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Memoir' flies off shelves

Fairfield author's self-published tale of addiction recovery has been a surprise hit

Fairfield's Monique Gray Smith would happily label her book Hope Faith & Empathy a "novel" rather than "creative non-fiction."

It's true that Gray Smith's story of Tilly - a young mixed-aboriginal woman recovering from alcoholism - in some ways mirrors her life history. But it includes episodes, not to mention characters, merely inspired by the tales and observations of others.

"I'm fine with calling it a novel, but it's just all the literary people wanted to put a term to it," Gray Smith said this week.

Hope Faith & Empathy first appeared in June after Gray Smith self-published it and has already sold about 1,500 copies - bookstores including Munro's Books on Government Street have reordered copies several times. It's even made the store's list of bestselling paperbacks.

She would have been happy to have a publishing house take over all the business and promotional details, but says publishers asked for changes she wasn't comfortable with.

"They wanted more of the drama, they wanted more of the trauma, they wanted more shocking details," Gray Smith said. "I just wasn't willing to do that. I don't want this book to just be about trauma. Sure, I want it to acknowledge the trauma, but I want it to be about the resiliency."

At Munro's, bookseller Maureen Long was surprised to hear a publisher had demanded more raw trauma.

"I thought it was plenty traumatic," Long said. "I didn't think she was pulling any punches. It just seems very raw and true."

She said the term creative non-fiction has been around since the early careers of American writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, calling it "true-ish."

"Maybe it's your experiences, maybe it's embellished, maybe the names have been changed, maybe you'll make some experience of other people's your own, maybe you'll make your experiences other people's."

Since agreeing to give the book space on the store's shelves, staff at Munro's have been pleasantly surprised by its popularity.

"It really has done very well," said Long. "For a local author who doesn't have [a] publisher with the publicity engine behind her, it has done surprisingly well. It really seems to have struck a chord."

Gray Smith, who has Cree, Lakota and Scottish ancestry, shares some experiences with her main character, Tilly.

Like Tilly, she struggled with alcoholism during her childhood and youth. Gray Smith said she begin to drink at the age of 11, continuing through school, and didn't stop until she was 22.

"People ask me, 'How could you go to high school and be an alcoholic?' " she said. "Well, there are children today who are drinking and nobody is seeing or paying attention."

Gray Smith explains her moment of no turning back from recovery came after a drunken experience when her personal integrity was violated, though she was careful not to describe it any further.

In Hope Faith & Empathy, that moment came for Tilly after some revealing, deeply embarrassing photos of her were taken during a drunken student party in Vancouver and later circulated. Ashamed, Tilly finally admits to needing help.

"The seed had been planted," says Tilly in Hope Faith & Empathy. "Somehow, my favourite beer didn't taste quite as good, the 'buzz' was harder to reach and my hangovers grew more vicious."

Now 43 and a mother of two, Gray Smith says for her (and Tilly), a huge amount of the credit for recovery belongs to the strength of her aboriginal ancestors, which inspired her. In many ways, she said the stories about her, Tilly and others can be described as a homecoming.

"Not only do the characters return home to meet other individuals, they return home to who they are," Gray Smith said.

She also takes much inspiration from the new generation of native leaders.

People like Shawn Atleo of Vancouver Island, recently re-elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, are making their mark by acknowledging past injuries and pain, and moving on to build on the strength of native peoples.

"All of us have been blessed with strengths and skills to contribute to the wellness of the world," Gray Smith said.

"When we do that that, things just flow."

rwatts@timescolonist.com