WRITING ‘GAVE ME LIFE’
The 79-year-old Montreal writer responded to her leukemia diagnosis with a no thanks to both chemotherapy and the ‘standard battle imagery.’ She had a book to finish, which she has done. talks to the author.
In January 2017, Janet Savage Bl a ch ford was told she had incurable leukemia and up to 12 months to live. She spent that year finishing her novel. ‘Without writing,’ she said, ‘I never would have made it this far.’ Ian McGillis tells her story.
Sipping coffee in the airy condominium on Sherbrooke Street where she lives with her husband John, Janet Savage Blachford shows few outward signs, if any, of what she has been through.
A year and three weeks ago, roughly two-thirds into the second draft of her second novel, Blachford received a diagnosis of incurable leukemia. The most optimistic of projections gave her 12 months.
“There really isn’t any choice with (a diagnosis) like this,” she said. “You have to soak it up. Laugh with the world rather than cry alone. It makes life exciting.”
And laugh is exactly what Blachford did during a recent interview.
The diagnosis came “the same day Trump was inaugurated, though let’s not read omens into that,” the 79-year-old said dryly. “I was told, ‘We’re going to have to start you on some chemo.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not going to.’ I have that right as a patient. I know how much that treatment can wear on you and I wanted to finish the book.”
Complete it she did: Last December a packed main room at the McGill Club celebrated the launch of Blue Lake (John Aylen Books, 237 pp, $24.99). “I told myself, ‘I’m not going to be around for my funeral, so I’m going to have this (party) instead,’” Blachford recalled.
The book was released by an assisted self-publisher, but not because Blachford didn’t have faith.
“I could have waited around for someone to notice it, but even if they had, we’d have been looking at a year-and-a-half process minimum. I didn’t have that kind of time and I don’t mean in the sense of seeing its reception, I mean just getting it finished. It was going to take some fasttracking.”
Was there ever a thought of packing the project in? That she didn’t have a lot of time left, so she should spend it on other things?
“Never,” she said adamantly. “Time for what? What else is more interesting than this? My family knows I love them. Far from (being a burden), it saved me, it gave me life. Without writing, I never would have made it this far.”
If the idea of mortality made its way into the book in the postdiagnosis stages of the writing, Blachford said it wasn’t in the direct way one might expect.
“It’s not a book about death. On the contrary, it’s a book that’s saying, ‘Death shall have no dominion.’”
Not surprisingly, Blachford eschews the image of the noble fight.
“It’s a question of forgetting about the standard ‘battle’ imagery. You’re not lining up little soldiers to fight this thing. What’s important is to engage in creative, communicative, connective thinking.
“Sitting in those waiting rooms,” she said of her treatments at MUHC’s Cedars Cancer Centre, “I could see that the people who were happiest were the ones who were doing things. The whole point of life is creation. I thought ‘I can write my way out of this.’”
As it happens, Blue Lake is a novel worth celebrating even beyond the circumstances of its creation. Exploring one summer in the life of a Laurentian lakeside community, the book is a deep and lyrical dive into a kind of parallel universe, a place where, in Blachford’s description, “people mingle in some ways, but in other ways do their best to stay as far away from each other as they possibly can.”
It’s a place whose inhabitants invest deep symbolic significance in their gardens, where canoes are the repositories of family myth, where dramas like intergenerational misunderstanding and survivor guilt seem to linger longer and carry more weight than they would in more conventional settings. The worldwithin-a-world atmosphere is conveyed so well that when Blachford brings in elements of the fantastical — a geographically displaced dolphin, a singing toothbrush — you’re willing to go with it. As the author herself describes her strategy, “It’s not magical realism, but there are areas where there’s a sort of a bulge in the shell.”
While stressing that she has written a work of fiction and that the titular lake is not a standin for Lac Anne where she has spent most summers, Blachford acknowledges that the novel is rooted in a deep family tie to the Morin Heights and St-Sauveur area. The connection goes back 100 or so years ago, when her grandfather and three friends hired horses and wagons to bring supplies to what is now cottage country.
“It was an area full of stones, too much work to till a field. Even now, for a place not far from Montreal — about a 90-minute drive with a reliable driver — it’s a remarkably wild place with moose, deer, bears, loons.”
As for the parts of the year that weren’t summer, Savage has fond memories of growing up on Highland Avenue, a cul-de-sac in Upper Westmount.
“I was terribly lucky,” she said. “My aunt was Anne Savage, the painter. She lived up the street with her old mother and her nephew who was my age was often around. I’d go there when someone was mad at me at home.” That nephew — “He’d be crashing about on the piano, turning church hymns into jazz” — was Galt MacDermot, who would go on to fame and fortune as the composer of the Broadway musical Hair.
Primary schooling took place a few streets away at The Study, the girls’ school founded in 1915 where her mother had been an early student. Her education there, she recalled, was “antediluvian, really. Very oldfashioned. The teachers were imported from England and with very few exceptions were ‘Miss.’”
A burgeoning love of literature, particularly the moderns, then led Blachford to study English at McGill. It was a mixed experience — in the years before the Quiet Revolution, things were different for female students.
“One of the difficulties, for some of us, was that the debutante season was still a very big deal,” she said. “It was a marriage market. Most of us managed to pass our exams, but some people got terribly caught up in it. Girls committed suicide, drank too much, doped too much. It was a strange time.”
Having attained a BA and an MA, Blachford’s hopes to pursue a PhD were thwarted in the 1980s by a five-year bout with cancer.
“There was never the thought that it would kill me ... Although, having gone through that experience and learning how foul these drugs can be ... I wasn’t afraid of the disease so much as the cure.”
In the ’90s, with her three children grown, Blachford focused on volunteer work at McGill and eventually writing. Through it all, she spent as much time as she could at the lake.
“John and I had built a tiny cabin and kept our ears and eyes wide open for an opportunity to buy something bigger,” she said. “Eventually we bought a 1930s vintage stone house. It’s lovely to be there because it’s very, very quiet aside from the masses of Canadian geese that go soaring overhead every spring and autumn.”
Blachford’s editorial collaborator on Blue Lake was former Montreal Gazette staffer Bryan Demchinsky.
“Writing a novel is a hard thing to do at the best of times. That Janet has done it under the circumstances she did shows her bravery, her strength.”
At home with a drug regime that provides stability, Blachford is close to finishing another novel. A complement to Blue Lake’s rural and more male tone, In the Pink (working title) is a female-centric, urban-set story of what she describes as the “lost world” of old upper-crust Anglo Montreal.
A typical working day now, she said, might begin as early as 4 a.m., with a solid three hours of writing before many of us have even stirred.
With that one-year diagnosis already exceeded, what is the timeline for In the Pink?
“It depends on my level of fatigue, which won’t get better, it will get worse,” she said. “But I keep saying, ‘Give me three decent weeks, where I can think and work and I don’t get too tired, and I’ll get this thing done.’”
As the interview winds down, her parting words could be keen observation of a wintry day from her Sherbrooke Street window or a personal motto.
“There’s snow behind us and there’s snow ahead. But the leaves are lovely when we’ve got them.”
Sitting in those waiting rooms, I could see that the people who were happiest were the ones who were doing things.