For Vicki Laveau-Harvie, raw emotion has no place in the act of writing a memoir, even one as harrowing as The Erratics. “I believe really sincerely that I won’t write anything that will have an impact for other people if I’m not paying attention to craft, if I’m writing it in the heat of emotion,” the author says in a call to her home in Sydney, Australia. “That would be like reading somebody’s diary. That’s not as interesting as memoir.”
The Erratics is anything but uninteresting. Rather than a way to release emotional pain, its careful and artful creation was an opportunity to explore a constellation of life events that had long resisted Laveau-Harvie’s efforts to commit them to the page. Readers who can relate to her story will find comfort in knowing that there are others who understand what they’ve endured. Those who cannot imagine such goings-on will have their eyes opened to what it might be like to have a father who seemed to lack any protective instincts and a mother who relished telling her children, “I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.”
After surviving a traumatic childhood, Laveau-Harvie left her home in Canada to attend university in France, where she remained for 27 years until she and her husband and children moved to Australia in 1988. In 2006, Laveau-Harvie’s elderly mother broke her hip and was hospitalized. “My sister and I decided to go without thinking much about it,” she says. “They were our parents. Our father was in need of our help, so we went.”
“That has been the best part of all this, connecting with people.”
The memoir opens as the author and her sister, both estranged from their parents for nearly 20 years, arrive in Canada and soon realize that their mother has been starving and isolating their father. The sisters attempt to find appropriate care for their mother, whom they know requires mental health care, in order to protect their increasingly frail father. Old pain and fear are dragged back into the light, and it’s often not clear whether the women will be able to save their father from their mother, or save themselves from having to return to a place where they endured so much anguish.
Laveau-Harvie didn’t begin writing The Erratics until six years after this initial act of daughterly duty. The memoir’s form is often poetic, sometimes impressionistic, with hits of dark humor. “I wanted the writing to be spare,” she says. “I wanted the movement between direct speech and thought to be fluid. That’s why there are no quotation marks. I wanted that distance to be there in the way I told the story.” This creative choice echoes the distance she put between herself and her lived experiences. “That’s what I had to do to survive,” she says.
In testament to its broad emotional resonance, The Erratics gained critical acclaim upon its initial publication in Australia, which was itself an emotional roller coaster. Laveau-Harvie put the manuscript in a drawer for two years after writing it and only brought it out again after she had applied for a week at a nearby writers’ retreat. An author there urged her to try to publish her story, and she took their advice. “Finch [a small Australian press] had a memoir prize of publication and $5,000,” she says. “It’s a well-known prize, one of the few for memoir here. So I did submit my manuscript [in 2018], and I won. I was flabbergasted! It was a wonderful opportunity.”
Then things took a turn. Finch closed down after Laveau-Harvie’s book had been in print for just six months. “I was casting about for what to do,” she recalls. “Do I self-publish? Sell it on a street corner? I had no idea, and no experience in the publishing world.” She gained some experience in short order, though, when she won the prestigious Stella Prize in 2019 (and its $50,000 purse), secured an agent and was signed by a major publisher. The Erratics was published in the U.K. and Australia in 2019 and is being published in the U.S. and Canada in 2020. “It’s been a fairy tale!” she says.
From start to finish, The Erratics offers moments of wonder and beauty amid struggle and distress.
As for the enthusiastic response from readers, Laveau-Harvie muses, “After the book came out, people would say, ‘You’ve written my story.’ I’d think, no, I haven’t. I’ve written my story. But themes of aging, estrangement, mental health issues in families and their destructiveness, the different ways people cope—those are universal kinds of things.” She adds, “That has been the best part of all this, connecting with people—once I got over the shock of people who didn’t know me buying my book.”
It’s no wonder those early readers expressed such excitement. From start to finish, The Erratics offers moments of wonder and beauty amid struggle and distress. There are lovely and affirming reunions with long-lost family members and many lyrical contemplations of the Canadian landscape that sustained the author first as a child and again when she returned so many years later.
During those intervening years, Laveau-Harvie, who is now 77, endeavored to recover from the family dysfunction that serves as the centerpiece of her moving and memorable debut book. “I’ve done a lot of work on myself,” she says. “I’ve been getting the monkeys off my back for many years.”
Author photo © Michael Chetham.