Famous Canadian Cottagers: Stuart McLean

An award-winning author and broadcaster, Stuart McLean is probably best known as the writer and host of CBC Radio’s popular show, The Vinyl Café, which garners more than 1 million listeners every week. His recently published book, Revenge of the Vinyl Café, explores the dark side of some familiar characters with good nature and humour. McLean took some time away from his work to speak with us about writing at the lake where he spent his childhood and what cottaging means to him.

Cottage Life: Can you give us a bit of background on your cottaging experience?

Stuart McLean: I grew up in Montreal and I spent my boyhood at the cottage. In fact, my father used to say that we spent more nights at the cottage than we did at home, because we would go up on the first day that school was out and return Labour Day weekend. We were also one of the first on the lake to winterize our place. My parents were big skiers so we were up year round. I led a cottage life, and I think that had an important impact on me and the person I grew up to be. I think it informed how I look at things and I’ve found it is possible to find that world in the city. The cottage is really about taking time and noticing the world around you.

CL: Do you continue to cottage now?

SM: This summer I returned to the lake where I cottaged as a boy and rented a place. It’s the first time I’ve been back there for an extended time for probably over thirty years.

CL: Had anything changed?

SM: It was interesting what I discovered. The world had changed, but it hadn’t changed. Most things stayed the same, but the one thing I noticed was the way people are driving today, and I include myself in that. Automobile traffic had increased in a disturbing way, and people were driving much, much faster than when I was a boy. You used to walk around the lake and not even notice or think of the cars. My parents didn’t seem concerned to get to the other side of the lake a minute faster, the way people are now. I don’t know why we’re in such a hurry now.

CL: Did you do any writing while you were there?

SM: Yes, I wrote this summer. I felt ambivalent about that, because the other thing I noticed is that the world is too much with us. In the past, we thought about getting a telephone at the cottage. We also thought getting a television was something that required discussion. We previously kept the world at bay, or we at least thought about doing so. Now, we arrive with our computers ready to work.

I was up there for eight weeks, which is maybe a lot of time to expect, but because I was connected, I didn’t really get one week. Would I be better served to be there for two weeks unconnected than eight weeks connected? It’s something to think about.

CL: You often address cottaging and small-town living in your work. Do you think cottaging is something that really resonates with Canadians?

SM: I think there is something about the wilderness that is very close to our Canadian hearts and our Canadian identity. I think we are all connected to our young country that was scratched out of the wilderness and we are defined by that. Although more of us live in an urban landscape than ever, our economy is largely based in natural resources—in minerals, oil, forestry—and our choices have been formed by those things. So when we connect with those things, we feel like we are connecting with ourselves, with who we are, and with where we came from.

CL: What do you like most about spending time at the cottage? What makes you feel connected?

SM: I like the quiet time at the end of the day, sitting by the lake with a drink, maybe a meal, or with loved ones. As the end of the day descends upon the world, I like the quiet that descends on me and the folks around me. I like the time the cottage affords me to do certain things like reading and cooking—to be absorbed in simple pleasures like going into town to shop for food. These things that we fit in a busy life become the things that you do for fun and for pleasure.