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A Conversation with Author Billie Livingston

Photo of Billie Livingston by Braden Haggerty
As I mentioned in my previous post, here is my interview...er conversation with Billie Livingston. To read my review of her book please click here.

HL: In my opinion, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is your most accomplished novel to date. First of all, I was pleased to see that you didn’t move away from the working class: Ben is a limousine driver and Maggie is a homecare worker for seniors. Tragedy has befallen the couple before the story opens, and in societal terms, it’s one of the worst—the death of a child. The circumstances of the death, the bottle of wine shared by the couple might not raise any eyebrows, but the prescription drug used for a recreational purpose would definitely set the fingers awaggin’. You never shy away from the dark side, and I like that you are always willing to look below the surface. But why did you chose such dark tragedy to be so central to the plot of the story?

BL: Yes, I've definitely heard the swish-swish of fingers wagging. Remarks like: These are despicable people. They deserve their misery. To begin with, the majority of the people have, at one time or another, ingested something "to take the edge off." The Rolling Stones sang about Mother's little helpers because it was and remains so very common. I think people tend to distance themselves from those who make tragic mistakes in order to provide a kind of mental insurance that this outcome could never happen in their own lives. Most people tend to imagine themselves as "good" while only others are "despicable."

The inspiration for this child's death was an event from my own family's history. Before I was born, my father and his first wife had a little boy who, at the age of two, climbed up on the window sill and fell two stories. He died. From what I've heard, his mother had had a couple glasses of wine. I really liked my father's first wife. She was fierce and funny, but I don't think she ever forgave herself. What if she hadn't had any wine? What if she was merely exhausted and closed her eyes for a moment?

In the story, Ben and Maggie are both feeling brow-beaten and exhausted by life.
Like so many of us, they are living hand to mouth and unable to get ahead. They took one of those "little helpers," wishing for a reprieve. They didn't get wildly intoxicated, but still, one wonders after the fact — what if I hadn't had that glass of wine? What if I weren't on these anti-depressants that make me drowsy, what if, what if, what if. The keys to survival for all of us are love, hope and forgiveness. For Ben and Maggie, that one decision is the biggest obstacle to finding these keys.

HL: So much of our construct of grieving is middle class. We see grievance counsellors and maybe take time off work. But these are luxuries that the majority of people don't have, as you’ve pointed out. However, tough Ben who is never without a witty or sarcastic repartee is absolutely shattered by the death of his son and the loss of Maggie. As callous as this may sound, Ben’s experience in the hospital is both heartbreaking and hilarious. For one, he’s not the type of man who, even with a head injury, would ever speak to a psychiatrist or go to group therapy sessions. Ben is in a fugue state and sometimes the reader doesn’t know if he’s talking to himself or if he is talking to those around him. It was brilliantly done. How did you come to the decision of having brain-injured Ben narrate his side of the story? And how did you research what his stay in the hospital might be like?

BL: I wanted Ben to be fierce and funny — and lost, so I'm delighted that he came across that way. Yes, I think we get used to the average middle-class person having a therapist when they're depressed. They go on anti-depressants and do talk therapy. But what about a guy who doesn't have the money, time, or the inclination to pour his guts out to a stranger?

The inspiration for Ben's head injury came from a story in the news about a 17-year-old kid in Florida who shot himself in the head, trying to wake up after he ate too many psychedelic mushrooms.  Fortunately he lived and was able to get to a hospital. But as you can imagine, the doctors thought he had tried to commit suicide and he spent the next while convincing them that he hadn't. I wondered how a person would navigate that situation if he had been in a very dark place prior to this event.

Then I had a conversation with a wildlife veterinarian who told me about vet pharmaceuticals that people have been known to take either recreationally or in hopes of getting themselves out of a bout of insomnia. (I've had terrible insomnia in the past so I'm familiar with the desperation and feeling of madness that comes when you haven't slept in days.) One drug she told me about was Telazol, which can put a person to sleep but also put him into a dissociative state. Taking something like this, when one is already feeling half-nuts from sleep deprivation seemed to have Ben written all over it.

Ben's a good man, he takes his responsibilities seriously. But what happens when an already overwhelmed person is pushed to the brink? Ben has so much shame and grief and anger, he doesn't want to be Ben. So, in a way, he embraces that dissociative state. It's a place to disappear. I found the Ben-voice I started to hear in my head very compelling.

As for research, I've had a couple of family members end up in psych wards and I've seen first hand that strange dissociative state that can happen. I've visited psychiatric facilities and psych wards in general hospitals. And when my husband, Tim, was in the seminary, he did some chaplain work in a psychiatric ward on the American Eastern seaboard. He answered my questions and showed me the notes and transcriptions he wrote -- all names removed, of course.

HL: Maggie works with a senior who asks Maggie to accompany her to the First United Church of Spiritualism, where the person leading the congregation speaks to spirits on the other side. Although Maggie is a lapsed Catholic, she still desperately wants to hear or see a sign from her young son Frankie. Ultimately, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is about where you turn when you’ve suffered an unspeakable tragedy and find yourself completely alone. This story is about faith. What is it that interests you about faith?

BL: I guess I've always been curious about faith. I've been to dozens of different houses of worship — everything from synagogues to churches to a Raëlian meeting. I love the very human desire to experience the divine, to find meaning in a way that goes beyond the flesh of this world. Maggie is a lapsed Catholic and yet, the yearning for spirit, for healing, is deep in her bones. Whether it's superstition or something more profound, she's afraid and she has a craving for some kind of magic. This seems pretty normal to me. Even the staunchest atheist — atheists talk more about God than your average priest!

About 400 years ago, Blaise Pascal wrote about the God-shaped hole and maybe there's something to that. Whether a person calls it The Universe, or My Higher Power, or The Great Spirit — these expressions all point to the same hunger for the divine.
I gave a reading in San Francisco recently and there was a homeless man in the audience. He talked about his experience with death and spirit. He believed he'd seen the dead. A few seats over from him, an old woman leaned on her cane and stared out the window. She suddenly turned to him and said, “This vision you had, you said you’re open to it. I haven’t experienced anything like this and I’m not open to it. I’m not. Why are you? How does it happen?” The anger in her voice, the frustration — it was clear that she wanted so much to believe there was something else, something more. I think it's innate in us. For better or for worse.

HL: Maggie’s brother Francis, a Catholic priest, is also on a self-destructive path, and it is only after he suffers the ultimate humiliation on YouTube that he is forced to face his demons. Francis and Maggie together are hilarious and a reminder that life goes on regardless of tragedy. Despite Francis’s fall from grace, he is very good with people and he loves his work. Besides his obvious role as a mediator, why was it important to have an openly gay priest struggling with sobriety and celibacy in this story?

BL: When my husband and I were first dating, he was in the seminary in Washington, DC. I used to visit him there, and on the weekends I'd be up on the rooftop patio drinking cocktails and bantering with young men who felt they had a vocation but were unsure if they could put their appetites aside. So a lot of Francis came out of meeting these guys and seeing all their fear and grace and that wicked sense of humour. A few were gay and clearly had strong appetites for sex and alcohol. The Catholic church doesn't accept active homosexuality and, although priests in the Eastern Catholic rite can marry, that only applies to the straight ones.

I used to ask— Why? why are you so determined to get ordained when it means spending your life in hiding? Why not become an Anglican/Episcopalian? Then you can get ordained and married.  But I think for a Catholic, the only church is The Church. At any rate, a couple of these guys who eventually got ordained did run into trouble later. One of them ended up in a drunken viral video similar to the one in Francis's situation. But the people in his church still wanted him. They found his presence was very healing and merciful and they gave it right back to him. 

It's not very often that you see clergy in film or in books where they're just human beings. Usually they feel as if they're tiptoeing around being excruciatingly holy. I liked many of those seminarians and priests I met. And it was clear to me in witnessing them as they dealt with people, as they delivered the sacraments, that a person can make lousy decisions in his personal life and still be a great catalyst for love and healing.

HL: I told you in an email that it took me months to digest this book. Initially, it made me feel like I wasn't as tolerant as I thought I was. Maggie and Ben taking a prescription drug the night their two-year-old died was just one of events that stuck in my craw. Not the bottle of wine, which is so acceptable in our society. Or the fact that two-year-olds can take off in a flash from sober, alert parents. Just ask the woman whose three-year-old ended up in a zoo enclosure with a gorilla.

We, myself included, are so quick to judge others. It was quite liberating and refreshing when I realized that the Crooked Heart of Mercy was all about forgiveness. Well done.

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Review: The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston

I have interviewed Billie Livingston, who talks about her inspiration for this novel. Stay tuned for my next post.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy
Billie Livingston
Harper Collins
William Morrow Paperbacks
ISBN: 9780062413772

In The Crooked Heart of Mercy, the sixth novel by award-winning Canadian novelist Billie Livingston, we meet Maggie and Ben, a once happy working-class couple whose world is torn asunder when their two-year-old son scrambles out their apartment window just as the couple has settled in for quiet evening together. If this isn’t bad enough, their date-night involves a bottle of wine and a prescription drug that was not prescribed to either Maggie or Ben.

If you’re wincing right now then that is precisely what Livingston had in mind.  But just as the author takes you down to the unfathomable depths of grief, she will just as quickly whisk you back to hope and optimism, with plenty of gallows humor along the way. Livingston continually challenges her readers to look beyond their own prejudices and to suspend their judgment by showing the vulnerable, soft sides of her characters, who have made mistakes, but haven't we all?

After the tragedy, Maggie is no longer able to face Ben and moves out. Ben not only has to contend with the loss of his son and his wife, the only things he got right in life, but he also has to deal with an ailing father and a wayward younger brother. Unable to cope or sleep, Ben attempts to take his own life.

The story opens with Ben finding himself in a hospital room that is “as white as a scream.” In a dissociative state and unable to answer simple questions, Ben is confused as to who Ben is. In response to his psychiatrist’s question about how he ended up in the psychiatric ward with a bullet in his head, Ben does not answer aloud, but to himself, “Dr. Lambert wants to know about the hole. Ben’s black hole. If he stuck his finger in, surely Lambert could find the answer in there.”

He occasionally answers the question of the other characters in the story, but mostly he answers in a meandering interior monologue, airing his comic disdain for therapy, mental health professionals and privileged individuals, such as fellow patient Greg the attorney, who claims at a group session that he was selected by God and brought in with nails in his hands and feet.

While Ben has a hole in his head, Maggie looks on as claw-fisted diggers are excavating a hole on a building site. Maggie has just left Ben and is grieving the loss of her son. But money is needed, and she is on her way to an interview as a helper-cleaner to Lucy, an 82-year-old self-absorbed senior. One of Maggie’s duties is to accompany Lucy to the Church of Spiritualism to listen to a medium who speaks with the dead. This is a little more than Maggie can bear. As a lapsed Catholic, she claims she doesn’t go in for any “hocus pocus”, but she still listens closely just in case her son sends her a message.

If grieving weren’t enough, Maggie gets a call from the seminary about her gay brother Francis, a Catholic priest who has caused a scandal which involves his drunken rant at the county jail being captured on social media. Francis has to go and stay with his sister in her tiny apartment. In one of the book’s funnier moments, an exasperated Maggie confronts her brother about his choice to become a priest. As a bullied child, Francis confesses that he liked the safety of the church and that close-to-God feeling. He also reveals that he likes helping people and he enjoys being a priest, to which Maggie replies, “Why? Is it the robes? Getting all dressed up in the vestments? Is it like the ultimate drag show or what?”

While Francis lives with Maggie, he goes on a short-lived party-sex binge. Despite his weaknesses, Francis is very good with people. His gift of lending an ear and offering hope makes all the difference in this story.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy is suffused with a compassionate take on spiritualism, both conventional and pagan. But rest assured there is nothing preachy in this book. It serves as a reminder that the religion of our childhood, even after we’ve firmly closed the door on it for myriad reasons, is often where we turn, albeit in a more subdued form, when faced with tragedy, crisis and grief, even in spite of ourselves. But unlike the fairy tale depiction of redemption we’ve seen countless times in mainstream media, the reader sees through Ben that there will always be scars.

This is the most ambitious and complex of Livingston’s novels to date, and without a doubt her finest. Of all the books I have read in recent years, this one gnawed at me for months. I found that it poked holes in my belief system and raised so many new questions. Why did Livingston choose to have the couple take a prescription drug? Why did the plot revolve around such a horrific tragedy? Why did the author make Ben so resistant to seeking psychiatric help? And why did she have Francis go on a party-sex binge?

These are a few of the questions that I have asked Billie Livingston. Please drop by for my interview with her.

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A Virtual Team Trek: 10,000 Steps a Day

All My Walks Take Me to Jarry Park
I am a language professional who has the privilege of working from home. It sounds pretty sweet, doesn't it? No more commute, no more running around making my kids' lunches while trying to figure out what to wear, and no more flying out the door because we are late again. (Okay, we still do this.)

Teleworking or working from home sounds pretty good.... But there's one little problem. All that rushing to get to work and get home at the end of the day does burn a lot of calories. Now add that to the fact that desk jockeys like us are sitting for over seven hours a day. This means that those with the luxury of working from home can put on a lot of weight and develop an unhealthy lifestyle very quickly.

I work with a team of eight language professionals who live across Canada, so I came up with the idea of a virtual walk from one co-worker's place of residence to the next. Aware of the dangers of sitting for long periods of time, my colleagues were more than a little enthusiastic about doing this walk with me.

The original goal was for each of us to walk 25 kilometres (about 15 mi) a week, from Monday to Friday. That would mean walking 5 kilometres (about 3 mi) a day in our respective neighbourhoods across the country. At the end of the week, everyone sent me their tallies of the number of kilometres they had walked that week. I added all their weekly totals together, and using Google maps, I plotted our collective distance on a map and announced how far we had walked.

Week 1 of our Virtual Cross-Country Trek
We started our virtual trek in Barss Corners, Nova Scotia, the hometown of one co-worker. Our destination, some 5,716 km away, is Williams Lake, British Columbia, where another co-worker lives.

We began our virtual journey the week of November 9, 2015. Our first week's collective total was 193 km (120 mi), but by week 17, my team had walked 296 kilometres (184 mi). To date, our virtual trek has taken us through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, northern Maine, Quebec (to visit me in Montreal), Ontario (to visit five teleworkers in and around Ottawa), northern Minnesota and Manitoba (to visit two teleworkers in Winnipeg). In total, the eight of us have walked 3,638 km (2,261 mi) in 17 weeks.

Our collective trek across Canada has also had the benefit of stimulating conversation about walking, exercise and vacations, and has been a nice team-building experience. Most of my team members have reached 40 km (25 miles)  more than a few times, while another team member has walked 75 kilometres (47 miles) in just one

Originally, I wanted to make our walking goal 10,000 steps a day. This is apparently the distance to walk for good health, but it changes for everyone depending on the length of their stride, among other factors. For me, it means walking about 8 km (5 mi) a day.

Beautiful Jarry Park
By Christmas, I noticed that it was easier to reach 8 kilometres (5 mi) a day if I went out to walk at least three times a day. It was too overwhelming to attempt this distance in just one walk. Using Google maps, I now calculate the walking distance before I leave home and keep my daily and weekly tally on a post-it note on my computer screen.

My New Year's resolution was just once to walk 50 km (31 mi) a week to see how I felt afterwards. As anyone who exercises regularly knows, the benefits of exercise can often be felt a few days later. I managed to walk 50 km in the first week of January, and it felt great. I was afraid that it was too much and that I would be exhausted. Instead, I felt energized. The combination of fresh air, sunlight and exercise has made this a wonderful experience, and I have walked 50 km a week ever since.

But what has made this much easier is knowing that seven other people are doing this walk with me, even if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

But it has cut into my blogging.

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