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When Billie Livingston's debut novel, Going Down Swinging, was first published in 2000 it was, perhaps, not given all of the attention it deserved. A serious literary work shelved in bookstores with other works of "literature," Going Down Swinging is imbued with a rare humor that seemed to confuse some reviewers.
On the surface of things, the subject matter of the novel didn't seem to beg for a humorous treatment. Set in the early 1970s, Going Down Swinging is about an alcoholic mother that turns tricks where necessary to (inadequately) support two young daughters. Told alternately through the eyes of preadolescent Grace and Eileen, the mother in decline, Going Down Swinging is at times almost uncomfortably real in describing what life looks like on the other side of the tracks. And, since it's a deeply human tale, humor -- dark and sometimes twisted, certainly, but humor, nonetheless -- is the vein through which the story flows.
That humorous vein runs through the author, as well. In her mid-30s, Billie Livingston still owns the wholesome and scrubbed good looks of the college coed, something she never was. A chestnut mane frames a well-boned face and striking blue eyes. A gentle overbite does nothing to detract from Livingston's beauty and -- just maybe -- adds accessibility to what might otherwise be a mien too perfect to invite approach. And then there's that humor. In person, it's every bit as sharp as it is in Livingston's writing but with a soundtrack: laughter issues from her in comfortable clouds that defy you to try not to join in. So you don't try. Why would you? As Livingston knows, laughter heals, soothes and feels good, so why fight it?
A book of poetry, The Chick at the Back of the Church, is due out this month from Nightwood Editions and Livingston is currently at work on a collection of short stories called Locusts and Wild Honey. On the Web, the author can be found at Seven Sisters Writing Group.
Linda Richards: Tell me about your background.
Billie Livingston: I've been... God, I've done just about everything! I started modeling right out of high school. And then did temp work for a while. Then I went to Toronto and started working in a comedy club.
As a comedienne?
No, as a server. Waiting tables. Cocktail girl. [Laughs] And then I worked for about five or six different caterers. And then I worked for a promotional company where I'd have jobs handing out chocolates and stuff to bored old ladies.
Did you ever give out perfume samples?
Well, close. I once gave out little samples of jam on a cracker. And truffles.
Were you writing then?
I was writing then, yeah.
Is that where you felt you were going?
Do you mean did I feel like I was going to be a mall rat all my life? [Laughs] Right around then, when I was doing this truffle thing, was when I got accepted at the Banff Centre [for the Arts] for the writing program.
So you had to have been writing before that, obviously, to have been accepted.
Yeah. I was writing poetry. I think, too, that when people say: Oh, what do you write? And you say: Poetry. Their eyes kind of glaze over a little and they go: Oh yeah. Like you're sitting at home going: The sky is blue and I am too. And they sort of don't believe you, anyway: Oh good for you. How nice. And they get a challenging look too, like: Ever had anything published?
Well, a novel can go a long way to quelling those looks. [Laughs] When were you at Banff?
And then you knew you were doing some stuff right?
Well, I got in with poetry because that's where all of my publications were and we had to give a public reading. So I decided to read fiction instead because I was too afraid because I'd have to stop and look up and stop and look up [to read poetry]. I figured that if I just read fiction I could stuff my head into the page and never look up again until I was finished. So that's why I started writing fiction: so I wouldn't have to face anybody. [Laughs]
Are you working on anything now?
Yeah. I'm researching something. I started it right before I sold the book. Then once I sold it to Random House I was about 50 pages into it, I just dropped it and went back to doing my revisions and stuff. So now I'm trying to get my head back into it again.
Going Down Swinging would seem to lend itself very naturally to a sequel.
I suppose so. It's been mentioned [to me]. But I don't have any desire. I'm sort of finished with it now.
There are some very startling commonalties between you and Grace. You're about the same age, physically I think you're quite similar in certain ways. And your biography, in terms of the places that you've lived. Is it a highly autobiographical novel?
Not highly so, but there's probably about 50 per cent based in fact that is so loose, it wouldn't hold up in a court of law. [Laughs] But there are some loose foundations of it that are based [in fact] and I was in foster care as a kid, so I know how the system works. I thought I'd try using some of that stuff. And it's the era that I know, so I did paint a picture from my recollections of being that age. What was going on: the music and the time.
I liked that a lot of the book was from Grace's perspective. The child's voice is compelling and you wrote it well.
Well, I felt that they were both things that get neglected: the children's point of view and also women often, in TV and films especially, once a woman is a mother there's not much else to her than that. She's the mom. And we get portrayed as either mothers or witches. So I wanted it be from both perspectives. My intent with the book was for it to be, in part, about perspective and I wanted Eileen to have a voice. To be able to get inside her head and hear all her inner rumblings and her self-justification and all that stuff. I wanted also to be able to inhabit Grace for a while, too, so you got to see her sometimes naive perspective about things. But it's still a little bit more pure than Eileen's in that she sort of just sees things as she sees them and the narrative is a little purer than Eileen's.
Have a lot of people asked you about that? About the autobiographical elements?
Yeah. And I figured it was inevitable and I have used some autobiography in it. It's a question I've been wrestling with since I was writing it. You know: how much I wanted to discuss that, just because I was a little afraid of being too closely associated with it and what seems [to happen] to authors when they get too closely identified with their writing. That they become almost interchangeable in people's minds. Which is another reason that I want the next book to be a departure.
What is "Billie" short for?
Nope. Willa Rose. I was never called Willa, though.
Since Going Down Swinging was partly autobiographical, were there some bits that were especially emotional for you?
Sometimes. There were parts of it that were emotional to write. And sometimes there were things, like the stuff with Grace and her friend Josh, that were, for some reason, really emotional to write and that's all fictitious. I guess the emotional truths in it were tapping into memories that I'm wasn't conscious of. That made it parts of it really difficult to write. | May 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.