Richard Olafson, the founder of this city's oldest publishing house, likes to tell a story about visiting William S. Burroughs.
A pal of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs was a seminal figure in the Beat literary movement. He was the counterculture outlaw who wrote The Naked Lunch, who pioneered the influential "cutup" writing technique and, in 1951, fatally shot his wife. (Legend has it Burroughs was playing an ill-fated game of William Tell.)
Olafson - publisher of Victoria's Ekstasis Editions - was friends with Burroughs' live-in secretary/ houseboy, a guy who called himself Joey. In 1978, Joey invited Olafson to visit them in Boulder, Colorado.
So Olafson bunked out on Burroughs' couch. It was a thrill for the young Canadian, a longtime admirer of the Beats.
"Burroughs was like a god to me," he said. "I read Naked Lunch when I was 15 years old."
After a meal of so-rare-it's-bleeding steak, Burroughs, playing pedagogue, asked his dinner guests a question: "What do you consider the most important aspect of mankind today?" Joey replied it was man's "animal need" to survive.
Olafson's response: "Love and hope."
Only Joey's answer met with the writer's approval. Yet years later, while watching a documentary about Burroughs, Olafson learned the writer's final words (at least according to the film) were something like: "Love is all there is, all there is is love."
He felt vindicated. This fall, Ekstasis Editions celebrated its 30th year in publishing. Visiting Olafson's century-old home in the Quadra Street area, which is also home to Eksta-sis Editions, I asked what drove him to run a small literary publishing house for so many years.
"Well," Olafson said, "I guess love and hope."
His wife, Carol Sokoloff, added: "Richard is driven."
If Ekstasis Editions was a record label, it would be one of those fiercely independent operations outside the mainstream, championing only artists it deems worthwhile. Especially the lesser-known artists. It publishes novels, poetry, nonfiction, criticism, translations. Ekstasis has published works by notable writers such as Stephen Scobie and the late P.K.
Page, both Governor General's Award winners. However, most of its authors wouldn't be recognized by the average Canuck.
New Ekstasis releases include a translation of Elephant's Graveyard by Quebec writer HÃ©lène Rioux, Mike Doyle's Collected Poems and Seaweed in the Mythworld by Stanley Evans, who writes novels featuring a Coast Salish detective.
Olafson's book-stuffed living room is comfortably funky. Guitars and other musical instruments litter an adjoining room. Sokoloff, who assists with editing duties, is a jazz singer. Below, in the basement, is the Ekstasis book inventory that the couple estimates at "a couple of hundred thousand" books.
"It's very scary down there," Sokoloff said with a smile.
It's a small library's worth - but then again, Ekstasis has published 380-plus books in its lifetime. Ekstasis also publishes the Pacific Rim Review of Books, a thrice-yearly literary journal.
Born in Medicine Hat, Alta., 58-year-old Olafson spent his teenage years in North Battleford, Sask.
While attending the University of Saskatchewan, he befriended some Tibetan-studies students. They encouraged him to check out the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Olafson, who'd devoured Beat books as a teen, needed little encouragement. He was met at the Boulder bus depot by Ginsberg himself.
"He was a very energetic. He was very effusive and friendly, just a lovely man," he recalled.
As an aspiring poet, Olaf-son eventually dropped out of university, taking jobs as a short-order cook and construction worker. He eventually drifted to Saturna Island. One day, he hitchhiked to Victoria. Olafson ended up at the now-defunct Gallerie Untitled on Government Street. Chatting with gallery staff, including artist Miles Lowry, Olafson learned there was an offset press on site.
It gave him an idea. In 1982, Olafson started Ekstasis Editions as a one-man operation in the gallery's basement. Olaf-son's first project was to get his own poetry collection, Blood of the Moon, into print. Lowry designed the cover. Olafson bound hundreds of editions himself.
When funds got low, he sewed together copies using dental floss.
Embracing art over commerce has not been easy.
Ekstasis has, over the years, weathered its share of financial troubles. The worst blow came in 2009, when Olafson learned the Canada Council was cutting its funding, normally between $40,000 and $50,000 a year.
The operation teetered on collapse. "We were always maxing out our credit cards," Sokoloff said.
This year the Canada Council jury saw fit to restore funding with a $32,000 grant. Ekstasis, whose budget fluctuates between $100,000 and $150,000, is now on more solid footing - although Olafson still struggles with the debt incurred over lean times.
"Ekstasis" is from the ancient Greek, meaning to stand or exist outside oneself. Olafson's tiny publishing house - just him, his wife and one employee - is a brook babbling outside the main streams of Canadian publishing. And that's the way he likes it.
"I get excited by every project," said the man who once shared bloody steak with William Burroughs.
"Each book is fresh and new."
On Dec. 8, Ekstasis Editions will hold its Christmas book launch at Martin Batchelor Gallery, 712 Cormorant St., between 2 and 4 p.m.
Authors represented include Linda Rogers, Mike Doyle, Stanley Evans, Janet Vickers, AndrÃ© Lamon-tagne, Richard Olafson and Manolis.
© Copyright 2013