Multi-talented writer Mark Leiren-Young dives into the world of sharks

The wordsmith - YAM NOV/DEC 2022
“How seldom they actually go anywhere near us. How absolutely uninteresting sharks find us.” Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

By David Lennam  |  Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet

The National Post once described Mark Leiren-Young as someone with a background in pretty much everything.

That’s fairly accurate.

Leiren-Young is a playwright, author, screenwriter, novelist, journalist, editor, podcaster, producer, director, documentarian, comedy performer, satirist, memoirist, university lecturer, occasional actor and full-time environmentalist.

But, the prolific 60-year-old explains, all that diverse body of work just boils down to writing.

“I still always default to writing. If you get down to it, everything I do is writing. Even when I was performing, I always considered myself a writer who performs.”

The writer just released two books on sharks — both aimed at young readers — Sharks Forever and Big Sharks, Small World (both from Orca Publishing).

The biggest misconception around sharks, he says, is that they will kill us. “How seldom they actually go anywhere near us. How absolutely uninteresting sharks find us,” he says.

More people are killed by falling vending machines than by sharks, according to the late Canadian photographer, filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart, of Sharkwater fame, whom Leiren-Young befriended and calls “one of the most amazing humans I ever met.”

Then there’s that Jaws thing.

“It blows my mind [that] a movie that was released when I was a kid is still defining the global message of sharks. How in the world does Jaws still rule our imagination a couple of generations after it came out? How is that still in our zeitgeist? It’s not like It’s A Wonderful Life; they don’t play it every Christmas,” he says.

Before sharks, he was all about orcas: books, movies, endless podcasts (The Killer Whale Who Changed the World; Orcas Everywhere; The Hundred-Year-Old Whale). He even helped create the Royal BC Museum’s recent “Orcas: Our Shared Future” exhibit (now touring the world).

And before the books, before his celebrity as the go-to guy on orcas, before the ongoing Skaana podcast, there was Mark Leiren-Young, local satirist.

Almost 40 years ago, he was part of the team that created the improvised soap opera Beacon Hill, which grew to include a huge cast that performed every Friday night in a converted dance studio on Lower Johnson Street.

“I loved doing those,” Leiren-Young says.

There were comedy newscast bits where he would watch the six o’clock news, then work like mad writing a satirical take of what he’d heard, and be on stage at 7:30 p.m. delivering it.

“Every once in a while, I’d do a joke that people didn’t realize was based on an actual news story,” he recalls. “The one that sticks in my head was ‘This just in, Ronald Regan has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.’ They thought I was kidding, but that hit the news at six o’clock that night.” 

Beacon Hill co-creator (and recently retired Dance Victoria executive producer) Stephen White met Leiren-Young at UVic’s theatre department.

“Someone pointed him out to me as a budding writer,” recalls White. “I distinctly remember my first impression of Mark. Physically, he looked like he was still emerging from adolescence,
all limbs and jerking movement.”

Those early writers’ meetings would probably have made a good show themselves.

“We laughed, we debated, we compromised and we ended up with a big underground success,” says White. “It was a first for Victoria: popular satire that appealed to a sell-out crowd with a new episode every week.” 

A comedic second act was teaming up with Kevin Crofton to become Local Anxiety, spawning a pair of albums, appearances on just about every stage in Canada and national acclaim. (Sailor-cap-wearing Maclean’s editor Peter C. Newman almost waxed poetic praising Local Anxiety in a 1994 column.)

It even showcased Leiren-Young’s obsessively passionate environmentalism in the duo’s EarthVision award-winning TV special Greenpieces: The World’s First Eco-Comedy, featuring David Suzuki as a god … or, at least, an eco-deity.

He turned a shade greener with the comedy-with-a-message Fringe show Greener Than Thou, directed by Victoria’s celebrated monologist TJ Dawe.

At one performance in Edmonton the audience sat dead silent throughout. Leiren-Young figured he’d bombed and asked Dawe what happened. “They were crying,” replied Dawe.

Dawe previously directed the stage version of Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, Leiren-Young’s Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour award-winning book, which chronicled his time reporting at the Williams Lake Tribune.

Leiren-Young’s writing, notes Dawe, is guided by idealism, urgency and curiosity. “He’s an easy and generous collaborator. By his own description, he doesn’t so much walk as bounce, like Tigger, and I’d add that he’s got Tigger’s sense of joy and ability to share it.”

Leiren-Young laughs when I ask him if he has some vast chamber, its walls lined with his honours and awards. “Yeah, I keep some of them around in my office to remind me they happened. The reason they kind of mean what they do to me is so many people tell me ‘You’re just dabbling in this or that.’ I’ll try something new and they’ll say, ‘Well, he’s really a playwright’ or take your pick. Whatever world people know me from, that’s the world I am.”

Like most writers running the gamut of low-paying gigs, Leiren-Young is sadly aware of how the “free” in freelancer works against scribblers trying to make a living. The new reality, where paid journalism is on life support, has changed the way he writes. Or has had to write.

Between deep sighs of exasperation, he admits he’s done far less journalism simply because no one wants to pay for it.

“If someone said I could go back to what I used to do for the [Georgia] Straight and profile something cool every week, I would be all over that.”

And finally, the truth about his Summer of Love hair. It’s a showbiz thing.

“When I was performing with Local Anxiety, we realized, watching other acts, that people would refer to people on stage by their hair. Our schtick was I was the hippie and Kevin, who looked very much like [former B.C. premier] Mike Harcourt, was the corporate guy. We made a deal that he would cut his hair as short as he could stand it, and I had to grow my hair as long as I could stand it. And then every time I thought about cutting my hair, I would score some cool acting gig because of the hair.”

5 Fun Facts about Mark Leiren-Young

1. He’s a self-confessed comic book nerd and once owned 15,000 comics. He even wrote a script for a Marvel superhero Moon Knight series 20 years ago that was never picked up.

2. A long-suffering Vancouver Canucks fan, he believes the team’s all-time-low was hiring Mike Keenan as coach. “That’s the only time I found myself saying, ‘I don’t think I can cheer for my team anymore. Omigod, do I have to start liking the Oilers?’”

3. He’s an adjunct professor at UVic and is teaching a course on the Marvel Universe. “Teaching,” he says, “makes performing so much less scary.”

4. When he worked as a reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune, Leiren-Young’s record for daily story output was 30.

5. He wrote a documentary on figure skater Brian Orser.