Encounter in Quebec City

Earlier this week I was interviewed on stage at the Morrin Centre as part of their Imagination Writers’ Festival. I had a great time unpacking the contents of The Family Way with the event’s host, Luc Mercier. His questions were inspired and fun. It’s always a pleasure when an avid reader engages with your work in such a meaningful way.

As with most literary events, there was time for a book signing at the end. Somehow, I recognized a pair of eyes on a masked person in line. She soon came up and asked if I knew who she was.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re Sarah.”

I hadn’t seen Sarah in maybe 25 years. She and I were peer health educators at Concordia University for a short time back in the 90s. I don’t remember how long we knew each other, maybe a year? Truth be told, there’s not much I remember from that time, or how well we really knew each other. So much has happened between now and then, for both of us.

As we began to catch up, I realized something about Sarah and the book in my hands. She had inspired a part of it.

Let me back up a bit… Earlier in the evening, Luc had asked me about some of the details in my book. He was interested in how I had selected the various bits of minutia about domestic life that I included and where my ideas came from. I had said it was important for me to include the small mundane moments of our lives to give my characters authenticity, and that I often carried a notebook around to jot down anything that stuck out to me as real.

Well, that’s exactly what happened with Sarah. Once, at a party, I remember her telling me—a shine to her eyes—that she had baked a cake for her mother’s birthday. At the time, I remember thinking it odd. I knew Sarah’s family was in Halifax and that she lived alone in Montreal. How could she give this cake to her mother? It was only later that I learned that her mother had passed away years before, and that baking a cake was a way to honour her memory.

I found that act to be so beautiful and loving, and Sarah’s actions stuck with me for decades. So much so, that when it came time to write about my character Paul losing his mother, it was one of the first things I reached for. In the novel, Paul bakes a strawberry pie every year on his mother’s birthday and shares it with the people in his life. It’s not important to the plot, nor is it something I expect most readers to recall after finishing the book, but still, it’s a subtle moment within the pages that gives the reader a deeper sense of who Paul is and what is important to him. And it’s details like this, I believe, that bring characters to life.

“You’re going to make me cry,” Sarah said after I told her. “I’m going to have to sit up all night reading it now.” She then introduced me to her daughter, and after exchanging a few more pleasantries, we said our goodbyes. I’m not sure when I will ever see her again.

I’ve been thinking about this encounter all weekend, how magical it was and how lucky I felt that I got to share this with her. Neither of us knew it back then, but Sarah had given me a gift those many years back, helped me to begin building the outline of a character who would one day become very important to me. And I was fortunate to be able to return the favour, to let her know that the special love she has for her mother had had a ripple effect and had lived on with me for more two decades, making its way into the pages of the book in her hands.