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In the summer of 1994, David Macfarlane was among eight journalists at the Banff Centre in Alberta for the prestigious, month-long literary arts journalism program. A freelancer since the late 1970s, and, he jokes, notorious for missing deadlines, Macfarlane had managed to get his draft in on time after warnings from Barbara Moon, his editor. To submit his story, he went right to Moon’s room. He knocked, waited, but no one answered, so he slipped the piece under her door.

Macfarlane remembers Banff that July as generally grey, but the day after he handed his manuscript in, the sun finally came out. He and some of the other writers decided to celebrate making their target by enjoying the nice weather on a rooftop patio. A tape deck played music, someone brought up a pitcher of vodka and orange juice, and they just relaxed.

Then Macfarlane realized someone new, and not very happy, had arrived—he could feel the chill. There, standing before him, was Moon, glaring. He had gotten the wrong room.

That tense moment passed quickly, but working with Moon was seldom without drama and, not infrequently, friction, a combination that often resulted in both author angst and award-winning writing. (The next year, Macfarlane would win a silver at the National Magazine Awards for his finished piece, “A Fan’s Notes,” a profile of jazz musician Bill Grove with a memoir component, which was published in Saturday Night.)

For decades a highly regarded writer herself, in an era when women were as rare in creative positions as sunny days were that Banff July, Moon’s later career was devoted to wresting excellence from authors at a number of magazines, but primarily at Saturday Night. As she told the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 2008, for her, the craft of editing was “rich and fulfilling and different every day and marvellous.” To her admirers, her skills were almost preternatural. After Moon’s death at 82 from viral encephalitis in April 2009, writer Eileen Whitfield wrote on the Toronto Freelance Editors and Writers listserv: “No one could give as fast and intelligent a ‘fix’ to a long piece as Barbara Moon.” Journalist Peter Worthington, in an article for the Toronto Sun, described Moon as a talented editor “who specializes in rescuing writers from themselves.” But others remember her as overbearing and “discouraging.”

In all, her fierce commitment to quality beyond everything and her love of working on long, meaty features for extended amounts of time would likely render her unemployable today. And with her death last year, the industry lost someone who symbolized a time when stories weren’t rushed to be posted online, edits weren’t made in “track changes” and it wasn’t uncommon for writers to spend months on a story.

* * *

Moon undeniably had a number of quirks. She distrusted technology and would seldom accept manuscripts sent by fax in the days before e-mail. Hand delivery was her preferred method of receiving copy, no matter if it was time-consuming. She decreed writers were entitled to “three exclamation marks a year.” If you turned a draft around quickly, odds were she wasn’t impressed. Speed was not her imperative; quality was. As she once advised a writer with whom she was working, “Let it ferment. What stays with you are the critical things.”

The critical things about Barbara Moon herself are these:

Born in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1926, to an engineer and a homemaker, Moon was the second daughter and last child. She attended the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, the High Anglican factory that manufactures leaders and thinkers, whose students still wear academic gowns to dinner; at the time, just over a fifth of all bachelor’s degrees in the country were awarded to women. Moon played on a basketball team, was an assistant editor on The Trinity University Review and won several prizes during her four years studying English. After graduating in 1948, she got a clerk-typist job at Maclean’s, where she became girl Friday to Pierre Berton, then an assistant editor. Moon saw the edits he made to copy, learning exactly what he looked for in a story. Soon, she was offering her critiques of stories to Berton and, in 1950, she became one of 10 assistant editors, and one of only a few women who did anything other than type and file at the iconic bimonthly.

The first article Moon produced for the magazine was in 1950, called “The Murdered Midas of Lake Shore,” about millionaire Sir Harry Oakes, a native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, who had been found murdered seven years earlier at his home in the Bahamas. Moon only used a single quote before the final paragraphs of the 3,700-word story. Instead, the piece offered meticulously phrased detail and engaging narrative: “He spent more than half his life in rawhide boots and lumberjack shirts, slept in caves and lean-tos and pup tents, trenched and single jacked and swung an axe, shared quarters with rattlesnakes and fought black flies. Before he died he bought his suits on Savile Row and his underwear from Sulka, had mansions in Kirkland Lake, Niagara Falls, Bar Harbor, London, Sussex, Palm Beach, as well as the estates in the Bahamas.” It read like a short story. She was 23 when she wrote it.

In 1953, Moon left Maclean’s and soon was editing at Mayfair, a high-end general-interest title. In an obituary for Maclean’s,Robert Fulforddescribed meeting her there:“It was as if a bird of paradise had alighted among sparrows.” He also observed, “[She] looked like one of nature’s Parisians, a woman who made chic self-presentation seem easy and inevitable.”

Within a couple of years, Moon was back at Maclean’s as a staff writer, and stayed until 1964. Her forte was hard-hitting profiles—among them, actor William Shatner and drama critic Nathan Cohen—but it was a different kind of piece that won her the 1962 University of Western Ontario President’s Medal, for best magazine article of the year. “The Nuclear Death of a Nuclear Scientist” explored the accidental radiation poisoning of a young Winnipeg-born physicist and biochemist, reflecting her new-found interest in science writing. Over the next eight years, she wrote various features at The Globe and Mail; was part of a blue-ribbon team that produced a “storyline” for the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67; turned her flare for science journalism into scriptwriting for the nascent The Nature of Things and other documentary shows; and was commissioned to write The Canadian Shield. Published in 1970, the finished work was an unabashed paean to the rugged landscape and its place in our collective imagination: “Bedrock, tundra, taiga, boreal forest, deranged drainage, muskeg, mosquitoes, black flies: add to these a climate that at its worst is arctic and at its best offers only four frost-free months a year. Even as far south as Timmins the yearly average is a mere forty frost-free days. And that is the Shield.”

A quarter century after it first appeared, writer Greg Hollingshead wrote about Shield, saying, “This is not only personally charged nature writing of a good kind, but it gives you a sense of what is so difficult and so magnificent about this country.” The craft and passion that imbued the text also hinted at another facet of “nature’s Parisian”: she was an enthusiastic birdwatcher, a member of Friends of Point Pelee, an association dedicated to ecological preservation, and was so entranced with the Far North that on a trip there, she somewhat jokingly suggested to her husband, Wynne Thomas, that they move there.

It was in 1968, during one of her freelance periods, that Moon met Thomas, a Welsh-born journalist, who was editor of a trade magazine covering the advertising industry. He had noted her byline, and assigned her a story analyzing TV ads. It was, he recalls, “a crackerjack piece.” They had drinks. A few months later he proposed, and they were married in a small ceremony in St. Catharines. Very small. Moon’s long-time friend from the Globe, Sheila Kieran, wasn’t invited. Fulford, with whom she had become close, didn’t learn of the wedding until someone said in passing, “Well, Barbara and her husband….” As a later colleague would note, “She wasn’t a person you were casual with. You know, there are folks you can call up to chit-chat. Well, I never felt I could do that with her.”

* * *

If Moon was your editor at Saturday Night during her 13 years there, your experience with her might have gone like this: You feel as if you had been summoned; you might even dress up, at least by freelance writer standards. She worked in a real office, with a door, four walls and a ceiling, not the ubiquitous cubicle in which all but the most senior editors toil these days. If it was the Saturday Night offices at 36 Toronto Street, there would be a dictionary on her knee, a typewriter before her and neat piles of manuscripts on her desk. Chances are the story you were meeting about was one you had proposed, perhaps as short as 1,000 words, but more likely it was a 6,000-word piece on a lawyer’s fight against a company that had implanted faulty heart valves in patients, or a look at how murder methods change over time, or, say, a piece on the disappearance of a Canadian woman in the U.S. 27 years prior. Essentially, the kind of articles there is almost no home for today, pieces that involved a month (or two or three) of research, often including travel, and another month of writing. You had handed in your draft a week or so previous and were understandably anxious to get a sense of how much more work you needed to do before you could finally finish the story and submit your invoice. Saturday Night was one of the top-paying magazines at the time, with writers earning $5,000 or more per feature. Plus, being published there was considered a coup.

But first: “This is a mess. You’re not telling me what I want to read. Bring it back.” Or, “But what point are you trying to make?” Or, “What do these things”—tar ponds, perhaps—“look like? You haven’t described them in a way for me to understand just yet.” Or, “I will not tolerate that sentence in this magazine.” These frank, even cutting, critiques would be delivered in Moon’s distinctive husky voice—some liken it to Carol Channing’s—tuned by years of heavy smoking.

The dissection of the piece could last several hours and would not likely be punctuated by much leavening conversation or gossip. It would culminate in your taking away a draft heavily annotated in spidery handwriting, and maybe a typed fix note, too, offering comments like, “That word isn’t working hard enough in this sentence” or, “There’s too much bulk at the opening of the story,” or, maybe a kinder-sounding request for more research. If you were lucky, each subsequent draft would contain fewer and fewer notes.

* * *

Moon arrived at Saturday Night in 1986, after knocking around the mag trade, spending six months atCanadian Business here, 18 months as editor of a doomed city book, Toronto Calendar, there. Fulford first hired her as a senior editor at Saturday Night, though later she would become an editor-at-large. But her tenure at what was arguably the country’s top writers’ title and certainly the most award winning extended through the reigns of John Fraser, then Ken Whyte.

George Galt, who was also on staff during the Fraser years, recalls her distinctive presence: she was, he says, straight out of a film noir. “She would come to editorial meetings wearing her dark glasses, sitting at the very end of the table. She had a certain heft in the place. She was much older than any of us, including Fraser. She had decades on me and John, even. She was a very powerful presence and with her voice, her deep growly voice, she was an impressive figure.” Moon at that point was in her 60s, whereas many of the team had small children, and although she was interested in her colleagues’ lives, as Fraser remembers, when staff would bring their kids into the office, her door would always quietly close.

It was the prose appearing in the magazine that had her full attention. Ernest Hillen, another fellow editor from the Fraser period, says, “Nothing got in the magazine, if she could help it, that wasn’t as good as it could be.” If something did happen to appear that she felt was substandard, “For a certain length of time, there would be lots of caustic remarks about that particular piece or a particular writer.” From his perspective, what drove her was “an anchored idealism. She really believed in the trade of journalism, and how good it could be.”

What that sometimes translated to, though, was an exasperating disregard for time constraints—both the writer’s and the magazine’s. For some years, Charlotte Gray contributed a monthly national politics column toSaturday Night. As her editor, Moon would still be asking her to fix passages or do more research for what Gray felt were final drafts.Gray admits Moon was a thorough and an “absolutely brilliant” editor, but says, “There were other editors I preferred because she was so demanding and, when you’re doing a monthly column, it’s hard to keep up the rhythm if somebody is putting so much pressure on you.” After awhile, Hillen took over from Moon.

Sandra Martin also experienced the less-practical side of Moon’s editing style. In the mid-1990s, Saturday Night commissioned a story on employment equity based on a trip Martin had taken to South Africa. After seeing the first draft, Moon wanted Martin to re-research the piece and come at it from a different angle. Martin protested there was no way she could do that—she had already gone to South Africa and it wasn’t feasible to return. The story never made it into the magazine.

A piece of Martin’s that did get published was the 1,700-word obituary of Moon in the Globe. Moon would likely have approved—it was neither sentimental nor purely laudatory. The accolades it did contain, though, were lavish. Fraser, now master of Massey College at U of T, said simply, “I loved her.” Anne Collins, a one-time Saturday Night colleague, remembered, “She was outsized in character and glamour, elegant, ferocious, witty. When it came to language, she had a finely calibrated internal Geiger counter that registered the slightest tremor of bad thinking and bad word choice….I can see her handwriting in the margins of a manuscript even now, delicately suggesting six exquisite word choices in place of your inept one.”

Back in 1997,Anita Lahey worked with Moon on “Black Lagoons,” a story on the possibly carcinogenic tar ponds of Sydney, Nova Scotia, which won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards. Lahey still has the notes from her conversations with Moon about the story. In one case, Moon’s advice was, “Go to a present day scene, maybe November day, trotting around the pond. Look one way at Eric’s house, the other way at Jane’s. Doesn’t need to be long. Think about any brilliant, 30-line poem.” Lahey, who is both a journalist and a poet, says, “I can’t think of another example where someone I’ve worked with on a magazine piece has brought in other genres of writing to help illustrate how to structure a piece.”

It’s not hard to imagine this kind of editorial direction arising from Moon’s own outsized writing talent. In Martin’s obit, she called Moon “our Joan Didion,” and quoted Peter C. Newman’s observation that she was “justifiably considered one of the half-dozen best Canadian magazine writers in the trade.” He adds now, she was one of the “best read,” as she was always very controversial. “People would read her to get mad.”

* * *

If Barbara had one maxim when she worked with writers, it was, “Everyone has a secret. Your job is to find out what it is.” Of course, she, too, had a secret: Why, after her early and demonstrable success as a writer, did she suddenly stop writing in 1984?

There are several theories, but no clear answer. The most common is that Moon had, as Fulford says, “a writer’s block the size of Mount Kilimanjaro.” Moon wondered how Fulford and other writers were able to turn around drafts quickly. Hillen endorses this notion: “It’s not as if you reach a certain level and then you can relax, because you’re always trying to top yourself and you’re expected to top yourself.” He also wonders if her punctilious editing style might have been due to the “idle writer” syndrome—the tendency of an editor to tilt a little too much to the writer role. As Martin says, “The point of editing is for you to ask questions of the material and of the writer, but there’s a certain point where it’s the writer’s piece and I’m not sure that Barbara always felt that way.”

Dianna Symonds, another editor who worked with Moon at Saturday Night, has another suggestion: “Maybe when she met Wynne and they got married, that relationship meant more to her than writing.” Certainly her approach to writing was all-consuming. When she worked on the story about TV ads that brought her and Thomas together, she spent a week locked up in her apartment watching countless hours of ads a day. Wynne seems to confirm Fulford’s take. “We were very much in love with each other,” he says, “but I think Barbara had discovered editing. She found writing incredibly hard work. She was a perfectionist to the nth degree. And when she started editing for Saturday Night, she felt she had discovered her true métier, and in editing she could contribute to the development of other writers and at the same time could have her own satisfying career, without perhaps all those agonizing days of looking for the right word and the right lead and the right sentence.”

Certainly Barbara and Wynne seemed to find the right life after she left Saturday Night in 1998. They moved full-time to their country home in Prince Edward County (a decision made even though Wynne jokingly pointed out there was no Holt Renfrew there) and freelanced via their consulting company, Editors-at-Large. Less than a year before Barbara’s sudden death, they bought a house overlooking the Bay of Quinte, with Barbara declaring, “I think I have one more reno in me.” They were due to move in a few weeks after she died.

After the couple’s relocation to the countryside, no one was too surprised to not hear much from Barbara. “She always predicted that when she retired she would disappear like the Cheshire Cat,” Symonds remembers, “And all that would remain is the shadow of her smile.”

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About the author

Seema Persaud was the Managing Editor for the Summer 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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