Books·How I Wrote It

How David Demchuk experimented with horror and landed an First Novel Award nomination

The author of The Bone Mother discusses his attraction to the darker side of folklore.
David Demchuk's horror novel is on the First Novel Award shortlist. (David Demchuk)

At a crossroads in his career as a playwright and a CBC public relations senior specialist, David Demchuk wrote his first novel. The Bone Mother weaves together a series of vignettes set in a vision of Eastern Europe where people are hunted or haunted by mythical characters and family histories. The project paid off — The Bone Mother was the first horror novel to be longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and it is currently a finalist for the $40,000 First Novel Award.

In his own words, Demchuk discusses how he wrote The Bone Mother.

Digging through the archives

"I had spent some time on longer projects — things that took years and didn't go anywhere in the end. The first play I did as I was turning 50 was OK; the second one was put aside. The third one turned out to be The Bone Mother. With the third one I thought, 'I'm going to try working in a different way.' 

"I was intrigued by the idea of writing something that had a number of monologues and to use photographs as prompts for the characters. I wanted to do something with Eastern European folklore, and found the photographs of Romanian portrait photographer Costică Acsinte. They were in a state of horrible decay, which oddly enhanced the photographs by speaking to the notion of lost history. I wanted to alternate between male and female voices and to have some diversity in tone. I made an arrangement of photos that I could pull story and voice from and started writing. By the time I got to the fourth or fifth one, I felt very connected to the material." 

Going under the skin

"I love horror, and in particular, body horror. It's more than just a passing interest. I have an invisible, genetic disability called hypokalemic periodic paralysis — basically, the sodium potassium pump in my body is broken. Throughout my life, there was that feeling that I was constantly at war with my body, struggling with whatever was going on inside me. A lot of what is going on in The Bone Mother is looking at disability and looking at conflict within our own bodies — how we carry history and our ancestry in our bodies. That you can have something visited upon you from generations past and have it emerge in a peculiar and horrific way, that fascinated me and became a strong subtext throughout the book. The Bone Mother was an opportunity to go deeper into me — into my queer history and my relationship with my body."       

Telling the larger story

"How we tell our stories and see ourselves was a touchstone throughout. It is easy to find Eastern and European folklore and fairy tales and bring them into a modern, more accessible voice. We know what that collection looks like. But then you take the next step and ask, 'How do we live these stories today? How do we carry these stories with us in the way we see ourselves, in the relationships we form and in the world we live in?' That is where all of the stories come together. 

"A lot of us think about our own stories as we live day to day. We don't necessarily think about how other people perceive and talk about us in that format. You, too, are going to be a story told by somebody else. It's a powerful and disquieting thing."

David Demchuk's comments have been edited and condensed.


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