'He was dedicated to Saskatchewan writing': Geoffrey Ursell remembered by friend, collaborator

·4 min read
Ursell was the managing publisher of Coteau Books for nearly 40 years before his retirement. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)
Ursell was the managing publisher of Coteau Books for nearly 40 years before his retirement. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)

Award-winning Saskatchewan author, playwright, musician and editor Geoffrey Ursell has died at age 77, after a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease.

Ursell, who was born in Moose Jaw and grew up in Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, was a founding member and managing publisher of Coteau Books, where he championed Saskatchewan writers for nearly 40 years before his retirement in 2013.

He also wrote a number of acclaimed musicals and stage plays including Saskatoon Pie! and Gold on Ice, served as the president of the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild and the Saskatchewan Playwrights' Centre, and taught literature and creative writing at the University of Regina.

Robert Currie, another co-founder of Coteau Books, was one of Ursell's longtime friends. He remembers their meeting in 1973, when Currie was president of the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild.

"One day, Geoff arrived at Central Collegiate, where I was teaching, and said he wanted to meet me," he said.

Curry was on "noon duty" that day, "so we ended up patrolling the halls of the school together and then finally going and sitting in the gym while the intramural sports were on. And there we were, talking about writing. It soon became apparent that we were going to be pretty good friends, right from the start.

"He was as interested in writing as I was, and he was just such a nice guy. He was a gentle soul and you couldn't help liking him when you met him."

Soon after their first meeting, Currie and Ursell were part of the small group of writers who were inspired to take the leap into the world of publishing, and founded Coteau Books.

"The four of us — Geoffrey and his wife Barbara Sapergia, Gary Hyland and I — travelled together to the Qu'Appelle Valley in 1974 for the Saskatchewan Writers Guild annual conference," recalled Currie.

"I can remember them entertaining me — I was driving, and they were doing Monty Python take-offs on the way, it was lucky we didn't end up in the ditch instead of at the conference.

"But at the conference, we were talking to Hugh Hood, who was a very well known Canadian writer at the time from Montreal, and he was one of the guests, and he was talking about a small press that published his work.… And he said, why don't you guys start up your own small press here in Saskatchewan?"

The next year, in 1975, Coteau Press was formed.

"Of course, we started it in a very small way — we each kicked in 135 bucks and put out two chapbooks, and managed to sell them, and used the money from them to do some more," said Currie. "I think it was Geoffrey who actually talked the Saskatchewan Arts Board into providing some funding for Saskatchewan publishers."

Ursell would go on to serve as Coteau's managing publisher for over three decades. According to Currie, he was uniquely well-suited to the role.

"He was dedicated to Saskatchewan writing," said Currie. "I mean, he really believed in the writers here. And certainly he and Barbara were the heart and soul of Coteau Books for the 38 years that he was with it. His work was amazing.

"He was a terrific editor — he edited a couple of my books, and they sure were better because of it. But he actually looked at manuscripts that Coteau rejected, and often made copious helpful comments for those authors that sometimes led to those books being accepted later on for publication, sometimes at Coteau and even sometimes elsewhere.

"He just had an amazing ability to help other writers, and really wanted to do that."

When Ursell received the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 2009, Currie believed the award was as much to honour his contributions to the fabric of Saskatchewan literary life as an editor and mentor as it was to recognize his own creative achievements.

Ursell's work as a poet, author and playwright earned him many awards, including a Commonwealth Poetry Prize Special Commendation for Trap Lines, his first poetry collection and the Books in Canada Best First Novel Award for Perdue. Saskatoon Pie! won Persephone Theatre's National Playwriting Competition, and has had multiple highly successful productions.

"Also, he was a songwriter, not only in his own musicals," said Currie. "Not everybody realizes this, but he once produced a long-play record called Prairie Grass, Prairie Sky."

And beyond his legacy as a creator and editor, Currie remembers Ursell as a dedicated husband to "his partner in life and work" Barbara Sapergia.

"Certainly, Geoff was somebody who loved her," said Currie. "I can remember, they had their 30th anniversary quite a few years ago now, and they had a number of friends and fellow writers invited to a restaurant in Saskatoon where we were all in a room, and we did readings and speeches. I think everybody there could see how much they loved one another."