Monday, May 09, 2011

John Lavery: December 31, 1949 - May 8, 2011

After an extended battle with cancer, Gatineau writer John Lavery died yesterday morning. Here's what his daughter Catherine posted on Lavery's facebook wall, yesterday afternoon around 1pm:
John Lavery - 1949-2011
Disappeared en route to Betelgeuse – May 8th 2011 10:22 AM


Which way to the airfield?
tell me can I get there from here?
I’m travelling last class
to Betelgeuse, Deneb, Altair
and points beyond

learn to live without, learn to live within
the motto of the cosmic traveller
sleep tight between the spirit and the skin
make your home the horizon

I’m disappearing
tell me can I get there from here?
I’m ditching my high time,
my single space, and my andro’s fear
and I’m moving on

nothing to recall, nothing to declare
the visa of the cosmic traveller
thanks for choosing Labyrinthine Air
we kiss your abyss any new where


What can I tell you about John Lavery? For years now, I've called him “the best fiction writer in a hundred-mile radius of Ottawa,” for the sake of his short story collections, Very Good Butter (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1999) and You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2004), and his first novel, Sandra Beck (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010). The Globe & Mail wrote a remarkably positive article on that same novel, focusing far more on his cancer, the dying author, than some of us were comfortable with; dammit, wasn't his writing enough to warrant attention? Why couldn't they have discovered him earlier?

He seemed to have odd separations, living his home life predominantly in French, and his writing life predominantly in English. He even told me at one point that his three children, now in their late teens and early twenties, hadn't heard him read. Once, when we met for drinks, he told a story of his mother, who had done some modelling in her teens, picked up for silent movie roles, “to look pretty.” It was only because the New York branch of the studio where she worked had shut down that she moved on, deciding not to follow to Hollywood, but instead Toronto, where she ended up marrying, and having children. Only after his mother had died, he told me, was he able to find film reels of his eighteen-year-old mother, showing them to his family, including his older siblings, who had no idea she'd even done this.

His writing was compared favourably to the work of James Joyce, and his Deasil and Widdershins work focused on the writing of Samuel Beckett, first performing as such with Carmel Purkis and Max Middle in 2006 at a Beckett centenary at the ottawa international writers festival. The comparisons are closer than one might first think: Joyce turned language on its ear, and Beckett learned a second language, French, to write in. One could almost say that Lavery wrote fiction in his second language, French, using the language of his first, English. His fiction was densely-packed, emotionally descriptive, gymnastically-lyric and often confusing, with whole scenes in which very little actual “action” occurred. Was this Lavery secretly being a French novelist, hiding in plain sight?

He was filled with odd stories, and contradictions. The upper middle class upbringing in Montreal he hadn't quite realized until years later, the level of comfort. His years of raising the three children he shared with his lovely wife, Claire, whom the rest of us rarely saw. John was careful, thoughtful and generously open, even as he was also a little guarded. There are things we thought we knew about him, and other things we thought we knew, and even other things we hadn't a clue. He appeared quietly about a decade or so ago, introduced to a various writers in the city through the ottawa international writers festival, where he launched his first collection of short stories. Where had this odd and quiet writer, talented as all get-out, come from? Where had he been all that time, before? He emerged, quietly, and before we knew it, he was in the midst of us, collaborating on sound works with Carmel Purkis and Max Middle, opening for Jaap Blonk with Max Middle during an AB Series performance, and performing as part of jwcurry's MESSAGIO GALORE PART VI, all while slowly picking away at his stellar fictions.

It was only two years ago or so that his doctor discovered his cancer, leading him to surgery, and a few sessions of chemotherapy. “Better a semi-colon,” he once told me, “than a full stop.” Hilarious, awful and completely moving, knowing full well this was one of those lines that would be repeated. From that point, he said, he was living in two-week increments. He said he couldn't start another book, presuming he wouldn't live the five years required to finish it, making Sandra Beck (2010) the last book he'd even begun, he'd begin. Instead, he would focus on songs, and spent the second half of 2010 perfecting and recording songs in-between sessions of chemotherapy, even performing when he was able, including at the fall 2010 edition of the ottawa international writers festival. A few weeks earlier, he had performed in Stephen Brockwell's dining room to about a dozen of us, a midnight show during a birthday party Stephen was hosting for Dusty Owl's Steve Zytveld. We all sat, breathless; it was a memorable performance, praised for following weeks. The day he died, he was even scheduled (re-scheduled, after postposting an earlier performance) to perform at the Dusty Owl Reading Series. Instead, a couple of us read some of his smaller pieces.

Moving from fiction to writing songs, without losing any of that sense of play, that sense of gymnastic language. Here's an email I received from him in February:
Hey robby,

Thanks for the interest. I'm doing okay. Chemo ends soon. After that I get a break so I can get fattened up for the scalpel again. And then more, but easier, chemo. That's the plan. Keep your fingers crossed.

I'm within a couple pages of a presentable manu. of Crutches.

Started a song recently. A samba. The chorus goes:

the best defence against

becoming overtired is...


Oh, to be sitting in the sun

on Isle-aux-Coudres

within sight

of a blue tent,

and within reach of a breast

taken out of its wrapper,

coming to

room temp.

Howz buy yoo?
The J
[a photo I took of John Lavery last year, when a group of us met for drinks for no reason at The Carleton Tavern] More recently, I'd asked him for a poem for a little Dusty Owl tribute chapbook, which we'd planned to launch at the reading on May 8, which also was meant to include a musical performance by him. He sent a little poem, writing “best I can do is the lyrics to one of the songs I’m going to sing. If I sing. I’ve never sung the song before in Ottawa, it’s a total piece of fluff I wrote when I was 18 (which is why it’s on the cd, historical interest so to speak).” A little poem, “The Children Green and Golden,” published the day before he died, his last published piece, from the CD we were hoping he was going to finally launch that day. He hadn't performed it in Ottawa, but he had recorded such in Roland Prevost's home studio, so at least someone out there has heard it. Heard him, playing.

Dammit, we loved him. His was the open secret we told everyone about. Why aren't you, we asked, you reading John Lavery? He always seemed amused to see people he liked, always there with a positive and mumbled word of support, especially after a reading he particularly liked.

Mumbling, and a low talker. There was often the word or two in any sentence he spoke that I wasn't entirely sure about. The evening conversation we had at Pubwells a couple of years ago, where he mumbled complaint (without any understanding of irony) that he could no longer understand his mumbling son, with new lower-lip piercing. I just stared back, dumbfounded. Not sure whether to laugh, or try to explain the joke.

He had been generous enough to write a back-cover blurb for my second novel, offering slight editorial comments as well. I had been working my own manuscript of short, sharp stories the past three years, dedicated to him; I had hoped he could have seen it in print. At least I did send him a draft of the manuscript, last fall.

A few hours after Lavery went, his friend and editor at Anansi, Melanie Little, emailed to say that “John sent me his final revision of Sandra Beck one year ago today.” She went on to write:
I'm sure you have lots of good quotes from John, but I thought I'd share this one just in case it serves or anyway just to share it with you period. We had quite an enjoyable (enjoyable for me, particularly) back-and-forth going in the comment field during our editing of Sandra Beck. Here's one comment he wrote, apropos of one of the many puns embedded in the book, which I think says a lot about his writing:

Puns have been called the lowest form of humour, but only by those who are not good at making them. I think dirty jokes are the lowest form, unless of course they turn on a good pun. Many people are irritated by puns, and I don’t blame them, seeing as plays on words are ominous reminders that language is a treacherous form of communication, on which, being linguistic animals, we have no choice but to depend.
In a note posted to facebook yesterday afternoon, Stephen Brockwell wrote of Lavery's cancer, and the fact that he hadn't quite considered that John wouldn't remain cured. How we have to remember him, writing:
Unless. Unless we talk about him incessantly. Unless we read him when we go to bed. Unless we insist that his beautiful songs are sung. Unless we offer whatever help we can to his family who are his true re-incarnation (his new embodiment in flesh).
Max Middle, Rod Pederson and I have already started conversation to organize a proper memorial to John Lavery and his writing, soon.

I will end with John's own words, a little interview I conducted with him [here's his 12 or 20 questions as well] just before his birthday, posted online in The Puritan:

A short interview with John Lavery
this interview was conducted over email from November to December 2010

John Lavery is the author of two acclaimed story collections, Very Good Butter (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1999) and You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2004), as well as the highly praised Sandra Beck (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010). Very Good Butter was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and Lavery has twice been a finalist in the PRISM International Fiction Contest. His stories have appeared in This Magazine, Canadian Forum, the Ottawa Citizen, the London Spectator, and the anthology Decalogue 2: ten Ottawa fiction writers (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2008), as well as in the Journey Prize Anthology. He participated in the Max Middle Sound Project, at the Ottawa international writers festival, alongside Carmel Purkis and Max Middle, in Deasil and Widdershins as part of the Samuel Beckett centenary. In January, 2009, Lavery participated in jwcurry’s Messagio Galore, Take VI alongside jwcurry, Roland Prévost, Carmel Purkis, Sandra Ridley and Grant Wilkins (with the vocal addition of Toronto writer Maria Erskine). He is currently putting the finishing touches to a first album of original songs. John Lavery lives in Gatineau, Quebec.

rob mclennan: I’m intrigued at the fact that, compared to your contemporaries, you came to publishing rather late. Your first collection of stories, Very Good Butter, didn't appear until you were nearly fifty. Was this deliberate on your part, or were you simply doing other things?

John Lavery: There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 40. One was money. Another was that although I have no difficulty being by myself, I don’t at all like living by myself. The women I’ve lived with both wanted to have children, a project to which I never put up any resistance. On the contrary, I stayed at home so the kids could look after me, which took up an enormous amount of their time. None of these reasons however, and there are some others, was so important as to prevent me from writing. The real reason was simply the fear of not being good at it. I realize now that what I thought of then as being “good,” was actually something more like “extremely good.”

rm: Does that presume years of false starts and short bursts, or something sustained over a longer period? At what point did the pieces that became your first collection of stories actually begin to cohere?

JL: What happened was I entered the New Brunswick Writers Association contest when I was in my late thirties, with the idea that if I couldn’t win such a small contest, I could forget about writing. I did win, and I won again the next year. So I was starting to think maybe. I then wrote a story entitled “Naming Darkness” and gave it to the editor of The Fiddlehead, who had been my professor at one time. He published it, but I wasn’t convinced he would of had he not known me. Then I wrote “The Walnut Shell” and sent it to Quarry, I don’t know why. Steven Heighton was the editor at the time, and he sent me back a long, hand-written letter of acceptance. I think of this as being my first published story. I was beginning to believe, but I’m into my forties by now, and it’s taking me 6 months to write each piece. I worked every day after that, sometimes only an hour or so, I had these friggin kids to look after, my production was steady but slow, the stories all got picked up by one of the literary journals, and then one day, ECW gave me a call. But that’s another story.

rm: According to the biography on the back of Very Good Butter, you are a founding member of the Orchestre de la société de guitare de Montréal, and currently, you are putting the finishing touches on your first cd of original songs. How do you find your compositional process of writing music differs from your fiction?

JL: In French, the word “elaboration” applies to long, gradual processes. Bees, for example, elaborate honey. In that sense, I am an elaborator. Whether I’m working on a text or a song, I build it up gradually. But writing a song presents some immediate challenges: the lyrics must be musical and rhythmic obviously, and sometimes become a puzzle to be solved more than poetic expression, the melody must be singable, and I don’t have a great voice, and the guitar part has to be written and learned. Song-writing can be very obsessive, you simply can not get the tune out of your head, so that by the time you get around to actually performing a song, you’ve played it literally thousands of times in your head. If you can still stand to sing it, then it must be fairly good.

rm: Does this mean you’re approaching songwriting and the compilation of a cd as you would either of your collections of short stories?

JL: Well no, not really. I have to admit that I’m kind of enthusiastic about the cd because it’s something I’ve only wanted to do since I was twelve years old. Several of the songs were written after I’d started recording, many were written for friends, and the title song “Dignity” was written for my late mother. So it is a more spontaneous and far more personal project, (all the more so in that I’m paying for it myself and will be peddling it myself). Also, there are many technical concerns in producing the songs. The melodies have to be within the range of my very ordinary voice, the vowels on sustained notes have to allow the throat to stay open, the guitar part has to be interesting but playable without staring at the fingerboard, and so on, not to mention the technical aspects of recording which are only partly my concern. So there’s lots of stuff to sink your teeth into that writing a book does not involve. What is interesting, perhaps, is that many of the songs have a strong narrative element, and three at least are out-and-out short stories, one being a retelling of a story in Very Good Butter.

rm: How did you originally get involved with the Max Middle Sound Project? Since then, you were involved with him in a number of other projects, eventually joining jwcurry’s Messagio Galore Take VI, moving from two and three person sound pieces to a sextet. What was the experience of working with jwcurry, as opposed to working with Max Middle? What did you think of the experience generally?

JL: I started working with Max for the simple reason that he asked me to. I had a car, that may have influenced him. I worked with john for the same basic reason, because he asked. Max’s material was quite light-hearted. We rehearsed, but not a huge amount, relying on spontaneity, and rightly so. Also, I contributed some pieces myself. Messagio Galore VI, on the other hand, was a highly structured work expressing a wide range of emotion from playfulness, to aeolian calm, to bitchy anger, to bursts of true anger, to crunchy bits with smooth centres, to other bits where you were perilously close to losing it altogether. It required a lot of rehearsal and was truly an exceptional work. Messagio VII is coming up. It will be great.

rm: There’s such a lyrical and even performative element to your prose that it would be difficult not to see a connection to your writing and performance work. What do you see as the connections between the two, or even the influences?

JL: I am a natural performer, and have been since even before my parents made me show off my chops for their martini-drinking friends. Performing is a way of deflecting attention away from yourself. The performer offers up a version of himself which he hopes will be sufficiently interesting to people that when he stops performing, they will not interest themselves in what he considers to be the real version and leave him alone. The performer requires anonymity, but the anonymity would be unbearable without the performing.

rm: What was it about the character Paul-François Bastarache, the character that threads together the stories of your second collection, You, Kwazneivski, You Piss Me Off, that kept your attention enough to feature him in your novel, Sandra Beck? How difficult was it to write a novel around a central character who, but through the perspectives of others, doesn’t actually appear?

JL: Well, I enjoyed PF’s company when I was writing Kwaznievski. I liked that he was a detective, though not a loner or a heavy drinker. More of a paper-pusher, really, as many cops are. And there were stories that I had introduced in Kwaznievski that I wanted to explore further, principally the murder involving the plaster casts. Also, I hadn’t given him any more than a hint of a home life, and I thought I owed him one. That said, I’m not at all sure that the PF Bastarache in Sandra Beck is consistent with the PF Bastarache in Kwaznievski.

Your second question, rob, is a very good one. From the outset, I decided that I would create the character of Sandra just through the points of view of her husband and daughter. This involved some technical challenges which I kind of enjoyed. For example, the second part, “Crutches,” is written from an omniscient point of view, but this omniscient voice is highly infused with PF’s own voice. (Perhaps it is written from the viewpoint of the red arrow hanging over PF’s head.) I wanted this section to give the impression of being narrated by PF, but I couldn’t write it strictly from his viewpoint because I needed to include details he could not possibly know. So I had to blur the boundaries a little. And although, as I say, it was always my intention that Sandra never actually appear, I was far from being certain, when I submitted the manuscript, that I had succeeded in what I was trying to do, in creating a pivotal and living portrait strictly through the comments of other characters. In fact, the title of the book, when I submitted it, was Crutches. It was only when I had to do some fast talking to convince Melanie Little, the editor at Anansi, to accept the manuscript, that I suggested the title be changed to Sandra Beck, putting all my shaky confidence behind my central thesis. And it seems that Sandra’s presence is quite immediate and convincing, even though, in a sense, she never actually does appear.


Steph said...

Thank you for this, rob. I miss him, even though I didn't get to know him as long and as well as I'd like. In the short time I knew him, he made me feel a part of his circle, and I truly feel sad at his passing.

But I know we can keep him alive in spirit at least. I'm so glad he left us with so much to celebrate and remember him by.

Mark McCawley said...

Wonderful. Simply, deliciously, wonderful.

Sue McMaster said...

Sorry to hear about John. A remarkable person and writer.

Andrew M. said...

This post is really moving. Glad we had a chance to publish him in the Puritan.