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Gary Collins — from logger to bestselling author

Gary Collins has written 10 books in the past decade.
Gary Collins has written 10 books in the past decade.

Gary Collins didn’t publish his first book until he was 57-years-old, but admits that, without realizing it, he’s been preparing to be a writer his whole life.

Collins had several other careers before he became a published author: he was a logger, a sawmill operator, a fisheries guardian, an ice road driver and a fisher of cod, crab and lobster.   

All the while, he was observing the world around him: how the light filtered through the trees, how the waves rushed over the rocks, the way a man swung an axe. He was also listening — to what people said and how they said it — building up a store of memories he would later draw upon for his writing.

Since that first book, Cabot Island appeared in print in 2007, Collins has published nine more books for adults. He’s also co-written a children’s book What Colour is the Ocean with his granddaughter Maggie Rose Parsons.

Collins counts his book total as, “Ten and three-quarters, since Maggie did most of the work on that one.”

He’s tackled subjects from the sinking of the schooner the Ethel Collett in The Last Farewell to the crash of the Arrow Air Flight 1285 in Where Eagles Lie Fallen.

Gary claims he began his career writing eulogies for friends but when pressed admits he’s always been “scribbling,” even when he was a young married man, working in the logging camps.

“Sometimes by the light of the lamp, I’d just be fooling around with a pen and pencil while the boys were playing cards,” he recalled. “I would write stuff down and I discovered I liked it. I liked describing. I found I had a kind of affinity towards describing moonlight and bays and storms and trees and that kind of stuff, but that’s all there was to that.”

Or so he thought.  

Collins had several other careers before he became a published author: he was a logger, a sawmill operator, a fisheries guardian, an ice road driver and a fisher of cod, crab and lobster.   

All the while, he was observing the world around him: how the light filtered through the trees, how the waves rushed over the rocks, the way a man swung an axe. He was also listening — to what people said and how they said it — building up a store of memories he would later draw upon for his writing.

Since that first book, Cabot Island appeared in print in 2007, Collins has published nine more books for adults. He’s also co-written a children’s book What Colour is the Ocean with his granddaughter Maggie Rose Parsons.

Collins counts his book total as, “Ten and three-quarters, since Maggie did most of the work on that one.”

He’s tackled subjects from the sinking of the schooner the Ethel Collett in The Last Farewell to the crash of the Arrow Air Flight 1285 in Where Eagles Lie Fallen.

Gary claims he began his career writing eulogies for friends but when pressed admits he’s always been “scribbling,” even when he was a young married man, working in the logging camps.

“Sometimes by the light of the lamp, I’d just be fooling around with a pen and pencil while the boys were playing cards,” he recalled. “I would write stuff down and I discovered I liked it. I liked describing. I found I had a kind of affinity towards describing moonlight and bays and storms and trees and that kind of stuff, but that’s all there was to that.”

Or so he thought.  

Shadow box presentation of The Gale of 1929 by Gary Collins

After writing feature articles — mostly on bygone days — for the Newfoundland Herald, Collins says he was running out of topics, when his wife Rose suggested he tell the story of her two uncles, one of whom died while they were at the lighthouse on Cabot Island, cut off from the mainland by a storm.  

From his home in Hare Bay, Collins travelled down to Newtown, where an older man, Eli Gill took him out to Cabot Island. He brought two pens to take notes.

“I was out there with Eli Gill and the two pens gave out. He had an old stub of a carpenter’s pencil in his pocket and that’s what I scravelled the notes down with. I remember Eli Gill saying, ‘If you don’t hurry up we’re going to spend the night with the puffins.’ The tide was coming in and the seas were heaving.”

All the while he was describing what he saw and heard around him

“The little coves and the way the sea was chunking and gurgling around the rocks and the hiss of the sea and the rote of the sea and the infinite distance of it and trying to get it all in your head.”

When that first manuscript was finished, Collins contacted Flanker Books in St. John’s and persuaded publisher Garry Cranford to read an excerpt.  Cranford told him he decided to take the book after he read one of his descriptions.  

“He said, ‘I read the few pages you sent in and you described about the lighthouse and the storm. And the lighthouse was like a fortress out in the middle of the ocean. And the two men are inside, comfortable, and they had a pot of jigs, of scoff on, and you described where they dropped the potatoes down among the bubbling yellow turnips and my mouth watered. And that’s what sold it.’ ”

Flanker Press ordered a print run of 3,500 hundred copies and they sold out in in less than six weeks, making it a Newfoundland best seller. All of Collins’s subsequent books have also gone on to be bestsellers.

“The Part”

Now Collins gets up in his home in Hare Bay every morning and goes to write in “The Part,” a piece he built on years ago. The Part is a sun-filled room with a view out the bay and varnished floorboards that were planed at his own sawmill. His books are hung on the walls, in shadow boxes created by his niece. A compass sits on his desk next to his computer.

 “I’ve always been a geography buff and I can’t write a story without a map next to me,” he said.

When he was researching the sinking of the Collett, Collins says he had to see the route the ship had taken.

He and his wife Rose drove up to Cape Bonavista.  

“I knew she went aground there and I got out on the edge of the cliff and the fog was in,” he recalled. “I had a pen and a paper and I was damn near froze and I wrote. “

They followed the ship’s route along the coast, stopping for Gary to take notes, “to get a feel for how it all happened.”

Rose says she enjoyed that research trip and the others that followed. She’s one of her husband’s greatest supporters and his first reader. She said he calls her his  “first critic.”

“I’m very tough on him,” she said. “I read and I say, ‘Gary this is fine but…’  Then he reads it again and maybe I’m wrong and maybe he’s right. But I always point out things and always read them first before they go off.”

They both agree they’re surprised by how the second half of their lives turned out — researching stories and going to book launches and readings. In May, they’ll be celebrating their 50th anniversary at the Trails, Tails and Tunes festival where Collins has been invited to read.

Prospecting

In addition to his other careers, Collins has also trained as a prospector, a skill that came in handy when was working on “Soulis Joe’s Lost Mine.”  In fact, for that book he managed to combine two professions.   

Kevin Keats, a well-known prospector and descendent of Soulis Joe’s, approached Collins about the story.

“I said, ‘You hire me as a prospector and pay me a prospectors wages and I’ll work in the day and during the night I’ll compile the notes with someone who knows your history and your business. I’ll write your book’, and he said, ‘Deal.’”

That deal led not only to a book, but six years of prospecting with Allan Keats, Kevin’s father who Collins says is “probably one of the best prospectors in North America. Discovered Duck Pond.”

Looking Ahead

Collins is no longer prospecting, but last year he joined the Canadian Rangers, so he’s a reserve soldier now.

He’s still drawing on that store of early observations for his work. In his latest book, Desperation — inspired by the events surrounding the wreck of the Queen of the Swansea on a voyage from Wales to Newfoundland in 1867—he refers to a “dense fog that marled and mulled through the narrow dockside streets.”

Marled is not a common word. Collins heard it years ago and tucked it away in his memory.  

“I remember my old Uncle Cec and the word ‘marl.’  I was only a boy and I never forgot how he talked to Dad. He said, ‘Offie boy, I think I’m going to marl on in the woods now.’  With his lumbering walk… sling the ax over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to marl on in the woods now and cut a few cronnicks.’”

Collins says when he reads at homes for seniors he looks at the older people and thinks of all the stories “locked in their heads that will never be put on any page.  I get really passionate about that.  There’s so much history that will be forever gone.”

He’s lucky, he says, he learned so much from his father and his uncle. Material that will no doubt find its way into books he’ll write in the future. 

Author Gary Collins says his wife Rose is his first reader.

Books by Gary Collins

Collins has published 11 titles in the past 10 years.


Cabot Island: The Alex Gill Story, 2007s

The Last Farewell: The Loss of the Collett, 2008

Soulis Joe’s Lost Mine: A Newfoundland Memoir, 2009

What Colour is the Ocean? (with Maggie Rose Parsons) 2009

Where Eagles Lie Fallen: The Crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285, 2010

Mattie Mitchell: Newfoundland’s Greatest Frontiersman, 2011

A Day on the Ridge: The Life of a Woodsman, 2012

The Gale of 1929: A True Story of Adventure on the High Seas, 2013

Left to Die: The Story of the SS Newfoundland Sealing Disaster, 2014

A Time that Was: Christmas in Newfoundland, 2015

Desperation: The Queen of Swansea, 2016

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