Until recently, no one ever asked author Sheree Fitch if she based any of her characters on herself. After all, it was obvious that the 51-year-old Ottawa native bore little resemblance to the purple-loving title character of Mabel Murple, or the harried young heroine of There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen. But that’s all changed with the publication of Kiss the Joy As It Flies (Vagrant Press), Fitch’s first work of adult fiction.
The novel’s heroine, 48-year-old Mercy Beth Fanjoy, is a single parent (as was Fitch) and a writer with a propensity for playing with words (as is Fitch). For the record, however, Fitch says that Mercy – who responds to a worrisome medical diagnosis by revisiting the mysteries and regrets of her past – isn’t really like her at all. “I’m not a nymphomaniac children’s writer, either,” she says, referring to another character derided by Mercy for writing best-selling books about a burping bear.
But Mercy is the kind of heroine Fitch always wanted to see in fiction: someone with realistic financial and familial problems, who experiences dark times without losing her playfulness and humour.
Fitch’s detour into adult fiction isn’t entirely out of left field. She published a book of adult poetry, In This House Are Many Women (Goose Lane Editions), in 1993, and in 2005 she published her first young adult novel, The Gravesayers (Doubleday Canada). Reviews of Kiss the Joy As It Flies – which was published in July – have been mostly positive, and an initial print run of 6,000 copies was followed two months later by a 3,000-copy reprint. Still, the novel was a risk for Fitch: a generation raised on her playful children’s stories might have expected her to produce a similarly lighthearted adult work, not a novel about suicide, illness, and family estrangement. “People think that if you write nonsense, that’s how you see the world,” says Fitch. “I have a different theory: it’s actually a dance in the light in spite of the darkness. I started doing [children’s stories] at one of the lowest times of my life.”
Fitch was just 17 when she became pregnant with her first child; by 24, she was divorced with two kids and living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She put herself through university, eventually earning a master’s degree. “All through my twenties, I was writing and getting rejected,” she says. But when Doubleday Canada published Toes in My Nose in 1991, the hard work finally paid off, earning her both widespread acclaim and a devoted following.
Despite her success, however, she still had trouble earning enough to pay the bills. One summer, she did a reading and a workshop at a summer camp under the impression that the organizers had agreed to a fee of $250, only to be handed a $10 bill afterward and asked for $7.50 in change. When she protested, the supervisor reminded her that the camp was non-profit. “I said, ‘Well, sorry, I’m not a non-profit writer – I have to feed my children and I want my $250,’” Fitch says. “I do a lot of things for free, but that’s the day I learned that if you don’t put a value on what you do, no one else will.” (The supervisor wrote the cheque.)
Fitch really only had the financial wherewithal to experiment with YA and adult fiction after her children left home and she married photographer Gilles Plante, 14 years ago. (Plante’s job took the couple to Washington, D.C. in 2001; they plan to move back to New Brunswick next year.) Writing the coming-of-age novel The Gravesayers took about eight years, in part because moving to a different genre led to a lot of self-doubt. “I wasn’t sure I could write a book that was good enough,” says Fitch. Indeed, she can’t say enough kind words about the various editors who coaxed her through her crises of confidence. But it was Plante who pushed her to write Kiss the Joy. “He said, ‘You always said you’d do that adult book before you were 50. You’re 46 and I think you’ve got to do it.’”
Before she could put pen to paper, however, Fitch had to confront both her own insecurities and some very dark subject matter. “I thought, ‘How can I write a book that’s about the horror and the sadness [of life] and still be joyful?’” While writing the first draft, Fitch frequently put the novel aside to work on lighter material. “And when I knew about the final reveal” – the tragic secret at the heart of the plot – “I couldn’t write for six months,” says Fitch. She adds, however, that she can’t wait to go through the whole gruelling process again. In fact, she has already started another book with some of the same characters from Kiss the Joy.
Having completed the book, the only troubling part of her new, expanded writing horizons has been the adult audiences at her readings, who tend to listen with a quiet attention she finds unnerving. “I haven’t seen anyone lifting their dress or picking their nose,” she says with a decided air of disappointment.