Brian Francis is a faithful letter writer, as Q&Q readers know from his literary advice column Agony Editor. But those who’ve been plucked from his mailbag may be surprised to learn the 50-year-old wasn’t always so dutiful in his correspondence.
In 1992, when Francis was a 21-year-old university student cautiously peeping out of the closet, he placed a witty personal ad in a southwestern Ontario newspaper that elicited 25 responses. Of those, he never replied to 13 – at least until 26 years later, when he read his responses in the show Box 4901. He has now adapted that hit show into Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent (McClelland & Stewart).
In the letters Francis intimately details the intersections between his coming of age and his coming out. “I was fine to write about myself,” he says over Zoom, jokingly flaunting his shaggy lockdown-enforced hairstyle. “I’m at an age where if you are going to hold it against me that I didn’t crap when I was nine years old, then we are probably not meant to be friends anyway.” (This is, indeed, among the secrets revealed in Missed Connections.)
Francis’s editor Anita Chong suggested the adaptation after she caught an early version of the show in 2018. Francis set about expanding it, stretching outside of his comfort zone to tell his life story in the most truthful way possible, often at Chong’s urging. “It’s a hard dance an editor has to do with a memoir because they are trying to get you to tap into some real heavy stuff, but at the same time she was always very respectful in saying, ‘I don’t want to push this if you don’t want to go there,’” he says.
Her signature edit was “I think you can do better.” Francis admits his first instinct wasn’t always gracious. “It was always like, roll the eyes, this is perfection, what are you talking about?” he says. “But she pushed me in the right way.”
Writing new material for the book allowed Francis to revisit growing up in Sarnia, Ontario, in the ’70s with its lack of gay role models, a far cry from today’s pop-culture landscape, where he debates the merits of RuPaul’s Drag Race queens with his 28-year-old gay nephew as if they were being drafted for the NHL (Francis’s favourite is the Divine-esque Eureka). “The younger generation doesn’t understand how awful it was,” he says. “You were immediately dismissed if you were gay. That message got fed over and over to me growing up. Because of the time and place that I grew up in, I will never feel completely at ease with myself.”
Francis also brought the narrative up to the present, writing a final 14th letter that gives the reader closure to his search for a connection. In it, he reveals that he has been with his husband, Serge, for 25 years.
“I wanted to save [Serge] as the surprise happy ending,” Francis says. “It was nice for me to be able to tell a happy story. It just wasn’t the narrative of what it meant to be gay: you were going to be lonely; you were going to be a misfit. It is nice to be here in this moment in time and say that narrative of being unhappy was not true.”
Another benefit of experience is the wisdom he’s picked up over 17 years in the publishing industry, having written the novels Fruit (2004), Natural Order (2011), and Break in Case of Emergency (2019), a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature – Text. He generously shares his advice in his Agony Editor column.
“I have come through the ups and downs of my writing career,” he says. “I’ve been with large publishers, I’ve been with small publishers, I’ve been to readings that have been really well attended, and I’ve been to readings that have been me and the other author. I think sometimes you go through that cycle to understand the grand scheme of things – how the publishing world can work and how sometimes it can’t work.”
The column, he says, has shown him that writers have shared experiences, challenges, and concerns. “I hope Agony Editor has shed some light on the community,” he says. “It can be a solitary experience in a way, but we all go through very similar struggles.”
Correction, August 18: This story has been updated from the original, which incorrectly referred to Box 4901 as a one-man show.