The Next Chapter

Billie Livingston on substance abuse and family tragedy

The author opens up about fictionalizing her own family's experiences in her new novel, The Crooked Heart of Mercy.
Billie Livingston's new novel, The Crooked Heart of Mercy, follows a young couple who are struggling after the death of their young son. (Random House Canada)

You won't find professors, bankers or CEOs in a Billie Livingston book. The characters she creates tend to struggle with money, drugs or some other kind of deep dysfunction, but they're trying their best even when all the cards are stacked against them. The characters in her new novel, The Crooked Heart of Mercy, have considerable burdens to bear — the young couple at the centre of the story are grieving the death of their toddler son.

Billie Livingston joined Shelagh Rogers in Toronto. This segment originally aired on March 7, 2016.


There's an old family story that I grew up hearing. It happened before I was born, but it's always kind of haunted me. My father's first wife and he had a little boy, and he crawled up on a windowsill one day and they weren't paying attention, and he fell out. I really liked my father's first wife — she was really funny and tough — but I thought, how does anybody get over the guilt and the shame and self-loathing? How do you put yourself back together? So I decided I wanted to do that with characters, to see. 


I grew up with a parent who really was a mess and an alcoholic. She was in and out of AA for most of my growing up, and didn't get sober until I was 16. So I've written a fair bit about drug and alcohol abuse, because she had to overcome all that, and I had to overcome all that and figure out who I am separately from her. And also find a way to lose the sense of resentment that you feel when you get older — that thing in your 20s where you start thinking about what people could have done better. Then you get past that eventually and you think, well, if she had known how to do it better, she would have done it better. 


My family get kind of confused and frustrated sometimes, because they see hints of things that have happened in our lives but they say, "That's not how it went!" And I just say, that's right, it didn't go like that, this is fiction. It's almost like a dreamscape — you have these dreams and when you wake up you recognize all of the things that happened from the day before but they're twisted. They're not quite right anymore.

Billie Livingston's comments have been edited and condensed.