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Michael Christie

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A mighty heart: Michael Christie on his debut novel, If I Fall, If I Die

mike christie

(photo: Jennilee Marigomen; assistance by Nich McElroy: styling by Neighbours)

Christie’s novel, If I Fall, If I Die, is a big, tenderhearted bruiser of story about a boy, Will, living with his agoraphobic mom, Diane, in Thunder Bay. It’s a story, Christie says, based very much on his own.

“The relationship that’s portrayed in the book is amazing and creative. And it’s also too close and kind of weird. And that was, in a way, my relationship with my mom,” he says. “I was her confidante. I would stay home from school just to hang out with her and do art projects through the day. She knew I wasn’t really fitting into life in Thunder Bay, and neither was she. We sort of found solace in each other.”

Christie’s mom died shortly before the birth of his first son, and the publication of The Beggar’s Garden. In a way, her death allowed him to finally return to the place he’d fled as a teenager. He packed up his young family, and left Vancouver for Thunder Bay.

“I wanted to be there. We were looking for a place to go. And I was worried about my dad after my mom died,” he says. “But if I’m honest, and I wouldn’t have said this at the time, it was to write the book. It was the fundamental relationship of my life. And I think writing this book wasn’t something I could have done before she died.”

The novel is set against the backdrop of a city that Christie, now 38, says he’s still conflicted about – one that he portrays as dangerous, almost sinister at times, with its casual moments of racism and violence as Will steps out from the safety of his mom’s closed-off world and sets off with his aboriginal friend Jonah in search of a local kid who’s gone missing. But even as the boys knock up against the ugliness of mental illness and criminality, there’s warmth and courage and great humour there, too. The result is surprisingly life-affirming.

“I think that one of the things that makes Mike’s writing so special is that he has this uncanny ability to reveal the true soul of a place,” says Amy Jones, a Halifax writer who makes her home in Thunder Bay. She and Christie became friends while he was writing If I Fall, If I Die, and he asked her to read an early draft. “It’s this magic trick that he does, where it’s like he takes your hand and leads you into the heart of a setting and then lets you go, so that all the discoveries you make, you feel like you are making on your own.”

As soon as the book was done, Christie and his family packed up their lives once more, and moved to Galiano, where he’s now working on a novel set in 1920s Canada, centred around a family, one of whom is a lumber tycoon. While it may not sound like it at first, Christie’s trademarks are all there: marginalized people, sneaking poverty and depression, cultural upheaval. Skid row, after all, once referred to the path along which loggers dragged their timber.

But that’s the next book, and with If I Fall, If I Die about to land on shelves across the country, Christie has no intention of getting ahead of himself.

“I’m not jaded enough to be bored by all of this, by getting advance copies, and putting them on the bookshelf, and posing with them,” he says. And then he actually pinches himself. “It’s still such a novelty and gift to be able to do this.”