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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

The Chat with JD Derbyshire

DERBYSHIRE_JD_Credit Ben Laird

Author JD Derbyshire has written a powerful and genre-bending debut, a novel Ivan Coyote calls "a book to carry with you forever." Told in recollections, daydreams, poetry, and lists, Mercy Gene is a gorgeous, funny, and sometimes brutal look at queerness, gender confusion, institutionalization, addiction, and abuse.

JD Derbyshire (they/them) is a Vancouver-based comedian, theatre maker, writer, and mad activist whose work examines mental health, neurodiversity, queerness, and gender exploration. Derbyshire has toured Canada as a stand-up comedian and solo performer; has written over twenty plays that have been produced by companies in Victoria, Calgary, Toronto, and Vancouver; and co-hosts the mental health podcast Mad Practice. Their play Certified, which served as partial inspiration for Mercy Gene, turns the audience into a mental health review board to determine Derbyshire’s sanity by the end of the show. Certified won two Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards in Vancouver and was described by the Georgia Straight as "a testament to a dynamic performance and delicate storytelling." Mercy Gene is Derbyshire’s first novel.


Mercy Gene is your first novel, though you’ve performed on stage in theatre and comedy for some time. What’s it like to make the leap from performance to the page?


Don’t tell the stage but I’ve got a real crush on the page. Don’t get me wrong, I love the connection to other human beings that live performance brings, the exhilaration, a particular kind of anxiety that can be harnessed as high-flying energy, it’s a lot of fun. But the deeper calm of working on a book, having lots of time to think deeply and find the best words you can at that moment in time, that’s such a different feeling. I appreciated this calmer way of working and dealing with my own private anxiety if you will.

In theatre, everything revs up to opening night and it’s incredibly tense. It’s hard to keep up on the basics like eating and sleeping. And now little opening nights are happening all over the place as the book is out there now being experienced by each reader in their time, in their way, that’s a great feeling too. Opening night for me was when I went to my mailbox and found a box from my publishers. I opened it and there were some books with my name on them. That was a real thrill. Maybe the crush with the page will pass. I doubt it though. I probably have a few word loves now.
This such a gorgeous, heartfelt, hilarious, and unusually structured novel. I loved it. What was the hardest part of the writing?

The hardest part was getting my own doubt to stand down. I’m dyslexic and have a few other brain injuries and it’s been impossible to believe that I could get something to make sense on the page. Theatre and stand up are ephemeral forms. I’m the only one who sees what I’ve written down. Sure, plays for other people eventually need to be formatted and spell checked but even then, actors and directors are super forgiving, especially with new work. Red pen scribbles and corrections happen right up to opening night and it’s ok if everything’s a mess. I never chased having my plays published because it didn’t make sense to me, plays are meant to be seen. Although, I read a lot of plays so maybe it was just the big bad wolf of fear again blowing me away into believing I’d never get it right. 
So, I gave myself a few permissions that really helped me keep the doubt at bay.

  1. Do the first draft like I do all my other writing. Write out loud. Record and transcribe.
  2. I didn’t have to write in order.
  3. A low daily word count—100 words
  4. An editor/friend I could be accountable to. I could send her the pieces as I finished them and I felt like someone was holding them, that someone cared.
  5. Revisit, rewrite, revisit, rewrite, revisit, rewrite.
  6. Trust that the pieces would tell me what order they need to be in.

What is one thing you’d like readers to know about you that they might not get from the novel?

Sometimes, I draw cartoons badly with my left-hand to keep myself connected to Planet Earth. I still shoot hoops. I don’t play basketball; I just shoot hoops. I have trouble with questions that ask for just one thing.

I am grateful to be alive at least 60% of the time.

Author Miriam Toews appears as a fictional character in the book, and she also gives what must be one of the most incredible blurbs in history. How does it feel having her in your corner?

It was such a long shot, but I asked my editor Beth Gibson to reach out to Miriam Toews to ask if she’d read the book. I never expected she would. In fact, I worried that I might get in trouble, that Miriam Toews would tell me the book couldn’t describe JD as a figment of her imagination.

But Miriam Toews read it, apparently all in one go, she said she couldn’t put it down, and she really liked it. At first, I couldn’t believe it was real. This is a common experience for me. As a person who lives with psychosis, I have a different relationship to so-called reality I don’t always feel confident to vouch for reality. The day the email arrived with Miriam Toews' full blurb; I had a high fever as I was just getting through a bad round of Covid. I read it and fell back into one of those tossing and turning sleeps. I was laughing, too, trying to figure out how I did that. How did I write that most incredible blurb from Miriam Toews and somehow manage to make it look
like my editor had sent it?

When my fever broke, I read it again and immediately emailed my editor to see if it was all true. It was. I haven’t met Miriam Toews yet but if my Imaginary friend becomes my real friend, will that be psychosis for the win?
If you could whisper advice to your ten-year-old self right now, what would it be?
One day you will find me again and we will write a book together. So, keep making notes, and feeling what you feel and trusting what you see. I really appreciate your words. And keep talking to Edwin and find lots of other people you can talk to and trust. I know you love books but try to love people too. It’s true, most conversations are just first draft, and you get impatient when people can seem to get to the point, but people are way better to sleep with than books. Oh wait, you’re ten. More later.


Excerpt from Mercy Gene

We Ma We Ma We Ma

We arrived with some passing sirens, caught a free ride on the windy wail of sound waves, screeching like off-key cats learning opera. No one knew we were there. A perfect hiding spot, an auditory camouflage keeping us secret long enough to make it to the next brain that was ours to possess.

You gotta love this man-made yet unearthly sound. Intended to attract attention — clear the way, emergency, emergency, stop everything, let us through — so commanding. All to arrive as quickly as possible at the scene of a human failing of one sort or another. This sound can never mean anything good, although we’ve learned that, for some humans, a siren, like the ringing of a bell for a good Buddhist, can bring a person back to the here and now. A siren can remind poor humans how soft they really are, and that at any given moment they could run into something hard and non-negotiable. A siren brings them back to themselves because someone else just broke. Gratitude kisses their thoughts like morning dew, refreshes everything, clears the clutter, and triggers the giving of thanks for simple things: walking down

the street with all their bits in their right places, everything going tickety-boo, this body, for today, is complete, untorn, miraculous in how the bits work together. The senses sense. The nose smells the scent of a freshly sprayed dandelion patch, the mouth still tastes that last swill of coffee, swallowed in a rush, the hands brush toast crumbs off the cotton pants, the eyes track the ambulance as it passes by, the ears listen to the fading sound of an emergency moving farther and farther away from them and smack into the life of someone else. 

Poor humans and their constant banging about, accidental by nature, so easily distracted, so clumsy. Thin bags of blood and bone and soft organs, like wounded gazelles watching lions get closer and closer, waiting in the shade for their inevitable demise.

Even the biggest and strongest of the human men and women — and everything in between — are flowers; delicate, crushable flowers. And here we speak only of the body. Don’t get us started on the brain, which is designed, it seems, to break. It would have been more honest to make it out of glass. Then the poor humans would have half a chance of understanding how easily it can be damaged, how unavoidable chips and cracks are, and how high the odds really are of shattering the poor little sucker to smithereens. The thing should be covered in stickers: Fragile, Fragile, Seriously, This Side Up, Really Fucking Fragile! Don’t shake, don’t stir, don’t bang about, don’t hit, don’t fill with too many abstract ideas. Poor humans, so vulnerable, so obsessed with pretending not to be. Badly designed from the beginning, whenever that was.

Oh, they have their theories, they love their theories. When you think about evolution, for example, and we don’t mean deeply, we just mean when you think about that one idea about the retaining and strengthening of traits most favourable to survival in a species, and then you look at humans, how can you not say, “What the fuck, this is what made it through?”

And then there’s our sneaking suspicion that these glass-brained bags of blood lean toward self destruction. They’ve built a world of haves and have-nots surrounded by metal and concrete and glass and guns, fucking guns and bombs and chemicals and lest we forget, contact sports. They seem driven to make things up that hurt themselves. Including us. We are auditory hallucinations, we are not from the realm of hard realities, we are delusional. And we come from somewhere we don’t even know.

On the day we arrived, inside the passing sirens, we flew into the narrow ear canals of a thirteen-year-old girl. It was the spring of 1974, and it was you. You, Janice, dishevelled and confused behind some faded-green grain elevator in southern Alberta.

You had no idea that it wasn’t just broken beer-bottle glass at your feet. You had dropped your brain. And that’s how we got in, the voices in your head.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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