University of Saskatchewan English graduate Michael James has recently published his first novel, an intensely honest tale of youth alcoholism and mental illness set in Saskatoon.
Magpie spans 24 hours through the eyes of Ben, a resident of a small town near Saskatoon. Ben is a troubled 17-year-old addict who is struggling with disillusionment about society and deep pain over the suicides of his mother and older brother. At the outset, Ben seems merely angst-ridden and rebellious, but the reader soon realizes that his problems go much deeper.
“There is a hole in Ben’s life,” said James, in an email to the Sheaf. “All the people who could be his role models are absent, leaving him with few skills to handle life except for how to escape.”
Ben’s escape is alcohol. He drinks constantly and compulsively, at times seemingly oblivious to his problem and at others accepting it as a slow form of suicide. He also struggles with mental illness, hearing the voices of his deceased family, and with denial over the end of his childhood. Ben engages in unsavory and dangerous acts, but seen through his eyes, they evoke pity, not disgust or fear.
On the morning that Magpie begins, Ben believes he hears his dead brother telling him to kill his old dealer. Ben takes his father’s gun and a water bottle filled with vodka and sets out to find a way into the city to fulfill what he believes is his duty.
The writing is sparse and uncomplicated, which matches Ben’s meandering, drunken thoughts. The book is a window into the mind of an addict, and is not light reading. It is a powerful and heartbreaking portrayal of a young man out of control.
“Every character is made up of parts of me and my experiences,” James said, acknowledging the novel is semi-autobiographical. “Many of the conversations in the book have taken place in my life.”
James began writing Magpie as a 19-year-old first year student in the English department at the U of S. He wrote the first draft by hand while sitting in U of S libraries, often while skipping class. At the time, James was feeling lost, in a way that he imagines many first year students do but are afraid to admit.
“It wasn’t hard to see everyone going from class to class saying in their heads ‘Fuck me, I have no idea what I’m doing,’” James said.
The inspiration for the title came from a documentary that James saw on magpies and the way that they collect shiny things to impress and attract each other. It reminded him of the way his fellow students acted every day. The character Ben becomes obsessed with the metaphor.
Magpie evolved from a “drawn out suicide note for the character” into a full narrative. Still, James didn’t consider himself a writer and didn’t think the book had publishing potential due to its off-beat, unpolished style and heavy themes.
Then, James met an editor from New York City’s Thought Catalog, a publishing company with a reputation for including non-mainstream books on their roster. They agreedto publish Magpie as an e-book.
To James’ surprise, the book has sold better than expected, and he has recently finished his second novel, also set in the Saskatoon area.
“I think stories flow organically from such a diverse city,” James said. “Saskatoon is a very unique place that has a lot of stories to tell.”
Saskatoon is vividly portrayed in Magpie, as is the U of S. Ben walks by the Little Stone Schoolhouse, visits Louis’ and stops at a library on campus. The places Ben goes and the people he meets will be familiar to anyone from the area, as will, James hopes, some of Ben’s feelings and actions.
“I wanted to write an unkempt and twisted story with flawed characters that everyone might hate because they’d see pieces of themselves in it,” James said.
Magpie’s brutal honesty certainly achieves this. Ben’s story will stay with a reader and although it may be uncomfortable at times, it’s a story that deserves to be told.
Magpie is available for purchase in e-book format through amazon.ca.
Image: Cover artwork from Magpie by Nick Kinling