Lying to tell the truth

Standard

Although it happened more than a decade ago, I still remember the time I asked my producer at the CBC if I could just download the sounds of crows cawing from the internet after a malfunction with my tape recorder left me without the sounds I’d recorded earlier that morning while in the field. 

The look of horror on his face had me instantly apologizing for having made such an outrageous suggestion followed by me then insisting I had been joking of course. After all, it being the CBC and all, a story about crows in Cornwall could only have, well, Cornwall crows cawing in the background.

For weeks afterwards I worried the producer had reframed me in his mind. No longer the keen and eager newcomer, trying to impress my boss with how many amazing stories I could file each month. Instead, now I was that dishonest news stringer, the one who had actually toyed with the idea of interviewing crows from out of town but try passing them off as locals.

Okay, I admit I’m still not convinced that anyone in Cornwall would have actually been able to tell the difference. But I do finally appreciate and understand why my producer was so horrified by my suggestion of deception. (And if he’s reading this, Laurence, I swear, I was joking. Honest.)

Unlike my work with the CBC, newspapers and magazines, one of the best things about writing fiction is the ability to write the ‘truth,’ even when it’s made up. For instance, my first book, “With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood,” is a memoir. This means I was forced to follow a pretty narrow definition of truth. Time-lines, street names, exact dates, and other ‘facts’ have to be, well, pretty bang on if something has the label of non-fiction.

Some writers get around the whole occasional inconvenience of the ‘truth’ by including a rider in the beginning of their book that says something along the lines of names and places and certain facts have been changed to protect the privacy, blah, blah, blah.

But what appeals to me so much about my next book is that since it’s a novel, readers can’t get upset by any lies, no matter how true they are.

Wish I had thought of that with my first book.

-Kathy

“Author’s vivid memories of growing up in Montreal slum”

Standard

An article about “With a Closed Fist” from Cornwall’s daily newspaper, the Standard Freeholder.

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By Cheryl Brink

CORNWALL — Many of Kathy Dobson’s local readers will remember her as a humour columnist, sharing anecdotes about her children’s antics and life in Ingleside. So her first book may come as a surprise.

‘With a Closed Fist’ details Dobson’s childhood in Point St. Charles — a rough slum of Montreal — with an activist mother, five sisters and not much else.

“The language in (the book) is authentic for that neighbourhood, but some people would find it extremely offensive,” she says.

“But I wanted it to be real, I wanted it to be honest, and not romanticize poverty the way a lot of people do. I wanted to show that ugly truth.”

It was a tough beginning for someone known in Cornwall for her cheery stories.

Dobson has freelanced for numerous publications — including this one — over the years, but a book was always on her to-do list.

“My mother was a militantly political activist,” she says from her home in Waterloo. “It was always in the back of my mind that it would be a good story to write about.”

Though she says her situation wasn’t a unique one in that place and that period; most mothers were active for various causes, using their children as props for protests and sit-ins.

“I knew it would be an interesting story to one day tell,” she says.

Dobson began working on the narrative as a documentary several years ago, but her mother died before it was complete.

“She helped to create some incredible changes for a neighbourhood that was being ignored,” she says.

Dobson wasn’t ready to review the tapes with her mother’s voice, so she decided to put the story on paper instead, and it evolved from there.

“It ended up being a memoir,” she says. “It was an incredible thing she was doing, but it’s seeing it through our perspective. We didn’t have the understanding of the bigger picture of what she was fighting for.”

Dobson says she read through dozens of her old journals and did research on various events from the time, ensuring she had her facts and dates straight. The writing process took just six months.

“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she says. “There was no writer’s block, but it was very emotional.”

But Dobson says the process was worth it, since hearing from readers who now have a changed perspective on poverty, or found comfort in knowing their own shame wasn’t unique.

“They feel a sense of relief to realize this emotion is universal,” she says, adding that many people blame moral failures or poor choices as the reason for poverty.

“If we treat it like it’s simple, we’re not solving the problem.”

Though Dobson says she cringes to think about some former colleagues or friends discovering her past through the pages of her book, she has also been thrilled with glowing reviews and an outpouring of positive feedback.

“So far, it’s been great,” she says, noting she plans to stop in Cornwall next February during a book tour.

“It was hard, but I think it’s important. This book has been my awakening.”

Dobson is already working on a sequel about her life after Point St. Charles, and also has ideas for a series of novels.

“These are two I wanted to get out of my system first. I’m hoping it can help change how people think about poverty.”

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Click here to see the article at the Standard Freeholder online.