CW: abuse, suicide, substance abuse
Sometimes, even questions without answers need to be voiced — to be heard and acknowledged, if only as a cry of the heart. Such is Brent LaPorte's wise, difficult, and gutsy memoir, Unatoned (ECW Press). After his electric debut novel, Hope Burned, LaPorte is turning his powerful literary lens on himself and his difficult young life.
Delving into his abusive father's substance issues and death by suicide, and the fracturing effects on their family, LaPorte is unflinching in tracing how that painful legacy followed him into his adult life and his own struggles.
Filled with questions for his father, which at times become tough questions for himself, Unatoned ultimately asks what it takes to break a cycle of suffering—to not only find love and happiness but to spread that kindness to those around us, rather than following the pattern of pain begetting more pain.
Brent joins us today to discuss Unatoned as part of our My Story memoir interview series. He tells us about the jarring moment that began the project, when his late father showed up at his desk to talk; why writing this book meant revealing more than he had originally intended; and the brutal winter night during the writing process that he'll never forget.
How did your memoir project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
This was never intended to be a memoir. I had a feeling one night while heading to my writing space that my dead father was sitting at my desk, waiting to speak with me. I knew this was not possible but this feeling haunted me to the point that I shared it with my friend and editor Michael Holmes. I told him that if my father was sitting at my desk, that I had many questions for him and Michael stated simply “That’s your next book.” And so it began.
Is there a question that was central to this project? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
Absolutely. There were many questions that I had and still have for my father. He was an abusive alcoholic who committed suicide when I was nine years old. I cannot even begin to describe the confusion of a nine-year old trying to process this information. The suicide alone would confuse a child, but add the abuse and alcoholism and the list of questions is actually endless. I did my best in this book to ask the most prevalent questions.
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
Yes. The first draft of this book was actually following the story line of my father sitting at my desk waiting for me, and me on my way to follow his foot steps and commit suicide. The premise was fiction, but the questions I was going to ask were real as were the events leading to my questions. It took me a couple of years to write this draft and ultimately there was too much fiction in a story that I felt needed more honesty. The book sat for a couple of more years and neither Michael nor I were happy with this version of this “meeting” between my father and me. As I state in the opening of the book, I took a hard left on the process and on how honest I wanted to be with the reader and with me. Ultimately I’ve revealed more about me and my short comings in this book than I had intended, but, if I wanted this book to resonate with my readers, and myself, I had to go into very dark places of my past, both with my father and without him. I learned as I was writing the book that it was not just about my father, but also about me.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
This is a great question because for me the conditions have to be “just right” for me to be able to let myself go and put my thoughts on the page with as much honesty as I can muster. Anyone who has written can commiserate with the fear of sharing your writing with others for fear of them criticizing the blood and sweat they just poured onto the page. My first novel Hope Burned was written entirely by hand, pen and paper in a spiral notebook. I felt that was the most natural process for me. I had specific pens that I used and honestly felt this helped my thoughts get to the page organically. I did the same with the first version of this book, but as with Hope Burned I had to ask a friend – Ginnette – to take my chicken scratch and convert it to a readable Word document. When I finally decided the first draft of this book was not where I wanted it, I started again, but did the typing myself. I embraced the digital age and found that this process did not take away from the integrity of the book. I do, however, have to be completely alone when I write (for fear of interruption and judgement). I have a small place in the Ottawa Valley, where I can look at the Calabogie Lake and spill my thoughts out onto the page. I always put on Big Band music on in the background and keep the lights low. I like an intimate setting with no one around to interrupt my train of thought.
If you have written in other genres, what was different for you in writing a memoir?
Hope Burned, my first novel, was pure fiction and a completely different process with different emotions. I did and still do feel attached to the characters I created for Hope Burned, but relating my own story took me to places that I not only had not been in 40 years, but did not want to go over these 40 years. I clearly recall one winter night, during a writing session, at my special place on the shores of the Calabogie Lake finishing a paragraph, standing up and just crying my eyes out. I was by myself, in this place walking around, looking out windows and thinking “what the hell is wrong with me?” Writing Unatoned really took a toll on my mentally. I don’t think I’ve ever been more vulnerable in my life, and based on my life, this says a lot.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
During the writing of Unatoned I experienced the most anxiety I can recall as an adult and I was a police officer for 10 years. I still feel anxiety about the release of this book. I’m not sure that anyone in my universe knows my complete past and revealing this past is frightening. My friends do know much of my past and accept me for who I am, however, there are people in my world who do not know me intimately and of course I am nervous about what they are going to think of me after they read of my past and of my admissions to my own shortcomings. Any time an author, painter, musician, or sculptor puts their work on display, they are essentially naked in front of the world and judgement will come. I think this is amplified ten-fold when you are writing about your own life, exposing not only your work to the world, but your soul to the world.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started to write a collection of short stories that are loosely based on the iPhone notes I write when I go to bed. Once every couple of weeks, just before I drift off to sleep I get a thought and force myself to pick up my phone, temporary blind myself, and write that thought down. These thoughts may or may not make sense in the morning, but I have found a few gold nuggets in them and am working on a project that will incorporate these thoughts into a series of short stories. I want to write something light because my last two books have been pretty heavy. My readers should know that while I have a dark past, I actually have a pretty good sense of humour and hope to be able to share this with them.
Brent LaPorte was born in the Ottawa Valley and through his tumultuous childhood moved several times throughout the Valley and Northern Ontario. He lives in Courtice, Ontario, has been married for 30 years, and has two adult children. This is his second book.