Toronto-born author Craig Davidson shared his insights into memory, individuality and the writing process during a talk at the Memorial Park Library on Sept. 11.
The event, one of the previews leading up to WordFest 2018, also featured Davidson reading an excerpt from his most recent book, The Saturday Night Ghost Club.
The book focusses on a neurosurgeon, Jake Baker, as an adult and during the events from the summer when he was 12 years old and joined his eccentric Uncle Calvin in creating the titular club and investigating urban legends and ghost stories.
Over the course of that summer, amid exploring Niagara Falls, Ont., first love and “the zone between adulthood and childhood,” Jake realizes that his uncle’s interest in the supernatural stems from some long-repressed event from Calvin’s past.
In creating Jake, Davidson drew on his experiences interacting with children during his stint as a bus driver in Calgary, an experience he later wrote about in his 2016 memoir Precious Cargo.
“A 12-year-old sees the world in a different way than an adult does,” said Davidson, explaining his process for creating the voice and personality of young Jake.
“I couldn’t have gerrymandered the thoughts or expressions.”
In the course of writing this latest book, Davidson also read a lot of “crunchy” scientific theory on the ways brains and, in particular, memory function.
This was partly because he wrote the book as a PhD dissertation on the value of memory and the way other writers have used it as a theme.
He also listed some of his influences as Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Ann-Marie MacDonald.
“I was really fascinated with the way all three of those authors dealt with memory,” Davidson said.
He was especially interested in memory traces, or engrams, changes in the brain that represent things such as experiences “stored” as memories.
A large part of the book’s plot relies on the tendency of brains to be tricked by false memories and to repress memories of bad experiences. Two people who experience the same event can end up with drastically different memories of it.
“Every author has their own thing they fetishize,” said Davidson.
For him, that thing is brains.
He described repressed, painful memories as “a poisoned honeypot.” The driving idea behind The Saturday Night Ghost Club was the effort the brain will make to uncover those memories.
“It’s like Bluebeard’s castle,” Davidson said. “A locked door in the brain.”
Another element of the book is the shift from childhood to adulthood and the changes that do and do not occur in a person because of that.
The character of Uncle Calvin is described as a harmless eccentric, an “odd duck.”
Davidson commented that the person who retains that spark of eccentricity and individuality in the face of societal pressure is something of a rarity.
Davidson also shared some of his writing process and his own growth as an author.
“My writing, in a very clear, fundamental way, reflects the way that I’ve changed as I’ve aged.”
He has written under two pen names, Patrick Lestewka and Nick Cutter, and described his early books as being “angry young man books.”
“You can’t give readers the same thing over and over,” he said.
Davidson, who has also written for newspapers, described writing as a muscle. If used daily, it will respond daily.
“Writers don’t always have the luxury of writer’s block.”
He also described his experiences of writing to fill column inches, writing to a deadline and writing in order to eat.
“The best antidote to writer’s block is the landlord knocking,” said Davidson.
“It was interesting to learn his process,” said Mike Kerr, a teacher of illustration and comic book art at ACAD, who attended the event.