The fine line between fact and fiction
In a sense, all fiction has an autobiographical component. It’s impossible for authors to divorce themselves from their characters, to not draw on the landscape of their own lives. It’s what makes fiction real, for both reader and the author.
Hamilton-born writer Catherine Graham admits her debut novel “Quarry” may be more autobiographical than most.
“Quarry” is the delightfully told coming-of-age story of a young woman named Caitlin Maharg, growing up in southern Ontario in the 1980s. Caitlin is a young girl when she and her parents move from a lively home in Grimsby to an isolated water-filled quarry near Fort Erie.
We follow Caitlin’s life as she winds her way through lifeguarding at a local summer camp, hawking sketchy bus tours on the Clifton Hill strip in Niagara Falls, and, at McMaster University, falling for a “my-door-is-always-open” professor.
The story is stocked with a compelling cast of characters, all somewhat familiar (including a cameo by Buffalo newscaster Irv Weinstein) in their foibles and flaws.
Dominating them all, are Caitlin’s parents — Rusty, a chain-smoking stay-at-home mom, and Donald, a larger-than-life travelling salesman with a love for Cadillacs and the Buffalo bar scene. There is a mystery underlying their love that pulls the reader through the pages, unexplained until after both their untimely deaths.
On the phone from her Toronto home, Graham acknowledges that her own life parallels much of her character Caitlin’s. Graham was born in Hamilton and moved to Grimsby at a young age, then on to a house near Ridgway, built on the banks of a quarry.
Yes, Graham did sell bus tours on Clifton Hill, and yes, she even attended McMaster University before Teachers’ College at Brock. (Graham taught elementary school for a time in Ancaster).
More importantly, both of Graham’s parents died at just about the same time as Caitlin’s.
“I had to write this book, because it was so tied to my parents,” Graham says. “It became my own personal tribute to them. The fact that it is touching readers is a fantastic bonus, but I really wanted to do this for them. They are interesting characters and I loved playing with the extremes of the outgoing father extravert and the quiet introverted mother, how as a writer I could portray those differences.”
While “Quarry” is her first novel, Graham is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections, including “Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects,” a finalist for the Raymound Souster Award and the CAA Poetry Award (Her six poetry book “The Celery Forest” will be published by Hamilton’s Wolsak & Wynn this fall.
“Quarry” was released last month by small Toronto publisher Two Wolves Press and has gained strong reviews, including one from the Toronto Star.
Graham, who studied poetry in Northern Ireland and has read her work in several major festivals in Europe and North America, says she began writing to help deal with the deaths of her parents.
“I don’t know if I would be a writer if I hadn’t lost my parents,” Graham says. “It was through death that poetry found me and I found poetry. It became a lifeline for me, a creative way to not only deal with all of what I was going through, but a way to help me move through life … and also keep them in some way. I’ve always been writing about them, whether obliquely in my poetry or directly.”
In this way, “Quarry” becomes not just a coming-of-age tale, but also a statement of grief and isolation. As Caitlin deals with the loss of each one of her parents, she learns a little more about their past and the secrets they held.
“It didn’t work as a memoir,” Graham says. “It needed to be fiction. I needed to work with my imagination. I needed to push and really keep to the core of what the story needed to be.”
Graham hopes readers don’t spend too much time on trying to separate fact from fiction in her work.
“I would rather people enjoy the book for what it is — a work of the imagination — than see them try to discern what is real and what isn’t.”
“All of life is a blend of the truth, the curve is the question mark,” — Catherine Graham, from her novel “Quarry.”
Catherine Graham’s ‘Quarry’
Hamilton-born author Catherine Graham.
Cover of ‘Quarry,’ author Catherine Graham’s new novel. Published by Two Wolves Press. 261 pages.