Kensington market is one of Toronto's most unique neighbourhoods, and it's no surprise it has inspired numerous books. Lauren B. Davis' The Grimoire of Kensington Market (Wolsak & Wynn) however, just might be the most unique literary spin on the market. It tells the story of an otherworldly drug crisis wherein the city becomes consumed by demand for elysium, a new drug that lets users literally transport to another world.
Bookstore owner Maggie is one of the few holdouts to the drug, which has a nasty tendency to turn deadly. Unfortunately, her brother Kyle isn't so lucky and Maggie finds herself on a dangerous mission to rescue him from the so-called Silver World. A dark fairy tale for Toronto (based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen") The Grimoire of Kensington Market is a wildly creative, moving, and absorbing novel.
We're excited to launch a brand new, novel-centric interview series today with Lauren called It's A Long Story. Lauren tells us about the unimaginable family tragedy that started her down the path for this novel, why Kensington was the perfect setting for a magical tale, and the wonderful C.S. Lewis epigraph she chose for the book.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
Lauren B. Davis:
The novel began as a memoir in 2008. My brothers, Ronnie and Bernie, both died from suicide as a result of depression and addiction. As you can imagine these were life-altering blows for everyone in my family and I needed to make sense of it all.
My husband and I rented a house by the sea for four months. I walked along the beach and pondered. I set my desk up in front of the window and watched the waves and the moonrise and... nothing. But I’ve been a writer long enough to know that if a book is meant to be written, then it will arrive when the time is right and in the right form. So, I kept working. I abandoned the memoir form and tried realistic fiction, which proved another dead end.
We left the sea and came home, and I kept working.
Then I found myself thinking of lost boys in dark woods and a bookstore (as writers often do!), one which contained all the stories of the world. A special, magical place. A kind of fairy-tale... “People didn’t just wander into the Grimoire.” After that, finally, it all came together, not as a memoir, not as realistic fiction, but as a wonder tale.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I lived in Toronto for many years, and of all the wonderful neighbourhoods in Toronto, Kensington Market is, to my mind, the most magical, the most likely to be where one would find a bookshop like the Grimoire, which no one finds unless they’re meant to! At first I tried setting it in a world-like-ours-but-not-ours kind of place, but all the characters were starting to talk with really bad Cockney accents, so I had to ditch that. Snort.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
At a certain point in the writing of each of my novels, about sixty pages in or so, I get a flash of the ending and I start writing towards that. It always changes in one way or another, but the emotional resonance is always the same. Whatever that resonance is, that’s what the book is about.
I wrote perhaps fourteen drafts of this one. The ending, as it now stands, took its form only in the editing process with Paul Vermeersch. He was the one who said I needed just a little splash more magic at the end, and he was right! So I went back (so much of writing is re-writing) and finally came up with the last few pages.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
Well, I adore Maggie of course, and the fact she’s a female on an adventure quest. But then again, I’m a sucker for dogs. In fact, my tagline for the book is, “The dog doesn’t die!” It’s appalling how many writers kill off dogs. And how could I not love Mr. Mustby, who is very much the uncle I wish I had. I have a soft spot for Beth, the robber. She is so achingly in need of affection and has so much buried potential. I’ve known a number of people like her, both male and female. I think as a writer I sometimes try to re-write the narratives of people I care for, who have such a hard time in real life. And who knows, maybe that is a kind of magic in itself. How I’d love to believe it makes a difference.
So hard to pick among one’s children, isn’t it?
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
I real hundreds of folk and fairy tales. Of course, the book is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and the demon-crafted mirror in it that makes everything beautiful look ugly and everything ugly look beautiful. We say that addiction is a disease of perception, so that seemed apt. In this book, Srebrenka, who is a kind of ‘snow’ queen, is also the personification of the drug, elysium, that’s taking over the city – she’s cold and heartless, but also alluring, almost irresistible, and she promises such wonderful dreams. Like all drugs, in the end it’s a lie.
Fairy tales are a sort of magic in themselves. They work on us so deeply, so archetypically. I often read fairy tales when I’m trying to find a way into a new book, or when looking for symbols and so forth. I have a large collection of tales from all over the world, and they’re a kind of touchstone for me as a writer. Well, not just as a writer; as a person.
Did you include an epigraph in your book? If so, how did you choose it and how does it relate to the narrative?
The epigraph is from C.S. Lewis. It’s says, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Kind of self-explanatory, but it does speak to a deep trust of the old tales and their power and worth. I also define ‘grimoire’, which is a book of magic spells and incantations, since some people didn’t know what that is.
What, if anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
A lot of what I know about addiction – which has shown up in one of my previous novels, The Empty Room – I used in writing this book. I wrote this novel in part to make peace with the death of my brothers, but also... and this might sound odd... to help guide them, especially Ronnie, who was particularly troubled, to a safe place. His soul felt as though it might be wandering, if that makes any sense. Writing is an act of imagination, of course, but then so much of life, and possibly death, is, isn’t it? Writing is a prayer, an invocation, an act of creation. I believe in these things, and I believe, I sense, my brothers are at peace now, as am I. I’m not sure I can adequately explain this, but I learned writing can be a kind of spell, like those contained within traditional grimoires, spells that have a tangible effect. Books change the world(s).
Lauren B. Davis is the author of Against a Darkening Sky; The Empty Room, one of the National Post's "Best Books of the Year"; and Our Daily Bread, longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and a Globe & Mail "Best Books of the Year". Her other books include the bestselling and critically acclaimed novels The Radiant City, a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and The Stubborn Season, as well as two short story collections, An Unrehearsed Desire and Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives. Lauren was born in Montreal and now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. For more information, please visit her website at www.laurenbdavis.com.