Culture

BATTLE READY: A portrait of “Warlords” author Tim Cook

Bestselling author Tim Cook launches Warlords, a book that tackles the wartime performances of prime ministers Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King. At the same time, the much-lauded military historian wages his own personal war — against cancer   By Paul Gessell

Photography by Michael Tardioli, SPAO Studio 2012.

Brian Mckillop remembers giving Tim Cook a small yellow duck the first time they met. It was November of 1971. Needless to say, the newborn Cook was not yet able to appreciate the gift. Many years later, McKillop would give Cook a far more precious gift: inspiration. Cook’s life would never be the same. And that time, he greatly appreciated the offering.

It was in 2005 that McKillop, a history professor and an old friend of Cook’s parents dating back to when they were all students in Kingston four decades ago, delivered the fateful speech that transformed Cook’s outlook. In it, he exhorted historians to write books that would appeal to the general public, not just to other scholars. Tim Cook was in the audience that day. The speech, he recalls, “opened my eyes.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Seven years on, Tim Cook is the 40-year-old Ottawa author of riveting books about Canadian military and political history. His sixth, Warlords, is to be published this September and tackles the performance of prime ministers Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King, both of whom had to lead Canada through a world war  despite lacking military backgrounds.

Warlords will be something of a triumph, whatever the critics say upon its release. During the lengthy to-and-fro editing process with publisher Penguin Canada, Cook was simultaneously engaged in a very personal war — a war against cancer and the debilitating effects of chemotherapy treatments.

Cook, it turns out, is something of a warrior himself. Anyone who knows him knows nothing could stop publication of that book.

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“Tim has unbridled enthusiasm for history and for life,” says McKillop, today a newly retired Carleton University history professor.

“He’s a real favourite here, although we’re not supposed to have favourites,” adds Diane Turbide, Cook’s editor and a publishing director at Penguin Canada. “Tim makes history both readable and compelling.”

Cook has also become a regular speaker at literary festivals in Ottawa and beyond. That’s a rarity for an author of history books. “He’s a fantastic presenter,” says Sean Wilson, artistic director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. And, Wilson notes, Cook draws crowds because readers love his books.

One could say Cook is “driven” to write about history, although he prefers to say he is “passionate” about history, especially the writing of history. He can focus quickly, even to write for just 15 minutes at a time, even if those 15 minutes are sometimes stolen from what is supposed to be a family holiday. If no computer is handy when inspiration strikes, Cook cries out for pen and paper. His wife, Sarah, knows always to carry a pen.

“I like sitting at a computer and creating something,” says Cook. “If I go any length of time without doing it, I feel that I’m missing something. If I go three or four days without writing something, I’m a bit like an addict. I start getting jittery and hot-tempered.”

Hobbies? Few, apparently, besides playing hockey. Cook emphatically declares he does not golf, garden, watch television, or tinker with old cars, although he does have his heart set on acquiring a tank used by Canadian troops in the First World War. Cook’s day job is First World War historian at the Canadian War Museum. (The museum has Second World War tanks, but no tank used by Canadians in the First World War.)

Cook has spent several years teaching history in the evenings at Carleton University to fourth-year and grad students. “Students just clamour to enrol in his classes,” says McKillop. As well, Cook serves on the board of Canada’s History magazine (formerly The Beaver) alongside fellow Ottawa author Charlotte Gray. He admits to being more than a little envious of Gray’s narrative powers in her popular history books.

In what spare time he has, Cook, the father, makes time to regularly play “princess trolls” with his three daughters, ages seven, five, and three. No conversation with Cook is complete without news of “the girls.”

Somehow he always juggled it all. But that well-organized life took a dramatic and unexpected turn last winter. In January, Cook delivered the unedited Warlords manuscript to Penguin. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s Hodgkin’s,” Cook says during an interview this summer on a sunny restaurant patio.

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Cook went on medical leave from the War Museum and says his senior managers were very understanding, finding ways to cope during his absence. He stopped teaching at Carleton (though he continues to supervise a number of graduate students and hopes to return to teaching). He postponed working on a planned book about the Second World War, cancelled plans to lead a group of military buffs to Vimy Ridge in France this past June and, because of chemotherapy treatments every two weeks, does not always feel up to playing “princess trolls.” But this current book project continued.

Just mention Mackenzie King, and Cook lights up. It’s as if every adjective Cook applies to “weird Willie” is spoken in capital letters: “INCREDIBLE,” “AGONIZING,” “SPITEFUL.” Who would have thought King could be so energizing? But Cook is as giddy and wide-eyed as a kid describing his day at the circus.

On this particular summer day, he looks and sounds great. Not every day is so good, especially the days of chemotherapy treatments, when Cook says he looks in a mirror and sees a cadaver. “It’s predictably horrible to go through chemotherapy. Like most people — I’m only 40 — I didn’t see this coming. We were sufficiently broadsided by it. But then we said ‘Okay, put our heads down and do the therapy.’ For one week, you’re knocked out. You’re done. Then you recover again and get hit again.”

The treatments are scheduled to end in September, a few weeks before Warlords hits bookstores. But there will still probably be months of recuperation after the book launch.

Friends, relatives, and neighbours in the Manor Park area have helped out tremendously, says Cook, leaving casseroles at the door or arranging play dates with the girls. Yes, the girls. What could the couple tell the girls? Cook knew the girls one day would ask “What is cancer?” He decided to be proactive. “We talked about it. That’s not an easy conversation to have at any time, but it’s an important one.”

Right after the diagnosis, Cook went on the Internet to learn more about cancer. But he hungered for still more information, so the historian in him bought a comprehensive book, “a big honking history of cancer.” It was “a terrifying read.” But Cook was satisfied. He better understood the battle ahead.

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In hindsight, it seems inevitable Cook would become a historian. McKillop says genetics and environment both played roles. Cook was born into a family of historians. His father, Terry, worked for many years in senior positions at what was previously called the National Archives. His mother, Sharon, became a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in the history of education.

Family vacations were often educational. Cook remembers touring First World War battlefields in France when he was in Grade 11. It was a life-changing trip for the teen, who promptly gave up Stephen King novels and has been mesmerized by those battlefields ever since.

But when it came time to head to university, Cook, perhaps in a fit of teenage rebellion, entered Trent University in Peterborough determined to major in anything but history. That resolve melted in third year when he met Stuart Robson, a professor of history. Cook was enthralled with the topic and, after completing his bachelor’s in history, won a scholarship to do a master’s at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston. Upon hearing the news, his mother burst into tears. She came from a family of pacifists, in contrast to Cook’s paternal grandfather, who flew with Bomber Command during the Second World War. Cook had to work hard to convince his mom that he was not a warmonger.

But the fateful reacquaintance of Cook and McKillop did not occur until 2005, when the latter became chair of  Carleton’s history department. McKillop knew of Cook’s growing reputation as a historian and invited him to become an adjunct professor and to teach evening classes. Perhaps more importantly, that year Cook heard McKillop deliver the annual Davidson Dunton Memorial Lecture at Carleton challenging historians to start writing more accessible books.

In that speech, McKillop described his own experience in writing the much-praised The Spinster and the Prophet, about an infamous plagiarism case involving British author H.G. Wells. Said McKillop: “I have long wanted to write at least one book for no one’s purpose but my own — to satisfy my curiosity, to convey to others a sense of the chase of history and the exhilaration it involves.”

Cook took McKillop’s words to heart. From then on, he was determined that his books would reflect “exhilaration” in the “chase of history.”

Before hearing McKillop’s speech, Cook had already authored two books: Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars and No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. They were books of the type preferred by thesis advisers, not general readers. In the wake of McKillop’s speech, Cook immediately retooled his approach to his next planned book, the first of two volumes about life in the trenches during the First World War. Titled At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, the first volume became a bestseller, winning the Ottawa Book Award and the prestigious J.W. Dafoe Prize (awarded by a jury of experts, the $10,000 prize is given each year to a book on the subject of “Canada, Canadians and/or Canada’s place in the world”). The introduction to that book, much of it harvested from soldiers’ actual letters and diaries, contains this muscular prose: “A newly arrived Canadian infantryman, nervous and sweating, stands ready in the front lines, minutes away from going ‘over the top’ for the first, and possibly last, time. With steel helmet perched awkwardly on his head, his breath coming in quick, shallow gasps, he grips the wooden stock of his Lee-Enfield, Mark III rifle like an anchor. The bayonet, seventeen inches of cold metal, rises up past his face, pointing to the sky above the muddy trench parapet wall of rotting sandbags, now frayed and oozing wet mud after too much rain.”

Suddenly Cook was an author to watch. Volume II of his First World War series was titled Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918. That book won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and was followed two years later by The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie. That latter book is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions about the feud between a key First World War federal cabinet minister and the commander of Canada’s fighting troops.

Warlords was inspired about two years ago when Cook was in the foyer of the House of Commons and noticed the collection of prime ministerial portraits. The portraits of Borden and King had the best location — on either side of the main door into the Commons chamber. To highlight the importance of a wartime prime minister, the plaques on those two portraits provide only the years of their wartime leadership. All the other prime ministers’ portraits have plaques stating all the years they held office.

It was a eureka moment for Cook. He decided to write a book exploring the performance of Canada’s two wartime prime ministers. “That’s my hook,” Cook told himself that day. “That’s my story.”

And then Cook thought of Stephen Harper and Afghanistan. Canada was at war again. How did that happen? What are the lasting effects of wartime leadership? But don’t expect to find Harper in Warlords. “I’m more comfortable with the dead,” says Cook.

Reviewers tend to love Cook’s books. Here is how one newspaper reviewed Shock Troops: “Tim Cook has written what will surely be the definitive history of the Canadian Army in the First World War.” Could praise get any better?

The reviews, of course, do not say how Cook was influenced by Brian McKillop, the historian who gave him a little yellow duck some 40 years ago. During an interview, McKillop said he was unaware of his influence on Cook’s writing. But the news pleased him. “I’m, of course, tickled.”

After Cook recovers, he will likely write his planned Second World War book. “Part of that is about my grand-father,” he says. But which one? The pacifist or the bomber? A sly grin emerges. “We’ll leave the interview at that.” A moment later, Ottawa’s literary warlord hops onto his bicycle and pedals back to Manor Park.

This story appears in the September edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.

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