Ian Brown at the Banff Centre

Posted by on Jul 15, 2010 in Brian's Blog | 0 comments

Taking a break from his current cross-Canada, eating-in-strange-places (including a nudist resort) routine, author Ian Brown told a sold-out audience of 120 at the Rolston Recital Hall, that the four elements of a good nonfiction story — after you have satisfied the five journalistic Ws (who, where, what, why, when?) and the H(ow) — are the scenes you create, the dialogue you capture, the details you provide, and the point(s) of view expressed by the principal character(s). He said his toughest challenge writing his latest book, The Boy in the Moon, was his inability to give voice to the main character –his mentally disabled son–who cannot speak and who cannot communicate anything beyond what he is feeling right now. Like any small child, Brown’s son laughs when he is happy and cries when he is frustrated or suffering physical pain, but he has no way of indicating how he feels about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow.

What does this thirteen-year-old boy, Walker,  know and remember? From what they can tell, maybe little more than who his parents are, who his nanny and group-home caregivers are, and what they bring into his day-to-day life. He is like a beloved domestic pet who knows who provides the food, shelter and daily exercise, and the rules they expect to be obeyed: where to sleep, when to sit, where to poop, and where not to piss. Walker remembers the same things, except that there are fewer rules. His parents and caregivers try to enter his world and grant him the freedom to be himself, not bring him into their world and expect him to conform.

What does Walker remember from times gone by? Hard to say. He had a close friend in the group home who died some months ago, but he may have forgotten him by now. Does he have regrets? Probably not. With the mind of a two-year-old (in the body of a seven-year-old occupied by a thirteen-year-old), Walker has no way of judging the rightness or wrongness of his actions. His parents don’t judge or discipline him. Neither do his caregivers. They just allow him to be. He will never grow to adulthood in the mental sense, so no point in trying to teach him adult behaviours.

Brown said it took him 10 years to write the book, and for the longest time he never believed anyone would want to read it. He wrote it mainly for himself, trying to come to grips with the mystery of his son; a mystery he knew he would never solve.  He did not think many people would want to buy the book, because books about severely disabled people are usually downers; because his son is one of only about 150 people in the world born with this rare genetic mutation; and because a story of illness without a miracle cure –without a happy ending –is bound to leave readers feeling unfulfilled. Even his mother had doubts about the project. “Why don’t you write a successful potboiler?” she said.

But still Brown persisted, because he believed his son’s life had meaning, and he wanted to learn about that. What was the value of a life like Walker’s; a life “lived in the twilight and often in pain”? Brown filled his notebooks with the observed details of his son’s life from babyhood onward, the scourges of diaper rash, the autistic-style behavioural traits, the cocktails of prescription drugs with names sounding like those of Russian cosmonauts, the struggles with severe constipation followed by spectacular bathroom explosions, the highs, the lows, the joys, the sorrows. He talked to geneticists and medical experts of all stripes, made contact with parents around the world who had children with the same condition, and put all that he learned down on paper. Brown characterizes himself as a reporter, constantly asking questions, constantly seeking answers, and usually finding out along the way that there many more questions still to be asked if one is somehow going to get to the truth. He was not interested in giving some kind of objective meaning to Walker’s life; he was not interested in imposing his view of life upon the life of his disabled son; he simply wanted to understand. What goes on in that mysterious place, in that place most of us would classify as a damaged mind?

The result of Brown’s 10-year quest is an acclaimed book that has already won what Banff’s literary arts maven Steven Ross Smith describes as the Triple Crown of Canadian nonfiction awards: the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction, the 2010 Charles Taylor Prize, and the Trillium Book Award.

“You have invented a new business model for nonfiction writing in this country,” quipped Walrus magazine editor John Macfarlane, who joined Brown for an on-stage conversation after the author’s one-hour talk. “You don’t sell a zillion copies, you just win prizes.”

“Ah, yes,” laughed Brown. “But it’s not sustainable.”

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