“The truth about stories is that’s all we are,” states Thomas King in The Truth About Stories – A Native Narrative. King; one of my favourite authors; challenges us to think about the role of ‘truth’ in storytelling. Once told, a story; like an Instagram photo or a Facebook post; is loose in the world, he cautions. You cannot take it back. That is the power of Story.
Every author, when they set out to write, also sets out to tell a truth of some kind. Words flesh out the scenes that play in our heads; give voice to the characters that inhabit those worlds we take great pains to create. Sometimes, those worlds are more real than the ‘real’ world that spins around our desks as we write. Sometimes, they materialize in mysterious ways.
I’ve always believed that stories, even the ones we make up, have to hold some grain of truth. Stories have to be ‘real’ in some small way – otherwise, they simply don’t hold water. They aren’t believable. They won’t be true. George Lucas, for example, had such a clear idea of his outer space world, that when he first saw Carrie Fisher in the now iconic Princess Leia dress, he told her he told her to take off her bra. Why? Because, he told her: ‘there is no underwear in outer space’. True Story.
Bras and outer space aside, I sometimes use photographs as a writing device; pictures I’ve taken and found pictures too, because what could be more ‘true’ than a photograph, right?
One of the very first things I did when I started my novel was search for a visual representation of my characters. I flipped through magazines and quickly discovered ‘Ben McCabe’. I knew him the instant I saw him. Finding ‘Morgan Kirkwood’ took me considerably longer; a couple of years, in fact. I ‘auditioned’ several raven-haired women before the one with the right amount of depth and character showed herself to me.
My memory is developing this unforgivable habit of eroding everything it contains and so, I also sometimes take recon trips where, not unlike a film location scout, I collect photos and video to write from later. I pull them out when I’m sitting at my desk trying to call to mind Chesterman Beach, or the feeling I have when walking through an old growth forest.
One day while sifting through photos, I came across a pic I had taken on a December 2012 solo trip to Tofino. The picture was of an outhouse in Cathedral Grove. It was a shot that Ben snapped of Morgan when they stopped to stretch their legs. Only Morgan wasn’t in the photo. It was like she had been Photo Shopped out. I stared at the picture. Where was she??
Morgan isn’t real, I had to remind myself. I took that photo, not Ben McCabe who only exists in my mind. Or does he?
July 2013. It was my last night visiting with my cousin. I wanted to take Liz to one of my favourite restaurants in Victoria, Stage Wine Bar. I also had an ulterior motive. Spoiler alert: Ben McCabe ends up living in Fernwood at one point in the novel. Stage is in Fernwood. I wanted to see if I could find his house; a house I could picture him in when I wrote anyway.
Liz indulged me and we went for a walk after our meal. Some of the houses had lush gardens in their backyards that could have been Ben’s. Some were too big. Too nice. Too modern. He was renting. It had to be something not so spectacular. I was snapping photos as we walked along. Fernwood is a funky area, with lots of character and no shortage of West Coast vibe. I wanted to capture as much of everything as I could.
I remember when I saw it: a small white stucco bungalow with green trim. It was about a block from Stage. “This could be Ben’s house,” I said. There was a huge, fenced in backyard for his dog. It was simple. It was average. Nothing special. I took a couple of photos as we walked toward the house.
And then … unequivocal proof: a blue, 1990s Volvo station wagon. Ben lived out of his car (a blue 1990s Volvo station wagon, to be exact) and there it was – parked outside of ‘his’ house! I couldn’t help myself. I walked closer; I had to look inside. The back seats were folded down!
It probably sounds crazy, but in that moment, Ben McCabe was a possibility for me. He existed in some plane of reality, and here was my proof!
July 2015. As is now tradition, Liz and I went to Stage the night before I left Victoria. We went for the crème brulee because it is the best crème brulee I have ever had. Liz, being a good cousin, indulged me by driving past ‘Ben’s house’ before we parked. Only the house had been painted and there was no blue Volvo parked outside.
I have to admit to being a little disappointed, feeling a little let down by the Universe. Just a few short years ago I had been sure that seeing that car, and finding that house was a ‘sign’. The Universe telling me that I was on the right path; that telling this story was somehow important, no matter what.
I didn’t write much this summer, certainly not as much as I had planned or as much I as I had hoped. This was a first for me. I was even thinking that maybe it was time to give up on my book. That maybe I wasn’t a writer. That maybe my story didn’t matter.
Liz and I finished our desert, paid our bill and left the restaurant. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There it was! The blue 1990s Volvo station wagon! Parked across street from Stage.