Writer in Residence

Some things I never thought I’d be or do.

By David Demchuk


It is good, when the moment presents itself, to take stock of your accomplishments and express gratitude for the things that have come your way—especially those things you never imagined would be part of your path.

I never thought I’d leave Winnipeg, really. When I left for Toronto, I held onto the return portion of the airline ticket for years. (You remember these tickets. They had multiple pages which would be torn out at various points between check-in and the gate, and the backs of the pages had some kind of red carbon so the words and numbers would print through.) At a certain point I realized that Toronto was more of a home than Winnipeg was, that I had left for a reason or two or twenty, and that it would now be even more work to return than it was to remain. For the person I was in 1984—gay, a writer, 22, no university education, not especially hardy—Toronto provided more options than what I’d had before.

I never thought I’d be a father. So this is a long and complicated story about doing a favour that you know will change everything in ways you expect and in ways you don’t but you go ahead and do it anyway because it just seems so right in the moment. Apart from it involving an artichoke heart jar and an insulin syringe with the tip cut off, I’m not going to go into the details here (sorry, I’m saving them up for another time). But it happened and I’m glad it did and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one. While I’m not in constant touch with my son, we do keep an eye on each other and he knows that I’m proud of him and how his life is turning out.

I never thought I’d live past 30. The AIDS crisis began shortly before I left Winnipeg and lasted throughout my first fifteen years in Toronto. Dozens of friends and acquaintances died during in that era, and I fully expected that I would be among them. I opted to write many shorter works for the first part of my career simply because I had no idea how much time I would have and how much I’d be able to accomplish. (I also feared that if I didn’t die one way, I would somehow die another.) All these years later, I am still HIV negative, the result of pure luck as much as anything, and I continue to mourn the great minds and hearts that we lost in those critical years.

I never thought I'd find love. For me, as for many queer people, this means not only continuing partnerships, but also queer 'family' and supportive enduring friendships. I have been very fortunate on this front. The value of these relationships can never be overstated.

I never thought I’d write a book. One of the dirty secrets of writing for film and television is that you don’t really need to write that many words. A stage play is about 7,000 or 8,000 and a feature film is about 10,000 or 15,000, sometimes less, sometimes more. A novel can have as few as 40,000 words but you’re really pushing it and many publishers frown at anything under 50,000. That’s a lot of words. I always thought of a book as an alp (and, trust me, it is), and one that I was not equipped to climb. But as I grew older and more practiced, I realized I had thousands of words on numerous projects under my belt already. I had the capacity and capability to write a book—I just needed the confidence, the right story and the right voice to begin.

I never thought I’d be able to breathe, to allow myself this, to let it happen and take it in and own it as part of myself. Even when I believed the worst about every other part of myself, I knew I was a good writer. Still, even under some challenging circumstances, I was very lucky with The Bone Mother to have worked with encouraging collaborators, alongside welcoming peers, for what turned out to be a thoughtful and receptive audience. So much has happened this year. I am grateful every day. Not every writer experiences this, and so many more deserve to. 

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.

David Demchuk was born and raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto. He has been writing for theatre, film, television, radio, and other media for more than thirty years. His publications include the short-fiction cycle Seven Dreams, and the Lewis Carroll adaptation Alice in Cyberspace, and appearances in the anthologies Making, Out!, Outspoken, and Canadian Brash. His reviews, essays, interviews, and columns have appeared in such magazines as Toronto Life, Xtra, What! Magazine, and Prairie Fire, as well as the Toronto Star. Most recently, he has been a contributing writer for the digital magazine TorontoistThe Bone Mother is his first novel. It was recently long-listed for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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Inspired by One Thousand and One NightsThe Clothesline Swing tells the epic story of two lovers anchored to the memory of a dying Syria. One is a Hakawati, a storyteller, keeping life in forward motion by relaying remembered fables to his dying partner. Each night he weaves stories of his childhood in Damascus, of the cruelty he has endured for his sexuality, of leaving home, of war, of his fated meeting with his lover. Meanwhile Death himself, in his dark cloak, shares the house with the two men, eavesdropping on their secrets as he awaits their final undoing.