Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and John Berryman…These names evoke an immediate sense of talent intermingled with despair. Recognized universally as writers of great impact, their darkness launched a pursuit of the highest order of literary art, ending with their deaths — by their own hands.
As a lesser-known mortal, the connection between despair and art is all-too-familiar to me. It’s a thread woven throughout all of my work: novels, poetry and even short stories.
In the coming weeks, please join me for a series on The Dark Side of Fiction, where I’ll explore the connection between personal experience and the literary arts. In particular, I’ll delve into each of my books to show the parallels, where they exist, between real life and fiction.
Let’s start with the first of my books: The Noon God…
It begins with:
My mother once told me judgement was best left in the hands of God. Forgiveness was the virtue she most cherished. The older I get the more I understand the wisdom of her words.
Some days, though, her lesson gets lost under the trials of life.
The theme is immediately revealed: judgement vs. forgiveness. A lesson hard-learned by many, especially those of us who’ve survived the earliest forms of trauma — childhood abuse and/or neglect.
Some days, though, her lesson gets lost…
The Noon God explores, in mystery format, what happens when we lose sight of the importance of that simple lesson.
Without inserting spoilers, since it is a mystery, I can reveal here that Desdemona Fortune, Mona to her nearest and dearest, has suffered her share of loss. Her mother, a talented ballerina, gave up her art in favour of family. Addicted to alcohol and drugs, she takes her own life when Mona is at the impressionable age of 17.
After losing their mother, Mona struggles to raise her 2 younger sisters, Gail and Lucy. When Gail succumbs to her own depression and addiction and commits suicide, Mona must pick up the pieces and act as a buffer between her beloved youngest sister and their overbearing father.
What can I say about J. Caesar Fortune?
Renowned author, celebrated intellectual, unfaithful husband, distant father… the envy of many, and yet, beloved by his family, despite his many flaws.
From the book cover:
Living in the shadow of ‘greatness’ can be a difficult thing…
Just ask Desdemona Fortune. When her father, the magnificent J. Caesar Fortune, is found murdered inside the offices of the Faculty of Art, there is no shortage of people who carried a grudge against him.
From the lover who could not capture his affection to the colleagues whose efforts were repeatedly ignored, many resented the immensity of his literary success.
For although the ‘Man of Words’ is lying dead on a slab, his legacy will live on. But as Desdemona knows, the legacy of greatness can bear a heavy price.
In a household pummeled by the dual forces of addiction and narcissism, Desdemona must face the fact the father she loved has hurt those closest to him.
Now, as the head of a once illustrious family, she must do whatever is necessary to save her only surviving sister from the far-reaching influence of an immortal.
My aim is to draw the parallel between real life and fiction, so with that in mind, let’s look closely at those connections.
Was my father a renowned author?
Far from it. He was an officer of minimum rank, a Master Corporal, in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which was since re-branded, of course, as part of the Armed Forces.
He did, however, have a love of words, which was unknown to me growing up. I seldom saw him read more than an outdoors magazine or a how-to manual. But after his death, when I was clearing out his house, I found several massive bundles of letters, written in a compulsively beautiful long-hand, from him to our mother during their long months of separation, when he was stationed as a young man in God-forsaken places like Cold Lake and Moisie…
Myself being an author of minor acclaim, it isn’t hard for me to imagine the pride, and perhaps even arrogance, that might manifest itself in the wake of major success…if one does not take care to cultivate a humble nature.
So there we have the first tie-in to real life — the love of words, and the need for self-expression.
What about the suicides?
The Noon God features the suicides of 2 characters, both of whom are deeply loved by our protagonist.
Writing about suicide may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
It calls upon a need for expression that outweighs even grief, anger, trauma… A desire to understand and to be understood.
When writing those passages, I was immediately drawn back into that vortex of emotion, transported via memory to a time and place I cannot leave behind.
To the suicide of my own sister, Debbie.
If we, as writers, are true to our art, we cannot ignore these pivotal experiences. Nor can we attempt to gloss them over in a fashionable turn of phrase, or a pithy commentary of little import.
In my opinion, we must embrace these truths fully, if we are to present them to the world.
Therein lies the challenge: to fully explore our own pain, without allowing ourselves to succumb to it.
To turn the leaf over, study it awhile, feel its texture and smell its lost life, then put it once again inside the pages of that book, where it is safely pressed and preserved…
Until the next time we must look upon that beautiful loss.