The Chat with Governor General's Literary Award Winner Don Gillmor

gillmor_don © Ryan Szulc

The winner of the 2019 Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction is Don Gillmor for his memoir To The River: Losing My Brother.

The jury says, “In clear, crisp prose, Gillmor has written a book that is searingly honest and heartbreakingly sad. From the story of his brother’s life and death to a larger exploration of white, middle-aged masculinity, Gillmor impresses us with his quiet insights. At one point, he asks, 'What are we anchored by?' His hard-earned wisdom holds us, here and beyond.”

Don Gillmor is one of Canada's most accomplished writers. He is the author of the bestselling, award-winning, two-volume Canada: A People’s History, and his journalism on suicide has earned him both a National Newspaper Award and a National Magazine Award. Gillmor’s other books include the novels Kanata, Mount Pleasant, and Long Change, all of which were published to critical acclaim, and nine children’s books, two of which were finalists for a Governor General’s Literary Award. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, with his wife and two children.



Congrats on your Governor General’s Literary Award, Don. Your memoir explores the impact and aftermath of your brother’s suicide. Why was it important to tell this story?

It was important for me, because writing was a way to work through my brother’s suicide. But I also hoped it would be a story that others who have lost someone to suicide would recognize and identify with. In the last several years the stigma around mental health has been diminishing. A conversation has started and I wanted to contribute to that conversation.

Writing through grief and loss can often be part of a much larger healing process. What was the most challenging or illuminating aspect of writing the book?

The most challenging part of the book was going up to Whitehorse to find out what I could about my brother’s death. He had walked into the Yukon River in December, just before it iced over. I went up the following June, after the ice came off. In an eerie coincidence, his body surfaced the day I arrived. Piecing together his life—talking to friends, band-mates, employers—was challenging, but it was also the most illuminating.

In part, the book considers the high rate of suicide among middle-aged men. What factors make this demographic particularly susceptible to suicide? What did you learn in your research?

I talked to sociologists who cited several factors. One was the idea that baby boomers hadn’t developed the coping mechanisms that earlier generations had had to. Another was an increasing sense of isolation. My generation tore down traditional structures—divorce rates went up, church-going went down. People tended not to work for the same company all their lives, and we are geographically dispersed. Women are more adept at bonding, while men can drift into a solitary world. Another reason is that boomers had such high expectations. We were born into that post-war optimism and felt we would change the world. We did, though not to the extent we had hoped. And middle-aged men are increasingly being shunted aside in some tech industries, making way for younger, more tech-savvy employees. These are all named as contributing factors, but depression is a factor in a significant percentage of suicides.

What’s your own litmus test, as a reader, for powerful memoir?

My own litmus test is whether I come to inhabit that world. They can take me there through the power of the story, or a character or the beauty of the language. But I want to find myself somewhere that is both unfamiliar and universal.

49thShelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

I recently re-read Miriam Toews’ wonderful novel All My Puny Sorrows. I’m reading Steven Price’s Lampedusa at the moment. The pace and detail of his books are enviable. And I’m reading Linden McIntyre’s new book The Wake: The Deadly Legacy of a Newfoundland Tsunami. I was at his book launch and he was asked if the book was memoir, history or journalism. He responded, “If the facts are strong, it’s history, if the facts are wrong, it’s memoir, if the facts are ambiguous, it’s journalism.” So a brilliant combination.


Excerpt from To The River

When we were children, my mother warned my brother, David, and I about the Red River, which flowed muddily near our house in Winnipeg, just beyond a wooded area thick with mystery. Don’t go near the river.

Inevitably, I gravitated to it. I sat with friends in the limbs of trees near the edge of the water, playing with Zippo lighters, analyzing superheroes. Poor Batman protected only by his wealth and his toys. A superhero without superpowers.

“Spiderman could swat him like a fly.”

“Superman could swat Spiderman like a fly.”

“Spiderman holding kryptonite?”

“Thor could take them both.”

“Thor’s not even a real guy.”

My brother was two and a half years younger than me, and our mother would regularly utter the words most older brothers dread: Take your little brother with you. So he would sit with us, a boy without guile, without information about the world (originally there had been eight Beatles but four died mysteriously, a friend told us with authority). A burden.

In spring, the mud-coloured Red gained momentum as the snow melted. Every spring we watched it rise, hopeful and fearful at the same time, wanting some drama in our lives but afraid of the consequences. Before we were born, in the Great Flood of 1950, the Red River rose more than thirty feet and produced an ad hoc lake that was sixty miles long. It swallowed our house, though it belonged to someone else then. Our whole neighbourhood was evacuated, among the hundred thousand Winnipeggers who had to leave their homes. Bob Hope gave an impassioned plea for aid on his show, which debuted that year. Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, came to our neighbourhood to view the damage, the start of their lengthy careers viewing colonial wreckage and parades. Every spring the Great Flood was invoked; the waters could rise and swallow us all.

Our neighbourhood, Wildwood Park, was contained in a loop in the river and bordered by a forest, a golf course and a private boys’ school. In the summer, parents simply opened the doors in the morning and we disappeared for the rest of the day. Sports rose and fell, baseball games, ball hockey games. Cliques formed and splintered. In the evening we played kick the can until after dark when our mothers finally called us home.

A staple was guns. “Do you want to play guns?” someone would say. And kids would race home and return with their latest plastic weapons. Except my brother and me. Our mother wouldn’t let us own toy guns, a revolutionary and unwelcome stance in the 1960s. We were the least dangerous kids for miles.

“Everyone else has one,” I told my mother.

“You’re not everyone else,” she said.

“What am I supposed to use to defend myself?”

“You can use a stick.”

A stick. Armed with a stick, and sent out against machine guns and grenade launchers. It didn’t matter that none of those guns—the cap guns, the lever action Winchester rifles, the plastic grenades that were supposed to explode on impact—behaved the way they did in commercials. A stick was, in fact, a more effective weapon. But the game of guns, insofar as it was an actual game, was about recreating the heroics of war. Crawling around the dogwood bushes with a toy rifle and a plastic knife in your belt lent an authenticity to the experience that a stick failed to do.

Not being able to buy guns removed a fundamental part of the game for my brother and me—the tactile joy of that plastic hardware. There was more fun to be found in the acquiring of weapons than in actually using them. In 1964, when the first Johnny Seven OMA (One Man Army) arrived in my neighbourhood with its seven functions (anti-tank rocket, anti-bunker missile, repeating rifle, grenade launcher, Tommy gun, automatic pistol, armour-piercing shell), it started an arms race. Every parent heard roughly the same arguments that the Pentagon was giving to Congress in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis: in order to survive in a dangerous world we need more weaponry, which means more money, which means a world safe for democracy.

Neither my brother nor I was comforted by the fact that the plastic bullets from the Johnny Seven started their downward trajectory pretty much right out of the barrel and the grenades only launched a few feet in what seemed like slow motion. As pedants pointed out in the critical death tally that ran through our gun narrative (“I got you!” “Did not! I got you!”), if it had been a real grenade, the launcher would have been blown up along with the target.

“But it wasn’t a real grenade.”

“If it wasn’t real, then how can I be dead?”

This line of inquiry often ended in an almost Foucauldian deconstruction of the fantasy we inhabited, which was, after all, held up only by unanimous belief. A single doubter could throw our whole world into question. We were dead or alive by consensus. Some, like my little brother, refused to die, regardless of how blatant the hit, how proximate the grenade, how many reliable witnesses confirmed it. He wouldn’t acknowledge the red streak on his chest where the plastic knife had torn out his heart. He refused death, arguing that while he had suffered a wound, certainly, it hadn’t been fatal because his years of guerilla training had made him all but immune to flesh wounds. Or he had managed to put up an invisible force field developed by the military only hours earlier that had deflected the plastic bullets. We all wanted to live. To die was to be excluded for the rest of the game. And though the game was ill defined and interspersed with stretches of boredom and confusion and frustration and malfunctioning equipment, we wanted to be a part of it.

Maybe it wasn’t even a game. There were few rules, no referees, and no reliable way of keeping score. Occasionally our debates over who was dead descended into actual fighting. When this happened we left the battlefield and went home and turned on the black and white television in the living room to find something like Jack LaLanne’s exercise show, then turned it off and got out the comics and lay on the floor and reread them.

Then we’d get bored and drift down to the slippery clay banks of the Red River, which had a decayed vegetal smell. Occasionally we pulled small crayfish out of the muck, blind and grey, and examined them. In a small clearing we once found a mouldy blanket and an empty package of cigarettes and two condoms, evidence of a crime we couldn’t entirely articulate. Perhaps a famous actress had been there, or someone’s mother. We abandoned that mystery and climbed a tree near the water, where we sat on a limb, watching for bodies floating up from crime-riddled America.

My sister, Alison, arrived six years after David, nine years after me, and the family geometry shifted, with David now the middle child. And it meant he and I had to share a bedroom. He was an eccentric roommate. One night I heard him get up and go downstairs. My mother heard him too and found David in the living room, still fast asleep, urinating on our television set. He developed an odd habit of thumping his head against his pillow. He did it to get to sleep, he told me, which seemed counterproductive.

Excerpted from To The River by Don Gillmor. Copyright © 2018 Don Gillmor. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

November 14, 2019
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