I guess I live in this whale now: An interview with Creative Non-Fiction Contest winner Hilary Dean
Hilary Dean is a writer and filmmaker from Scarborough, Ontario and the first place winner of EVENT’s 2014 Creative Non-Fiction Contest for her story “Vocational Rehabilitation”, which appears in EVENT 43/3.
EVENT: You won the CBC Creative Non-Fiction prize for your story “Holy Bald-Headed” in 2012. Can you discuss how “Vocational Rehabilitation” relates to “Holy Bald-Headed”?
HILARY DEAN: “Holy Bald-Headed” is the story that I was directed to write by a counsellor in “Vocational Rehabilitation” (the place and the story) but wasn’t able to. It was written later but published previously. I never imagined it would even make the long list, so when it won I did feel exposed and anxious at first. But once the story of the assault was out there people were very enthusiastic with their opinions—either writing to tell me that they appreciated it, or letting me know they really hated it and I shouldn’t have won. And I know that sounds bad, but it wasn’t at all. It was the best thing for me because it shifted the focus away from the experience itself and to the writing, which gave me a nice distance from the actual memory.
E: To what extent do you see creative non-fiction writing as another form of documentation/documentary? Is it more or less factual than your documentary So You’re Going Crazy…? You incorporate animation, interview footage and reflexive editing into your film. Do you play with the form of creative non-fiction writing in a similar way?
HD: I do love playing with documentary form, but only in service to the authenticity of the subject matter. I don’t invent facts, but the reality I’m trying to represent may not be factual. In both So You’re Going Crazy… and the book I’m writing now, I’m discussing aspects of mental illness and psychosis, which means describing what happened but also what didn’t happen: hallucinations and paranoia and holy experiences. These things may not be objectively factual, but they’re still real and true. So with that film, rupturing the narrative and playing with visual forms felt like the most authentic way to communicate individual experiences of altered realities in a respectful way.
When I write non-fiction I have the advantage of only being responsible for my own truth, out of my own head. But in a similar way, it’s not entirely factual or even accurate. For example, my parents are very nice, caring people, but in “Vocational Rehabilitation” I wrote them through the lens of my 20-year-old self who was frustrated with them and too consumed by my own depression to even consider its impact on them. It’s how I authentically perceived them at the time, and as they were depicted in my whiny journal, but it’s not a fair or well-rounded portrayal. I’m still speaking from my honest guts but my subjectivity is too cloudy to be factual, in both my films and my writing.
E: Your tone in “Vocational Rehabilitation” is very matter-of-fact. Was that a deliberate stylistic move?
HD: The tone is meant to reflect the thoughts and pacing of a heavily medicated mind. At this particular time in my life, 15 years ago, I was on a tremendous mix of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. This story is part of a larger work in which each chapter is written as the same character but in a different headspace that reflects my age, stage of illness or recovery, drugs or withdrawal, and who the intended reader is.
E: Can you tell me more about this project in the works?
HD: It’s a novel about depression, recovery, friendship and suicide prevention. You know how in It’s a Wonderful Life the angel stops Jimmy Stewart from committing suicide by showing him what a great guy he is and how terrible the town would be without him? My book tells a time-traveling story as well, but it’s more like a regular person telling another, You’ve never saved a town or anything, and sometimes you can be a real asshole, but I love you, so please don’t kill yourself. It’s fiction, but incorporates non-fiction pieces that will become fiction when I pretend they happened to someone else. But the story is based on my own experiences.
I can pitch it to you if you like, because I went to film school. Here is my pitch with the working title:
Adrienne Green visits her friend Michael at the hospital where he’s receiving treatment for a mood disorder. He catches her in a lie, and through a puzzle of flashbacks and personal documents, both real and false, we discover the truth of their time together in a similar place 10 years before, and why Michael’s memories might be Adrienne’s own creation.
The Altitude of the Sun is a story of recovery and hope, and a heartfelt plea for the suicidal to fight depression and stay alive. Reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, non-linear stories weave together and intersect to reveal the fates of characters and answers to their questions. In the vein of Rob Delaney’s recent work, Mother. Wife. Sister…. this book delves into serious and heartbreaking subject matter with a sense of humour and a great respect.
E: Is writing a therapeutic, or cathartic, experience for you, or is it a more tedious process?
HD: It’s cathartic, tedious, exciting, the worst, the best, everything. I thought it would be intense and exhausting in the same way that making a film is but it’s a very different kind of work. It’s more like what I’d imagine building a house is like. And the house is in a forest and the forest is spooky. Sometimes it’s dramatic, like chasing a handsome cad in a film noir and you want to throw a drink in its face and then make out with it. Right now, for me, it’s like I’ve been swallowed by a whale and I don’t know if I can hack my way out of this one chapter I’m writing. And I’m like (Eeyore voice), I guess I live in this whale now…
It can be difficult, but it’s the best job I could ever imagine. Even when I’m not happy with how the writing is going, it still feels romantic and like an adventure. I’ve been extremely lucky to receive grant funding from the Ontario Arts Council and The Reva Gerstein Legacy Fund, so I’m very grateful and excited to have the opportunity to write this book. It’s been my dream of life forever to write a novel, so I’m working like a fiend until these grants run out and I have to get a shitty job again where people are yelling about something and I have to pretend to care about it.
E: Do you still keep a journal?
HD: I don’t keep a daily journal but I keep a notebook in my purse to jot down things that I like. This is the latest entry, overhead while tying my son’s skates at hockey camp:
Kid 1: “No one’s even told me yet if I’m spending Christmas at my mom’s or my dad’s. Maybe I’ll just be all alone by myself in an alley somewhere.”
Kid 2: “Yeah, yeah, and then at night? These rats will come? And, and—nevermind.”
Kid 1: “No, no, say what you were going to say. You were going to say that rats will come and eat me in the alley where I’m spending Christmas all alone.”
Kid 2: “No, they’ll just come and…be your friends…and…hang out.”
E: Who are your favourite writers? Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?
HD: My favourites are Nabokov, Lynda Barry, Game of Thrones, and Veronica Liu. I loved Bruce McCulloch’s book, Let’s Start a Riot. And Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was perfect. I read the last page and just slammed it down, like, goddamn, that was a perfect book! If you like non-fiction, I highly recommend Lisa Carver’s work, especially Drugs are Nice and the recent How to Not Write. She writes with serious balls and a gorgeous, wide-open heart.
Interview by Brittany McGillivray