Writing About a Loved One | Interview with Colin MacAuthor

I interviewed Colin MacArthur on writing a memoir about a loved one. Colin was born in Canada, but he lived nearly half his life in the UK. He’s always had an interest in writing and the written word has been published as a photographer and has had one-man exhibitions of his photography, both in Canada and the UK. He wrote French Toast hoping it might help others cope if they find themselves in similar circumstances.

Q: Could you tell us a little about your background?

I have a very eclectic background, as you mentioned. I was born here in BC. My father died when I was 12 and my mother took us all off to England, where I soon had a stepfather and I was one too many mouths to feet. So I got pushed off into the Royal Navy at a 15 years of age. I was there for four years, working on helicopters, electronics. I came out of there and contrary to what I was told, my qualifications in the Navy didn’t transfer to the streets. So, I spent a couple of years selling electrical goods, TVs, fridges, and sewing machines, all sorts of stuff. Then I was a short-order cook for one season from my parents and their takeaway shop. And then I worked in the public health lab.

So I spent 10 years in the hospital service, a few of those years in the operating rooms. It was fascinating. I really enjoyed that, but the pay wasn’t going to ever allow me to have a family and a house. So I went back to school and four years of electronic and ended up making tape decks for NASA back in the eighties, quarter of a million dollar tape decks, but now you can buy the same thing from Western Digital and put it in your shirt pocket for 30 bucks. I moved back to Canada, back to Vancouver, in ‘87. The book starts in England, ends up in Canada.

Q: I’m always amazed when I ask authors about their background. I like how varied it is. I find that amazing. And then my next question is, so you haven’t always been a writer, right? When did you start writing?

I haven’t; but in my twenties, I used to write poetry and short stories and I was actually a member of the Somerset Writers’ Club back in England. And so we wrote and read our stuff to each other and I did send off a few short stories to a couple of magazines. There was a bit of interest there.

Q: So you have been writing for a long time before you wrote this book. So tell me about this book. Why write a book?

Well, if I thought about writing a book, it would have been science fiction or a fantasy book. And I had stories bouncing around in my head sometimes. I thought one of these days I’ll write this story but then life got in the way. I was in this relationship and when it ended with Christine, she said, you should write my story one of these days. So finally that’s when I sat down and did.

Q: And she didn’t want to write it?

No, she said, I’m not the writer. You’re the writer.

Q: So you wrote it with Christine’s blessings and encouragement. So let’s turn to the book. Tell me about the book. What is it about?

The book is my memoir as a vessel to tell Christine’s story. It’s a story that during and our relationship, as she felt safer and she started talking to me about her past, and telling me her life story. I thought it was a story worth telling. And so this book is how I came to learn her story. And my method of sharing it with the world.

Q: So really it’s about you learning her story, interestingly enough. So it’s about her story, but kind of overarching, that is your experience of learning her story. So in that kind of cocoon, what would you say is the promise of the book?

It has a new front cover now, but that’s besides the point, yeah. The promise of the book basically is that you’re not alone. If you had an abusive childhood, if you grew up with a sexually abusive father, if you’re struggling to come to terms with your sexuality…. you’re not alone. There are other people who have gone on through this. Christine thought she was the only one for a lot of years until she started discovering from other sources.

Q: That’s really important because I think that’s true. I think a lot of kids who face abuse, particularly severe abuse I don’t mean the regular smack on the behind here and there, as that it wasn’t abuse when you were a kid. And it wasn’t abuse when I was a kid - it might be considered abuse now, I don’t know. We’re not talking about those experiences, but when we have severe abuse, very traumatic experiences, we do think we are the only person in the whole world and somehow it’s our fault and we should keep it a secret and it’s shameful, right? So once the book was out in the world, did Christine read it? What did she think of it? Can you tell us? If you’re willing to just talk a little about how she felt about it.

Christine was the first person anywhere to actually buy by the book. She’s back living in England. I told her the publishing date it would be available. And then she was the very first person to be in a bookshop. Basically, the day came out before I had any copies in my hand, she had a copy. So there were a lot of things in the book because of the flashbacks in her story. And there were a lot of things in the book that I was concerned that she would pick up on and say, well, this isn’t how it happened, or that wasn’t the case, but no, nothing. Even the parts of the story where I had to use a little artistic license. The only criticism she had of the whole book was that it made me (her) sound flaky. I never actually called her flaky. But if you read the book, there’s a lot of push pull and yeah. So that was her only criticism.

Q: She felt she came across as flaky, but I don’t think that was your intention. I guess it can be hard to get into depth on, on one issue when you’re really focused on something else. It’s a bit of a balance. You can’t write a 1000 page book and bring in every aspect of her so I can imagine that would be a challenge. You supported her for many years and she’s supporting you in the book. That’s lovely. So I’d like to turn to talking about your author journey. This is your first full length memoir, manuscript. What was your book journey like?

Long and at times tough. A couple of years after she left me, I said, yes, I should write her book. So I sat down writing it out longhand, This is fairly early days of computer stuff. I’m writing long hand. I had this girl typing it up for me. I got to parts of the book, which were too painful, too raw for me to deal with. It had only been a few years. So I put it all away, and I just left it for many years. Then one day I thought I should work on this. I read through what I’d written, probably tore all up, threw it away, and thought about it for a while. Then little threads of ideas started coming into my head, almost as if I was being fed the opening sequence, or lines or how this paragraph should fit into the story. By then I’m sitting down at the computer and typing it myself. So it was probably 10 years or more in the writing, maybe 15 but with a big gap in the middle of tearing it up and getting back to it.

Q: I think there’s a difference between writing your memoir to sort through it, to heal, to find, you know, that, that release and writing your memoir for readership, for an audience, for the public. What you just said, you know, I wrote it and then it hurt too much and I walked away and then I came back and I tore it up and I wrote it again. I think that’s a very common story for people who write memoirs that are, that are difficult and challenging and painful. I, I believe that your experience is not outside of the norm for memoir writers. Tell me when your biggest challenge was writing the book.

I didn’t have the experience of writing. I left school at 15 with no qualifications. When I was at school, my English teacher ended up disappearing halfway through my first term there, and her place was taken by another woman. I don’t think her focus really was much in teaching the class. I could have done with better English skills.

Q: And so what did you, what did you do about that? What did you do to overcome that?

I wrote it in my own words. I wrote it basically, I guess, as I talk to get it down on paper first. Then I went back and went through parts of it, but it was never going to be readable until I got it to the editors.

Q: I think you make a good point. If you have a story and you have a message that you want to get across, whether you have a PhD in English or you left school at 15 doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have something to say, you have a story to tell, and you have a message that is important. And if that’s true, just getting it out in whatever form you can, and then allowing somebody else to support you through the process of taking what you’ve put down and helping you mold it into something that is a saleable book that other people will read and get that message from. That’s the job of a good editor, right? I think the lesson here is if you have a story, but you don’t think you’re a writer, don’t let it get in your way, just get it out, somehow, get the help you need to get the story out, because these are important stories that need to be told.

Until it’s written down somewhere on paper or on the computer nobody can add and or give you suggestions or anything else while it’s roaming around in your head. It’s not going to get any progress until you get it down on paper.

Q: And don’t worry about what it looks like the first time. Don’t worry about it. It can go through several revisions before you release it to the world. I wanted to talk a little about editing, because I remember you told me a story about one editor you had who, while editing the book, made a comment about a choice you had made during the relationship. I remember you telling me that story. And I remember as an editor, as a developmental editor being horrified, that somebody would have an opinion around the actual content of your choices, because when we’re writing a memoir… you talked about writing it and it hurts so much that you walked away from it. When we’re writing memoirs, especially about difficult things, this is our raw soul that we’re putting out there and these choices have been made. For anyone, especially a professional editor to say, you shouldn’t have said that, that must’ve… can you just tell us about that?

I needed an editor and so I looked at the Federation of BC Writers and the Canadian Association of Authors, and I found this professional editor that was available. I warned her about the content of the book being about abuse. She said that was no problem. So I paid her a retainer, and I gave her the first quarter or third of the book on paper printed and doubled space, so she could write in columns. Off she went. I didn’t hear anything for a while. And then I start getting stuff back from her. And there was a lot of really good advice, which I did follow, but there were also a lot of comments in there.

So one of the difficulties in this relationship was dealing with Christine’s parents and in places where she read this in the book, she was writing instructions on what I should do to deal with Christine’s parents. Well, this is 35, 40 years too late. But there were a lot of suggestions in there. And a lot of questions, why did you do it that way and not this? So yeah, there were comments like I wouldn’t do it the same way. But there were some really positive suggestions, which I did follow, and I went through to make the second, and third draft. But it still wasn’t in a state (where it was ready) and she basically dropped it. She sent back what she’d done and and she told me that she couldn’t do anymore for me. She wouldn’t charge anything and she dropped out. 

So very luckily I had two friends, both offered to do the edits, and I wasn’t totally convinced because I didn’t know enough about their backgrounds to know whether they were capable of editing the book. But I sent a copy off to each of them. And I got back very positive feedback. In fact, a lot of good instructions, a lot of help. And I followed both for their sort of instructions. We worked the whole thing. And it was still a few little bits and pieces when it ended up in front of the proofreader just before it went to press. The two friends cost me nothing and without them it would really be tough to read it.

Q: And they did this without judgment. That’s the point I want to make. Professional editors are not there to judge the material. They can choose to edit it or not edit it, but they’re not there to make a judgment on the person writing the book or the characters in the book or, or whatnot. When you’re looking for an editor, that’s not what you want. So based on this experience, what would be your advice if somebody’s written a memoir and it’s really close to their heart and they certainly don’t want to be judged. What’s your advice for finding a good editor? Would you ask certain questions next time?

I asked some basic questions. I did warn her that there was sexual abuse in the story. She said, oh yeah, that’s no problem. I think I should have looked a bit deeper into her history and found out more about what she had edited, maybe asked other published writers. I still think that the Federation of BC Writers is a good place to look. I was very new to that. And so I didn’t know enough to search their website.

Q: Wherever you live, there are an editors’ association, writers’ association, and an authors’ association. You can go there looking for editors. And if you’re writing a memoir, I think it’s important to find an editor who knows how to edit a memoir. Editing a memoir is very different than editing a fiction book. Parts of the story, yes… that’s the story. Although in a memoir you don’t have to give every single fact, you do need to be truthful. And certainly as an author, you don’t want to be judged for it. So will you write another book?

I don’t think so. There is so much work involved and certainly don’t write your book if you’re looking for reward. You would have to maybe write a lot of books before you start percolating (rewards). I do have a story that rolls around in my head and it’s very different. It’s definitely not memoir. It is a little bit of a time travel or at least a story where one woman finds she’s accidentally going back in time and continuously worried about being trapped in the past. And she’s equally worried about being trapped in the here and now because she wants to go back. She wants to come forward and spend time with her parents. So I don’t know, I think about it and I’ve done a bit of background research on the timeline. We’ll see.

Q: I think you have another book in you, Mr. MacArthur. French toast... tell us where can we buy French toast?

Pretty much everywhere. So Christine walked into a bookstore in Essex in England and bought her copy. My sister-in-law walked into a bookstore. So paperbacks, any bookstore should be able to order you one. Ebooks, Amazon, Kindle, Apple books… pretty much anywhere. Everywhere.

Q: Good distribution. Well done. Excellent. I’m assuming there’s some photographs behind you that you have taken. Colin, thank you for joining me today. I really appreciated it.

Thank you for inviting me.

Links Buy Colin's book: French Toast

Let me know what you thought of the book in the comments! – Keep writing Melody Ann

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Q: And she didn’t want to write it?

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