Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Paul Illidge

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Paul Illidge

Paul Illidge got the surprise of a lifetime one summer night when police officers showed up at his suburban home. It was a drug raid, and it ended with Paul and his sons in handcuffs due to the marijuana plants in Paul's basement.

The years-long legal nightmare that started that night is documented in Paul's memoir, The Bleaks (ECW Press), which raises questions about police resources, medical use of marijuana, the court system and family relationships.

Paul talks to Open Book about how one of Trudeau's most famous quotes applies to his story, how his children reacted to the book and Mary Karr's words on memoir that inspired him while writing.

Open Book:

How would you describe your book, The Bleaks?

Paul Illidge:

It’s the first-hand account of a violent police raid on my family home, and the often harrowing six-year journey through the criminal justice system it sent one of my sons and me on. It’s a book about overcoming trauma, coming to grips with depression and mental illness; about letting go of the past and moving forward in what Bob Dylan calls the “wild race” of life.


The treatment you describe following your arrest is shocking to many readers. What was the biggest surprise for you about the judicial process?


The ineptness with which judges, court officials, police and lawyers conducted themselves. The complete absence of impartiality, dignity, respect for civil and human rights. The criminalization of the accused through insults, threats and intimidation, the air of shabby, barely organized chaos that prevailed in courtrooms, rendering the proceedings a mockery, if not an outright absurdist comedy at times.


Many people are of the opinion that allocating police and court resources to prosecuting crimes around marijuana is a waste, given its relatively benign effects. What would you like to see as the legal status of marijuana and why?


With police starting-salaries in the $90,000 range at the time of the raid on my house, I calculated, while working on my book, that $2.2 million in annual salary was represented by the number of police participating in the bust. When I included the cost of police when we were in jail, judges, Crown attorneys, court officials and the other personnel involved in prosecuting our case for six months, the figure was close to $15 million in annual salaries. All for a $3,000 government fine, and a $3,000 donation to a drug charity? I’d call that a pretty significant waste. It’s a ridiculous price to pay in my opinion, even if justice had been served. Which I contend it wasn’t.

The ethical basis of a law in Western democracies is that it should do no harm. All the activities of the police and the courts did nothing but harm to my children and me, grievous harm physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. All our civil rights, and many of our human rights were ignored as if they didn’t exist, or if they did, they didn’t matter. In 1967 federal justice Pierre Trudeau passed the law making homosexuality legal, the premise of the bill that it was a civil right.

“The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” he declared. I argue, in The Bleaks that it has no business in any other room of the house either. If I want to grow some marijuana plants in my house, I don’t need a government-approved license to do so. It’s simply none of their business what I do in the privacy of my own home.

My view is that marijuana should be legalized. Nothing would actually change very much. People would continue buying their cannabis and using it recreationally or medicinally as they are now. The “black market” politicians and police like to trot out in their press releases, is a complete myth, one going back to Reefer Madness days. Marijuana use is a self-regulating activity and always has been as far as I see it.

Current estimates are that twelve million Canadians use cannabis at least once a month — and that number is growing. It’s not as big a deal as the media and Prime Minister Harper are making out (for political gain in his case). He’s the only political leader still fighting the War on Drugs, now that every other head of state in North and South America (even Columbia) has moved on to other issues that are of more relevance and practical importance in the lives of their citizens.


This is very much a family story — did you discuss the writing process with your children, and if so, what were their reactions?


My children knew I was writing the memoir, but for them it was just another book that dad was working on. My eldest son had graduated from university, was working in the television industry and living on his own while I was doing The Bleaks. My daughter was away at university in Montreal. My middle son and I continued to live and work together. We never talked about the raid or the subsequent court case. There was no point, as he saw it. His view of the whole thing was “Let’s just move on.” And so we did.


Tell us a little bit about your writing habits. Where do you write, and what do you need in order to settle into a writing session in terms of food, music and other rituals?


I write every day, about 350 days a year, for seven or eight hours off and on, starting around noon. I work in my bedroom on the second floor of the house where I live. I go for late-afternoon strolls on the grounds of the psychiatric hospital at the foot of my street: fifteen acres of well-tended lawns beside Lake Ontario, a bird sanctuary and conservation area adjacent to it. There’s seldom anyone else around (except the occasional hospital patient out with a supervisor having a cigarette).

I sometimes think about what I’m writing, though that usually leads to ruminating, questioning and doubting whether things are really going the way I want them to. So I try to focus on my breathing, on letting go of the urge to control what I’m doing too much. I walk to a nearby Tim Horton’s for coffee, stop in at the grocery store, come home and do the dishes or clean up the house.

I’ll listen to CBLT (the CBC’s French station) in the morning, CIUT (University of Toronto) and the comedy shows “The Debaters” and “This is That” on CBC Radio 2. I’ve usually got five or six books that I’m reading at any one time. Philosophy, poetry, fiction, drama, history, biography, literary criticism, cheesy commercial thrillers, graphic novels. I like to keep my reading options open so it doesn’t become routine.

The only thing routine about my writing day is that I have a glass of cranberry juice and a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea when I first wake up, as my literary idol Samuel Beckett used to. Not every day, but frequently when I sit down at the computer to start writing, I say a little mantra in homage to him taken from his novel Malone Dies. “Live and invent,” he wrote. That’s what I try to do during my day.


Are you a frequent reader of memoirs yourself? If so, what are some of your favourites?


I used four memoirs as models/inspiration for The Bleaks: Chronicles I by Bob Dylan, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer, and Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey. Dylan prompted me to be open and free-wheeling, to not hold back but let things flow in my writing.

In Mary Karr I got an inkling of how to keep my emotions in check writing about intimate, harrowing and traumatic experiences. Since a memoir is true, one effectively relives them as one goes along. You get pulled back into the anger, shame, guilt, fear, what have you. I kept a quotation from Mary Karr on a Post-It note beside my desk all the time I was writing my book: “The emotional stakes a memoirist bets with could not be higher.”

From The Tender Bar I learned how to depict myself, my children, my friends and everyone else I write about, in as true a light as possible. Interestingly, in libraries memoirs are catalogued as “entertaining non-fiction.” There’s a higher entertainment factor in memoirs, probably because it’s the genre whose primary authors are politicians, celebrities and sports figures. (Ironically, the author of The Tender Bar was the ghostwriter behind Andre Agassi’s memoir Open). From Moehringer I picked up some valuable insight on keeping your non-fiction “entertaining” through tone and character development.

As The Bleaks deals with medicinal marijuana, I went back to De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater. De Quincey (1786 – 1840) suffered from debilitating “nervous irritation and tædium vitæ,” what we now call depression. Alcohol (wine, beer, spirits) only made it worse. Opium relieved excruciating physical pain, brightened his bleak moods and made his life more livable.

It bothered him that “it was lawful to drink wine without a medical certificate of qualification,” but a jail-able offence if a person used opium without one. I posed this same question regarding the use of marijuana in The Bleaks, offering the opinion that in the 190 years since De Quincey published his memoir, laws regarding the consumption of alcohol and drugs don’t seem to have changed.


What are you working on now?


I’m just completing a new book, a short novel called The Cloud Juggler, a mystery in the Georges Simenon vein. Simenon removed everything from his stories but the essential details; stripped them of what he called “ornamentation.” The novel is my take on his “roman dur,” the psychological novel. The chief characters in The Cloud Juggler are identical twin 20-year-old sisters, one who’s criminally insane, one who’s not. It’s the first book in what I hope will become a literary mystery series.

Paul Illidgeis a writer living in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author of Glass Cage: The Crest Theatre Story, The Shakespeare Novels and Shakespeare for the E Generation: The Page, the Stage, the Digital Age. You can read more of his writing at

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