How writing a novel helped Christopher Meades learn to speak again
The story, Hanna Who Fell From the Sky, is on sale Sept. 26
Thirty minutes after Christopher Meades took a hit and fell to the ice, he started stuttering. Within an hour, he couldn't talk. It was September, 2012,; he had been chasing the puck in his first game playing right wing in a competitive men's hockey league. A teammate called Meades' wife, Wendy, who took him to the hospital. He had her call his office to let them know he would need some time off – maybe three weeks.
"Three weeks became three months became a year-and-a-half," Meades says during an interview at his home in Delta, B.C. For three months, he couldn't do anything – could barely talk or even watch TV. Within a year, he had managed to read a book – "a herculean effort," he says – and his speech had improved, but it would slow down as he tired, the words slipping away and the stutter returning.
"It just never went away," he says. "The challenge of ordering a sandwich at a delicatessen when you can't get the words out is something I had never experienced in my life. And, you know, let's be honest, it's a little embarrassing."
After a year, he was still off work – still nauseous, still suffering with overpowering headaches – and a feeling of near-panic. Traditional therapies weren't helping; he had plateaued. Frustrated, he went to see a neuropsychologist. He would talk to her about language – something he thought a lot about while he wasn't able to use it fully – and about the books he wanted to write. "I have a goal just beyond going to my cubicle every day," he told her. So she told him to start writing again. "She said, 'Maybe this is one of your ways through it.'"
Meades, who works in IT, at this point had published two novels and nearly finished a third. But, doctor's orders or not, writing seemed an impossible goal, given his limited ability to accomplish things he used to do without a thought. Even therapy was challenging; it was difficult to get through an appointment without starting to stutter. If he had trouble talking for a full hour, keeping up a conversation, how would he be able to write?
Still, he had an idea – a novella written in 2005 that he wanted to fix up. So he started, slowly – one hour a day. "It was all I could handle," Meades says. One day, he threw caution to the wind and wrote for six hours.
"I ended up throwing up and in a dark room for two days. But slowly, it started to come together. And all of a sudden, I had 5,000 words and then I had 12,000 words."
And then, he had a book. Hanna Who Fell From the Sky, published by a Harper Collins imprint, is on sale Sept. 26.
"I really think it was having this as a project, having this as a driving force, something to do with my life and a goal, something I wanted to achieve. If I didn't have that, I don't know if I ever would have got better," he says.
The novel is set in a polygamous community. Hanna, who is about to turn 18, is to be married off on her birthday to Edwin, who is more than twice her age – and already has four wives and a brood of children. Hanna, although facing a terrible situation – this unwanted marriage, arranged by her reprehensible father – is as concerned with the plight of her (many) siblings, especially her sister Emily, who has a physical disability.
The story has nothing to do with brain injuries – but everything to do with what Meades had been through.
"That was one of the things always in the back of my head: How do I set up this person with just the greatest challenges that you could possibly face?" he says, the day after two boxes filled with copies of the finished novel arrived on his doorstep.
Meades watched documentaries about polygamous communities such as the one in Bountiful, B.C., but he didn't do firsthand research. He wrote the book at the library and at the office in the basement of his home – so far from that world, packed as it is with comforting suburban family clichés: a trampoline in the backyard, a dog barking at the doorbell, children's art and photos on the refrigerator, with sticker charts and a family schedule tacked up nearby.
"It was great that he had the writing because I don't know how he would have gotten through without it, to be honest. It was really his therapy," Wendy says. "I think because he had the writing and he was passionate about it, that it helped him with his healing and get through his days and give him something to look forward to and something to strive for still."
Meades finished writing the novel about a year after he started it. A few months later – about two-and-a-half years after sustaining the injury – most of his symptoms mysteriously disappeared over the course of about a month. "I was like, 'wait a second; I'm not desperately nauseous now,'" he says.
Meades finished the third novel he had been working on before the accident (For the Love of Mary was published by ECW Press in 2016).
He still lives with the effects of the injury – he can't go to a concert, for instance; an airplane ride or stressful conversation will trigger symptoms. But life has returned to near-normal. Over the course of our morning together, I did not detect any issues with his speech whatsoever. He is working full-time again, participating fully in his young daughters' lives – Claire and Hanna (Hanna is in the odd position of being named after the character in the book that was written long after she was born, since the original manuscript was written years ago).
Hanna, 9, loves to bake; Claire, 8, wants to follow in her father's footsteps; she is writing a book called Candy Cuckoo Land. "It's about a jelly bean," she says. "But the jelly bean's alive."
Having two daughters was key, Meades says, in writing a female protagonist. And, while he feels they're a bit too young to read his new novel, he hopes they will eventually.
"I wanted to write the kind of female protagonist that I would hope that they would want to be," he says. "Brave and finds her own path, but above all, empathetic. … Hopefully, when they're my age, they can look back – whether I'm long gone or not – and say, 'Wow, this is what my daddy thought a hero would be.'"