Following Life's Path

By Mary Anne Hajer


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Author Neil McKinnon has followed so many divergent paths that even he gets lost trying to retrace them in his memory. Never afraid to leave the familiar and head for parts unknown, he began many of these journeys after the age of 50. "Writer" is the latest entry on Neil's CV - not a career known for its reliable income. Always a risk taker, Neil refuses to be bored. From his first job at the age of 15 as a stock clerk for Woodward's in Port Alberni (as a teenage runaway) to a five-year stint in the navy (within an hour of seeing the movie *South Pacific*, he was enlisted in the RCN) to getting in on the ground floor of the computer programming industry, he has welcomed challenges.

For about 20 years, Neil was involved in a variety of business ventures (financial investments, real estate development, consulting) - some as manager and director and others as owner and president.

These years were kind to him financially, enabling him, in 1981, to fulfill his longtime dream of retiring from the business world to go back to university and study archaeology, an interest since childhood.

"When I was a little kid, I would follow the plough as we broke land in the Prairies," he says. "I was always looking for arrowheads and other artifacts that got turned up. I had quite a collection, and I would sit and look at them, turning them over in my hand, wondering about the stories behind them. Who had made them? How had they been used? Had this arrowhead that I was holding killed anyone?"

Neil earned two degrees in archaeology at the University of Calgary, and then became a sessional instructor. His association with the department led to him working on archaeological sites in Alberta, Mexico, the Yukon and China. This, in turn, led to his next career change.

"I was working for an archaeological friend on the Tibetan Plateau," he says. "There wasn't much to do in the evenings, so I started to write. I wrote a piece on Tibet and, when I got back to Canada, I sent it to the *Toronto Star*. They bought it. I thought, 'This is pretty easy.' Eventually, I started doing more of these things, and it led to other types of articles - business, travel, you name it. I began to write full-time. Eventually, I made enough money so we could live on it."

After a while, working as a freelance writer paled for Neil. It was okay when he could choose the topic, but too often editors would pick subjects that he found tedious.

"I decided I wanted to write a book. So, I sat down and wrote a book about a young boy coming of age in a small town on the Prairies."

Neil was unsuccessful finding a publisher for the book. After spending months attempting to sell it - and failing - he took another look at the manuscript.

"Somehow, in that time, I became more critical of my own writing, and I said, 'It is really a bad book.' What I did is, I mined it, and I created a bunch of short stories out of it, some of which have ended up in my next book, *Tuckahoe Slidebottle* [a collection of short stories set in the imaginary town of Tuckahoe, Saskatchewan]."

Again, Neil made the rounds to publishers, this time successfully. He signed a contract with Thistledown Press, who published the book and nominated it for two major awards - the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and the Alberta Book Award for Short Fiction. Although it won neither, it was shortlisted for both. Neil is now hard at work on his next book, *The World's Greatest Lover*.

But writing, alone, wasn't enough to keep him busy. In 1993, he and his wife, Judy, applied for and were offered jobs teaching English in Japan. Once there, he studied the Japanese language and, in 1994, was offered a position teaching math at a community college in Kobe. Judy was offered a post in the same institution. Life seemed idyllic until 5:15 a.m. on January 17th, 1995, when, in his words, "The Kobe earthquake hit and everything turned upside down." Neil and Judy were unhurt, and he managed to find a working fax machine to send out firsthand accounts of the disaster to newspapers in Canada.

Just before Neil reached the mid-century mark in age, he took a fitness test at the University of Calgary Physical Education Centre and failed miserably. "Everything was bad," he says. "My strength was weak; they said I was overweight. I had smoked for over 35 years, and I was a heavy drinker."

Then, Neil saw an ad in the Calgary paper. Somebody was training a group to run the Honolulu Marathon.

"I phoned and asked if I qualified. I was accepted into the group. The very first day I went out, I couldn't make it around the block. That was in April, and yet that December, I ran it."

Neil also gave up smoking and now takes only an occasional drink. He says, "I consider that since I went at smoking and drinking like I did everything else, without running I might not even be here." He has gone on to run at least 10 more marathons, many when he was past the age of 60.

Right now, Neil is content with the writing life, and, besides his novel, has three other writing projects on the go. He and Judy divide their time between their home in Steveston and their house in Mexico. He is proud of his two grown daughters and thrilled with his grandsons. However, it's a safe bet that if a new interest beckons, he will follow to see where it leads.

"I would never be afraid of quitting work because, inevitably, if you get involved in a whole bunch of things, you're going to find that things pay off for you. Writing arrived, and it paid some money. Teaching arrived, and it paid some money. [In life], all sorts of things just show up."

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This article acehived exactly what I wanted it to achieve.

Posted by Roberta | April 26, 2016 Report Violation

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