A Special Tribute to My Mom–June Guenette

Maelstrom art with border

The following piece appears at the end of my soon-to-be released novel, Maelstrom. Enjoy.

This novel began its journey to you, the reader, when I was a child. My father worked nightshift and my mother was writing a book. We kids would fall asleep to the clack, clack, clack of the typewriter keys, the ding of the bell at the end of a line and the unforgettable sound of the carriage return. When I got older, I would stay up late and my mother would share bits and pieces of the story with me – highly censored, I’m sure. My brief introduction to the characters left an indelible impression – Sheriff Bert Calder, the sadistically cruel man who held the town of Haddon under his thumb; Myhetta, the handsome, knife-wielding adopted son of Rafael Destino; Laura, the woman who seemed to exist always in her basically white kitchen.

The years went by and I assumed my mother had given up on her book. Nothing could have been further from the truth. When I was in my twenties, I visited her and she proudly showed me a large box filled to the brim with type-covered, fluted, white paper placemats – a complete draft of Maelstrom. She was working at a café and had purchased those placemats for a good price. My mouth dropped open, my eyes grew large and I demanded that she let me read it. But she shook her head – it was too rough and raw. It needed work. From time to time, I heard that she had written yet another draft of the first chapter but more often than not, she seemed content to move onto other work. She penned a column for a local paper and honed her craft in the genre of short story writing. She joined a writers’ group and contributed to an anthology. She had a short story accepted for publication in a magazine.

When my mother died in 1997, she willed reams of her writing to my son. He was only a teenager at the time but he took the boxes she left him. Overwhelmed with sorting the rest of my mother’s possessions, I never even peeked inside those boxes. My son carted his inheritance from place to place until he winged his way across the vast country of Canada. At that point, whatever he couldn’t get on a plane, he left with his father. The boxes from his grandmother were then moved from here to there as part of a thing parents do for their kids – store their stuff.

Two years ago, my son brought me a red folder that had turned up in some of his things – pages from a book his grandma must have been working on. He had glanced through it and wondered if I would be interested, now that I was writing books of my own. I was stunned. I hadn’t seen those typed placemats for decades. I read with my heart in my throat. The margins were full of my mother’s handwritten notes. I could almost see her dark eyes sparkling with intensity as she glanced over my shoulder.

The red folder contained eighty pages of Maelstrom. But where was the rest of the manuscript? My son assumed that it must still be in storage at his dad’s somewhere. Later, the news came to me that boxes would be looked through with an eye to finding the missing pages.

I convinced myself that the degree to which I desired those pages to be found was in direct proportion to the likelihood that they never would be. I held myself firmly, repeating T. S. Eliot’s words – hope without hope.

I decided to transcribe the portion of the manuscript I had. No sooner did I begin typing than I started to rewrite. I couldn’t stop my imagination from springboarding off my mother’s words. By the time I was done, I knew that I could outline a beginning and ending for the novel.

Then came the magical day when my daughter sent me a text with a photo of a tottering pile of several thick binders bulging with pages. The rest of the manuscript had surfaced. I stared and stared at that photo, not quite believing my eyes. Those binders contained over two thousand pages. But I was never to find the all-important beginning. The manuscript started at page thirty. I have no idea what happened to that elusive first chapter that my mother had rewritten so many times.

So began a long process of reading. By the time I had finished, I was holding her version and the version I would have written side-by-side in my head. I started outlining, blocking out sections I would use and those I would not. I put sticky notes here and there in colour-coded, reckless abandon. My handwritten comments down margins and across the tops and bottoms of pages vied for space with my mother’s.

I made major alterations to the story she had set out to tell and that resulted in even more changes as the book progressed. The majority of those two thousand pages were left on the cutting room floor. Some characters were toned down, others were fleshed out with backstory wholly of my creation, a few were combined to streamline the narrative and one even underwent a gender change. I mined my way through those pages again and again for the gems – the turns of phrase unique to my mom’s way of writing dialogue, the colourful descriptions and plays on words. And I never came away empty-handed.

As the months of writing flew by, I struggled to understand whose book this was becoming. It was certainly not the book my mother had intended though it echoed with her ideas and characters. On the other hand, it was not something I could have come up with on my own.

After fifteen drafts and countless hours of work, I have come to the conclusion that the premise for the story belongs to my mother; the book you have just read is mine.

I’m not sure I can adequately describe what this experience of ghostwriting my mother’s story into my own and bringing it to a reading public has meant to me. There were times when I was so emotional, I sobbed over the keyboard and had to stop working. I never felt as close to my mother or as frustrated with her as I did when working on this novel. She made me laugh and I could almost feel her hand on my shoulder as I typed. Then she would exasperate me and I’d throw my head back and moan. I thought if I turned quickly, I would catch her shrugging her thin shoulders and hear her say, “It made sense to me at the time.”

It gives me great pleasure to present my interpretation of the novel my mother began so many years ago and to bring her characters to life with my own unique spin. It feel as if a circle is closing and, though I’m not sure if my mother would wholly embrace this version of her story, I am confident she would be proud of me for making the effort.

Pencil sketch - Casa Destino - June Guenette (2)

(A conceptual, pencil sketch of Casa Destino by June Guenette)

Countdown to Maelstrom release is FIVE days Smile