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 RaĆ«lian 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.


Post a Comment