Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

I’d prefer to describe my recent past using the genre of horror fiction

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The above title probably makes it sound like I’ve been unhappy, but that isn’t at all the case. I’ve been through a major life change, though, and it’s hard to describe what that has felt like. Obviously, I’m trying. It’s a bit cliché, but what can you do.

I hate to keep mentioning my kid here, but he is by far the most interesting thing that’s happened to me in a very long time (read ever). I’ve been starting to write about his birth and how my life changed after. The project has morphed from the genre of memoir, I guess, to horror fiction. I can’t really explain why. I’m into fiction and I like to make things up, but it’s also hard to express the depth of the emotion that was involved.

Here’s some background. My little guy was born a month early. There were some concerns after, and the doctors all told me that I had to monitor him carefully for premature baby problems, some potentially quite serious. He was perfect and healthy, but I kept monitoring and monitoring and monitoring because the doctors never actually told me to stop. Many months later, our GP said that she’d assumed that I’d long ago realized that we were all in the clear and that all the worries had been baseless. I hadn’t. I was still watching him obsessively, checking his temperature all the time and all that.

The life that I was living at that time was peaceful, wonderful, and utterly terrifying. Premature babies need calm. All the literature says that they should still be in the womb, so it’s best to keep their environment quiet and to hold them as much as possible. So that’s what I did. I sat in bed with my son, held him close to my heart, and watched him. I also read a bit, I watched just about all of Netflix (on mute with subtitles of course), and I watched the snow fall outside the window. There were blizzards that winter. The entire city got jammed up by them. It was mind-blowing to me that the world was carrying on, that so much external stuff was happening while everything inside was so still. Mostly, I watched the baby. I learned all about his coos and gurgles, and I monitored him, figured out his circadian cycle, panicked a bit at every body temperature uptick. I worried. Obviously, I worried a lot. I read through parenting books and internet forums and made myself intensely afraid. I also thought a lot. Stillness will do that. Ditto for limited internet bandwidth. When you’re pregnant, everyone tells you that your life will never be the same, but I hadn’t really understood what that meant. As the seconds and minutes and hours crept by, I thought about my old life, and how my new one would be completely different: it wasn’t just that I’d have a new person to come home to; I’d have to rethink everything. I started to write about it.

It’s hard to describe the love and the terror, and the slow realization that my personality had just been cleaved in two. So why not invent a shadow society of new mothers who live in the sewers?

Spring had finally come at this point. The snow had melted, and I started to relax and to take my son outside. We went for long walks. As we wound through side streets, I noticed a lot of things: the city has an intricate interior life that I’d never noticed when I used to have destinations. I met panhandlers and bottle collectors and other daytime walkers who explained it all. Eventually, I met other parents carrying other sleeping babies. When normal people walked by us with their loud conversations, we would creep farther into the parks.

There were scary moments too, men who watched and made comments while I breastfed, a man who took pictures, lots of people who would stop me and tell me horrifying stories of diseases and accidents and disasters and potential catastrophes. The encounters all started going into the manuscript. I also ran into my former neighbour a lot, a man who would clutch a blanket to his chest the way I’d cradle my son, who I’d nicknamed The Pillowman after the play of that name by Martin McDonagh. I saw him often, either pacing back and forth down our shared hallway or lumbering through the city. And I read disturbing articles in the newspapers, pedestrians struck, cyclists killed. All this went into the story too.

I took all these strange and disjointed experiences, and I started to invent connections and throughlines (a society of the retreated, splinter cells culling city streets, targeting walkers, cyclists, new mothers). It was oddly gratifying. Real life can be poorly organized, and not well plotted, and it was kind of fun to invent a character-arc for the character who had been me at the start. And I think that it was easier, especially at first, to invent new terrors than to live every minute with the very real fears of all the things that could go wrong. The truth is still in the story, of course, but it’s getting harder and harder to recognize now.

I don’t know whether this project is going to go anywhere. I’m finishing another novel first. But it’s been a strange experience. When I started, it was straight non-fiction, but then I started describing the Pillowman, and then another door opened. I don’t know whether I’m going to walk through. I don’t know whether anyone should come with me if I do.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alexis von Konigslow

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

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