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Memoirs are wildly popular at the moment, with a wave of new titles out this fall. But it’s still hard to find stories of working-class lives in bookstores. So often for those struggling economically, daily existence is reduced to survival and reflection becomes a luxury not easily afforded. That’s one of the reasons why Donna Morrissey’s new memoir is so remarkable. Pluck: A Memoir of a Newfoundland Childhood and the Raucous, Terrible, Amazing Journey to Becoming a Novelist is that rare book that pulls the curtain back on working life, illuminating both its stresses and sorrows and its unexpected joys. Here, the award-winning author – and former fish-factory worker – talks to The Globe about the tenacity it took to build a literary life.
The title of your memoir comes from a pivotal conversation with a friend, during which she encouraged you to write and told you, “I know what you’ve crawled out of … you’ve got guts, luv, you’ve got pluck.” What does that word mean to you?
It’s that courage to get up in the morning and sit on that bike you’ve put in your bedroom to pedal, to get the energy going to get the kids off to school and get yourself off to work. Just to get up some mornings and face that day takes pluck. And not just in the sense of getting through the hardship, but in facing down the odds and going for more than what you think you can achieve.
Set the stage here. Tell me about your village in Newfoundland and the family you grew up in.
The Beaches was a very close-knit community. Where I lived, there was 12 houses up on a point and 12 houses down below that point. We were all interrelated, in terms of cousins, second cousins and third cousins. So you were very, very familiar; you knew everyone. I think that’s one of the riches I bring with me from having grown up in that community. You don’t get to choose who you spend time with. You spend time with whoever is standing next to you. So you get to learn the many faces of a person, of a character.
You write about a time when you were working at a local fish plant. You were reeling from a family tragedy. You were gripped by anxiety, and then one day it let up.
I think that moment was a turning point for me. It was the first time in a couple of months that I woke up without the fear flooding my veins. I did not think that I could ever escape it. It was like a tar sticking to me, the anxiety. That one morning, things were so chaotic in my house, it even chased out the fear. By the time I got to work, I realized that the fear was gone. Of course, the moment upon realizing it was gone, it was back. But it had gone. It just gave me that sense of, “Oh my god, it can be removed.” It wasn’t a part of me. It had edges; I could grip it. I turned that car around and went to the doctor’s clinic that I saw every day on my way to work. And could never get the courage to go in there. But on this day, I did. And I’ll tell you, I was a sight to behold, walking in there in my rubber boots and my hairnet, my skinning knife in my boot. Everybody just nodded and allowed me to go in first. [Laughs] That day didn’t fix me; it didn’t cure me. But it gave me hope.
This memoir is about you finding your voice – and the three women who helped you do so. Tell me about your neighbour in St. John’s, Mae.
Mae was this eccentric elder who lived across the street from me. I could probably count on two hands all the words she ever spoke to me. But we shared many moments together, feeding her cats. She was a presence that touched some part of me. She was the abandoned and the forgotten, and there was something about her that captured me when I was in my darkness. I felt eccentric; I felt like I had no place out there any more. I was corralled by this darkness. So I just gravitated towards her. We’d just sit in each other’s comfort. It’s hard to imagine, she was eightysomething years old. She actually inspired three of the novels that I’ve written.
You also write about a complicated friendship with an intellectual named Elly.
She was one of the most enlightened and brilliant minds I have met to date. She was a real inspiration for me. She really sent me down a road of learning. But she had a dark side. Up until that moment when I struck up against that, it was probably one of the most worthwhile relationships I’ve ever had. I still love her. I take heart from Carl Jung. When I look at that sort of betrayal, I often think of Carl Jung. He wrote of his relationship with Freud. He loved him like a father. He was able to forgive [their conflict] and accept that and move beyond. Not everybody is going to have the big happy ending story. There are people that we learn from in our lives who don’t have the answers and who are probably lost in their own way. But they still have things to teach us.
Since you brought up Jung, you recount some incredibly powerful dreams in Pluck.
When I was having those dreams, I knew they were more than dreams. When I woke up, the peace and contentment of being with my [late] brother would stay with me, even as I would wander through the rooms at night, just craving respite from the horrible grief I was experiencing. I knew it was something different, I just didn’t know what. I was so busy surviving. I was so young. As I grow older, and as I read, I understand now that each one of them was a grace given. They cradled me just enough to give me the courage to get through each day, and the next. Until time does its work and allows you to stand up straight again.
The third woman that figures prominently in this story is your mother. Your first book was written as she was dying from cancer. What did her belief in you as a storyteller do for you?
In hindsight, you look back and see that my mother was one of my best friends. Throughout that journey with cancer, it was devastating for us. She was everything. She was only 58. We had suffered in the past and this didn’t feel fair somehow. It affected us so deeply. We just grew so inwardly as a family; we clutched on to each other. We all have our stories to tell but in mine with my mom, it was when she would spend those nights with me. It was just her and I, and we watched our damn movies and we’d eat our Hickory Sticks and drink our brandy and we shared in the writing. Nobody knew what I was doing. When it was finished, my mother’s life was finished.
Pluck is a working-class story. What does it mean to you to tell a story that’s not often told?
I didn’t realize that until you just said it. When we are writing our stories, we can’t think about them objectively. It’s the grist of everyday life that draws us in; that’s where we relate to others. There are so many dropped threads in a life. I’m an author right now, but I look back on where I used to be and the things that I have done, and how all these threads all connect throughout life, weaving their way into a story. A memoir is a collection of stories. If I hadn’t included the fish plant, and my father building a God-forsaken house, and all the stories along the way, it wouldn’t be real.
This interview has been edited and condensed.