Susan MusgraveBorn in 1951 in California of Canadian parents, Susan has lived by the sea on Vancouver Island in British Columbia for most of her life, with sojourns in the west of Ireland and South America. She lives with her two daughters and is now surrounded by a community of friends who are writers and parents; earlier, her friends were “gardeners and criminals and all sorts of other things that interested me.” She is easily recognized around Vancouver Island in her car, Toy Karma, covered with hundreds of glued-on plastic toys. She is open, candid and whimsical; happily “on the fringe,” yet rooted in family life.
In Grade 8 she won her first poetry competition, with a poem in rhyming couplets about Jackie Kennedy visiting her husband's grave by moonlight; her prize was a copy of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. But she left school at fourteen, her life in emotional turmoil; she was regularly experimenting with LSD and was hospitalized for depression. The poet Robin Skelton helped her out of the psychiatric ward, telling her, “You’re not mad, you’re a poet.” Musgrave published her first poems in the Malahat Review at sixteen. Her first book of poems, Songs of the Sea-Witch, drew comparison with Sylvia Plath. Susan describes poetry as “a way of dredging up the confusion and the chaos and trying to articulate it through transforming language.” It has been her solace, and her way of keeping balanced: “Writing saved me always, from probably going to prison or killing myself. This is how I transform experience. It’s a great safety valve.”
Her first novel, The Charcoal Burners, was a finalist for both the Seal First Novel Competition and the Governor General’s Award. Saturday Night magazine put the book in the company of works by Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence and Malcolm Lowry, and the Globe and Mail called it “a riskier novel than Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, more ambitious and visionary.” She continues to be celebrated for her fiction, poetry and non-fiction. She has won the CBC/Saturday Night Literary Contest and a National Magazine Award. Her Toronto Star columns have been collected in two volumes, one of which was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs, a children’s book, was selected by the Canadian Children's Book Centre for Our Choice 1999-2000. Her work has been in several anthologies including Desire in Seven Voices; Best American Poetry; Without a Guide: Contemporary Women’s Travel Adventures and the Great Big Book of Canadian Humour.
Susan Musgrave enjoys giving speeches and readings, always putting the audience at ease with humorous anecdotes. She has been labelled everything from sea-witch to stand-up comedian and social/political commentator, from anti-feminist to eco-feminist. She was once even named the “enfant terrible of Canadian letters,” (like Martin Amis, who has been called the enfant terrible of British letters, she worried that they would drop the enfant part when she turned forty). Famously, she posed nude for Saturday Night magazine. Poet Al Purdy used to say she had a genius for publicity – others say it’s simply her personality not to hold anything back. “When you’re a poet you don’t make a lot of money. But one thing you do need to do is keep your name out there, because that will help you get work. Publicity is a necessary function to keep everything rolling. I don’t go out looking for it, but when it comes to me, I try to see it in a practical way.”
Cargo of Orchids draws on Musgrave’s experiences on the periphery of the legal system. Her first marriage was to a criminal lawyer, her second to a man he successfully defended in court for drug smuggling, with whom she lived in Colombia and Panama. She finally met Stephen Reid while she was writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo and he was serving a sentence for bank robbery in Millhaven Penitentiary. Reid had been a leader of the Stopwatch Gang, once on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for a string of high-profile heists. She edited the manuscript he sent to her (it became the acclaimed Jackrabbit Parole), visiting him in jail over four years and gradually falling in love, initially through the main character in his book, whom she found funny and exciting. Reid was granted parole and became an author and a family man; he and Susan had a daughter together, and he eventually became best friend and role model to the daughter she already had.
Sadly, however, Stephen continued to battle a drug addiction that has haunted him since his teen years (Susan has written about the addiction in her poem collection Things That Keep and Do Not Change). When Stephen overdosed, Susan feared for his life. After a two-year “clean-and-dry period” during which the couple read from their private letters at a PEN Canada benefit and the CBC documentary The Poet and the Bandit aired, Stephen succumbed again to his addiction and was arrested for bank robbery. He is now serving an eighteen-year sentence. Susan wrote in Saturday Night in September 1999: “Stephen and I were married in prison, in 1986, when he was serving a twenty-year sentence . . . . He was paroled a few months after we took our vows, twelve years ago almost to this day. But prison is not an easy place to escape, even if they release you.” She sees addiction as a sickness, and misses Stephen as a father, a husband, and her first reader. “He’s only been the perfect husband that all my friends wanted. Except for his addiction.” She is editing a book of their 1984—87 correspondence.
Life for this writer and mother has become harder, but she continues to apply herself wholeheartedly to all her work, and sometimes the roles overlap. In addition to writing several books for children, she has worked with over a thousand high-school students across Canada through the Writers In Electronic Residence program, and for the NWT Literacy Council, conducting workshops in youth custody and correctional centres. She has written two scripts for the NFB’s Teenagers at Risk series, and recently edited the anthology Nerves Out Loud: Critical Moments in the Lives of Seven Teen Girls.
In 1999, she and Stephen began building a house on the Queen Charlotte Islands, where her first novel was set. It’s her favourite place. “There's no phone, no deadline, no schedule - only a transistor radio, the CBC. When the batteries run out we lie on our backs and listen to the stars burn out. This may be the one kind place on Earth.”