At almost 60 years old, Al Lehmann decided he wanted to be a writer.
He had been living out his career as an English teacher at Caledonia Secondary School, engaging students to uncover the great stories that were hidden throughout literature and history.
And when he finally retired from his days of school bells and tests, those days had a void and he only found it fitting to fill them with words. Having read and taught books for decades, he was determined to write one — so he wrote three.
“It’s all fiction [that I write], you write what you know, what you’ve learned from others,” says Lehmann. “You see the scenes unfolding in front of you and you record them, you give them words, you give them feeling.”
Lehmann says he was always fascinated with Shakespeare’s drama Hamlet, calling it “one of the finest pieces of literature written” and felt that many people didn’t fully appreciate it. He wanted to change that.
“There are so many people that are shying away from this story and how good it is. And they’re not going to know because they can’t read the Elizabethan,” he says. “I just thought so many people are missing out, they don’t know what a terrific story it is… and I had a lot of fun teaching hit, most of the kids seemed to really get into it.”
With that enthusiasm, Lehmann took the narrative of Hamlet and reworked it to make it appealing to a modern audience. He wanted his readers to be enthralled by it all.
“The story was pretty much given to me, so it was a matter of deciding what kind of feelings I wanted to give to the narrator, what kind of characteristics do I want to give these other people that we see in the play and emphasize some of the themes that are very important,” he says. “Themes like political corruption, the importance of honesty, life, and how honesty can be corrupted with madness, mental health, they all come up in here.”
After self-publishing his own version in 2015, Hamlet the Novel, he wasn’t done. With a great interest in history, Lehmann grew curious about the Inca Empire and its Indigenous culture that existed for so many centuries before.
Delving into South America’s historical past of the Spanish conquest of Peru, he unravelled the story of Macchu Picchu and how this great civilization had developed similarly to Europe’s social systems, without having interacted with them before. And fortunately, had been undisturbed during the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century.
“When you look historically at the two cultures, they both had an aristocracy, they both had an entrenched religion, they both had highway systems, they both had institutions be and all of this stuff was the same, just different names and a few different technical details,” Lehmann says. “They were mirror images of each other… there must be something in human social evolution that creates the institutions that we seem to demand.”
Although Macchu Picchu is said to have been only found about a century ago by an American historian, Lehmann imagined an alternative narrative where the Spaniards had ended up discovering it during the conquest and how that story would have unfolded.
He then created another world, bringing history to life as he played out his imagination onto 500 pages of his book Inca Sunset through a fictional young man who learns the native languages and becomes an interpreter during the Spanish expeditions.
“Most of the historical stuff is more or less accurate, I did an awful lot of research,” says Lehmann. “And I guess part of me has always been fascinated by young people and their efforts to adapt to the world they’re thrust into… like [this book and] Hamlet, he’s a prince but didn’t ask to be one.”
Building on that theme, it didn’t take long for Lehmann to take on book number three which also includes a young man.
Recently publishing Denver Aquarius this year, his novel takes place in Denver, Colorado following a character that left his troubled life in Saskatchewan and finds himself living in a place far different than home.
Having spent over a year in Denver himself after leaving Alberta in his mid-20s, Lehmann says a lot of the scenes and characters in his book are based on his own time there.
“It was a learning experience, I met a wide variety of very interesting, unusual people, many of them troubled… I drove a taxi then and if you’re wanting to learn the guts of the city then drive a cab because you’re right in the underbelly of the beast,” he says.
“I decided to take the stories of many of the people that I met and some of my own experiences, and converge them into a fictional tale about a young man who suffered from anxiety, depression, and decided to seek relief elsewhere.”
Lehmann says he has a pretty relaxed approach to writing, noting that he only sits down to type when he feels inspired or thinks of the next chapter of his novel. But publishing three books hasn’t been easy though as it can be a lengthy, tiring and expensive process.
“I’m probably $10,000 in the hole… I’m too old to wait around to be discovered and I don’t think I’m going to do it anymore because I can’t afford to just pour money into these companies,” he says.
“If you want all the bells and whistles, an editor costs more so I thought if I can’t do that, my wife can just read them carefully, [since] she has a degree in French and German literature.”
Despite some of the obstacles, Lehmann says he hopes his readers can take something personal from his stories and be inspired to live out their own tales of bravery.
“If they’re going to read a book and identify with anybody, they want to identify with somebody who’s doing something good or trying to do something good,” he says.
“There’s no such thing as a good book, there’s just a great experience between a reader and a writer.”