Michael Van Rooy

A year ago today, Winnipeg lost one of its rising literary stars, and I lost a great friend. Michael passed away while on tour promoting his third novel, A Criminal to Remember. As tributes were organized, I had the honour of being asked to speak about what Michael meant to me, both as a bookseller who loved to read his books and as an emerging writer whom he’d mentored.

Here’s what I had to say:

I first met Michael shortly after he sold An Ordinary Decent Criminal. At the time he was the restaurant manager here in Prairie Ink. Michael wasn’t a mentor yet, but he was still an inspiration. Here was someone who had done it. He’d made that first big sale.

Michael always had questions then. About how the store did its displays. What worked. What didn’t. What made me pick one book over another when I saw them in a catalogue. That was how we first came to really know one another.

I had recently taken over the ordering for the Mystery section in the bookstore. What did I read? Michael asked. When I said I preferred Jim Thompson to Agatha Christie he smiled. When I said I’d rather read about crooks than cops, he gave me his manuscript.

Michael already had a great knowledge of his own and other genres. But he always listened, and absorbed whatever information he could use. Before long, he was answering more questions than he was asking.

I had the privilege of introducing Michael at the launch for his second novel, Your Friendly Neighbourhood Criminal.

That night was a special night for me as well. Michael had just finished reading my recently completed first manuscript. And I knew he wasn’t just handing it over with a pat on the back and a “good job”. He listed all kinds of minutiae that he felt I could research further to add depth. We all knew something of that side of Michael too, his love of obscure facts and details. He read so widely, it felt like Michael knew something about everything.

In the time leading up to his own book launch, Michael was trying to help me. Because that’s the kind of guy he was. Michael wasn’t only concerned with HIS success, but that of all of us. He took the roll of mentor seriously, and was very keen to pay forward every shred of advice he’d ever received about this crazy industry.

Michael decided that I was ready to start applying for arts council grants long before I’d thought it a possibility. He never pushed, never harassed, but every time I saw him in the store—which was often—he’d ask about my writing, mention a book I should read that was related to my work, smile and remind me of the grant application deadlines.

When I was finally ready to apply, Michael insisted on meeting me for coffee to look over my proposal—even though he had the flu at the time. I won those first grants, both an emerging writers’ grant and a travel grant from the Manitoba Arts Council. Both achievements I am very proud of, but it was a victory claimed in no small part because of Michael’s support, encouragement, and generosity.

Michael wasn’t just a mentor to me though. He took part in the Manitoba Writer’s Guild Mentorship program, was the Program Coordinator for the Writers Collective, and administered the CMU School of Writing. All of these positions were a testament to his deep seated love of the written word, and all of us mad souls intent on pursuing the writer’s life.

Michael also facilitated a teen writing workshop for Arts & Cultural Industries Association of Manitoba. He invited me to speak to his group, not as a writer, but as a bookseller, and bookbuyer at McNally Robinson, with the hope I could give them an understanding of what happens to their precious work once it leaves their computer and hits the shelves.

I saw some of those same teens later in the year at the Manitoba Publishing Awards. Can you imagine teens giving up a weekend evening to watch us all talk and celebrate local writing? That was the passion Michael could engender in his students. I thought he had to be some kind of sorcerer.

Anyone who knew Michael knew how hard he worked, and how devoted he was to his career. But his success wasn’t enough. He looked out for all of us. I can’t count the authors that he introduced me to over the years, either during Thin Air or outside of the festival. He made me feel a part of Winnipeg—and Canada’s—community of writers, but he also put writers in contact with the people on the front lines selling their books. Michael understood the value personal connection could have when a customer asks: What should I read next?

Michael’s mentorship will continue in a way. There will be a Manitoba Publishing Award for genre fiction named in his honour.  It will be a goal those who follow him can aspire to.

Winnipeg’s emerging writers looked up to Michael. How could we not? But his example made us all stand a little taller and reach a little further than we ever thought we could.

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