How I Wrote It

In Dreaming Sally, James FitzGerald explains how a woman's death in the 1960s still haunts the present day

The award-winning journalist and author on writing the creative nonfiction book
Dreaming Sally is a memoir by James FitzGerald. (Penguin Random House Canada/Christine Buijs)

James FitzGerald is an award-winning journalist and author based in Toronto. His latest work, Dreaming Sally, is a story of first love and sudden death. The memoir is the third and last in a thematic trilogy of creative nonfiction, which includes the 2010 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction winner What Disturbs Our Blood.

In the late 1960s, George Orr dreamed his girlfriend Sally Wodehouse would die on her trip to Europe and his dream became real when she was killed in a freak accident. The headstrong and independent Sally was also loved by a 17-year-old James FitzGerald, who was just as devastated as George. 

 FitzGerald discusses how he wrote Dreaming Sally.

Sally and salvation

"Sally was a human being, first and foremost. But she is also a symbol of youth, hope and optimism of the 1960s. She represented the time and the values of that generation. The irony of growing up in the post-war boom is that the economic affluence we subsequently grew up with freed us up; that's why our privileged youth kept crashing the barricades of society. It didn't make sense, for our parents, that we were saying that materialism is pointless and we wanted to have deeper values and connections. They just didn't understand. 

"That she is killed in this uncanny way — from a blow to the head in a freak road accident while on vacation — feels symbolic, much like the way the 1960s were killed. There was all this joy and liberation and then this very sudden blow and it's all over. Which is much like the way the 1960s ended as well."

New revolution

"I have certainly been influenced by the new journalism movement in the 1970s. When I was in journalism school, there was Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer out there leading this movement. I was fascinated with this personal journalism, because we were coming out to the objective reporting, old school way of doing things. It was the classic 1960s idea of finding your voice, being your true self and all that."

In mourning

"The inability to mourn is another reason I was attracted to writing this story, partly because of her boyfriend George's struggles and my own. Sally is symbolic of a larger reality, of all these other generational relationships. It's shocking to me.

"When George tells me that he staggered home to tell his alcoholic parents that his lover is dead and they stare at him blankly and are absolutely incapable of responding to him in that moment — that says it all. That's the narrative for this book — the generation gap between the boomers and the bomb."

James FitzGerald's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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