Coffins and Coffeecake

By Mary Chan

A dark current runs beneath author Michelle Berry’s friendly demeanour. The oft-dubbed "perky" and "effervescent" Canadian writer’s personality starkly contrasts with her first novel What We All Want, a bleakly comic story about three siblings who gather to bury their mother.

Born in San Francisco, Berry’s family lived in the United States and England before moving to Victoria in 1975. Currently living in Toronto with her husband and two children, the 32-year-old admits her novel isn’t immediately accessible.

"You really get two sides to this," she says, recently in Calgary for a promotional tour. "Some people really think it is so depressing and they don’t want to read it. Other people find it absolutely hilarious."

What We All Want centres on three siblings, Hilary, Thomas and Billy Mount, who converge for the funeral of their mother, Becka. Hilary, eccentric after years as her mother’s caretaker, collects dolls and lines her living room floor with rocks. Thomas, a successful architect, still hides his fifteen-year homosexual relationship from his family. And Billy, with his home life deteriorating, slowly slides down an alcoholic slope. Adding funeral director Dick Mortimer increases the novel’s morbidity, but somewhere between touching scenes and moments of pure depression, humour flashes through.

"I don’t think I consciously balance the humour, but any time I’m faced with an awkward, scary situation, I tend to make it humorous to deal with it," Berry says.

Berry started this novel when she had her first daughter and began wondering how her actions as a mother would affect her newborn child.

"I was thinking about mortality," she says. "60 years from now, when I’m gone and she’s walking down the street, will she walk like me, will she look like me? So I decided to write the novel about a woman who had already died and to see her three children, how different each of them were, and how similar each of them were in certain ways. I was hoping to be able to figure out who Becka was through her children, without ever having to see her."

A great deal of the novel takes place in a funeral home, and to do research, Berry visited one to talk to its director. To prove she was an author, Berry showed him her first two books, How to Get There From Here and Margaret Lives in the Basement, collections of short stories.

"But the thing is, my other two books have half-naked women on the front," she laughs. "The guy’s looking at me like, ‘she’s written porn.’ It was funny."

During a photoshoot to promote the novel, Berry saw an embalming room for the first time, and, as the funeral director called it, "a guest."

"There was a woman on the table, and she was Becka Mount," describes Berry. "She was yellow, she was shrivelled, she had her head turned up, she was exactly as I had imagined this woman. To me it was terrifying to see, but it was also great to know that I could imagine this."

Berry usually begins her short stories with the first line, and lets them unfold in her mind like scenes in a movie. Like her short stories, Berry didn’t know what would happen in What We All Want when she began writing, starting with the siblings around the kitchen table discussing where to bury their mom. She attributes the novel’s final cohesion to editing and a total of seven rewrites over one-and-a-half years.

"I find editing very hard because you have to go back and understand your novel, and I’m a subconscious writer," explains Berry, who has an MA in English from the University of Guelph. "You might read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and think, well, it’s a great story. But yet you go back and study it and you start to see all this technique, and you don’t want to see that in your own writing. It’s very hard to do."



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