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The Chat with Kelly S. Thompson

Kelly S Thompson_credit Krystina Marie Photography

Author Kelly S. Thompson returns with another powerful memoir. Still, I Cannot Save You tells the story of Thompson’s relationship with her older sister, Meghan. Tested by addiction, abuse, and illness, the sisters’ relationship crumbles, only to deepen again in the months before Meaghan’s death. 

Writer Lindsay Wong says, "Told with candour and unflinching humour, Still, I Cannot Save You is a compelling portrait of a complicated sisterly love. Thompson is a master storyteller who asks readers to examine their turbulent relationships with troubled family members and the incredible bonds that hold us together. Her beautiful and affecting prose will leave you with a terrible ache in your chest. It will shatter your heart and then mend it together with tenderness and finely-wrought insight. I sobbed, laughed, and cheered for Thompson and her sister. Heroic and unforgettable.”

Kelly S. Thompson is a retired military officer who holds an MFA and a PhD in Creative Writing, and has been published in Chatelaine, Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, and more. Her debut memoir, Girls Need Not Apply, was named a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book and was an instant bestseller. She works as a mentor for the University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and lives in Nova Scotia with her military spouse and bull terrier.


Still, I Cannot Save You explores your complicated relationship with your sister, Meghan, who died a few years ago. When did you begin working on the memoir?

I actually started writing the book while Meghan was dying, right in the deep dark stages of the loss and grief. She would drift in and out of sleep in her hospice bed, and I would type away, occasionally jotting notes and sometimes excavating entire scenes, which strikes me as a miracle because I was entirely exhausted. How did I create anything in the wake of that? So, even though it nearly killed me, I finished the first draft about six months after she died.

The story of your relationship is so powerful and moving, in all its honesty and humour. You speak truthfully about the estrangements, the anger, the love, the eventual reconciliation. What would you most like readers to know about Meghan?

Oh! What a great question. I think above all, I want people to know that Meghan—like all of us—was so much more than the sum of her mistakes. Yes, she struggled with addiction. Yes, she made bad choices, right alongside many of my own. But my sister was hilarious, full of such spice and vibrancy that it literally radiated from her. What made her most magical was her capacity for forgiveness and love in the face of a million reasons not to give second chances.

Meghan had a heart the size of the room, and she let herself be led about by that heart, which used to drive me bananas and now I think, maybe we could all add loving fully to our playbook.

The book covers so much ground, both emotionally and in terms of time. Can you walk us through how you worked through the structure of the book, and how you decided what to include in your scope?

I have a process—I make a list of my main themes I want to explore, and then I list the scenes and memories that relate to those themes. Memoir is tricky, because there’s a pull to include everything about our lives, because it all feels relevant or emotionally significant. But I ask myself, is telling this part of my life in service of the story? If not, out it goes.

That said, I did a lot of writing through scenes that didn’t make the cut. The earlier editions of the book included a lot more about Meghan’s addiction and how our relationship fractured so deeply. But then I realized, the focus of the story I wanted to tell was about the sisterhood, the way we can return to one another despite hurting ones we love. Scenes not in service of that journey had to go in the trash bin.

There are many potential readers of the memoir, including Meghan’s husband and perhaps her two young children one day. I’m wondering how you approached the writing knowing they might one day read this story?

I always say that when it comes to writing about people’s darker moments, I have to rely on my writing to do the work. I have to trust that I have done the hard work to show the nuance of people’s lightness, darkness, and grey spaces in between—in essence, to create full characters who are not one-sided. On the same note, my responsibility as a memoirist is to show my own poor choices, my own bad behaviour. Those in glass houses can’t go around chucking stones. If I let my writing be entirely influenced by the fear of hurting those around me, then I’d never write a damn thing. It’s paralyzing, that fear.

In this case, I made my sister a promise and I was determined to fulfill it. I have to let that be my guiding star, right now.

You speak in the book about how Meghan urged you to write the book, including the hard and “ugly parts.” What does it mean for you that the book is now out there in the world? And what do you think Meghan would make of it?

Well, she could tell me she absolutely hated it but it wouldn’t matter, because it would mean she was here, next to me, alive, giving a sassy opinion. I’d be grateful just to have her giving any opinion at all if it brought her back to me.

But of course, she wouldn’t say that, because my sister admired and worshipped everything I wrote, even when it was total crap. I always said she was my number one fan.
So I like to think she’d be honoured. I hope she’d feel seen. But more than anything, I hope she’d feel all the love I poured into this book.


Excerpt from Still, I Cannot Save You by Kelly S. Thompson

Dr. Hartland sat in front of the computer and turned so our knees nearly touched. “Let me just pop today’s details in here. Goodness, April already, eh? How’re things going?”

“It’s going.”

“How’s your sister doing? The baby?” she asked hopefully. “That bowel obstruction finally clear?”

My cheeks were wet with tears before I realized what was happening, and I leaned forward onto my knees. “A little girl. Born yesterday, almost six weeks early.”

The night before, Meghan had called—one of many chats throughout the day to help with the tedium of bedrest. But when she called hours later, she was breathless, her voice faint but simultaneously shrieking. Kell? Kell, they’re inducing me right now. Now. Oh my God.

“Six weeks. Premature, but still viable. Congrats!” The doctor spoke hesitantly, unsure of how I seemed to be taking the news. Her mouth curled into a half-smile, half-wince.

“Baby and mom are doing well?”

I picked at a hangnail. If I focused on this crust of peeling finger skin, then I could ignore everything else and pretend Meghan’s call last night was some kind of nightmare.

“She gave birth to a baby and then they found a six-pound sarcoma.” I emitted a strange sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh.

“Cancer?” Dr. Hartland’s mouth hung open. “That’s why she’s been in hospital all this time?”

“Yeah, not a bowel obstruction, it turns out. The baby was hiding the tumour in her scans.”

“Oh my, I’m so sorry to hear all this. Sarcomas are quite rare.” Dr. Hartland shook her head.

She didn’t say what we both already knew; the rarity of sarcomas wasn’t as frightening as their deadliness.

“I’m headed to see her this afternoon at Mount Sinai.” A weird laugh emerged. At least, I thought it came from me, but it was hard to tell when everything felt hollow and unsure, like the jumpy reel of a B movie.

“Well, they have excellent doctors there, so she’ll get top-level care.” We sat in silence while she searched for words of comfort. Realizing there were none, she clicked open my chart and pretended to read it, but clearly, she already knew the results. “Well, I wish I had better news, considering everything else you’ve got going on, but I think it’s safe to say, as you suspected, that you’re dealing with polycystic ovary syndrome. It’s definitely another large barrier to pregnancy.”

Another. Large. Barrier.

I pictured Joe in Egypt and something inside of me cracked. I thought of our plans to start a family upon his return.

Once I slumped into the driver’s seat of my car, I punched a text to Joe on WhatsApp. All done at doc and on my way to Meg in Toronto. Will call later.

I started the car and let the engine rumble, as I took deep, gasping breaths. PCOS is nothing, considering your husband is in a war zone and your sister has cancer and a newborn and your mom has MS and your dad is a prostate cancer survivor and this is fucking nothing. This was what I told myself as I veered onto the highway and headed west.

Excerpted from Still I Cannot Save You by Kelly S. Thomson. Copyright © 2023 Kelly S. Thompson. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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