Photos by Jon Tamlin Edited by Rina Barone
I remember the first time I met Dan Needles. He came into the bookstore and within minutes he had engaged the few of us there with an entertaining story about a secret underground chicken club. It was one of the funniest, and most truly bizarre conversations I've ever heard. These were the early days of us trying to get our bearings at the store, and I remember thinking: "Is this what it's like having a bookstore?" Random, off-the-cuff, totally spontaneous interactions that leave you both inspired and puzzled. Yes! It's totally what it's like.
Over the years I've had the pleasure of getting to know Dan a little bit more, and I look forward to his drop-ins, and can always rely on a good belly laugh or two. But this summer, I visited Dan (socially-distanced) on his farm a few times with my young daughters. He was kind and welcoming to them, taking them on a tour of the animals, and offering carrots to feed his resident donkeys, Daisy and Maggie. For a moment it felt like we had our very own petting zoo, a much needed distraction for all of us.
Dan is a born storyteller, distinguished writer and playwright, and recipient of an Order of Canada. He is also a family man (two of his four adult children are back home these days), husband to Heath for over 30 years, and friend to many. For over four decades he's called a 40-acre farm in Simcoe County home, and these days it's where he spends most of his time, writing and what he likes to say "goofing off in the barn".
How long have you lived on Larkspur Farm?
42 years. I bought it in 1978 when I was 27 years old.
Take us on a tour of your farm - what would we see?
You would see old barns, pastures with sheep grazing, two donkeys, a lot of chickens, dogs, cats, a big garden, old tractors, a fruit orchard and raspberry patch, a rambling farmhouse with a view of the escarpment and the lake.
You have a lot of animals, do you have any favourites?
I have a big white livestock protection dog named Dexter who sleeps in the same bed with me. He doesn’t do sheep.
What’s easier - raising good animals or good children?
Animals very much easier. You can send the bad ones to the stockyards and try again with new stock.
What’s a typical day for you on the farm?
I write in the morning until I feel like I have something accomplished and then I goof off in the barn or go visiting.
Do you consider yourself a farmer?
Very much a dabbler. But we do fill the freezers with pork, chickens, lamb and beef.
What do you love about rural living?
I love the neighbourhood, the people and the stories.
"I like looking after stuff. It makes me feel useful which is especially important now when theatres are closed and I can’t connect with my audience."
Best thing about having a farm?
Always something to do outside. It will not be ignored. And it ties you to one place, which is healthy.
It ties you to one place, which is not always healthy.
How do you think the farm has shaped you and your family?
I am from a nomadic theatre family and it was important for me to put down roots. My children have always been able to occupy themselves with a rubber band. They grew up before cell phones and learned to make their own fun on forty acres. They are also not afraid of a day’s work. But they did refer to the place as the ‘prison farm’ for a long time.
What’s your favourite place on the farm?
I have a secret garden on the other side of the orchard down by the stream where the pioneer log cabin used to be. Ellen Currie’s (original owner of the farm) wild roses still bloom there and it is very secluded.
Is life on the farm any different during a pandemic?
We now get very few visitors which is a trial for a writer who craves distraction and relies on other people for inspiration.
What are three things we’d be surprised to know about you?
I did a lot of manual labour as a young man. A lumber camp in B.C., dairy farms in Australia and a pear farm in Provence in the South of France. I picked up a degree in economics from the University of Toronto. I don’t care for interior monologues, multiple unreliable narrators or prose poems.
"When my wife thinks I’ve written something particularly amusing it makes me feel like I have a future as a writer."
When do you write?
Every morning for at least a few hours.
Any writing rituals you need to adhere to?
Rituals don’t work around here. There’s always a dogfight or an escaped cow to chase. When I get into the groove I go into a trance-like state, which is somewhere between catatonic and a really good nap. Everybody leaves me alone until I come out of it.
What makes you laugh?
I like to watch bubbles being popped. Most of life is completely absurd and the only way to cope is to laugh at it. Farmers taught me that. I also enjoy the laugh of recognition, which is just a way of saying I am entertained whenever I see someone else going through the same awful experience I have had. It reminds me that I am not alone and not as stupid as I thought.
Any tips on how to tell a good story?
Find a moment of change and let us watch it happen in real time. Hollywood has decided that we just want to see stories about people fighting and fornicating. They have pretty much abandoned the idea that the everyday can be worth watching, too. What we think of as the small things in our lives often turn out to be the big things when we look back. I have been fortunate to have an audience that is quite content to spend an evening in an out of the way place watching ordinary people wrestle with life’s essential questions.
What are you currently working on?
I’m doing a memoir of sorts which is an extension of my last book True Confessions from the Ninth Concession. My publisher has asked me to pretend I am sitting with him on a drive to Kenora and just carry on the way I do. We’ll see what happens.
What are your top 3 books of all time and why?
Charlotte’s Web because it is ingenious, simple, wry and beautiful.
Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, because it follows an ordinary young man’s valiant struggle against adversities. Happy ending, too, which is most unfashionable today.
Huckleberry Finn for the same reasons. All three are books I can pick up anytime and open at any page and I find myself reading again as if for the first time.
What are you currently reading?
I’m always dipping into the sketches of Mark Twain, or the essays of Michel de Montaigne, E.B. White and Wendell Berry. I have volumes of Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair and H.L. Mencken beside every soft chair in the house. They are wonderful voices of the American republic from the 1920s who help distract me from the idiocy of U.S. politics today. They remind me that we have been down this road before and survived.
Dan is the author of 12 plays, and has written 3 books, Wingfield's World, Axe and Flask (which won the 2003 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour), and his most recent, True Confessions from the Ninth Concession. He also writes a weekly column for On the Bay and In the Hills magazines.