Near the end of Billie Livingston's new novel, One Good Hustle, its abused and abandoned teenaged heroine, Sammie, makes a date with her long-absent father, an inveterate hustler and petty criminal.
Already hard-bitten at 16, Sammie nevertheless hopes lunch with her father – their first encounter in years – will redeem the sins of the past and bring the reconciliation for which she yearns. But her miscreant father meets Sammie only long enough to break the date, legging off to a poker game instead.
The emotional heart of the novel, that scene is also as purely autobiographical as anything Livingston has ever written. It was an almost identical encounter with her own miscreant father that first inspired Livingston to write One Good Hustle, she says in an interview from her Vancouver home. And it was her own childhood that supplied the experience needed to depict life from such a starkly disadvantaged perspective.
Like Sammie, young Billie barely knew her father, who went to jail for robbing what family lore calls "the Kennedy diamonds" (actually a modest haul taken from the apartment of Kennedy spouse Peter Lawford, according to the culprit). Like Sammie, Billie grew up on welfare with an alcoholic mother and was placed in foster care.
One difference is that Billie ran away from her foster home, whereas Sammie learns to cope.
But most tellingly, both the author and her creation are utterly irrepressible. If Sammie's stubborn buoyancy seems slightly incredible – as it must to middle-class readers weaned on despairing editorials about "the welfare trap" – 10 minutes on the phone with Livingston will banish all doubt.
Her background, she laughs, is "colourful," reeling off anecdotes about the stolen diamonds and the slang of her father's trade – the fences, the marks and fronts (like the family dry-cleaning business, where customers were an inconvenience). She and her parents lived under false names until her father's arrest and imprisonment in Michigan, and the old-fashioned underworld lingo that peppers One Good Hustle comes not from research but from the tabletalk of Livingston's own childhood.
But autobiography, the author points out, can only take you so far. "Sometimes it's a little tougher when something is close to the bone like this," she says. The hard part is avoiding the memoir trap. "I find I have to throw all the marbles in the air and let them bounce so I don't end up mired in reality and ruin the book."
Sammie's wobbly but ultimately hopeful trajectory is one bit of reality Livingston was keen to include. "There's a tendency to think that the kids who come out of that [background] are going to just be seething little beasts when they grow up," she says. "So I like to turn that stuff on its head when I can."
Not that social worker pathos is Livingston's style – nor Horatio Alger redemption. Sammie bravely but blindly follows a third way, its destination far from clear by the last page. "I tend to end things on a cusp of decision for characters," Livingston says. "You walk through a certain period of time with them, and you get to a place where you feel like they can go it on their own without you."
At the risk of severely damaging her street cred, Livingston quotes Roland Barthes: "Literature is the question, minus the answer."
Literature is also barricaded, the aspiring poet, now 46, discovered when she first began mingling with creative writing graduates in the mid-1990s. "They used this kind of literary patois I had never heard before," she recalls. "We didn't speak the same language at all." She briefly considered, then rejected, taking a course and following a Canlit career course that begins with small magazines.
"I found so much of the stuff being published in those magazines in the '90s had a lot to do with coming of age in the wheat fields, and my whole life has been very urban," she says. "I was rejected by every magazine in Canada."
Livingston eventually found her way into print through foreign magazines, all the while juggling sidelines with the versatility (if not the ethos) of the hustler who brought her into the world. She worked as a model, an actor, an office temp, a cocktail waitress and, she blushes, a "booth babe" at a plumber's convention. "I wore a suit, dammit," she insists. "A whole suit with everything covered up."
Today, Livingston's best gigs are working in film as a stand-in or extra, "the best paid unskilled labour you can find." But with six books behind her and two national awards in hand for Greedy Little Eyes, a short story collection published last year, Livingston is now a paid-up pillar of the Canlit establishment. And, with One Good Hustle, she has become a leading contender in the 2012 awards sweepstakes.
But she doesn't do it for the accolades. "I have to write," she says. "I can't dance."