calgary herald, november 29, 2014

Ken Rivard's Motherwild has 'bits and pieces from my childhood' growing up in Montreal

Roughly 10 years ago, author Ken Rivard made a pilgrimage back to the working-class Montreal neighbourhood where he grew up. 

By that point he had been a Calgarian for nearly 30 years. But he wanted to show his wife the apartment building on Dion Street where he grew up before it was torn down. It still looked the same — "You could still hear the rats running under the floor," he cheerfully reports — although most of the factories that had once surrounded it were gone.

It was a colourful backdrop. His wife saw its literary potential right away, suggesting it would make a great setting for a novel.

So it would be easy to assume that Motherwild (Thistledown Press, 390 Pages, $19.95) Rivard's 10th book, is largely autobiographical.

"There's bits and pieces from my childhood," says Rivard. "But I find if I try to write about myself and my childhood. You get trapped in your own truth, your own perception of the truth. It's easier to make stuff up."

Still, Motherwild is set on Dion Street, where "the rats were bigger than the dogs" and Rivard grew up from age two to 14 as the middle child in a working-class family. He lived upstairs from a taxi driver who had 12 children, a brood that inspired some of the characters in Motherwild.

But the most powerful inspiration from the neighbourhood were memories of the mothers, who tended to be fierce, proud and "a little crazy."

"The most helpful words I have that help me write are what-if," Rivard says. "What if one mother had a really long series of conflicts with her son and he transferred this to people around the street. How did he navigate his way around this wild mother he had. She drinks a lot, her behaviour is erratic."

Most of Motherwild takes place during one tumultuous year, from 1959 to 1960, in the life of Montreal boy Joey Cantell, who is working through some serious issues with his strong-willed 'Ma.' Young Joey falls for a downstairs neighbour who, in a Freudian twist, bears a striking resemblance to his mother.

While all this is fictional, Rivard certainly drew on his background to capture the unique sense of time and place of working-class Montreal circa 1959, which he largely presents without the rose-coloured hue of nostalgia.

"All kinds of things went on in this street," says Rivard. "There was alcoholism, violence. Issues were settled with a kick to the groin. People stole from each other. Children had children."

Rivard left Montreal after earning a Masters degree in education from McGill University. 

He spent the next 38 years in Calgary, where he raised a family. Next year, he will leave his post teaching English literature at Mount Royal University to concentrate on writing full time. 

He large body of published work, which dates back to 1983, has covered everything from books of poetry, to short-story collections and children's books.

So while Rivard may have made the journey from working-class to academia, he said working on a Motherwild proves "you can't take the working-class out of the kid."

His brother noticed it during an recent interview on CBC radio. "He's a lawyer here in town, four years younger," Rivard says.

"He says, 'You sound just like me. We're still in that street. You still have that working-class tinge to your voice'... You don't change fundamentally. There's something about us that leaves a mark from childhood."

— Eric Volmers