At 77, Alberta expat Vicki Laveau-Harvie has become a literary sensation in her adopted home of Australia

Author Vicki Laveau-Harvie, who wrote the memoir The Erratics. Photo by Michael Chetham jpg

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Despite the serious, uncomfortable and potentially psyche-damaging subject matter, there is a fairy tale element to the story behind Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s first book, The Erratics.

Well, maybe it’s more like a belated fairy tale.

Because the 77-year-old Alberta native got an unquestionably late start in the book publishing business. The Erratics is a memoir that follows Laveau-Harvie’s return to her parents’ home in Okotoks after an 18-year estrangement and is immediately reminded of the horrors that came with living with her mother’s extreme narcissistic personality disorder.

It had simply begun as a writing exercise for Laveau-Harvie, a translator who escaped her bleak life in Alberta as a young woman by moving to France and then Australia. It became a publishing sensation in the writer’s adopted homeland. It won the 2019 Stella Prize, a prominent $50,000 Australian literary award for women writers.

Earlier this summer, The Erratics was published in North America. Its arrival on the continent was met with a glowing review from the New York Times.

“That was a great thing to wake up to,” says Laveau-Harvie, in an interview from her home in Sydney, Australia, about her sudden arrival on the literary scene.

“I’ve been so delighted in meeting so many people and so different from what I did when I was working and what I’ve been doing since. It’s been a wonderful ride. I’ve had a terrific time and I’ve met wonderful people and it’s expanded my horizons amazingly. Which is something quite unusual to be able to say 10 years after you’ve retired.”

The book gets its name from foothills erratics terrain, a collection of boulders that were carried and then deposited on the prairies, including along the eastern flanks of the Rockies in Alberta. But it serves as a central metaphor in the book, which is a darkly comic look at a woman who terrorized her family and those around her while in the grips of narcissistic personality disorder.

Leaveu-Harvie’s mother was a pathological liar who twisted reality to suit her needs, whether it be making up relatives and children and then killing them off for sympathy or faking her own death. Through it all, she managed to keep Laveau-Harvie and her sister isolated from other family members for most of their early childhood in Black Diamond and Turner Valley.

Laveau-Harvie had been estranged from her parents for nearly two decades when she reluctantly decided to return to Alberta after fearing her father, an oil worker who was just as victimized by his wife as their children, had died. Laveau-Harvie and her sister discovered he was still alive but barely and was more-or-less being starved by their mother, who was also depleting the family resources by sending money to various con artists.

A few months later, her mother broke her hip and Laveau-Harvie returned once more to Alberta, only to discover that a web of lies had been told to hospital staff about her and her sister (including that Laveau-Harvie was wanted by Interpol.)

Laveau-Harvie had always written, but never really put much effort into getting published. But she felt the years back in Alberta in the early 2000s provided a good framework and jumping-off point for her to tell her story.

“I always wanted to write about my family but had way too much material,” she said. “This six-year period, after my mom broke her hip, gave me a storyline really. It gave me something where I could remember things and bring the past in at points in that story. It was a way to find a path into the backstory.”

Eventually, Laveau-Harvie attended a writer’s retreat in Australia that specialized in writing memoirs. She submitted it to a writing contest, which led to its publication and, eventually, the Stella Prize win. But while the book became a sensation, much of the praise — including the New York Times review — pointed out how Laveau-Harvie so often breaks the rules of the memoir.

Initially, the book was only meant to be a personal writing challenge that Laveau-Harvie gave herself. It was not meant to be cathartic, nor was it meant to offer any sort of guidance for others. She has been asked so many times whether or not the writing process was cathartic that she actually wrote an essay for The Guardian in May 2019 outlining why it wasn’t.

“There’s nothing wrong with cathartic writing or whatever you want to call it, but . . . just keep a diary,” she says with a laugh. “If you’re going to write something that you think might have some merit as words on a page, I think you need some distance. You need to think about your craft. How do I shape this? How do I tell this? Is it a memoir or is it something else? You need to have a go at it and decide how you want to tell it and what voice you want to tell it in. I was really taken by that process.”

Laveau-Harvie spent her first eight years in Black Diamond and Turner Valley before the family moved to Calgary and later Regina. She studied at U of C before moving to France. In 1988, she moved to Australia and continued to work as an academic and translator until she retired more than a decade ago.

She said she knew something was amiss with her family early on in her childhood.

“My mother kept us very separate from my father’s family and from her own brothers. We did not see a lot of other people except when we went to school,” she says. “That’s when I realized, and I imagine my sister did too, that something was different. I didn’t put a name on it until I went to university and took a psychology course.”

It was not until she began attending book signings and readings that she realized the story had the ability to hit a universal chord with readers.

“People come up to me at book signings and say ‘You’ve written my story,’ ” she says. “The first time that happened I thought ‘That can’t be true.’ But, in fact, we all have families one way or another and we’ve all had problems. Mine were just dramatic. But everyone has problems and I think there’s a lot more difficulties with mental-health problems than people admit.”

 

 

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