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.”
When a nearby Christmas-tree seller saw the gunman conk Ms. Harrison on the head, he came to her aid and chased off the gunman, who turned around and shot him in the leg, Mr. Massey recounts. The two victims ended up in hospital. “She was shaken and called me from the hospital to come and get her, and really from that point on we were united,” he said. “She went back to Toronto, but we realized that something strong was connecting us and we built on that.”
The couple spent 30 creative years together, though they did not marry until 2006. In 1990, they bought a rundown horse stable on a downtown lane and lovingly transformed it into a spare, well-organized residence with studio and office space for each of them. They called their building MaHa, combining the first syllables of their surnames.
”We were very entwined,” Mr. Massey said. “She was very involved with my work and career and edited everything I wrote. She might ask me to read passages from what she was writing.”
They were together daily. Mr. Massey would work on his video installations and avant garde photo works destined for exhibitions in Cologne, Paris, Antwerp and many Canadian cities.
Meanwhile, Ms. Harrison would put on protective industrial headphones to block out distracting noises and write for several hours every day, before turning to other responsibilities. She loved her cats and in 1996 produced a 56-page novelty book for Viking Books, Zodicat Speaks (writing as Dr. Zodicat) about how to read your cat’s personality according to its astrological sign.
In 2005, she helped psychotherapist Elly Roselle write a book of case studies, Changing the Mind, Healing the Body (Ugly Duckling Editions). She became deeply interested in Adlerian psychology, which holds among other things that individuals block their own development and happiness by clinging to fallacious beliefs about what they can and can’t do.
In The Silent Wife, she assigns the insights she gained about human behaviour to her female protagonist, Jodi, an Adlerian psychotherapist.
A vegetarian, Susan Harrison was passionate about animal rights. Susan Swan recalled that her friend would sometimes go into pet shops to reprimand the owners for how they caged the puppies or neglected the iguanas. In a 2008 article in this newspaper, she argued for laws to make animal abuse easier to prosecute. “Canada is shamefully behind [other countries] in its animal cruelty laws,” she wrote. “For one thing, only animals that are somebody’s ‘property’ are protected – so do what you like to stray or wild animals.”
Ten years ago she decided to stop writing non-fiction and try her hand at genre fiction. This was no small step for someone coming out of the art world, where conventional narrative is seen as hopelessly dated. “That prohibition against narrative was the tail end of modernism,” explained Mr. Massey.
She wrote two murder mysteries featuring a detective figure who was also an animal-rights activist. Neither was publishable, but her husband says that in the process of writing them “she taught herself what she actually wanted to do. She was fascinated by psychology and she wanted a greater sense of that in her work.”
Her next attempt was not a whodunit (we are told on page 2 that Jodi will turn to murder) but was about the twists of fate, emotions and character that can drive a person to destroy another being – in this case a philandering husband. It was her agent, Ms. Haywood, who suggested that if she wanted a U.S. publisher, it would be best to set her thriller in Chicago. Ms. Harrison did not know the city personally but did her research and contacted people there to help with the geography.
Finding an interested publisher was still proving difficult, however, until Ms. Haywood sent the manuscript to Karyn Marcus, then an editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York. While Ms. Marcus rejected the book, she did something unheard of: She took the time to give detailed advice on what the book lacked and how to fix it. She suggested, said Ms. Haywood, “giving the characters of Todd and especially Jodi more back story and complexity, and their conversation helped A.S.A. round that final corner in her revision process. The novel sold to Penguin U.S. on the next draft.”
Susan Harrison leaves her mother Angela, brother Brian and husband John Massey, to whom the novel is dedicated.