Grant Lawrence is probably best known to Canadians as a voice on the radio (or podcast). He has been the host of various CBC Radio shows for years, and has weekly podcast, CBC Radio 3 Podcast with Grant Lawrence, that showcases Canadian indie music. He was also the lead singer in The Smugglers, an indie rock band out of Vancouver. Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nude Potluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound is a collection of, generally hilarious, memories from his childhood summers spent in a remote cottage in northern B.C. Adventures in Solitude was a finalist for the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and is also a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize. TRB caught up with Lawrence via email to talk about his book and growing up.
TRB: Growing up with a cottage is an experience a lot of Canadians can relate to, but your family’s cottage took everything one step further. What did you tell people about Desolation Sound when you were growing up?
GL: I wouldn’t! I would really try to avoid the subject if it was ever brought up. In Vancouver, a lot of my friends in school had cottages in places like the Okanagan, the Gulf Islands, or Whistler. Popular, NORMAL places where there were lots of families and safe activities for kids. Our cabin experience in Desolation Sound was so opposite to that that I was embarrassed of the place and would never tell my friends about it. My sister and I wanted the Dirty Dancing-esque idyllic cottage life, instead what we got was a cross between The Beachcombers and The Shining.
TRB: Kids often use humour as a coping mechanism and then, when they get older, start actually seeing the humour in various situations. Was that the case for you?
GL: Yes, I think so, though I’ve never analyzed it like that. Certainly humour was a survival mechanism for me in Desolation Sound, usually trading sarcastic comments back and forth with my sister when we were put in uncomfortable situations, like being clothed at a nude potluck. When I was a nerd and a dork in elementary and high school, humour was definitely a survival tool that got me through a lot of potentially painful situations, physically and mentally.
TRB: You have a background in writing for radio as well as writing the tour diaries of The Smugglers – how was the transition to narrative non-fiction?
GL: It was quite a challenge. For the past ten years I have told stories on the radio, and those have a very distinct arc and “hit” points, where I must fit a story into a three to four minute box, with a hook at the beginning, rising drama or humour, and a big punch at the end, with some type of change in me occurring. Essentially writing the book was the same exercise, just much, much more expansive, with allowances for lots context, set up, and detours… elements that either don’t exist or oral story-telling or must be covered extremely quickly for fear of losing the listener. Not so much with the reader, as I discovered, otherwise this book would have been very short.
TRB: To write a memoir at your age means many of the people you talk about may well still be alive; did you ever worry about that while you were writing?
GL: A little bit. Several of the characters in the book are indeed still alive, and mostly they have all read it, and mostly, they have all enjoyed it. I was certainly sensitive to how I portrayed certain people, and did check to see if they were cool about certain unsavoury details, like for instance Bernard the German’s drug use in the 60s and 70s that led to health problems later in life. He was cool with it. There is a concern from some neighbours that the book’s popularity will negatively affect Desolation Sound, but with no roads and water access only, I’m hoping there won’t be. Though this summer there were several occurrences of people coming by in boats trying to figure out which cabin was ours. My wife calls them “Bookie Lookies.”
TRB: You’re well known as a music guy, both because of your many roles with the CBC and your days with The Smugglers, and even though Adventures in Solitude isn’t a music book, it’s title comes from a song. Do you think you’ll ever write about your experience in/with Canadian music?
GL: Yes, I think that will probably be the subject of my next book! I thought it would be my first book, but I found when I sat down to write about music, it wasn’t flowing naturally. As you mentioned, I’m a “music guy,” more officially a music journalist, so I live it and breath it five days a week, sometimes seven, and as I have said many times, sometimes when you work at Burger King Monday to Friday you don’t want to eat a Whopper on Saturday night, so I was drawn to other subjects that inspired me, namely the characters within Desolation Sound. I think there’s been enough time since my band’s retirement that I can take another crack at it.
TRB: On your blog you recently wrote about closing up the cottage for the winter. As a kid, Desolation Sound was a scary, or at least strange, place. Do you remember when you first started to see the charm in it?
GL: Scary, strange, and boring all at the same time! I don’t think I started seeing the charm of the place until I returned after my band wound down like an old dog. I’ll always remember cresting the final hill and seeing the sparkling Sound in its oceanic glory for the first time in about 10 or 12 years and was just astounded at how beautiful it was. The smells, the sights, the nature, everything. I had spent a decade and a half in rock clubs painted black and the Sound was the polar opposite. I couldn’t believe I had forsaken it for so long and pretty much fell head over heels in love with what I had once found so scary, strange, and boring. Now my wife can’t pull me away from the place, and the book is my love letter to it.
Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nude Potluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound is available from Harbour Publishing ($26.95)