini-series "Love and Hate," in December 1989; it was also shown in the United States (1990), the United Kingdom (1991), and 32 other countries. Siggins's own view of the Thatcher story helps explain its universal appeal: "Thatcher was like a king's son, in a way, and he perceived himself as that, which is the crucial thing. It's a very important story; it tells as much as Othello."
Siggins missed the effect of the book on her adopted community, because before it appeared she went to China: "I was in China for almost three years. My husband went first of all and then I went over with my daughter and I worked at the New China News Agency in Beijing as a polisher and translator." She also found time to teach journalism and research a new book, a "huge" novel called "Beijing, Embrace Me": "I've done short stories before; I've always written fiction, off and On. This is a historical novel with hardly any foreigners in it, about Beijing from 1900 to 1983. A Hong Kong publisher wants it, but I'm going to rewrite it; I'm going to go back to China,"
Still in the first-draft stage, the novel had to be set aside on Siggins's return to Canada when she signed a contract to write Revenge of the Land: A Century of Greed, Tragedy, and Murder on a Saskatchewan Farm (McClelland & Stewart, 1991). The idea for the hook was developed over a Chinese meal with Douglas Gibson, Siggins's editor. "Now that this thing has won the Governor General's Award he likes to say that it was his idea, but I'm not sure that it was," says Siggins good-naturedly. "But we came up with the idea of why not a biography of a farm'? I had found the murder -- because again, I wanted to have a murder as the focal point. It focuses the mind. In that book, the murder is a very, very small part and there are no other murders, but it's the beginning of it. I think murder is the most extravagant thing anybody can do. So all the motivation and emotions, all the kinds of things that people do to lead up to murder, are heightened. And that's wonderful to write about; it', drama."
It was also the most difficult research job she's ever tackled. Revenge of the Land is the story of one 640-acre Prairie farm, from the time it was first homesteaded in 1883 to the gruesome murder, in 1987, of the frugal Old Couple who owned it by their troubled and greedy grandchildren. The murder grabs centre stage, but what really sticks in one's mind about this book is how the people who truly loved the land suffered because of it, while those who cared nothing for it prospered. Her indictment of Prairie land speculators in the preface is vintage Siggins:
Greed emerges as the dominant theme in this book .... The terrible crime is only the climax of this drama. For over a hundred years, malevolence, unrequited ambition, and greed stalked the land. This book is about how the West was really won, and by whom.
To Siggins, the connection between her two "Prairie books" is clear. "The thing that amazed me about the Thatcher book more than anything," she observes, "was I realized that this man committed the crime because of his obsession with the land. Not because his wife had remarried and was prospering again, or because of the children, but because he was going to have to sell that little piece of land [to pay JoAnn her alimony]. There's this phrase, 'Thatchers buy land; Thatchers do not sell land.' He's in prison, but they've never sold any land. When you come from downtown Toronto, this is a hard thing to fathom, really." Yet fathoming it has become Siggins's forte, partly because, along with her skills as a professional writer and researcher, she brings to her Subject the fresh perspective of the new comer. "I go out on the Prairies and I love the Prairies, I love the landscape," she says. "But I feel much more comfortable in the heart of Beijing. There's some strange, eerie feeling that I get every time I (go out there. People either love it or hate it."
Given her interest in the Prairies, it's understandable that Siggins's favourite reading these days is fiction by Prairie writers. "But there isn't the kind of non-fiction, at least in this province, that I've been writing at all," she points out. What pleased her most about winning a Governor General's Award Was the jury's description A her work as "a model Of creative non-fiction" with "the relentless power of a naturalistic novel." Siggins defines creative non-fiction as "the use of the imagination, being appreciative and working on one's writing as much as you would in
fiction. I think people really like it if they can pick up a piece of non-fiction that reads like a novel; there's, a special
quality to it. You can't be as imaginative, but why would you want to be imaginative about the story of Colin Thatcher? It's so fantastic already. So it depends on the form. I really spend as much time on my writing as I do oil digging Lip facts, and it's very important to Inc. I rewrite and rewrite. It's got to be a narrative, first of all, a story as much as fiction is. All my hooks have a very strong narrative approach. And I leave the references to authorities and Stuff like that for footnotes or the bibliography; I try to keel, them Out Of it. It's not very journalistic at all."
Siggins's Current research assistant is a young Metis woman I whom she describes as "just marvelIous. A librarian told me they call her 'Researcher from Hell' as soon as she walks in the door." Together they're working oil 'Siggins's latest project, a biography of Louis Riel. "I was asked to do this by HarperCollins, "she explains. "They wanted, first of all, a woman, which I think was an absolutely wise thing on their part, because I'm sure I'll have a different perspective, and they wanted somebody from the West." Siggins sees the project as the completion of her "trilogy of murder in the West. I think that there is a central theme for all three books, and the first thing Of Course is the murder, because I feel very strongly that Louis Riel was murdered by the state. And I'm treating it as a kind Of Murder. The second thing, Of Course, is it all takes place in this strange part of the world called the Prairies, in Saskatchewan. And the third thing is, it's all got to do with land and the money-grubbing part of land, the speculative, money-making part of Iand. With Thatcher, that's pretty obvious. Most of Revenge of the Land is about land specuIation. And I think that Riel was assassinated by the state because lie was holding Lip land development and land expansion in the West."
Siggins claims she is writing the first biography to focus Oil Riel as a person. Previous biographers have concentrated on his political life; she will include "new material" concerning his private life. "I don't think you can just research," she says. "I think you have to come to know the person while you're writing about them. I'm into chapter five and I'm still discovering him, I'm letting him tell the story. I'm very sympathetic and I think that [Sir John A.] Macdonald was jealous of him, actually. He was exceedingly handsome by every account; if he walked in the door with your daughter, your heart would flutter. Now, there's lots wrong with him, too, I don't want to romanticize him in any way. But I love him. And you know," she adds stoutly, "I think he's Canada's Joan of Arc. We shouldn't spend all our time worrying about whether lie was nuts or not, right? It's the first thing everybody asks. I say, Your insanity is not my insanity."
In a way, it follows that Siggins would write a biography of Louis Riel. Canadians don't have many myths and legends, perhaps because superlatives tend to make us uncomfortable and suspicious. But we are eager to hear those truths about ourselves that we already know instinctively. What Siggins does so well is sniff out and dig up our own true stories, and tell them to us in words that compel our belief she has the Canadian's grasp of the importance of being on the level. Her background in civil liberty makes her the ideal writer for the story of Riel. And although she prides herself on handling strongly emotional subjects with a journalistic detachment that strives never to be unfair, "I'm not objective," Maggie Siggins declares firmly. "I hate objective journalism. I want to he emotional, thank you very much. I think that's great!"