Oct 31

The virtue of discomfort

In February of 2009 I woke out of a dream. In it, one of my daughters is hit by a car. We are in France, in the dream. In a village plaza with a fountain.

I don’t usually remember dreams. If I have a bad one, I might wake up sweaty and confused. What the hell was that? But by then I’ve already forgotten the thing. I am, occasionally, hungover. And when I eat too much fat, some hunk of fowl cooked in its own lard, I tend to sleep poorly.

This was different.

Every bit of fiction I had written, until that moment, had been somewhere on the continuum between sad and funny. When I was most comfortable, as a writer, it was sad and funny at the same time. But in order to forget about the dream, to remove it from me and give it to someone else, a pretend someone else, I started thinking about a father and a mother and a daughter, in France.

Who is the mother? The father? The little girl? What are they doing in France? Who is driving the white Mercedes that hits the little girl in the plaza?

I started sketching out what would become my next novel, The South of France.

The tone of the novel was not particularly funny. And sad wasn’t enough. It would need suspense, political intrigue, violence, forward momentum, a big problem. Maybe a hint of funny. Funny in a dark sense. There was one line, in the first draft my editor saw, and she wrote next to it: “Is this supposed to be funny, Todd?”

I had never written anything like this before. While I had been to France a few times, on extended vacations, I had never lived there. I bought guidebooks, to remind myself, and then one morning — defeated by my inability to put myself there, imaginatively, from a basement in Edmonton — I decided we had to move to France.

We had no money saved up. The economic crisis was in full bloom and the last thing France wanted was more workers, especially illegal ones, scratching around for jobs. My daughters, Avia and Esmé, were three and one. My day job, at a newspaper chain on the verge of creditor protection, did not allow for sabbaticals — not official ones, anyway. Sabbaticals were for academics, not… whatever I was.

Only an idiot would quit his job and cart his two little girls to a foreign country with a strong currency during a recession.

If I was honest with my wife, Gina, about my dream and my idea for the novel, she would never go to Europe again. In the movies, dreams foreshadow tragedy. Avia and Esmé would never be allowed on any road, ever, in Canada or in France. So I was not honest with my wife. I worked out a freelance agreement with the newspaper. I would have no benefits, no guaranteed income, and no help.

My mom went through an emotional journey as we prepared to leave: disbelief, anger, sadness, confusion, forced indifference, violent rage, shame, sadness again, failure, love. Love-ish. We arrived in France, in a converted horse stable that was essentially an American hoarder’s storage locker, and I began to write.

For the first six months, it felt like I had eaten a hunk of fowl cooked in its own lard. More than two years later, The South of France is nearly done. It will be in stores and e-stores in 2013.

I thought: new book, new website. Thanks to Daelan Wood. Thanks to Aaron Pedersen and his team of young good-lookings for the images. It seems rather perfect to launch this on my favourite day of the year.