The Next Chapter

Halifax author Donna Morrissey shares her personal story of grief and hope in her memoir Pluck

The Newfoundland-born and Nova Scotia-based author speaks with Shelagh Rogers about her memoir Pluck.
Pluck is a memoir by Donna Morrissey. (Penguin Random House Canada, Nicola Davison)

The people in Donna Morrissey's life have inspired some of her fictional characters. In her new memoir Pluck, she herself is the protagonist.

From growing up in a Newfoundland outpost of 12 houses — to leaving home at 16 to travel across Canada, working, learning and taking risks, to dealing with the death of her beloved brother — Morrissey weaves her story together with animation, compassion, humour and grace.

Morrissey is the author of six novels, including Kit's LawThe Fortunate Brother and she successfully defended Rockbound by Frank Parker Day on Canada Reads in 2005.

The Halifax-based Morrissey spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing her memoir Pluck

Telling her own story

"I feel I had something to say. I had a story and the fiction wasn't doing it. It was aspiring to fiction, but it could never, ever tell that story that I really wanted to share.

"Like my PTSD and my brother's death — the grief of my mom. The things that we lost. The joys that we found. Fiction has a way of hijacking your pen. It takes you where you don't want it to go. So after the sixth novel, my head felt kind of empty and I thought, I just want to tell my story now — the story of me and my mom. 

It was aspiring to fiction, but it could never, ever tell that story that I really wanted to share.

"The things that happened to me — the mental illness and the loss of my brother on my watch, the grief, my mom's cancer — there are things that happen to everybody.

"Most people experience those things. Probably not all in one shot like I did, but I didn't do feel like I was baring myself. I just felt like I was telling my side of a story that most people will travel through."

"The humour just came quite naturally. It's not something you consciously try to do as a voice, and it's part of my voice being a Newfoundlander, we're known for our humour. And so again, I don't think it's something that you can try or something that you work with. It's just natural, it just comes."

Vivid childhood memories

"I think that as children we're so new on the Earth, and we see all the patterns. They're all imprinted upon and I think we grow into those patterns. We can carry those patterns. We live them out for the rest of our lives, — the pattern of being a personality and patterns in the household.

We'll never be as close to the Earth again as when we were kids.

"By the time I left there, I was 16 years old and my psyche was totally formed. And I'm sure that is what saved me in some of those horrible times to come. From being on the road and doing drugs to near escapes and the tragedies that were to come as well. It prepared me for all of that. It prepared me for the joy.

"We'll never be as close to the Earth again as when we were kids."

LISTEN | Donna Morrissey on the Sickboy Podcast

Donna Morrissey was born in Newfoundland and has written six national bestselling novels. Her new memoir, Pluck, is a deeply personal account of love's restorative ability as it leads her through mental illness, family death, and despair, to becoming a writer — all told with charm and inimitable humour. This week on Sickboy, the fellas speak with Donna about her journey through life in trying to find a way to heal her trauma and her process of documenting her life's story on the page. 46:14

Grief and guilt

"My brother's death just changed everything. Trauma, changes everything. It changes your DNA. I mean, this is a huge upheaval of the soul, and you don't get past that easily. And with his getting killed on my watch, the guilt creeping in, the shame of who I was, my lifestyle — thinking that I brought it about, it was a lot. I started going down. The shame was so great and I started drinking and I was only 23, for God's sakes, and a dream was what saved me.

"I owe so much to my mum because one of the most beautiful things about her was her faith. No matter what was happening, she always had just a purity of heart, a belief in Jesus and God."

As long as I live, I see the grace and I see the beauty and I attribute all that to what my mom taught me.

"I think it's hard not to have such feelings of gratitude and hope for something beyond skin and bones when you love someone deeply and you lose them. I mean, if I go to sleep tomorrow and it's all a big joke and I'm nothing, so be it.

"But as long as I live, I see the grace and I see the beauty and I attribute all that to what my mom taught me." 

Donna Morrissey's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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