Q&A with Readers

How much of your story really happened?

I imagine most of these events happened to someone, somewhere, but thankfully not to me and my loved ones. My book is a novel, and therefore fiction rather than memoir.

I get asked this question a lot, and I wonder if it’s because I wrote this story in the first-person. I opted for that point of view, as I wanted readers to closely experience some of Heddie’s muddled thinking and poor judgement — both classic symptoms of her grieving — from the safety of their armchairs.

Okay, but is anything true in the story?

The details of jury selection and jury service are fairly accurate. I served on a jury once (for a second-degree murder trial), so many of the details I included are based on my own direct observation.

But I never got in trouble with the judge or our jury guard. And, no juror was excused and charged criminally with any offence. And, fortunately, I never had any run-ins with angry protesters or encountered the alleged murderer or my fellow jurors outside of the courthouse. The reactions of court officials to each of these situations in the novel, therefore, all sprang from my imagination.

Also, many of the details about Calgary are true. There really is a Bagot street and a Deerfoot trail, the bear safety suggestions are legit, zoo animals were very nearly housed in the courthouse during the 2013 flood, and the city really was a forerunner in using beet juice instead of sand or salt to aid traction on snowy and icy streets. And, many details about the courthouse itself are true and based on my observation augmented with research. I discovered, for example, that there really is a secured courtroom somewhere in the courthouse, but courthouse officials are mum on its precise location, so I took poetic licence when I invented the detail of its whereabouts.

In addition, the progress of the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) legislation and its amendments is also factually true for Alberta. And, Audrey Parker’s heroic (and tragic) actions really sparked important changes to make a MAID death more available.

Why did you write about medical assistance in dying (MAID), especially for your first novel?

Why indeed? The notion of an easier death has long been on my mind. I’ve attended the deathbeds of too many loved ones, and only one of those deaths can be described as “peaceful.” I’d observed the limitations of palliative medicine. And while I applauded the enactment of the MAID legislation in 2016, I quickly saw the safeguards were such that some patients would still suffer in their final days and hours.

Both my partners died before the MAID legislation came into effect in 2016, and neither would’ve had enough time between the diagnosis of their diseases and their untimely deaths — at 6 weeks for one and barely 3 months for the other — to apply and get approved for an assisted death.

And one of my longest and dearest friends got caught in the limbo of MAID safeguards. He wanted an easier death, but did not qualify — either under the original legislation or any of its amendments (as of 2023).

So, part of my reason for writing about MAID was to explore my own feelings about this important legislation, its safeguards, its pitfalls. I wanted to understand the emotions and questions of the bereaved alongside the patient’s considerations and decisions.

What kind of research did you do into MAID?

I had dozens of conversations on the subject: with people who applied for a MAID death, with medical personnel who work in palliative care, and with family members afterward. I met one family whose parent never shared their intentions before they died. I met another family whose parents both applied to die at the same time and shared their decision the morning of the procedure. I met another family whose members took sides and blamed each other (wrongly) for coercing the patient’s decision. I also read a few books. (My favourite is Stefanie Green’s This is Assisted Dying.)

Are you a dog trainer?

I have trained dogs, yes, but always under the careful supervision of an expert. My older dog, Bug — on whom Fella is loosely based — is arguably well-trained. Her recall is excellent, and she will race toward me whenever I call regardless of what she’d been doing beforehand. Bug also has an excellent vocabulary: dinner, treat, leave it and take it, the usuals (sit, down, stay). She can distinguish her preferred toys, specifically “ball” and “pig”. Her favourite game is fetch, especially if swimming is involved. But Bug is part border collie, and while I’d loved to take some credit for her skill, she mostly trained herself. My main contribution to her learning was consistency, as I used the same words and gestures to describe the same behaviors, and that repetition was enough for her to gain her many skills.

What ‘s the highest praise you’ve received so far?

A couple readers told me they updated their wills! They saw all the things that happened to Heddie because Hugh delayed too long in wrapping up his affairs, and they decided they’d spare their own loved ones that additional heartache. Another reader also said she’d updated her medical directive to inform her family of her wishes if she can longer speak for herself.

I am profoundly honoured that my book has sparked such challenging yet important action. None of us what to acknowledge our own mortality, and somehow we’ve associated writing down our wishes with admitting defeat. To me, preparing a will, a power of attorney and a medical directive is an act of love for my family.

Why was A Mercy of Widows so hard to find on Amazon when it first launched?

LOL. Because it got filed under “erotica”. I imagine anyone who bought it for that reason was sadly disappointed. I hope they got a refund.

Did you really steal a tree?

No. In real-life, I describe myself as a “rule follower”. I can’t imagine what disasters would have to befall me before I’d be willing to steal a tree.

As a follow-up, one of my beta readers — someone I’ve known for over twenty years and who helped me with the care of my second ailing partner — was quite cross with me when she believed I was somehow Heddie in disguise. She truly believed that I’d suffered the same mishaps (and maybe also displayed Heddie’s poor judgement) — and hadn’t asked her to help me out with any of it. It took some persuasion, but I think she was relieved to learn that Heddie’s challenges — Molly’s too — were make-believe.

I consider these sort of questions – did it really happen? did you do that? – to be another form of high praise. It suggests that I wrote a compelling story by making both characters and plot full and credible.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Oh, boy. I’ve learned so many hard lessons while working on this project.

I guess my first bit of of advice is a truism. Write! I don’t think it matters what you write, as I think people can learn tons from writing stories, articles, journal entries. I personally cut my teeth on inter-office memos, and I learned a lot about word choice, tone, structure through that unexpected medium.

My second bit of advice is: Read! Read particularly in the genre that you want to write, and study those pieces long enough to figure out why they work for you.

My last pointer is: find yourself some like-minded writers and work with them as often as possible. Discuss craft with them. Share pages and (kindly, generously, light-heartedly) critique each other’s work. Work together to brainstorm solutions to plot holes, flat character arcs, credibility issues.

Are you working on another project?

Yes, I’m writing a story set on Haida Gwaii, the archipelago between Vancouver Island and Alaska on Canada’s west coast. The decision to set my next project there is an homage to my first partner, who was born and raised in a hamlet in the middle of the archipelago and always considered it home. The story will be an adventure — with some folks lost in the rugged rain forest and some criminals misbehaving — while also exploring (appreciating) some of the politics, art and culture of the people living there.

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Far far away, behind the word mountains, far from the countries Vokalia and Consonantia, there live the blind texts. Separated they live in Bookmarksgrove right at the coast of the Semantics, a large language ocean.

Add your title here

Far far away, behind the word mountains, far from the countries Vokalia and Consonantia, there live the blind texts. Separated they live in Bookmarksgrove right at the coast of the Semantics, a large language ocean.

Add your title here

Far far away, behind the word mountains, far from the countries Vokalia and Consonantia, there live the blind texts. Separated they live in Bookmarksgrove right at the coast of the Semantics, a large language ocean.

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