Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sorry, Not Sorry

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When people asked me if my first novel — called When We Were Good, a coming-of-age story set in Toronto about going to all-ages shows and grieving the loss of a grandparent— was based on my life, I told them that it was not.

It’s a question that people love to ask, or don’t even bother to, with the assumption being that any story of adolescence written by someone under the age of 30 is a defacto memoir disguised as fiction. So I swore up and down: no, no, no, no, no — this story, these characters, were not me.

And it was true. Almost.

It was true that I hadn’t grown up and gone to high school downtown, the way my main character, Katherine, had. I grew up in Etobicoke, taking the subway from Kipling station to Bathurst on the weekends to browse used CD stores in the Annex and get lost in the discount retail limbo of Honest Ed’s.

It was true that I’d never dated girls in high school — or anyone else, really. When We Were Good was, in many ways, a tribute to the Toronto-centric novels with queer themes and characters that I’d devoured as a teenager: Cover Me by Mariko Tamaki, Code White by Debra Anderson and A Girl Like Sugar by Emily Pohl-Weary, to name a few.

The story wasn’t about me, but about a character I’d willed into existence by imagining a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink, looking out over the Bloor Viaduct and trying to stop herself from jumping.

So it was totally made up.

It was.

Except for one thing.

I had a close friendship when I was young — at times impossibly close, as so many childhood BFFships are — that ended badly when we realized, as teenagers, how little we really had in common. It’s the mundanest story ever told, friends growing apart, but it was one that framed my teen years. Which was how I wound up writing my old friend into the book.

It wasn’t like I was lying to myself as I did it. At 23, the wounds from that friendship were still fresh enough that it felt totally reasonable, even justified, to throw a version of our complex relationship into the novel and send it off to be printed. I was proud of the story, and it felt true.

But I always assumed that I’d get caught.

I knew that it wouldn’t happen right away. My old friend wouldn’t rush out to buy a copy of my book just because I’d posted half a dozen braggy Facebook status updates about it. But, I figured, her parents might eventually pick one up, and somewhere down the line — years, maybe, I thought — I was going to get an angry email from her, demanding to know why I had written her into my novel.

I deserved it, I knew. And I was almost looking forward to self-righteously defending my choices: I wouldn’t tell her I was sorry that I wrote what I did, but that I was sorry if she’d been hurt by it. It was the chance I had to take as a writer. But I knew that she probably wouldn’t accept this answer, this sorry/not sorry. This half-hearted apology.

But she never got the chance.

Ten days after the launch of my novel, my childhood best friend died.

And I heard the news the way you do about someone you were once close to, but haven’t spoken to in years: through Facebook.

And I was sad and angry and jealous of the people leaving messages on her wall who seemed to think that they knew her so much better than I ever had. And I felt guilty. I felt so, so guilty. There were thoughts I had that I couldn’t even admit to myself, they were so impossible and damning.

I didn’t cry, and that made me feel even worse.

I tried and failed to write an intelligible essay about my feelings in the immediate aftermath, but it came out garbled and petty and pointless. I sent it off for submission, having apparently lost touch completely with my inner editor, but mercifully I never heard back.

So I talked with friends, and we shared our stories, and little by little I started to move on from the shock. I stopped visiting her Facebook page every day, and stopped bringing up her death at inappropriate times in conversation.

I still think about her, maybe more than is strictly healthy. And I lied, I still bring up her death in conversation all the time, but my family and friends aren’t as freaked out by as they used to be.

There’s a song by Murder by Death that has come closer to expressing my bizarre grief than I ever could on my own. It’s called “I Came Around”, and while it’s about a very different experience around death, it’s helped a lot of things I can’t explain begin to make sense. The song, to me, is haunted. But mostly in a good way. I think.

I want to write stories that will comfort readers when their friendships turn ugly, but I have to own up to my own flaws and shortcomings as a person and a writer. It takes me a long time to forgive and forget. It’s something I work at every day: letting things go. I’m still not great at it, and it’s possible that I may never be, despite my intentions.

I’m sorry, and I’m not sorry.

I’m working on it.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.