Last week it was announced that Vicki Laveau-Harvie‘s memoir, The Erratics, had won the 2019 Stella Prize. Grattan Street Press editor Meg Kerr attended the Wheeler Centre’s event to hear the author discuss the book, and the prize, which is now in its seventh year.
A Book Conversation
Last week, I joined in celebrating Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s Stella Prize win for The Erratics. An event was held at the Wheeler Centre with host and Chair of Judges Louise Swinn. As the seventh winner of the prize, Laveau-Harvie discussed the process of writing her memoir. She explored the function (and sometimes sheer absurdity) of writing about personal memories, and the validity of such work in modern Australian literary fiction.
When her estranged mother is hospitalised with a broken hip, Laveau-Harvie and her sister make the journey back to their childhood home in Western Canada to look after both parents. What they find on arrival is a shocking realisation: her mother’s mental illness has compromised her father’s health and left them both isolated from the outside world.
‘My mother is not in the bed. My sister takes her pen, which is always to hand, around her neck or poked into a pocket and, with the air of entitlement of a medical professional, writes MMA in large letters at the bottom of the chart.
Mad as a meat-axe.’– The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie
The memoir encapsulates the journey the author makes to navigate an often-fraught relationship with her mother and sister, as well as her memories of the dysfunction she experienced many years ago, set against the backdrop of the beautiful but unforgiving Alberta prairies and Rocky Mountains foothills (for which the book is named).
Prize After Prize
Although The Erratics is Laveau-Harvie’s debut novel, it has gone from victory to victory since its publication. Firstly rewarded Finch Publishing’s Memoir Prize in 2018, it was then shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Prize before winning the Stella. As the 2019 Stella panel succinctly put it:
“Somehow despite the dark subject matter, this book has a smile at its core, and Laveau-Harvie shows constant wit in depicting some harrowing times.”
In speaking about the impetus for writing so personally about her experiences, Harvie downplayed the risk of writing such work. She said it was a story with many difficult themes—mental illness, abuse, dysfunction—which are so often hidden when they deserve to be told.
‘A number of people have said “This is my story”, and I thought to an extent that it’s the story of everyone.’
Laveau-Harvie has previously described the Stella Award as a ‘beacon’ and a ‘force for good’ for women who write. Particularly in light of the time we live in, when the idea of truth, personal or otherwise, is just as important than ever. She says:
‘Nobody seems preoccupied about telling the truth. That, particularly in north America, we have people in highest office who use words to mean something that they want them to mean…
‘I thought a lot of writing a memoir because what I wanted was truth. If somebody says: alternative facts. What is that? If it’s fact, it’s fact. And I think it’s true of other kinds of discourse.’
The Truth of the Heart
For Laveau-Harvie, telling her story was less of a cathartic experience and more an opportunity to focus on and process such truths (although she is self-expressively “not very good at sharing”). Though she is an experienced poet, she believed she could not write The Erratics as fiction because she could see both humour and tragedy in the themes of ageing, illness and relationships.
Delving into the book, you quickly realise that the memories of her family she recounts, while darkly funny, don’t require much embellishment.
‘[In] memoir you’ve got a contract with your reader. It is personal, it is your take on reality, but I think you have a duty if you’re going to write memoir to tell the absolute truth to the best of your ability. And it will be your truth.’
When asked about the future, Laveau-Harvie mentioned that her next project will be to continue to investigate the gaps in her family history – which will include a visit to North Dakota to find her grandfather’s connection to his First Nations heritage.
A former lecturer and translator, Laveau-Harvie had been writing for many decades before finally submitting her memoir for publication. As she recounts at the end of the Stella Award night: ‘I already won. I put in the mailbox.’
The Erratics is published by HarperCollins.
Written by Meg Kerr