MAGGIE DE VRIES is the author of Missing Sarah: A Memoir of Loss, a finalist for the 2003 Governor General’s Award, as well as several books for children. She is also a freelance children’s book editor and a teacher of creative writing. She does school visits with students of all ages and speaks regularly to adults as well. Maggie lives in Vancouver, in a home overlooking the Fraser River, with her husband, Roland, and their two cats, Misha and Sophie.
How did you decide on the structure of your book? Was it something you had in mind from the beginning, or did you experiment with different approaches as you went along?
I spent a long time interviewing members of families of other missing women before I started writing, as well as interviewing my own family. The opening came fairly easily once I found out that they had found Sarah’s DNA. It started people out in the present and gave them the justification for reading the book both from my point of view and from Sarah’s in that prologue. The rest I divided up into topics, or major people in Sarah’s life and, once I had written about her childhood, I wrote about each major person. Then, my editor told me that I needed to cut out all the other families, except for the briefest of references, and that I needed to make the book rigorously chronological. She told me what to cut and how to order what was left. She also told me to cut most of the guilt out of the book and drew lines through lots of sections. With her direction, I reduced the manuscript from almost 400 pages to just under 300. I took it apart in places sentence by sentence, put it into chronological order and then smoothed it over so it flowed.
Also, through the whole time, I was receiving new material. I found Sarah’s childhood letters a few weeks before the first draft was due and I received the audiotape of Sarah from when she was seventeen the day before I had to submit the revised manuscript. After that, my copyeditor—you, Allyson—started working on the book and she asked me lots of questions and made numerous suggestions that gave the book clarity.
What was the most difficult part of Missing Sarah to write?
I think that the hardest parts were including and writing about Sarah’s letters because I felt as if she was calling out to me from them and I couldn’t help her, and also the part where I say what I think about sex work, the line that Sarah had the right to sell sex whether she loved it or hated it. That was a difficult position to come to and it felt as if a light went on when I got there. For me, it is the crux of the book.
Did you ever consider fictionalizing it, or were you always sure that you wanted to write it as memoir?
I always wanted to write it as it happened. I wanted to tell Sarah’s story, not someone else’s.
Was it hard to decide in some cases what to put in or keep out, in light of the fact that the memories and incidents might emotionally affect your family and others involved?
I was as careful as I could be not to put in anything that might hurt people. I asked the people concerned to read their chapters and let me know their thoughts. I wanted to be respectful of everyone concerned. Where I could not ask for permission, I changed names.
Did you ever run across incidents that various family members recalled differently? And if so, how did you handle writing about these?
I paid careful attention to everything that everyone told me, and then wrote the book as I felt that it should be, most importantly being as true to Sarah as I could be. I wrote the book, so it does not claim to tell my family’s story as every other member of my family would tell it. In fact, I mention that in the acknowledgements.
Did you find it difficult to write about yourself objectively?
I did, but I don’t have much to say about that. My editor was helpful with the guilt part of that, or with things that read badly. Ultimately, I suppose, I haven’t written about myself objectively, although I have tried to be as honest as I know how to be.
Many writers spend a great deal of time crafting their opening line or lines, because it’s the hook for the reader. Did your opening line—”My sister Sarah is one of Vancouver’s missing women, but she isn’t missing any more”—come to you easily, or did you have to work at it?
The opening line came pretty easily and stayed pretty much the same, I think. The prologue as a whole took a bit more work.
How do you feel that you learned or grew through the writing of your book?
I can’t even begin to answer that. I am still learning and growing. Writing this book has changed my life. I am deeply involved with PACE now. I am doing a lot of speaking, connecting with people on issues around sex work and poverty, societal attitudes, laws, etc. I continue to meet remarkable people. I am involved with Beyond Words, a downtown Eastside book club, so I have the opportunity to sit down with Eastside women every two months to talk about a book. People come forward who knew my sister, or who are connected to me or my family in various ways. And, of course, all of this changes me on the inside.
Do you have any other general thoughts or advice for aspiring memoirists who may be tackling difficult personal subjects in their writing?
I started thinking about writing about this in the summer of 1999. I made a proposal to Saturday Night Magazine and was turned down. I retreated until the spring of 2002. Then I was lucky enough to be able to find a publisher before I wrote the book. That meant that I had a deadline, which was hugely helpful. I had to do it. Two things, here:
1.Sit with it a while. (I don’t think that I was ready in 1999.)
2. Put the support that you need in place to carry you through. I had the editor waiting for my manuscript. You might have that or you might have a writing group waiting to read the next chapter.
Or … And now I thought of 3.
3. While I was waiting for my editor to return my manuscript to me for feedback, I embarked on a series of intensive therapy sessions. Writing about Sarah was not healing for me in and of itself. It hurt. A great deal, actually. I needed help to piece myself back together afterward. In the end, I think I am stronger than I was before. And I feel blessed by all that writing Sarah’s story has brought into my life, biggest of which is that Sarah is with me in a much fuller way than I ever could have imagined. When I read her words when I am speaking, I feel as if she speaks through me. All of this is a joint project between her and me. But it is also a team project. I needed help. I needed a supportive husband, supportive family and supportive friends, a good editor who shared my vision for the book, a good team at the publishing house, and skilled therapists to help me to heal.
For more about Maggie de Vries, visit her website here.
Copyright 2004 Allyson Latta.