My May began with a literary festival in a world class city and ended with a book club in the village of Hill Spring, population not quite 200.
This book club was hosted by my friend and fellow writer April Demes. Years ago, when we first met, April was an arty, precocious teenager and I was a newly married 21-year-old who knew EVERYTHING. Now that we’re older, we have more in common: gardening, bird watching, CBC Radio, pretty blond children, and writing.
Despite their idyllic Rocky Mountain surroundings – a white house on the side of a green hill where a repurposed guitar is nailed to a tree as a birdhouse – April’s family hasn’t been luxuriating in a quiet simple life. (Quiet simple life is a myth. If we think we know someone living this way, it’s a sure sign we don’t know them very well at all.) While still in his 30s, her husband was afflicted with cancer, right inside his skull. They nearly lost each other. That my novel strikes any kind of chord with April is a great honour.
The Hill Spring book club was one of my favourites. It was peopled with bright, interesting women of varied ages and backgrounds – some of whom may be distantly related to my well-connected husband. They came prepared with questions and we had a great discussion about love and death and the writing process. But it wasn’t because everyone unreservedly loved the book.
One of the ladies who enjoyed the book described her grownup daughter’s reaction to it. They’d been reading aloud and the daughter stopped when the narrative got too “morbid.” There is a fair bit of death and death paraphernalia in the novel. It begins in the title and never really lets up. It can be tough for some readers to see through it to the tenderness that is the real point of the book. Sometimes, they dismiss it as “morbid.”
Strictly speaking the word “morbid” means sick, unhealthy. I flinch when I hear this word used to describe my book. Writing in frank, practical terms about loss is not something I consider unhealthy. Not everything that’s uncomfortable – exercise, pelvic exams, insulin shots – is unhealthy. Willfully ignoring the difficult and complicated process of dispatching our loved ones until we’re devastated by a crisis is what seems unhealthy to me. As I wrote the book, “morbid” was not my aim – quite the contrary.
While I’m no longer surprised to hear “morbid” spoken at book clubs, I was surprised to hear which part of the book made the lady’s daughter squirm. It was the chapter where the main female character is cutting up a grocery store chicken, making dinner.
I hate cooking more than most people. I wrote about cutting chicken honestly, flaunting but not exaggerating my perceptions of it. “Take that, cooking. You’re gross.” But even someone who abhors cooking as much as I do probably doesn’t find her own kitchen a morbid place.
Maybe death is the same. Life on Earth means eating and it means dying. Both are messy, inevitable, and natural. It doesn’t matter how healthy or vibrant or “morbid” any of us is, we all have to eat and we all have to die. It remains true even if we don’t want to know anything of the finer points of how either is done.
I don’t make money on book clubs but I did sell two books in Hill Spring. One was to a lady who came to the meeting without finishing the book. It was morbid, she said, but after hearing the rest of us talk about it she’d decided to give the book another chance and invest in her very own copy (personally defaced by me) instead of borrowing April’s. She was willing to question her sense of what’s morbid and consider changing her mind.
It may have been the most gratifying book club comment ever.