Susan Harrison felt that her life began at 18, when she left her childhood home in the Toronto suburb of North York to attend the Ontario College of Art and immerse herself in the downtown world of creative experimentation. The late 1960s was a heady time to be young and talented in Toronto, a time to play and pretend, wear vintage clothes, take on a new name, try on identities to see which one fit.
She fell in with a group of artists who hung out at A Space, one of the first artist-run centres in the country, and they encouraged one another. New art movements – performance art, video art, conceptual art, mail art – sprung up out of nowhere and anyone, it seemed, could do it.
“Nobody thought about money or careers then,” recalled her long-time friend Susan Swan, author of What Casanova Told Me and other novels.
Ms. Harrison left art school after two years, became a performance artist, printer, writer and editor, dabbled in journalism, art criticism and graphic design, developed a serious interest in psychology, yoga, meditation and animal rights, before taking an unexpected turn in her mid-50s toward genre fiction. Her debut novel, a Chicago-set thriller titled The Silent Wife, is slated for June publication by Penguin Canada. It will likely bring her a mainstream audience for the first time and fame she did not live to enjoy. She died at home in Toronto on April 14, of ovarian cancer, at 65.
Foreign rights have been sold to publishers in the United States, Britain, Croatia, Holland, France, Romania and Israel. Before her death, she was able, according to her agent, Samantha Haywood, to read a positive advance review in Publishers’ Weekly, the books industry’s trade magazine.
“She was a thoughtful, caring person – I never heard her raise her voice,” recalled her brother Brian. “She worked very hard at her writing and when I read The Silent Wife I was astonished at how much she had grown as a writer in the past decade.”
Susan Harrison was born in 1948, to the late Douglas Harrison, a chemical engineer of British stock in the research division of Ontario Hydro, and Angela Harrison (née Bobbs), who was from a large Ukrainian family in Winnipeg, and worked in photographic studios. Angela went on to obtain a degree from Ryerson in photographic technology once her children were grown.
In a brief bio Ms. Harrison prepared for her publisher last year, she wrote: “When I was growing up there was no psychology, no philosophy, and no God, but because of my mother’s roots in a lively ethnic culture there was music, theatre, dance, literature and art.”
Susan’s artistic bent was evident to their father, who encouraged her to attend art school, though she later wrote that she felt herself ill-suited to formal education.
She made a brief youthful marriage to video artist Rodney Werden, and worked in the office at A Space, where she met dancer and stripper Margaret Dragu, who gave dance classes there. Ms. Harrison took her classes and eventually the two collaborated on performance pieces.
In the early 1970s, she could be seen lugging a reel-to-reel tape recorder around as she collected interviews with women about their sex lives. The resulting book, Orgasms, in question-and-answer format, was published 1974 by Coach House Press, two years before U.S. writer Shere Hite came out with the bestselling The Hite Report on Female Sexuality on the same subject. Published under the pen name A.S.A. Harrison and using a fake author photo on the back (it shows a member of the Hummer Sisters vocal group), Orgasms is now an underground classic, selling for up to $60 on rare-book websites.
She went on to work as a typesetter for the Toronto Sun and Gandalph Graphics, and as an editor for the art periodical C Magazine. With Ms. Dragu, she collaborated on a book of essays about striptease and sexuality titled Revelations (Nightwood Editions, 1987), trying to defend what they saw as an art form against the feminists.
It was while they were working on this book that Ms. Dragu introduced her to artist John Massey, who was then living in New York but coming to Toronto on visits. He had already seen her art performances.
“The actual confirmation of our relationship came in New York City, which was a wild town then, before (Mayor) Giuliani cleaned it up,” recalls Mr. Massey, the grandson of Canada’s first native-born governor-general. “I was living near Penn Station, and we met for a drink and afterwards I said, ‘I’ll take you back to your hotel, it’s dangerous here.’ She said, ‘No, there is no need.’ I insisted but she decided to walk home and was held up by someone with a gun.”