Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Stella Prize 2019 winner, Vicki Laveau-Harvie, talk about her memoir, The Erratics.
Vicki was in conversation with Louise Swinn, chair of the 2019 judging panel. They began by discussing the broad themes of the novel – dysfunction and mental health in families, and sibling rivalries. The response from readers was overwhelmingly “This is my story.”
Vicki talked at length about The Erratics being a memoir – fiction was never an option. With memoir, “…you have a contract with your reader. You have to tell the truth, get to the heart of the matter… If you haven’t got that contract, your reader feels it.” She later added, “Why would you write a memoir if you’re going to hold back?”
And so we came to the most interesting part of the discussion – what did her sister think of The Erratics? The answer was threefold. Firstly, Vicki emphasised that she and her sister had very different belief systems and that they had been separated by an ocean for over fifty years. Despite their different beliefs and their different approaches, they managed to come to decisions regarding the care of their parents.
Secondly, “…the page is not the place to settle scores…”. (Which is interesting – see the next point!.)
Lastly, she told her sister about the book when it was with the publisher. Although she expected her sister to hate it, that wasn’t the case. Her sister was ‘gracious’ and although she saw things differently, ‘…she laughed in all the right places.’ Louise asked what Vicki would have done if her sister had disagreed with the content of the book. Vicki promptly replied that she would have said, “I’m not changing it because it’s my truth. You can write your own book.”
Now obviously this author talk was not about me, but this comment prodded my Erratics uneasiness – the emotional ‘opting out’. Memoir is a person’s truth and if it’s not the place to settle scores, then equally it’s not the place to have the last (or loudest) word.
Vicki made an important point toward the end of the evening, regarding her own ‘recovery’ from her childhood trauma – “What happened to me was not because I was who I was but because of who she [her mother] was. It was not personal. It wasn’t because I was the child I was but because I was the child in the position I was.” She noted, “If anyone was unhappy in my story – and we all were – I suspect the person that was the unhappiest was my mother.”
It’s not an author talk without insight into writing process and the books the author loves. Vicki told the audience that she writes by hand – “I think the brain and the heart connect through the pen.” As for the books she loves – “The book I love is the last one I read!” (but she did note Shell by Kristina Olsson and Darke by Rick Gekoski have been recent favourites).
The Erratics is a great choice for book groups (my book group had a very robust discussion about it), and it deserves a wide readership – Stella has done her job, bringing this book to our attention.