Tragedy at a Distance: Suzette Mayr Discusses Monoceros with Prairie books NOW
Quentin Mills-Fenn profiles Suzette Mayr in the summer edition of Prairie books NOW. In their discussion, Mayr opens up about the real-life tragedy that motivated her book, and about the difficulties of incorporating humour into a story about suicide. Mayr's Giller-nominated novel, Monoceros, came out last spring from Coach House:
Out of the Closet: New Novel Brings Gay Teen Suicide to the Forefront
Suzette Mayr says the source for her latest book was very close to home.
“The inspiration for the novel came about eight or nine years ago, when my partner was teaching in a high school where a student committed suicide after being bullied for being gay,” Mayr says.
“My partner never taught this young man and she only knew him by sight, but it affected her quite profoundly – to the point that she quit her job and made a radical career change. Witnessing her trying to deal with her grief as someone who didn’t know him but still felt connected to him also affected me.
“I felt terrible for her and him. It felt like a member of the tribe had fallen and he wasn’t being given the recognition he deserved. I was compelled to write about it.”
The result is Monoceros, the story of Patrick Furey, a young gay teenager, his suicide, and those around him who didn’t try to save him: his boyfriend, his closeted school principal, his classmates, his mother, and others. The characters display a range of feelings. Some refuse to accept any of the blame despite their culpability, while others come to acknowledge their part in the tragedy.
“I didn’t set out consciously to represent a variety of reactions,” Mayr says. “I guess this came from my trying to make each character unique and specific. A natural offshoot of this was that they each reacted to Patrick’s death differently, and saw themselves in relation to Patrick much differently.”
One of Patrick’s classmates is Faraday. Her uncle, a drag artiste who goes by the name of Crêpe Suzette (at least when she’s performing), is an outrageous figure who counterbalances the darkness of the rest of the story.
“The humour definitely wasn’t intentional when I began the book. What I believe happened over the course of writing the novel is that it came to illustrate the maxim that ‘comedy is tragedy at a distance,’” she says.
“The less a character knows of Patrick, the more comic that character becomes because in addition to thinking about Patrick, that character is also thinking about his or her life and its mundane details like bad hair days and hangovers.”
That’s why, for example, “the parts around Patrick’s mother, Gretta, and his boyfriend, Ginger, are not funny, while parts around Faraday – who basically had no contact with Patrick, really – are funnier.”
Although she says she was driven to write the book, Mayr confesses that the process had its challenges.
“In some ways it was easy because I had a plot from the very beginning,” says Mayr. “It would be a book about a young man who commits suicide and the effects of his suicide on different people around him. [But] I found the material really heart wrenching and difficult at times. I worried too that readers might think that I was making light of suicide when that wasn’t my intention at all.”
Mary knows that different readers will have different responses to the book.
“I guess I hope that they will come away with having seen a corner of the world and an experience they didn’t necessarily know about before.”