Creative Nonfiction Prize
Terri Favro on life after "Icarus"
There are five names on the shortlist for this year's CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Before we announce the winner, we want to introduce you to the finalists and their stories.
Terri Favro talks about her life after "Icarus," and how she went from being evicted without warning to selling death-mask chocolates at the Art Gallery of Ontario gift shop, to becoming a freelance writer.
Tell us about yourself.
What you really mean, I think, is what happened after “Icarus”? I lost my flat when my landlord sent a group of demolition workers with sledgehammers to my door without warning: the house (across from Locke Street Park in Hamilton) was being demolished for a mini-mall and he’d neglected to evict me. After packing my few belongings into boxes, I couch-surfed my way to Toronto. I worked for the Art Gallery of Ontario gift shop, selling death mask chocolate-pops during the King Tut craze. Meanwhile, I scrabbled together a freelance writing career, eventually becoming an advertising and marketing copywriter.
Five years post-“Icarus”, in 1984, I fell in love with an artist. We got married and had two sons, who are now in their twenties and doing well. Along the way, we spent six years in Timmins, Ontario and continue to go north whenever we can, as well as to my original hometown in St. Catharines, where a lot of my writing is set. My husband and I collaborate on graphic novels: Bella and the Loyalist Heroine and Waiting for Mario Puzo were both published over the past year. I’ve also had a novella published called The Proxy Bride. And I’ve had short stories, articles and creative nonfiction published in magazines, newspapers and, from time to time, on the CBC Canada Writes site. That's my life. Words, wine, family, friends and a lot of writing.
What made you write this story?
I opened the paper one day to learn that the building that I thought once housed the disco in “Icarus” was due to be demolished. I was devastated to read it described as “a brown field”—a polite way of saying that it was a derelict building full of bird shit. A friend in Hamilton reassured me that the disco (I believe it was called Bannisters, previously Diamond Jim’s) had actually been located on the other side of the street, but it made me think about the last time I had been there, the night I met the boy.
What compels you to write nonfiction?
True stories carry a special power, in the same way as a point-of-view documentary films. They act as a way into another person’s life, era or experience. I would say, though, that the same is true of good fiction writing, but some ‘real life’ stories are not improved by fictionalization. I experimented with “Icarus” as a short story and came to the conclusion that it was best to simply present it as a nonfiction narrative. It felt stronger, more honest, more compelling than when I tried to obscure it in some way and present it as fiction. I’ve had the same experience with a number of other nonfiction pieces I’ve had published. They breathe more deeply as creative nonfiction.
In the story you reference Brueghel’s Landscape with Icarus, A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison, and work by W.H. Auden. Why did you choose these pieces?
Landscape with Icarus provided the dominant metaphor for my narrative. It’s a painting by Brueghel, which in turn inspired a powerful poem by W.H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts. In the foreground of the painting, peasants plough a field in a pastoral landscape. But if you look very, very carefully, you’ll see Icarus in the background, just a tiny pair of legs disappearing into the sea as a ship sails by. Neither the sailors nor the peasants realize that a tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding around them. Auden’s poem expresses this more effectively than I ever could: “About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters: how well they understood its human position: how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along ”
I felt that same sense of lonely dislocation in the summer of 1979, when I kept failing, and falling, and screwing up in various ways, while the world carried on briskly and indifferently around me. Landscape with Icarus felt very much like the stage of life I was in at that moment: everything seemed to be coming to pieces, but no one seemed to much notice. Everyone has problems. Pale white legs disappear under the waves while life goes on.
As for the Harlan Ellison novella, to me, it was a tangible sign of the emotional gulf between the boy and me. The concluding paragraph of A Boy and His Dog made me very angry and even frightened me a little; it felt like a confrontation, a challenge to the woman I was planning to become. The boy was surprised by the strength of my reaction but I could never escape the feeling that he was trying to tell me something in recommending that book to me. (For anyone interested in reading this Ellison novella, it’s part of a 1969 story collection of Ellison’s work called The Beast Who Cried Love at the Heart of the World.)
How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize?
I’ve been listed previously when this was still the CBC Literary Awards: twice for nonfiction, once for fiction. I've also been shortlisted for a few other Canada Writes competitions but I've never gotten this far before. To answer the question: I feel happy, exhilarated, encouraged and mildly freaked out.
Photo credit: Ayelet Tsabari