Longtime Calgary author tackles motherhood, love and food with first novel

For Calgary-based author Lisa Murphy-Lamb the nostalgia of the 1980s offered the perfect backdrop for her first full-length novel, Jesus on the Dashboard.

Lisa Murphy-Lamb says her new book Jesus on the Dashboard not an autobiography but isn't entirely fiction

Lisa Murphy-Lamb has published several articles in Canada and the United States, as well a nonfiction book. She is also the director of Loft 112 in Calgary. (Lily Wong)

If you're old enough to have been a teenager in the '80s, take a trip through your memories — past the teased hair and neon hot pants — back to those awkward and formative years.

For Calgary-based author Lisa Murphy-Lamb, the nostalgia of the 1980s offered the perfect backdrop for her first full-length novel, Jesus on the Dashboard.

While not an autobiography, Murphy-Lamb says she uses the character of Gemma — a 17-year-old girl struggling with abandonment issues after being left by her mother — as a lens to view and revisit the author's own experiences with religion, community, motherhood and love.

"It was kind of exciting, I have to say, to create a character that was quite different from me and put her on a journey that I wasn't quite sure where she was going to end up," Murphy-Lamb told Daybreak Alberta.

"I write about very comfortable situations and throw [Gemma] into them and then try to figure out what Gemma would do, as opposed to what Lisa the writer would do."

One of those comfortable situations where Gemma and Lisa overlap is at a church youth group, similar to one Murphy-Lamb attended as a teen.

'I just wanted Gemma to go to church'

Jesus on the Dashboard got its start as a 50-page submission for an English course at the University of Calgary.

Jesus on the Dashboard is the first novel from Calgary-based writer Lisa Murphy-Lamb. (Stonehouse Publishing)

While starting work on the submission, Murphy-Lamb says she was given a copy of the book Religion for Atheists, in which author Alain de Botton explores what happens to communities that "no longer have a place of intergenerational congregation, a place where we can go and be vulnerable."

Murphy-Lamb said she uses the church in the novel "less for its religion and more as a place of community" for Gemma — who feels isolated by her mother's leaving — to experience "some of those rituals" of community and belonging.

"I didn't want to say that church is good or church is bad, or it's the right way to go or the wrong way to go. I just wanted Gemma to go to church. I just wanted her to go to church and have that as part of her journey."

'If you reject my mother's food you are rejecting her love'

Gemma is forced to deal with the trauma from her past when she goes to live with her aunt for the summer.

While her aunt has offered the teen a chance to meet her estranged mother, Gemma is in a sort of denial about her summertime exile and declares she is only going because they have a pool and she can get "a kick-ass tan."

Along with feelings of isolation and abandonment, Murphy-Lamb said Gemma struggles with finding a sense of control in her life and Gemma begins to exercise control through an eating disorder.

"She can control not eating when she can't control other things in her life, and she can also just be physically small so people will just leave her alone."

Murphy-Lamb again uses Gemma as a counterpoint to herself when exploring the connections between food and love.

"My mother expresses her love through food — if you reject my mother's food you are rejecting her love," Murphy-Lamb said. "And with Gemma not having a mother, she doesn't feel the love of her mother because she's not being fed by her mother."

Murphy-Lamb has published several articles in Canada and the United States, as well as an erotic short story, a nonfiction book and a piece for CBC Television.

She is the director of Loft 112, an inclusive community of writers and artists in Calgary, and she has worked with Writers in the Schools, an organization that sends professional writers into Houston classrooms.

With files from Daybreak Alberta