1.) How does a clinical psychologist suddenly become a bestselling author? Tell us about this metamorphosis.
I was a psychologist in private practice for 25 years until one day when I was at a dinner party, someone said that they were saddened that their 16-year-old daughter was getting a job for the summer and would have to face the work world. I sort of ‘sounded off’, saying that I’d worked since I was four years old and there was nothing wrong with working at sixteen! Then I regaled people about working with the black delivery car driver named Roy and how I worked delivering narcotics around the Niagara Frontier for my father’s drug store. Someone at the party suggested I write up an incident from my childhood years with Roy. I wrote it as a short piece and sent it to a publisher. I went alphabetically through the phonebook under publishers and sent it out on a Friday. On the following Monday I got an advance check couriered to me with a yellow post on it that said ‘Finish it.’ –so I did. Since I didn’t want to give back the check, a writer was born.
2.) Do you intend on continuing your private practice or do you write full time now?
I write full time.
3.) Do you feel that your professional life as a psychologist has helped you in any way become a better writer?
It has helped me enormously. I feel that I understand a lot more about human nature than I would have otherwise. Also in terms of memoir writing– it has freed me up to write ‘the truth’ (whatever that is) about myself. I have seen thousands of patients. I know that what people show the world is only the tip of the psychological iceberg. I know that no matter how strange my thoughts felt to me, they were no weirder than I heard daily in my office. One thing I learned while in private practice: we are all very much alike–especially in what our basic wants and needs are. The differences in most human natures are superficial.
4.) “After the Falls” is your second memoir. Your first memoir, “Too Close to the Falls” was a critically acclaimed bestseller. Was it a pretty easy decision to write about your extraordinary youth in these two books, and did you have to change a few names or events to protect the innocent?
I had to change all the names for legal reasons. I tried to camouflage a few scenes by changing the locations so no one would be able to know exactly who I was talking about. However, several people in my high school who have read my new teenage memoir After the Falls recognize each person and situation, so I guess I didn’t do a great camouflage job.
5.) Growing up in the 60’s, your teenage years as described in “After the Falls” were filled with one disastrous event after the another. How do you look back at the 60’s now?
It is interesting that you see those events as disastrous. I loved high school and the 60’s in general. I don’t think it makes great reading to describe the best moments of your life. I didn’t want it to read like an Andy Hardy story. Also whenever anything bad happens, it usually has an upside. For example, when the donut factory burned, I had all kinds of help from the police and fire department which I have always appreciated. The fire let me know how much they cared for me and were willing to do to help me out.
Sure, there were problems with the civil rights movement. It outgrew its need for me and Black Power took over in the late 60’s and my feelings were hurt. But really I have never felt as good as when we were all working together for all those years for a cause–there was no feeling as great as when the new civil rights legislation came through and we felt a part of it. All teenagers have disappointments, but in my case I had far greater rewards.
6.) The 60’s were an even more destructive time for your mother as described in the ending of “After the Falls.” Was your mother able to find some sort of peace in her life after the 60’s ended?
My mother had her pain, but she also had a very close relationship with me which I think mattered to her. She always maintained her strong Catholic faith which sustained her. I never thought my mother lacked peace. She never once complained. Life is never perfect for everyone. She never did as much in the world as perhaps she should or could have, but mothers often give up a lot for their children. She had the chance to see me off to Oxford and I believe that made her proud. She was widowed early, but on the other hand not many people can say they never had a disagreement with her husband. There marriage was a true love story.
Some people are self-sustaining and really don’t want much from the world. I believe she was one of those. In a way that is an enviable position in that is gives you independence and prevents you from unnecessary longing. She lost her financial and social status in the world but she had given up on its importance.
7.) Tell us about where you grew up and about how you came to live in Toronto.
I grew up in Lewiston, New York and when I was thirteen moved to Buffalo, New York. At seventeen I went off to university in Ohio, then to Oxford in England. I came from England to go to graduate school at the University of Toronto in Canada where the world’s authority in my field was at Victoria College. I then decide to stay and have lived in Toronto now for forty years
8.) Will there be a third memoir concerning the life and times of Catherine McClure Gildiner. Were the 70’s just as eventful for you?
Yes, there is a third memoir tentatively titled The Long Way Home. Oddly enough the 70’s were as eventful, if not more for me, than the 60’s. I came here in 1970-71 believing Canada to be a ‘politically uneventful country’. I wound up living in a rooming house in Toronto that housed some of the FLQ and the war measures act was declared. After the police emptied that rooming house I moved to what I thought was a safe high rise a few doors north. It turned out to be Rochdale college–the biggest drug distribution centre in Canada (oops). I don’t want to give any more away–but suffice it to say that was just the beginning. So I would have to say, YES my life is still eventful in the 70’s.
9.) Do you feel it important for any writer to get out from behind their keyboard and do public readings? Do you participate in that and do you enjoy it?
I don’t know anyone who does more of that than me. I love to meet my readers and gather their reactions. I have done over 200 book clubs for Too Close to the Falls alone. I love to compare regional, generational and other demographic differences and reactions to my writing. Maybe it is the psychologist in me, but I am always interested in people’s reaction and in the process of the group dynamic.
10.) Tell us about the last three books you read and whether or not they were inspiring to you in any way. Would you recommend others read them?
1. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens–thoroughly modern book, really like a childhood and teenage memoir. I highly recommend it. It is full of wonderful asides to the reader as well as unforgettable characters. I recommend it to anyone who wants to write since no one can create a character in all of its complexity in so few words as Dickens.
2. LogiComix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou
It is a graphic novel in which you meet the authors and they reveal to you what they want to do. The authors are present in cartoon form and are self-referential and innovative. At first I thought it was a ‘Logic for Dummies’. You learn a lot about the history of logic, but the facts about logic are carefully folded in a story about love, fear, family, war and hope. I also loved how the authors continually appear and discuss how best to have the story unfold. You as the reader get involved in how best to ‘hear’ the story. The book is about writing as much as it is about the history of logic.
3. The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown. Brown describes the experience of what it means to parent a severely handicapped child named Walker. I was interested in this book as a psychologist as it describes what the disorder is and how it was reflected in Walker’s behaviour. I also liked the book as a memoir. Brown reminisces about what it has been like to have to guess what Walker is thinking since he can’t communicate verbally. It is also one of the few books that tell you what it is really like to have a child who is disabled and what the parent actually feels like. The book is at times tragic, sometimes comic, but always honest.
11.) Do you enjoy writing short stories as well or do you stick to only one genre of writing?
I never write short stories. I am too long-winded. I have started a short story several time, but they always turn into longer pieces. I started out to write a short story about Darwin and Freud and it turned into an almost 500 page novel called Seduction.
I don’t stick to fiction or memoir. I wrote a psychological advice column for 15 years for Chatelaine Magazine. I have also written essays for books and humorous pieces for various periodicals. I am interested in all kinds of writing, which include fiction and non-fiction.
12.) Who would be some of your favorite poets and why?
Wordsworth, Eliot, Auden and Wallace Stevens because they are geniuses.
Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell because they have explained mental illness perfectly.
Some Canadian poets I enjoy are Leonard Cohen, Anne Simpson, Liz Philips and George Bowering. They have helped explain Canada to me.
13.) Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there who might be having a tough time getting published?
Ignore all negative response unless it is constructive. Get published anywhere–even if it is really low on the totem pole. Don’t worry about getting paid. Volunteer to do any writing. Then you can work your way up. If you want to write, WRITE every day. Do not wait to be inspired. It is very rare. Electricians, doctors or lawyers don’t wait for inspiration. Writing is made up of disciple, writing a lot, and then honing your work. Pay attention to who publishes where, and then try it yourself.
14.) Do you remember where your first story was published?
It was a humorous piece for The Globe and Mail’s Facts and Arguments column. I was totally thrilled.
15.) What’s next in store for Catherine McClure Gildiner?
I am putting my finishing touches on my third volume. I am contemplating a historical novel about a woman in the war of 1812 (despite the fact that my publisher says ‘no one give a shit about the war of 1812”) . Or I may write a book about my life as a psychologist. Some of my patients have been heroic in their ability to stay alive despite harrowing childhoods and I would like to write about the opposite of the ‘victim mentality.’