Val Ross died this past week of brain cancer. She was only 57. Val, who was a highly successful freelance writer before taking up editorial posts at Maclean’s, Saturday Night, and finally The Globe and Mail, will be remembered by her many friends and colleagues for her integrity, her passion, and her no-nonsense approach to the frequently nonsensical trade of journalism.
But I’ll remember her in slightly different terms. She was, after all, my first.
Val Ross published my first piece of freelance journalism, all the way back in 2005, on the subject of mandatory retirement. She gave me the rest of the day to do it, and if I could finish it in time she’d consider running it. I did, and she did, and that set the tone for the relationship that we had, a writer and his first editor. I would ask Val for advice, on who to approach with a particular piece or how to approach them, and she’d respond quickly, honestly, and often tersely, the last feature a byproduct both of her responsibilities at the Globe and the fact that she had no time for formal niceties and false politeness. Once, I toyed with the idea of working at the Globe as a copy-editor, and Val, being Val, simply left her copy of the Globe’s style manual at the front desk for me and told me to figure out the rest.
Val was one of those rare writers who didn’t believe that she was playing in a zero-sum game where any success that’s shared with another writer, be it through collaboration, editing, or professional guidance, reduces the amount that’s available to them. She opened doors – hell, she kicked them down – as a force of habit, not as a favour, and I doubt that she never expected anything in
I finally got to meet Val Ross in person on October 4th, 2007, at the Books in Canada First Novel Award at the Sunnyside Estates. I was there as the master of ceremonies, and Val was there in her role as the Globe’s reporter on the publishing industry. As it turned out, Val and I were the last guests to leave, and we hitched a ride back downtown in the back seat of the car of Olga and Adrian Stein, the publishers of Books in Canada. It couldn’t have been more than a twenty-five minute drive, but in that time we talked about the difficulties of freelancing, the insularity of Canada’s intellectual culture, and the real reason why Heather Mallick was fired from the Globe, among other things.
today. Her energy, her passion about the world in which she lived, her wit and
her sense of humour all seemed like bulwarks against time and age and all that
comes with it. When I hopped out of the car at Bloor and Borden to head into
Dooney’s Café for an espresso, I couldn’t have imagined that it would be the
last time I’d see her.
She promised that she’d come by one day for a drink, although I now understand why she didn’t. But I can picture what she’d look like if she had, sitting at the bar, glass of wine in hand, with those eyes that seemed to send light out rather than take it in.
Her eyes are what I’ll remember most about Val, in fact, because they symbolized the giving spirit and vitality that defined her too-brief presence in my life.
Toronto, February 27th 2008 – 575 w.