You know I have a penchant for the awful?” asks Billie Livingston with a laugh. This is something of an understatement. People who follow the Vancouver-based writer on Twitter (where she tweets @BillieLiving) will recognize her fascination with stories about weird animal parasites that do horrendous things to their hosts, and people who go to extreme lengths to avoid arrest (one tweet from March referenced a Global News report of a Pennsylvania man who intentionally rolled around in dog feces to avoid being arrested for public drunkenness).
Livingston’s eccentric sensibility is fodder not only for a weirdly fascinating social media feed; it also helps provide material for her fiction.
The author recalls an incident that occurred in Florida – “Because, of course, where else?” – involving a 17-year-old boy who took a bunch of mushrooms with his friends while his parents were away for the weekend. “They all had a good time, then his friends left and he went and fell asleep on the couch,” Livingston says. The teenager woke up, but because he was still tripping on the mushrooms – and having a really, really bad experience, complete with horrific visions – he was convinced he was still asleep. Believing that if you die in your dreams, you will wake up in real life, he went to his parents’ closet, where he retrieved a .22-calibre rifle and shot himself in the head. “He realized once he had a bullet in the head that he was awake, and there was blood everywhere, all over the floor,” Livingston says. “He wandered outside – it lodged in his skull, the bullet. Some guy was driving and saw him and took him to the hospital and they put him in the psych ward right after surgery because they figured he was trying to kill himself.”
This story, in the hands of anyone else, might simply make for a cringe-worthy macabre anecdote at a cocktail party. For Livingston, it provided the genesis for a key plot point in her fourth novel.
The Crooked Heart of Mercy (Random House Canada) focuses on three central characters: Maggie and Ben, who are married, and Maggie’s brother, Francis, a priest. An alcoholic with a loose interpretation of his vow of chastity, Francis has just been picked up on another DUI, and a YouTube video of his latest indiscretions has gone viral. Maggie and Ben, meanwhile, are grieving the loss of their child, who fell out a window when the parents weren’t paying attention. In an involution of the 17-year-old Floridian’s story, the novel opens on Ben, who finds himself in a psych ward with a hole in his head and no idea how it got there.
The bare bones of the novel’s plot provide a glimpse into Livingston’s approach, which is best described as tragicomic. “To me our lives are a bit of a tragicomedy,” she says. “I grew up in a family where there was so much crap going on. I was in a lot of foster homes, and [my] mother was in and out of craziness, and the way we got through it was always by finding the humour in it. I think it must have just seemed perverse to everybody around us because we’d be at the depths and we’d say something absurd because it just made it liveable.”
This approach allows the author a layered perspective on her characters – especially Francis, who does not cleave to stereotypical presentations of clergy in fiction. “I find typically in books and films that priests are either these two-dimensional caricatures of holiness,” Livingston says, “or they’re this other thing, this awful, predatory, beastly creature.” The author, whose husband used to be in the seminary, was determined to avoid any kind of reductive presentation of the priest character. “I met a lot of these young guys,” Livingston says, “these priests. They felt that they had this vocation, but they didn’t know if they could put their appetites aside, and they were afraid, but they were also smart-assed and playful. So it all kind of crystallized in Francis.”
In addition to creating Francis as a kind of composite of the priests she knew through her husband, Livingston also prevailed on her own family history for source material in the novel. Before she was born, the author says, her father was married to an alcoholic who was not paying attention when her two-year-old child climbed up a windowsill and fell out. “I was really haunted by that for a long time,” Livingston says. “What do you do with that? How do you get over it? How do you find forgiveness?”
Forgiveness – and the attendant notions of grace and mercy – are central to the novel, and to the author’s own attitude, which is steeped in empathy for fallen and fallible characters. “I think a lot of what can destroy us as human beings is a lack of mercy, a lack of forgiveness,” Livingston says. “And I think a huge thing for people is knowing that they’re loved. Wherever you find that. If you find it in a place of worship, or if you find that in your own family.”
This, beyond the laughter and the tears, is what seems to be motivating Livingston, both as an author and a human being: the sense of compassion that needs to endure if we are to survive the world’s depredations. “If there’s no compassion,” she says, “if you can’t find any love in your heart, any sympathy, I think we’re doomed.”