Memorial for A.S.A. Harrison
Lisa Harrison is Susan’s niece and was her editorial protégé and dear friend. Lisa spoke of her own relationship with Susan as well as introducing the other speakers.
Good evening, everyone, and welcome. Thank you for joining us in celebration and remembrance of A.S.A. Harrison.
My name is Lisa Harrison. A.S.A. was my aunt and my close friend.
We didn’t really connect until I was in my twenties and went to art school. Suddenly, but tentatively, Susan took an interest in me, and I started to realize she was deeply rooted in Toronto’s art scene.
A.S.A. was born Susan Angela Ann Harrison on March 7, 1948, to a working class family here in Toronto. She had an independent spirit and a powerful need to investigate and interrogate her surroundings.
At age eighteen she moved downtown and discovered art. It was the late sixties. She enrolled briefly at the Ontario College of Art, took dance lessons and hung around the artist-run centre, A Space, with the likes of General Idea, Elke Town, Tom Sherman and Margaret Dragu. She spent a summer in Vancouver, immersing herself in a parallel scene, where artists were congregating at the newly formed Western Front.
Susan was attracted to words, and back in Toronto she started writing journalism, art criticism and short fiction. Early on she adopted the pen name A.S.A. Harrison. In 1974, she published the groundbreaking book Orgasms, in which she spoke frankly with twenty-two women about getting off. In 1986, she and Margaret Dragu co-wrote Revelations, a collection of essays on striptease.
All this was something of an eye-opener to me at twenty-one.
When we became friends, she had been working as senior editor at C Magazine for ten years. A.S.A. had always supported her writing with word-related jobs – first, as a typesetter at Coach House Press and Gandalph Graphics; later, as a graphic designer and copy-editor; and finally, as an editor for art publications, galleries, critics and artists. A tough but supportive editor and a writer herself, she understood that words have the power to convey truth; and through her editing, she helped others to refine and clarify their language and to make the most of their words.
Susan’s pursuit of the truth knew no limits. She was a relentless questioner and a student of psychology, philosophy, astrology and the occult. She was a committed vegetarian, and a member of local, animal-rights-activist groups.
In 1996, A.S.A. combined her lifelong interest in esoteric knowledge with her deep love of animals in a humour book on cat astrology, Zodicat Speaks.
In 2005, she co-authored with her friend, psychotherapist Elly Roselle, Changing the Mind, Healing the Body – a book of case studies on transformational belief-change therapy.
And then, with what now, to me, seems like cosmic inevitability, A.S.A. Harrison turned her attention to the world of literary fiction. Drawing on a lifetime’s accumulated observations, insight, experience and finely honed skill, she set about writing her novel, The Silent Wife.
Tonight you’ll be hearing from some of A.S.A.’s friends, family and colleagues who have generously offered to share their memories and stories with us. I believe that together they will reveal a life lived fully, with curiosity, purpose and tremendous intelligence.
Susan’s brother, Brian Harrison, spoke on behalf of the Harrison family.
My kid sister was a baby boomer. Our Mum and Dad met at a dance at Sunnyside in the 1930s. They courted until Dad joined the army and went to Europe. Mum stayed in Toronto working in photography. As soon as Dad came home in 1946 they married. I came along ten months later, then Susan in ’48.
Susan’s childhood home was an apartment at Pape & Danforth in a yellow clapboard building next to a streetcar loop. It was where the Pape subway station now sits. Those were the days of iceboxes and coal trucks, wringer washing machines and horse-drawn milk wagons. Dad studied engineering after the war. Mum worked from home retouching negatives. They had no money. But life improved. Dad graduated and started a career with Ontario Hydro. By the mid-50s they had enough for a down payment on a little bungalow in North York. It was across the road from a big farmer’s field. Today the field is called Yorkdale.
After that it was sort of a Leave-It-To-Beaver life – although A.S.A. would reproach me for the cliché! She grew up in a stable family home in the suburbs, worked her way through the school system, hung out with friends, dated guys. She liked to dance. She took folk dancing, eurhythmics, ballet. She once performed in a production of West Side Story. She drew, painted and studied drama.
But even then books were perhaps her greatest love. When Lisa was born, Susan sent us a note asking for a list of the books our children had. She wrote:
I still read children’s books myself and like to give them for Xmas. I used to like to get books better than anything and still vividly remember them all, and the pictures too.
Lisa said Susan was a hugely independent spirit. As a teenager she had a strong, early need to become her own person, to leave parental supervision behind. That little house in North York was our parents’ home for half a century, but Susan’s home for just a decade. As soon as she finished high school she moved downtown and Lisa has related her story from that point.
I would like to read briefly from one of A.S.A’s early works. Here is A.S.A. at age thirteen, writing about yours truly in an essay entitled “All About Brothers”:
Brothers are peculiar people! One minute they’re full of love and the next they turn into nasty malicious little creatures. A nasty brother may turn quite lovable if he’s after something, and his sweet sister usually gets taken. He may come up with something like, “You’re getting to look more like a girl every day.” Since he’s called her an insect ever since she can remember, a sister usually appreciates this. Our hero can usually get his every command with a sentence like: “You’re the sweetest sister I’ve ever had.” If a brother only has one sister he is not put to complete shame with this statement.”
Thus young A.S.A. launched her career as a writer of pure fiction.
Fast forward to the late 60s when Susan married her first husband. I needed to buy a wedding present for the first time in my life. I read the gift list, consulted our parents and picked out something I could afford. After the wedding I received this note from my sister:
Dear Brian, thank you for the ironing board cover. It is a lovely ironing board cover. I shall iron upon it.
Beth Kapusta was to A.S.A., a matched wit, a trusted reader and an honest critic – that highly valued friend who challenges you in the best ways.
To begin, I offer up a word sketch in the manner Susan would use when calling her own literary characters into being. That many of the lines of this sketch are framed as paradoxes is entirely true to character.
• Physically commanding, upright, stern, scholarly yet pliable, surprisingly loose of bone and as flexible as a pretzel
• Existential worldview with mystical/astrological overtones (what her friend, Alexander, would have called a strong etheric imprint)
• An abiding belief that you create your world and your life with your mind (reflected in her long-time practice of core belief engineering with Elly Roselle)
• Believer in the spirits of and fierce defender of the rights of animals
• Intensely practical problem solver
• Creative within the framework of a strict Protestant work ethic
• Self-diagnosed late bloomer
• Skeptical of convention and sentimentality
To know Susan was to embrace her high-functioning, cerebral and deeply analytical proclivities. Susan shaped her highly interiorized life with John Massey, and their home is a built portrait of its co-authors: within the enigmatic shell of a rambling converted stable, there is a carefully composed, complex and serene space perfectly resolved to admit the individual and shared orbits of the two creative lives that formed the Massey-Harrison life partnership.
When I close my eyes to imagine what a modern interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own might look like today, Susan’s office is summoned to mind. A carefully ordered, garret-like and sparsely furnished room, behind a door and at the end of a steep stair, a single small window with nothing more or less than needed to perform a writer’s intensely private work.
Susan’s career arc was marked with increasingly sophisticated ways of placing words in their proper order: in the role of typesetter, when letters still pressed; later, a non-fiction writer and editor; and finally, as literary fiction author – or in her lesser known recreation guise, as an accomplished Scrabble player.
For Susan, writing was a sustaining discipline, an imperative as elemental as air or water. Even in the sybaritic temptation of Bruce Bailey’s farm, where Susan and John spent many weekends of escape, Susan would sequester herself into a rhythm of four or five hours of morning writing, only after which she would unwind into the simple pleasures of long walks, fireside reading, a good Scotch and a game or two of Scrabble before carefully prepared food – the trappings of the considered and well-ordered domestic life that anchored her private world.
Discussions about the shape and substance of writing were an intrinsic part of our wide-ranging friendship. Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin remained for Susan a masterpiece of structural virtuosity and raw literary talent for laying down sentence after beautifully wrought sentence, attributes Susan’s work shares. She had no patience for gratuitous and reflexive happy endings and was disturbed by this late-career tendency in her previously ordained favourite writer, Ian McEwan. She made no secret of her aversion to the prevailing sentiment that good characters need to be likeable.
There is a common thread in reviews of The Silent Wife of the tragedy that Susan was not alive to enjoy the success of her work. This is not expressly true: Susan had a clear-eyed understanding of the quality of her work and seemed to know, as both her friends and later her advance readers expressed, that its literary merits transcended the genre of psychological thriller, expressing profound insights into the inner paradox of relationships, the complex workings of denial, the power of mind over manner.
Proof: Susan had even already entertained a discussion about male and female leads for the movie version. With characteristic black humour, she saw the untimeliness of her illness as something of a silver lining, as it meant she could avoid the circus of her own promotional tour. She would, however, have reserved particularly sharp words for the fact that literary success, culminating in reaching second spot on the New York Times bestseller list, would see The Silent Wife sandwiched between JK Rowling and Fifty Shades of Grey.
While we know that Susan will be missed by a devout following of readers, her absence is even more acute for her close friends and family. In her niece Lisa, Susan found a familial intimacy and trust and intellectual camaraderie that transcends mere blood—and Susan took great pleasure in the equality of this relationship and her natural mentorship to Lisa.
Susan will be most deeply missed by her beloved John, the man whom she sought and then shared her best years and her deepest thoughts, some spoken, many telegraphed in the silent language that seemed to pass between them.
For those of us so fortunate to call Susan our friend, gone are the incisive and relentlessly accurate insights into the structure and substance of our lives. We deeply miss the uncanny wisdom of the words she shared with us in the everyday. We miss her paradox, her word-wit and humour, and the infallibly high spirits with which she conducted even the last months and days of a remarkable life.
Renowned Canadian author Susan Swan, as one of A.S.A.'s longest standing friends, was witness to the full arc of her life and career.
A.S.A.’s Journey as a Writer:
The Silent Wife’s success didn’t take me by surprise. I always thought my friend A.S.A. Harrison was a daring and original writer. I first met her in 1975 when she turned up at a performance I did with Margaret Dragu about figure skater, Barbara Ann Scott.
I was thrilled. A.S.A. was already well known in the Toronto art scene and she’d just written her underground classic Orgasms, which appeared two years before The Hite Report on Sexuality.
Soon we started sharing our aspirations as writers. The writer’s job is to make symbols of contemporary experience, A.S.A. told me one night at a Queen Street diner. She said she was going to write about relationships because that was the best way to describe modern life. Well, her promise came true in The Silent Wife, didn’t it?
Another concept we talked about came from a New Testament quote (of all things). Luke 5.36 describes Jesus telling his disciples not to put new wine in old bottles. A.S.A. and I disagreed; we loved the idea of new wine in old wineskins. We wanted to inject new content into old literary forms and give readers something familiar and shockingly new in one big splashy gulp.
That’s why she saw nothing unliterary about writing psychological thrillers. She believed the writer can be intelligent and original in any genre; and certainly, it’s her thoughtfulness along with her lyric skills that has made The Silent Wife appeal to so many readers.
Our friendship lasted thirty-eight years. During this time, most of her attention was on her non-fiction books but in 1995, she confided that she was tackling a novel. She said that the art world’s prejudice against narrative had held her back. She began to read voraciously, borrowing literary novels like Middlemarch by George Elliot from the library of a high school near her. First, she wrote crime stories with an animal rights detective; publishers wouldn’t buy them. Undaunted, A.S.A. switched to writing The Silent Wife and she was elated to find that she could convey her characters’ feelings through a description of their surroundings instead of telling the reader literally what her characters felt.
A.S.A. had stumbled onto T.S. Elliot’s objective correlative and found a way to make his literary theory work for her.
I’d like to share my final email exchange with her:
Hi A.S.A., I wrote on April 10, 8.33 a.m.:
I stayed up late finishing your novel. I loved it. It's masterfully written and compelling and deserves every penny you are getting from your publishers. I especially like the operatic riffs that go with the descriptions of the characters' inner lives. These passages describing their emotions struck me as top quality literary writing. I also liked the way the undertow of Jodi and Todd's problems gathers momentum and plunges them into circumstances that neither of them had been seeking. The pair seems hypnotized by the psychological forces pulling them apart.
Many men are not very self-knowing, Linden MacIntyre once told an interviewer, and I tend to agree. The portrayal of Todd certainly backs that up. And then there's Jodi who becomes more self-knowing as she drifts towards murder and yet she's still helpless to stop the momentum. That felt authentic to me looking back at the times when my own life has got out of control. There is the drama of things going wrong, of course, but also the fascination, curiosity and terror I felt over what was happening to me. No wonder you are getting such response from writers offering quotes. The crime fiction plot is elegantly precise, but it's the quality of the writing that makes the book stand out. love Swanee
Wow! Thanks for this, Swanee, she replied on April 14, at 10.51 a.m. It means a lot to me. Love you.
She died later that same day. We had managed to have our last conversation about writing, and it was a good one.
The legendary performance artist, Margaret Dragu, was A.S.A.’s lifelong friend, as well as a colleague and the co-author of Revelations.
I was twenty. She was twenty-five.
It was 1973. Four decades ago.
I left Montreal and New York to try Toronto for a while. I climbed the stairs of A Space and I met A.S.A. Harrison.
I always called her A.S.A. – so very rarely Susan, and only in other’s company to avoid confusion on their part – and A.S.A. always called me Dragu. From the moment I met A.S.A., I was slightly in awe of her talent, skills, publication production, fashion statement, self-awareness, practicality, spiritual curiosity, work ethic and intellectual rigor. I still am.
A.S.A. and I collaborated on a performance, based on her short story published in Chatelaine magazine; and A.S.A. co-produced and attended my Dance Classes for Artists workshop series. She was very curious about Week 5: The Artist and Burlesque, and once the workshop was over and we had become good friends, A.S.A. said, “I think I have an idea for a book for us to write together.”
And so began Revelations: Essays on Striptease and Sexuality – a project that took eleven years to complete. One of the reasons the book took so long was because I had to learn how to write. I often say that I learned to write from The School of the Two Susans – meaning Susan Swan and Susan Harrison. When I would say, “But, I am not a writer!” both Susans would reply, “Of course you are, Drags,” and that would be the end of my argument or complaint and therefore back to work.
Towards the end of the writing, A.S.A. and John fell madly in love, and he turned into a thoughtful reader and ear for us both as we finished this book. When A.S.A. would ask me to bring in a rant on a certain topic, I would smoke dope and go crazy on my IBM Selectric, and bring my rant in to read to her and John, and we would laugh and laugh and laugh. Great fall-down, belly laughs.
A.S.A. was a disciplined, focused and skilled writer who assured me that “writing is all about thinking. If your thinking is clear, your writing is clear.” But, A.S.A. never tried to make me write like her. She allowed and encouraged me to be as free-flowing and off-the-wall as I wished and never tried to change my voice for our book. In fact, she early-on decided we would have two voices and two fonts. This was a form and structure common now, but unusual then.
Still, I learned a few things: How to interview, how to write and outline, how to go back and edit, how to persevere. And, when I start a new writing project, A.S.A.’s voice is in my head, gently instructing and often laughing, saying, “Oh, Dragu,” and shaking her head.
I loved laughing with A.S.A. I saw her rarely once I moved out west, but when we did get together, we both felt like we had picked up a conversation from last week.
In fact, our conversation continues. When I write, I hear A.S.A.’s voice, helping me make a little outline: go to town here, edit there. When I interview someone, I hear her suggesting: Ask her how she knows that; tell him to give you an example. In fact, A.S.A. also taught me how to prepare for success. She envisioned our book being so popular we would be on Johnny Carson, she even prepared exactly what we would both be wearing for the Tonight Show, and that we would hit the famed “couch spot.” I know she would be so pleased about the great success of The Silent Wife. And, so am I.
Samantha Haywood was A.S.A.’s literary agent – unfailingly supportive and encouraging for many years. Sam recognized she had been handed a brilliant work in The Silent Wife and charted a path for it as it moved out into the world.
Thank you for coming to celebrate and pay tribute to A.S.A. Harrison tonight. And on behalf of A.S.A., a special thanks to her dedicated editors and supportive publishing teams at Penguin Canada and Penguin US. Specifically, Patrick Nolan, her American editor, who is here tonight, and Adrienne Kerr, her Canadian editor, who will be speaking soon. I’d also like to recognize Kim Witherspoon of Inkwell Management my US co-agent.
And a special thanks to Dana Spector of Paradigm, who brilliantly co-agented the film deal, which just closed this week, with Mazur Kaplan and Blossom Films, for Nicole Kidman to produce and star as Jodi in The Silent Wife.
I first knew A.S.A. as simply a friend of my Mom. My mother, Susan Swan, who spoke earlier this evening, always had fascinating artists and authors around our home. A.S.A. was a close pal and I saw her often throughout my childhood and teen years. She was always warm with me but also slightly reserved. Even as a young person, I could tell her temperament was different from mine and as a result I found her fascinating and slightly intimidating.
Something that gives me great pleasure is that A.S.A. spoke at my wedding about the importance of my childhood, growing-up as the daughter of a writer. She was correct to highlight this as it turned out to be a formative experience for me.
And so how fitting it is that A.S.A. was the one to become my first client back in 2004. It took us years and a couple of unsold mystery novels to practice our trades and from this journey came The Silent Wife. Of course the novel is singularly Susan’s achievement. She worked so incredibly hard to make this novel a masterwork. But with early reads and editorial suggestions and with tremendous faith in her abilities at all times, I helped her persevere through the tough years of rejection and revision.
I’m terribly proud of her achievement because she could have just as easily given up after the first two mysteries went unsold. Yet, instead, she did what I think is a very Susan thing to do: she “tried harder.” And now published in twenty countries, hitting number two on the New York Times paperback bestseller list this summer, with accolades from her peers and critics, and just optioned for film by Nicole Kidman, The Silent Wife is nothing short of a literary triumph.
I’d like to share an important memory of A.S.A. with you: It was a summer night last year when we went out to celebrate the book deal that had started everything. Susan and I went to a vegan restaurant on Dupont. We were talking about the strife and hardships of writers. I actually think we were bemoaning the IRS tax form and how long it takes to get paid your advance! Susan seemed frustrated so I asked her if she ever regretted her decision to become a writer. She paused for a good moment. Considered this carefully. And then her face just lit-up and her whole mood changed. She said looking back she was very proud of her career and didn’t regret any of her artistic choices. That she stood by her work. And I realized then how happy she was.
In 2010, after delivering a draft of her novel, Susan sent me an email and I’d like to share a portion of it with you:
Thanks for your faith in me and your patience. As it turns out, I'm actually grateful that my hand was forced by the failure of the mystery series. It was fun writing those books but ultimately I needed to move on and – having come through the learning curve of my first novels – I needed to work on something more challenging. All through the writing of The Silent Wife, I was pushing myself, finding ways to say things that I needed to say.
And this is how I like to think of The Silent Wife now, as somehow an extension of A.S.A. herself. The book embodies her beliefs and her strengths and her probing intelligence. Well done, Susan! When I miss you, I’ll just reread you. And that is truly a legacy to leave behind.
A.S.A.'s Canadian editor, Adrienne Kerr, Senior Editor at Penguin Canada, acquired the Canadian rights simultaneously with Penguin US and was a huge advocate for The Silent Wife from the start.
Good Evening. I’d like to thank Lisa Harrison and John Massey for inviting me to help celebrate Susan’s life and legacy. Unlike the friends and family you’ve heard from tonight, I knew Susan for a very short time, and in a limited capacity. But her effect on me was not insignificant. In fact, I think it was profound.
Before she got her North American publishing deal, before rights to her novel were sold in twenty countries and the most acclaimed writers in the English-speaking world were singing her praises, before her novel became a bestseller in Canada, and then in the US, and then a worldwide phenomenon, Susan worked with diligence and discipline on her novel for ten years.
Her subject was the dissolution of a marriage. The erosion of love and trust. The tendency of a woman named Jodi to remain silent. It’s her silence in her marriage to Todd that is her most powerful weapon, and also, as we realize later, her greatest weakness. She overrides sentiment, forges ahead, believes that if she acts as though all is well that all will be well. Jodi has made an assumption that silence is survival. And she’s wrong.
I think The Silent Wife is a brilliant psychological novel about the dangers of letting your most dearly held assumptions – about the way the world is ordered, about the way the world works – go unchallenged. When I first read it, the editor in me recognized the brilliance of the writing – its precision, its exactitude. Susan pinned her characters to the wall like a lepidopterist does a butterfly. The Silent Wife also fit very conveniently into a genre that was proving extremely popular with readers in recent years: the psychological thriller, pitting a wife against her husband. I knew it would be a bestseller. But that was no great feat. Anyone in my position would have.
In fact, when it came in, the manuscript was in perfect condition. I felt like I had to make some kind of contribution though, so Susan’s American editor and I put our heads together to make constructive criticisms. We suggested three minor, purely cosmetic changes. Susan said, “Thank you, but I disagree.” Then we said, “Um, ok. You’re right. It’s brilliant as is.” (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)
Once the editor in me had decided that I had to publish this extraordinary novel (I was on page three, I think) the reader in me began to respond to the story of an intelligent, professional woman who really hadn’t a clue about the ways in which she was thwarting her own goals. Her own happiness. It was then that I began a very personal, very profound relationship with Susan, who was showing me, teaching me through her writing, that it was essential that I confront my own dearly held assumptions about the way the world is ordered.
Susan wrote an astonishingly accomplished novel about the perils of blindly forging ahead, of living an unexamined life. And she did it by examining with painstaking precision, the mysteries at the very core of who she was, of who we all are. One cannot write a novel of such psychological acuity without investing a great deal of time and discipline in the pursuit of self-knowledge. A life-time’s worth. It’s a hard thing to do. A brave thing to do. For that alone, she deserves our respect and admiration.
Thousands of readers around the world are captivated by this novel. How wonderful that they recognize what a true gift it is – and what a great legacy Susan has left us.
Bruce Bailey, John Massey’s friend and patron, first met Susan through John, but over the years developed a bond of their own. Bruce read the poem Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy.
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon—do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.
Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)
Joyce Mason was intimately acquainted with Susan Harrison's work as an editor and as a critic in the art world. Though to many of those who knew Susan, this work was peripheral to their own relationship with her, it was an intrinsic part of her daily practice – one of the things she did when she disappeared into her office for long hours.
I met Susan Harrison for lunch at the Boulevard Café during the summer of 1990 – not long after I’d taken over C Magazine.
She knew that I needed a copyeditor and was on the lookout for contributors. She was both.
I told her my ambitions for C included accessible writing. And, as we know, clarity in thinking and expression were particular passions of hers.
I think of that lunch as the start of our professional collaboration.
And our work as editors was the centre of our relationship – not to mention, of our respective incomes – for more than two decades. Susan was my longest standing colleague and collaborator in no small part because of her consummate and passionate professionalism.
I trusted her:
• to be honest, opinionated and critical
• to meet deadlines
• to inform me immediately when there were problems
She knew her stuff, of course. But for Susan, as a copyeditor, the goal was never the pedantry of correctness but a consistency that would make itself invisible – clearing a path for readers to the information and insights of our writers. Which is why she got such a kick out of the present I gave her one C holiday dinner – A T-shirt emblazoned with: Is anal retentive hyphenated?
And also why, after the laughter subsided, she grinned and instructed us on the contexts requiring or not requiring said hyphen.
Like any long-standing relationship there were rough patches.
Ours was during that first year at C: We spent a lot of time talking about problems – usually, at Susan’s request.
We sat at my dining room table – hammering out solutions to this task of making a great magazine with practically no resources beyond our own energy and ideals. Our production schedule was impossible and everyone was grossly underpaid. Susan (quite rightly) did not want to take up the slack when there were delays or mistakes along the way. Of course, neither did I; but as she pointed out (and I had to admit) as Publisher, it was my job.
Still, to do it, I was depending on Susan’s high standards and experience, and the idea that she might jump ship filled me with dread. On top of that was Susan herself: Susan with-a-complaint was a formidable presence.
She later told me that she had not really expected a resolution when she began voicing objections. (It was as explanation of why she was quitting.) It surprised her that we were able to devise ways to make it work. I am grateful that we did. Together, we had been able to address issues that too often make work, life and relationships untenable. It seemed that – with the right person, honesty and a shared goal – solutions were possible.
Long after C, Susan remained my go-to girl for editing jobs, large and small.
Susan and I may not have been, in the conventional sense, close personal friends; but our relationship was never all work. Conversations were frequently personal. And, in these, I grew to admire Susan’s particular amalgam of honesty and discretion. She could offer advice that was obviously based in experience, without ever being careless of her partner – or the duty of trust that she so clearly felt in that relationship.
Of the gifts that I carry with me from having known Susan, it is of course not our conclusions about punctuation that I most value, but my lived experience of mutual consideration and collaboration and my admiration for her integrity and discretion.
I hope these have become part of my own DNA.
My time with her often made my tasks easier; but it continues to make my path in life better.
Barb Webb was Susan’s very close friend and confidante.
When my dog Obie was a puppy she met a dog named Abby, and while they played, Sue and I introduced ourselves. That was seventeen years ago. I remember our first conversation about the beauty of the day, the pleasure of dogs, dog treats, and cookies from childhood. We walked to the grocery store where I purchased cookies. Sue read the ingredients and refused to eat one: I ate one and decided the memory was better.
And so it went, over the years – walks, snacks and delicious meals to accompany conversations about pets, food, contemporary art, literature, book reviews, animal rights, money, love, writing, astrology. Our conversations were alchemy, a way in which we transformed the phenomena of being into consciousness.
I’d like to share some moments I had with Sue over the last months of her life, starting in February when I came to Toronto to see her. I hadn’t received one of her short chatty emails for a while and missed her. I was worried but wouldn’t admit it. She’d made me promise not to treat her like a sick person and had said, “If you do, I won’t see you.” That afternoon it was obvious we wouldn’t be going for a walk or visiting Karma Co-op to pick out dinner. She was in pain, lying down, so we hung out in the library and let our conversation meander.
Sue caught up on my country life and then talked about how wonderful John had been “through all this.” She said ‘this’ with a gentle stroke of her hand down her body. We looked at the book covers of her various editions like gleeful children examining birthday presents. We daydreamed about travel and gorgeous hotel rooms with fantastic bed linens, talked about the deliciousness of French butter and recalled a dinner she’d cooked for me years before, a non-vegan indulgence of fresh linguini with Gorgonzola cream sauce. We decided to snack on crusty bread and sweet butter. When we sat down at the table it sank in that this afternoon, this light-hearted conversation, this moment was a gift she was giving me, and I almost broke the spell by weeping.
Before my visit, Sue had offered to edit my manuscript, but because of her illness, I thought she’d surely rather do something else and attempted to leave with it still in my bag. I was about to break my promise and treat her like a sick person, but Sue kept the door firmly closed until I handed it over.
When Sue called in March to talk about it, her breath was laboured. She suspected I’d ignored the voice in my mind that whispers and prods when something is not quite right, and she critiqued elements of psychological presence, human heart and timeline. I niggled with a point, and she fired back with a counter argument in her editor’s tone of voice, reserved for those times when she needed to cut through my ego. When she used that tone I listened; my trust in her mentorship over the years was grounded in the knowledge that she wished me the best.
I returned to Toronto in mid April with the tail end of a cold so hadn’t arranged to visit. Unaware Sue had died that weekend I went to tuck some handmade soap with a note into the grill on her front door. The house felt peculiar, and when I looked through the window into the hall, everything was black and white, like a grainy fading photograph. I stood in a deep stream, holding still against a force of flowing water.
I mourn the loss of sharing the dream of life with my dear friend Sue. I want to tell her about Chris Hadfield being surprised by the pull of gravity on his lips and tongue after he returned to earth; send her the link to a video of retired research chimps seeing the sky for the first time; mail her Christian Lorentzen’s gutsy article on Alice Monroe’s body of work; but, mostly, I want to talk about what happened at her front door and say how grateful I am to have stood in the wake of her soul energy.
Renowned Canadian visual artist, John Massey was Susan’s beloved partner of thirty years.
I have titled my words in memory of Susan, “The Made Man”
In 1983 I moved to New York City. These were the pre-Giuliani days, when the streets in Midtown, where I lived, were dangerous territory. It really did feel lawless and a bit like the Wild West.
I had met Susan in Toronto through Margaret Dragu and was visiting strip clubs with the two of them, as they researched the Toronto scene. Susan and I had become friends, but at a certain point it was clear that Susan had something more on her mind than camaraderie. I, however, was recovering from a recently broken relationship and was in no position to be forming new liaisons.
Not long after establishing a foothold in New York, Susan contacted me to tell me she was coming to the city to see what the strip club scene was like in Manhattan. Once she arrived and was settled into her Greenwich Village hotel, we went to a few clubs and soon realized that this aspect of the big apple was nowhere near as vibrant as the Canadian scene.
She was in New York for only a few days and on the last night of her visit we had a drink in an Irish bar on 8th Avenue.
I was continuing to project unavailability and when it was time to go home, I told her that I would be returning to my studio, but that I would accompany her to her hotel first, or make sure she got into a cab, warning her of the perils of being on the street alone at night in that part of the city. Susan was vehemently independent, repeatedly telling me that she would be fine on her own.
I remember she was wearing a beautiful bright, red, silk scarf that she had bought at Macy’s earlier that day. I told her again and again that I would either accompany her or put her in a cab, as it was far too dangerous for her to be walking alone. If I couldn’t deliver as a paramour, I could be her gallant protector.
She would have none of it. Each time I insisted, she counter-insisted with a complete unwillingness to take my advice.
So finally, we said our goodbyes and walked in separate directions.
Around two or three AM, I received a call at my studio from Susan who was at a midtown hospital. She told me that she had been mugged; that a man with a gun had approached her on 8th Avenue and demanded her bag. She had responded with incredulity and refused to hand it over. The mugger then lifted his gun and struck her on the head. She gave him her bag! As the mugger was fleeing the scene, a Christmas tree vendor, who had witnessed what had taken place, ran after the mugger, who then turned and fired his pistol, wounding his pursuer in the leg. A cabby stopped and they put the wounded man into the cab and took him to the nearest hospital.
On the way, although in pain, the heroic intervener began to make passes at Susan. Once he was admitted to the hospital and in good hands, Susan phoned to tell me what had happened and asked me to come to her hotel. Obviously, I could not refuse. I arrived at her hotel, which was a pretty low-end, slightly scary place.
I remember she did not appear to be quite as shaken as I had expected. Nonetheless, she told me she needed to be with someone, and could I stay the night? Slowly, I removed my armour and entered the warmth of her bed.
This was the beginning of being made as Susan’s man.
Slowly our relationship began to develop in spite of the distance between New York and Toronto, and finally, before I knew it, we were living in a small apartment on Sullivan Street, just a few blocks from where we are gathered here this evening.
It is no secret that the evolution of our relationship was very rocky. We had come from different camps in the Toronto art world. She, being connected to the zany world of General Idea, where all things could be emptied of their content and reiterated as style and brilliant playfulness whereas I came from a camp where every minute was an angst-ridden pursuit of meaning. Where the subject merged with the phenomenon of their experience to potentially create an essential object. This was but one of our many, many fundamental differences.
Our life together was often very tempestuous, but after twenty-five years of difficult awakenings, she helped me to understand the simple and profound axiom that acceptance is the key to love and intelligence. Really, in those early days and in the many years to come, our disagreements rained down on us like a storm. We each had karmic abilities and disabilities. Neither of us gave ground easily. It was terrible and wonderful at the same time. Each small loss resulted in a gain. One more layer of the onion gone. Each one of us closer to the zero point of non-judgment. Each closer to a one-love where the subject disappears and there are only possibilities. It was as if we were in a crucible, boiling each other down to find the essential truths. After each emotional upheaval, there were moments of great clarity that were extraordinary and a coming together that was tender and at the same time stronger and more passionate.
At one point during Susan’s final weeks, she said to me that karmically we had wrestled each other to the ground. It was true, we had. Were it not for her strength and force of character, the hard core of her intellect, the softness of her body and her abiding interest in divining her own subject in a greater cosmology, I would not be the man I have come to be.
Susan was my great teacher. She taught me the how and the what of a daily love. How loving makes love. She was my everything. Even in her death she was a bright shining example of courage, curiosity, intense intellectual fortitude and determination. She did not show one ounce of regret or self-pity, I only saw in her what she had taught me: acceptance.
She died just as The Silent Wife was about to take off. I believe she was aware of the great agency her novel might have. She had made the deal with Penguin and she had been reading the great endorsements from other writers as they arrived. But I also believe that Susan had become a kind of deva, especially in her latter days, who had achieved a level of self-containment that no longer required the gratification of an ego. Yes, she would have been hugely vindicated by The Silent Wife’s phenomenal success as it climbed to the number two spot on the New York Times best-seller list. She would have been insanely joyous as the novel sold in each new country and smiling like a big Cheshire cat as the film option buzz began to grow. Yet, during her life she had always been sustained, so very much, in the doing of a good job, and this she knew she had done. As well, she had come to view the proximity of her death, on the eve of her great success, as a cosmic joke.
The Tibetan Buddhists regard death as liberation. It marks the end of an earth-bound existence and the beginning of a process of transformation that allows for the continuity of consciousness. There is no doubt in my mind that Susan’s spirit is in continuation and I rejoice in this.