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Dale Synnett-Caron (editor of her father’s memoir)

DALE SYNNETT-CARON  is a federal government communications expert and a  long-time friend, but I hadn’t realized until we had a conversation about memoir writing that her father, Alexander Synnett, a former RCMP officer who lived outside Ottawa, had in the early 1990s written and self-published his memoir, Rocking Alex. Dale played an important part in helping her father turn his story into a book. I interviewed her about the process. 

When did your father begin to write his memoir?

 My father contemplated writing his memoirs when he retired from the RCMP in 1982, but became involved in some post-retirement activities that occupied a lot of his time. Ten years later in 1992, at age 62, he found himself with more time on his hands and began writing. He typed his first (and only) draft on an old manual typewriter that he purchased at a garage sale! He titled his book Rocking Alex. 

What inspired him?

My father is an avid reader of fiction and nonfiction including biographies. Dad wanted his family and grandchildren to have a historical record of his life, what it was like growing up in the Depression, working in policing, etc. He knew the book would have no commercial value, only sentimental worth. He thought about how future generations of family members would be passed a copy of the book and learn about his life. Others would know who he was and what he had lived.

Tell us briefly about your father’s life, and why he believed he had a story to tell. What period of his life did his memoir cover?

My father felt that everybody had a story to tell including himself! The book was written chronologically and covered my father’s life (from birth to publishing date in 1996). Dad grew up in a poor French-Canadian family in rural Quebec, left home at 17 without speaking a word of English, joined the Air Force and subsequently the RCMP where he enjoyed a colorful and challenging career before retiring as a senior commissioned officer in 1982.

Did your father have any writing background, or had he ever expressed any interest in writing prior to starting the memoir? 

My father spoke only French until he was about 17 years of age. He had limited experience writing in English until he worked as an RCMP investigator in the late 1950’s. As an investigator/detective, writing was (and is) an important part of the job. Dad was often tasked with writing detailed reports on criminal investigations. This certainly honed his English writing skills.

What sort of structure did the book have? Was it chronological? Did it follow certain themes? Did he cover large periods of time quickly, or was the book more anecdotal?

The book follows my dad’s life chronologically, but it is also anecdotal and theme-oriented when he writes about his career in the RCMP. At this point in the book, Dad devotes specific chapters to interesting cases or assignments he had. For example, my father worked in VIP security for Pierre Elliot Trudeau during Trudeau-mania in the late 1960’s. He devotes an entire chapter to this interesting assignment.

I know you said it became something of a family project, with your sister typing the manuscript and you (because you work in communications) editing. Can you explain your respective roles? Did your mother get involved — and how did she feel about the project?

When my father finished the first and only draft of his book, he handed it to me and said “can you do something with this?” Then he left for Florida for the winter! My sister, who is an extremely fast typist, took the manuscipt and retyped the information verbatim into an electronic document (we did not have a document scanner). She gave me the electronic manuscript on diskette and I began to edit and proofread it. Having a young family at the time, it took me about a year to edit and proofread the text. My father did not review my edits or changes … he just let me run with it. Every once in a while, he would ask me how his book was coming along. When my father left for Florida the following winter, I promised that I would finish the book and have it printed. He gave me money to cover the cost. For an additional few hundred dollars I hired a graphic arts student to lay out the pages, chose photos to insert in the book and arranged for printing, final proofreading and hard-cover binding. When my dad came home from Florida in the spring, 300 copies of the published book were waiting for him. He was so happy, even though I was way over budget. He gladly reimbursed me for the additional expenses.

How did you feel while working on this book with and about your father?

The biggest challenge working on the book was dealing with the style of my father’s writing. He wrote the text as if he were having a conversation so there were a lot of run-on sentences, too much wordiness in parts, etc. I had to cut out a lot of repetitive and unnecessary information and, at the same time, ensure the narrator still sounded like my Dad. I am not sure if my father truly understood just how much work it was for me to edit his memoirs! I spent painstaking hours improving the flow of information, grammar and stucture of his stories. It was also very time-consuming arranging for layout, undertaking the final proofreading, printing and binding. I invested a lot of time in the project … more than it took my father to write the book, that’s for sure!  I know he appreciated my help, but I don’t think he fully comprehends the magnitude of the task I spearheaded on his behalf.

Were there parts about you in the memoir — and if so, how did it make you feel to read about yourself from your father’s perspective?

My father’s children and grandchildren are mentioned in the book but only briefly.

Did he ever ask you for input other than editing — that is, did he ever ask for guidance from you or other family members as to what to include or how to structure, or did he have his own vision?

After his first and only draft, Dad handed the manuscript to me and never reviewed a single word. The next time he saw the text, it was edited and printed. My father was confident in his vision. No one made suggestions to him; he just sat at the typewriter and pounded out his story.

You have said that there were parts of the book that were a little sensitive (if that’s the right word for it), but that your father was determined to write about himself as a young man honestly, even if it might be something that would shock, say, younger members of the family. Did you agree with him, or did you have trouble with his including those parts?

Before I read the text, I was well aware of my father’s “colourful” life because he had shared many anecdotes with us. I was a little shocked that he put some of them on paper, but I respected his decision to “tell it like it was.” Through editing, I toned down some of the details that I felt were a little over the top! Also, because of the secret status of most of his work in the RCMP, I questioned some of the detail (and names) he included in the book. But in the end, I included most of the information since the book was not for commercial publication.

Your son is now 15 years old. You mentioned that you waited before letting him read his grandfather’s memoir?

My son was 7 when Dad published his book so I put a signed copy away until he was old enough to read it and appreciate it. Certainly, the subject matter of some of the book is of concern to me, but I will let him read the book now. I know he has browsed through his copy but has not read it fully. On the other hand, my sister’s son (who is 18) has read the book 4 times. He calls it “his bible” and he loves it. Go figure.

Your father self-published 300 copies. This was before the days of “print on demand” publishing. Can you tell us something about the process then?

My father had no input in the publishing process except for a directive to me before he headed south to keep costs to a minimum. Originally, he instructed me to just arrange for photocopying of the text and to have it spiral bound, but I surprised him with a laid-out, printed and professionally bound product. Consequently, I chose the cover, interior photos and layout.

Has he got any copies left?

My father has no copies left! Most were given to family members, friends and colleagues he worked with in his  RCMP career. Also, everyone mentioned in the book received a copy. My father regretted that we had not printed more copies. He would like to have some “spares” as he still gets requests for his book, and he has considered having more printed.

I know it’s hard to be objective when it’s your father’s work, but what was the quality of the memoir in terms of the writing? And do you feel it accomplished what he set out to accomplish?

I pulled Rocking Alex off the shelf last night and re-read portions of the text. It is quite an entertaining read. While I was editing the book, I was so sick and tired of the details that I did not really appreciate its humour, historical value or its significance for our family. But, I am proud of my father for writing it and I am pleased with the end result. He did accomplish what he set out to do, and we have no regrets for embarking on this project.

What was the reaction of family, friends or co-workers who read the memoir?

Few members of my father’s family in Quebec could read the book because most are francophone. They all received copies, but only commented on the photos as they cannot read in English. Feedback from English-speaking family, friends and colleagues has been very positive, except for a few concerns from members of the RCMP that my father painted “the Force” in a negative light.

Having had this interesting experience, what advice might you have for memoir writers, or for family members helping someone prepare a memoir?

[Dale and her father consulted on the following list]

  • My father did not research or plan out the content of his book. After it was printed, he recalled many other incidents and anecdotes he would have liked to include but it was too late.
  • Do spend the extra time (and money) to have your work edited, laid out, printed and hard bound. It makes for a wonderful keepsake.
  • Most importantly, ask permission of those people you want to include in your book, even if what you’re saying is complimentary. My father did not ask anyone’s permission and several individuals were quite surprised to end up in his book, especially in reference to some specific RCMP anecdotes. If he were to do it over, he would have asked for permission before including others in his book.
Copyright 2004 Allyson Latta.


Editor’s note: Alexander Synnett passed away in the fall of 2008.

“I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.”– James Michener