Books·How I Wrote It

Harold R. Johnson honours the memory of his brother Clifford with new genre-bending memoir

The author describes how he incorporated elements of science fiction and fantasy to tell the story of his late brother.
Harold R. Johnson is the author of Clifford. (House of Anansi)

Harold R. Johnson is in a reflective mood. The author of Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours) and graduate of Harvard Law School managed a private practice for several years before becoming a crown prosecutor. These days, the member of Montreal Lake Cree Nation lives "off the grid," operating his family's traditional trap line in the north end of Saskatchewan with his wife, Joan. 

His latest book, Clifford, is equal parts memoir, science fiction and fantasy about the life and death of his older brother. Below, Johnson discusses how he wrote Clifford.

Building a narrative

​"I wrote a book about my older brother Clifford and a whole bunch of other personal things and put it all together. But I sent it to a friend because it didn't feel right. I asked him what he thought; he got back to me and said it read more like a novel and to pick it apart and do it again. The most interesting thing about what I wrote was in regard to my brother. So I rewrote it. At the same time I was doing that, I was thinking about quantum physics. Clifford wanted to be a scientist and never got the opportunity. I made up some science and I blamed it on him. 

"Clifford is memoir and science fiction and fantasy and a thought experiment. Publishers won't know how to categorize it and bookstores won't know what shelf to put it on. I kind of enjoy that."

True to self

"It's about writing what you care about. It's about always being open. Those fictionalized accounts of him and I having a discussion about science were based on real conversations. That's how it was. We would read and then discuss what we'd read. We'd have long, deep conversations about all sorts of topics.

"I wrote it, and then went and asked permission from my family. Some of it was really hard to write and painful to remember. But my family was all okay with it."

Early riser

"My writing day starts at about five in the morning. I get up while I'm still close to that dreamworld. I go outside, have a coffee and start thinking about what to write. I let the story settle. I come back inside and write for a few hours. By then my wife gets up. She has a cup of tea. While she's having a cup of tea, I read what I've written. That's the first edit. That's the first time I get to hear what it sounds like.

"I then keep writing to the end of the book and I don't know what the ending will be. I don't rewrite and edit and re-edit and all that stuff. I usually send what's very close to a first draft to the publisher."

The nature of memory

"You can't be completely accurate when writing about the past. That's impossible. When you're sitting around with your family and you talk about something that happened a long time ago, you begin to notice that your siblings have different perspectives on the same event.

"Who's telling the truth? You or them? I accept that my version might not be exactly the same as somebody else remembers it. But that's the way I remember it."

Harold R. Johnson's comments have been edited and condensed.