Robert Kroetsch, one of Canada’s greatest writers, died on June 21st in a car accident as he was returning home from a literary festival. He was a friend and mentor and one of the most kind and generous people I’ve ever known. I admired the heck out of him, cherished his work and loved him dearly.
The first time I met Bob I was an intimidated novice writer whose first book had just been published. He was this wizard of Canadian literature whose awesome wit and intellect would surely reduce me to ashes if I dared have a conversation with him. To my surprise he turned out to be a warm, soft-spoken man, grandfatherly and unassuming. He talked to me as a fellow writer, an equal. I’ve always been grateful for that.
He was such a wonderful writer. In his fiction, poetry and memoirs he made this province more real and at the same time more mythical. Like all great writers he revealed the universal in the particular, the richness of our own history and stories, the ordinary yet strange and astonishing lives we live. Kroetsch showed me and so many other writers that our own prosaic corner of the world was a place that could be written about, that could be made into words, into art. He created a place I like to call Kroetsch Country, a wild, contradictory territory of words and tall tales, of fools and politicians and dreamers and lovers. Some people call it Alberta.
The last time I saw Bob, earlier this spring, he had just been recognized with the Alberta Distinguished Artist award. He’d also gotten some sobering news about the severity of his Parkinson’s, and the intense therapy that would be required to treat it. But he was in good spirits: he joked, and charmed the waitress at the restaurant we went to for lunch, and asked about people we both knew. Later we went for a coffee in the dining area of the assisted-living complex that was his current home, and he looked around at the other elderly people and said, “You can see why I like coming in here. Most days I’m the youngest person in the room.”
Kroetsch was a mentor and friend to many Alberta writers, and broke ground for so many others to follow. His work is and will continue to be an enduring literary legacy. It reminds us, as writers, readers, as people alive for such a brief time on this earth, to really pay attention to what’s right here in front of our noses, the shit and the foolishness and the glory. To remain open and curious and vulnerable to whatever the world brings.
Just days before his death Bob was presented with the Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement at the Alberta Book Awards in Calgary. I was looking forward to seeing him soon to celebrate this latest honour. I still can’t believe none of us will ever have the chance to enjoy his wonderful company again.
As it slowly began to sink in that he was really gone, I looked through some of his books and enjoyed his words again, and was grateful and inspired, as I always am whenever I take a walk through Kroetsch Country. Reading some of his marvelous poetry I had the odd Kroetschian thought that if anyone could write the most heartbreaking, irreverent, perfect poem about his own death, it would be Bob Kroetsch. How I wish he was still here to write it.
Rest in peace, Bob, and thank you.