This is a novel about so many things—neglectful parents, wonder, Woodstock, the 1960s, addiction, mental health. Where were the seeds of the story born?
It started with a conversation with my grandma a few decades ago. She told me about growing up with her mother, who had an undiagnosed mental illness and delusions of grandeur. She believed, for example, that she had once dated Frank Sinatra. To hear my grandma tell it, this was entertaining at times but more often terrifying.
I had a similar experience growing up with a stepdad who also had delusions of grandeur. It was such an uncanny coincidence that, two generations apart, my grandma and I both had this strange experience of struggling with whether to believe the adults in our lives, occasionally even taking on their beliefs ourselves. This became a point of bonding between us, so when she asked me to write about it, I promised I would.
I tried writing this story many different ways, including as non-fiction, before landing on this iteration, which is a reimagining of my grandma’s story. I guess I needed the frenetic energy of the 1960s and all the comings and goings of this rather large cast of misfits as a backdrop. For me this added colour to a story that might’ve otherwise been too dark.
In the book, we meet a young girl names Elizabeth Squire (or MeMe) with a natural gift for clairvoyance and fortune telling. Do you believe in clairvoyance?
I believe we all have moments of clairvoyance in our lives. I just think some of us are able to cultivate that ability more, whether out of interest or desperation. Growing up, my neighbour was a well-known Wiccan High Priestess. Us kids would crowd around her and she would rub our fingers and close her eyes—a little like MeMe Fantastico in my novel—and tell us about what troubled us most and what our talents were and who we might become. So I grew up believing that was all perfectly normal. And to this day I still sometimes know things I shouldn’t. Whether that’s clairvoyance or not, I can’t say.
The novel takes a deep dive into the darker aspects of 1960s and 1970s counter-culture. Woodstock even makes an appearance (sort of…). Why is this time so fascinating for you?
The year the novel is set in, 1969, was a very charged and pivotal year. There was the moon landing, the Stonewall riots, all kinds of civil unrest, the Vietnam war, the draft lottery, and, of course, Woodstock. I feel like there are a lot of links between the mood of 1969 and our current times. In 1969, a lot of people—not just the ones in the doomsday cult in my book—believed the end was coming. I sense a bit of a doomsday vibe in the air these days too. I guess I just wanted to explore this a bit: like what is “mental illness” when the whole world has gone mad? And how do we take care of ourselves in the midst of all that or, as in my novel, after the very worst has happened?
I was so impressed with how you moved back and forth so seamlessly through a series of time periods. How difficult was it to find the right structure for the book?
The structure of having alternating past and present threads came quite organically. I thought writing a first person retrospective novel would be easy. It’s the way we naturally tell stories. But actually, over time it becomes quite confining. So from a technical standpoint, I found I needed the present-day sections to be able to break away from the past at key moments. But from a creative standpoint I also needed the different texture of the present-day story: its humour and lightness and movement toward healing. Plus having two threads of a story—before and after—naturally creates suspense. And it was my goal, above all else, to write a suspenseful novel.
There are so many incredible moments of storytelling in the novel. What scene was most enjoyable for you to work on as a writer?
The scenes where my protagonist finally gets to New York City and meets up with the other two kids in the story and they’re running through the streets together stealing things and scavenging for doughnuts and whatnot were the most fun for me to write. I grew up in a cooperative housing project and used to run wild with a gang of kids day and night. I wanted to capture the energy of that. And I also wanted to show the resilience of kids who grow up in less-than-ideal circumstances. When you grow up this way, there isn’t a sense of things being good or bad or any conception of trauma. That all comes much later. In the moment, you are just scrounging and surviving and sometimes even having fun. And isn’t that life: little stolen moments of beauty and humour in amongst the chaos?
Excerpt from Once Upon an Effing Time
The bus creeps across Princess Avenue and sighs up to the curb.
A woman steps on. She has a thin hoodie pulled tight around her head and no shoes, even though it’s below freezing, and this is the part of town where you might easily get stuck in the toe with someone else’s sad story. She might’ve got stuck already. Her feet are splotchy and purple and there’s a deep gash across the top of one of them that sneers at me like an angry mouth.
She’s up there arguing with the driver, explaining that she has no fare, that someone took her wallet and her shoes and she needs to get to her boyfriend’s place, that she has no money on her, but he does, lots, if only she can get to him. She looks back at everyone on the bus, all the commuters who will be late for work because of her, and explains that all she needs is a ride, just one ride, and she can get her life together. She can start again.
She removes her hood and looks around at everyone. She’s pretty, or was once. Her hair is short, curly, red perhaps, if it were washed. Her eyes are shiny, maybe blue.
She puts two hands together in prayer. All she needs is, like, 75 cents for her fare and maybe enough for a coffee too, she pleads.
But everyone’s just looking out the window or at their hands or at their newspapers.
The woman’s eyes lock onto my eye patch and brighten with something like recognition. “Got 75 cents?” she says, and that’s when I see her broken teeth and what might be a faint blue line running down her forehead. My heart goes wuh-whump, an empty box thrown down a flight of stairs. The morning light gathers around her, all pinkish-gold, and then, suddenly, I forget who I am, which version of myself, in which decade, and I think: It’s her!
She’s come to get me, I think. Just in time!
“Mom?” I say. “Margaret?”
I step out into the aisle, but I’m too late. The bus driver has already forced her off. We’re pulling away from the curb.
I run across the aisle and press my hands to the window.
The woman steps back onto the sidewalk and, as my window passes through her line of vision, she looks up at me. I look into her brown eyes. Definitely brown, not blue.
She raises her middle finger, jabs it up-up-up at me and screams, “Screw you, bitch!"
So, not my mom, probably.
I flop back against the seat.
My heart, that empty box, reaches the bottom of the stairs.
Excerpt from pages 3-4 of Once Upon an Effing Time by Buffy Cram (Douglas & McIntyre, 2023). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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