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RM Vaughan's Pervatory was edited posthumously by his friend, Coach House Books editorial director Alicia Wilcox.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

When the writer, artist and critic RM Vaughan died in 2020, Coach House Books editorial director Alana Wilcox was one of the first to pay tribute. “His wit was notorious” and his humour “hilariously inappropriate,” she wrote. But Vaughan, she acknowledged, lived a conflicted life: “He both wanted and shunned the spotlight.”

Wilcox didn’t know then that Vaughan had one last work to spotlight. In the months after his death, Wilcox learned that he’d left behind a completed manuscript. It was a novel about a gay, middle-aged art critic who ditches Toronto for Berlin – the queer-friendly, artist-filled city Vaughan himself had once decamped to – that veered into an erotic, maybe-supernatural, maybe-mental-health-related mystery. It would be called Pervatory, and deftly delved into both worlds promised by its titular portmanteau.

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Vaughan had made it known to loved ones that he’d hoped Coach House would publish it. When Wilcox found out, she was thrilled at the chance. Her imprint had published four of his books, including 2015′s Bright Eyed: Insomnia and Its Cultures, and she considered Vaughan a friend.

The manuscript was concise and thrilling. It wasn’t really autobiographical, Wilcox says, but it borrowed elements from the places and people Vaughan had encountered. And it captured the consequences of aging, exhaustion and the weight of expectations that Wilcox recognized in Vaughan (who went by his full first name, Richard, to friends).

“Richard always had a fascination with the supernatural and the mystical,” Wilcox says. Another familiar theme, she adds, “is the precariousness of our sanity when the precariousness of your livelihood is a factor – which, in retrospect, is tough to read.” (Vaughan died at 55 by drowning, after being displaced from his home, in what was understood by some close to him to be suicide.)

Shepherding Pervatory to completion was a delicate exercise for Wilcox and her collaborators – including Vaughan’s brother, Paul, as well as his literary executors, the novelist/video artist Jared Mitchell and poet Jeramy Dodds.

The book was released in mid-November. Wilcox spoke with The Globe and Mail by phone about the complexities of editing the work of a late friend.

The editors’ note in Pervatory describes Richard’s appreciation for a “thorough edit.” How did that affect your work with the book?

I knew that it would be okay to move things around, to tidy things up and to cut some stuff. But working with the executors, we decided that we would not add anything. We didn’t want to try to replicate Richard’s voice, but we wanted to make the existing manuscript as tidy and coherent as possible. We moved a lot of stuff for narrative coherence. We cut maybe 10 to 15 per cent; there was a lot more of a catalogue of sexual encounters, and those got a bit repetitive.

When the book came to us, it was kind of split: Some of it was written like diary entries, and some of it was written like a novel. We had to make a decision to go one way or the other, and the diary element wasn’t working quite right. It’s a different kind of voice.

How did you feel about pulling pieces out of the manuscript? As you said, this was an author who loved an edit, but these were some of his final words.

I’ve not done this before – edited without an author – and when I’m working with a book, I’m very collaborative. It’s very strange to go through this without the author. I just had to picture Richard – luckily, his voice is so strong through the book. And to be honest, the pieces we ended up cutting where often the pieces where his voice was less strong. What I love about the book is it feels like you’re just having tea with Richard.

But I was deeply sad. I was terribly late doing the edit, because I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Partly because it was something I would have to feel my way through, and partly it’s just a heartbreak that Richard wasn’t here with me.

It was a struggle to get this started?

I wanted it to come out a year ago, and every time I opened the file, I would just start crying and close it again. It just took a while to get there.

I think a lot about the musician Prince’s unfinished memoir, The Beautiful Ones – it was a story he wanted to tell but wasn’t able to finish. When he died, his co-writer left the book with a deliberately fragmented feel. Do you have any thoughts about the ethical balance of telling the story Richard wanted to tell versus the one you worked with?

If he had been alive, there are things I would have asked him to elaborate on. And we might have done things like change how the ending worked a little bit. But there were things that had to stay the way they were just because there wasn’t the opportunity to add anything. But I’m satisfied with feeling like it’s a whole, complete work. We wouldn’t have proceeded if I didn’t feel that way.

There’s an exhaustion with Toronto, and the Canadian experience, and their art scenes, that becomes apparent with each passing chapter of the book. There’s little to confirm that this is auto-fiction, maybe minus the fact that at one point he literally says he wrote a column for a major daily newspaper. In your final years interacting with Richard, did he share similar feelings with you?

About Toronto? Yeah. But I think that it’s the same frustration many artists living in Toronto feel. It’s tough. But a lot of the book is definitely not autobiographical.

There’s also a celebration of queerness, and in particular queer eroticism here. That’s something that Richard’s work was long celebrated for. How do you think this book is going to fit into his literary legacy?

It helps us celebrate him as not just a great writer and visual artist and art critic and all the other things that he was, but also as a really important queer activist – long before it was cool to be that. In the nineties, he was out there fighting the good fight. He helped us get to a better place with that, I think.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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