Author Tags: Alcohol, Fiction, Poetry
Born in Hamilton, Ontario on November, 23, 1965, Billie Livingston grew up in Toronto and Vancouver, where she arrived in 1965. She has since lived in Tokyo, Hamburg, Munich and London, England. Billie Livingston's first employment was filling the dairy coolers in a Macs Milk. She went on to work varying lengths of time as a file clerk, receptionist, cocktail waitress, model, actor, chocolate sampler, and boothhost at a plumber's convention. She has sold diamonds for a jeweler, done PR work for a beer company, dressed up as "Garfield" for a kitty litter company and as "Bingo the Banana Split" for a Teletoons promotion. She now lives in Vancouver, working on film sets when she's not writing.
"I grew up here and there between Toronto and Vancouver. Went to more than a dozen schools -- counted sixteen once. Always moving. An aunt of mine remarked once that my mother, my sisters and I were all terribly dramatic. It was a relief to know that I came by it naturally. I guess I'd say that natural over-the-topped-ness coupled with being raised on perpetual movement have most likely contributed to my flibberty-gibbet lifestyle. I am 'Queen of the Moonlighters.' For most of my adult life, I've kept at least three jobs at a time.
"When I graduated high school, I was scouted by a stripper who thought I should be a fashion model. My mother, as part of her AA program, was 'twelve stepping' this stripper who wanted to get sobriety. She saw my picture on our mantle, took it to an agent she knew and two months later I had a contract to model in Tokyo. I hated high school and was loathe to continue on to university so I decided to give modelling a shot. Turned out the agent was a sleazy little tyrant who told me on my arrival in Tokyo that I was thousands of dollars in debt and not to even think about leaving or I'd be sued. I stayed for three months. I got through by writing a lot of bad poetry and angry, homesick letters. Writing incessantly kept me sane.
"When I came home to Vancouver, I turned eighteen, got some fake ID and started as a cocktail waitress in a pub downtown. Once in a while, during the day, I modelled for The Bay, Fields, Woolworth and glamorous places like that, but mostly I was an office temp. As an office temp I was fired a couple times -- once because my mind kept wandering, causing me to destroy their filing system, the other time because my skirt was too short and I'd been sighted using office stationary to write on during my lunch break."
Only about 20 feature films based on fiction published by B.C. writers have been made, so the model-and-movie-extra turned novelist Billie Livingston has joined a select group.
The 2014 drama Sitting on the Edge of Marlene—based on Livingston’s novella, ‘The Trouble with Marlene’—showcases an intimate and volatile mother-and-daughter tandem. As with much of Livingston’s fiction, chronic dysfunction and addiction weirdly blend with love and loyalty.
The Canadian-made movie had its premiere in October of 2014 and its public screening at the Vancity Theatre in late February of 2015. It emanates from the same psychological territory that Livingston explored in her darkly comic first novel, Going Down Swinging, in which a pill-popping, alcohol-dependent mother in the 1970s and her eight-year-old daughter are united by their mutual fear of the Child Protection Agency.
Much of the appeal of Livingston’s writing is derived from her lively dialogue, so director Ana Valine was making a smart choice when she wrote a screenplay adaptation for Sitting on the Edge of Marlene, her first feature. The film was nominated for seven Leo Awards and Valine received the BC Emerging filmmaker award sponsored by UBCP/ACTRA.
Here is the promotional summary for the film:
"While waiting for her father to get out of prison, clean-living (but experienced) 14-year-old Sammie (Paloma Kwiatkowski) helps make ends meet by joining her pill-popping mother, Marlene (Suzanne Clément), in the family con business. Callum Keith Rennie is featured as Fast Freddy, Marlene’s cohort in pulling off lucrative grifts. As the story progresses over two years, Sammie takes much more control of her life and her relationship with her mother, whose emotional maturity is stymied by her substance abuse. Sammie has little choice but to grow into the role of responsible adult but her morbid obsession with death, particularly her own, casts a dark shadow over her self-discovery."
Livingston’s second novel, Cease to Blush, also concerns a daughter’s relationship with her mother. An attractive woman who dabbles in a Vancouver acting career discovers her late mother, renowned as a crusading feminist and lecturer, had an extensive and diverse sexual history in Las Vegas during the Sixties as a stripper, gangster's moll and singing impressionist named Celia Dare. According to internet sites, Celia Dare is rumoured to have been a bedmate of the Kennedy brothers and Marilyn Monroe. The title arises from a quote from one of the female characters in the writing of the Marquis de Sade that the protagonist's mother once used to introduce her first formal university lecture: "Women without principles are never more dangerous than at the age when they have ceased to blush." In Cease to Blush, Livingston, according to her publisher, “drives the bumpy road from the burlesque stages of Rat Pack Vegas to the bedroom internet porn scenes of today, exploring just how far women have really come.”
After having just won the Danuta Gleed Award for best first collection of Canadian short fiction with Greedy Little Eyes, Livingston profiled the struggle of 16-year-old Sammie Bell not to replicate the scams of two con-artists parents in One Good Hustle (Random House 2012). Horrified to realize she occasionally wishes her alcoholic mother was dead, Sammie takes a summer-long with a ‘normal’ family who provide the “weird, spearmint-fresh feeling” of life in the straight world. While longing for the approval of her con-man Dad, Sammie worries she could be genetically prone to shysterism.
Livingston's poetry collection The Chick at the Back of the Church was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award.
Long-listed for 2012 Giller Prize (One Good Hustle)
Winner, Danuta Gleed Award for short fiction, 2011 [for Greedy Little Eyes]
Shortlisted for Pat Lowther 2002, shortlisted for Journey Prize 2001, 1st place This Magazine, Short Fiction, 2000, 1st place Other Voices Short Fiction 1998, 1st place sub-Terrain Short Fiction, 1996.
SEE PRISM INTERVIEW: http://prismmagazine.ca/2013/05/09/an-interview-with-billie-livingston/
Going Down Swinging (Random House 2000). Novel. 0-679-31000-2
The Chick At the Back of the Church (Nightwood Editions, 2001). Poetry.
Cease to Blush (Random House, 2006). Novel. $34.95 0-679-31322-2
Greedy Little Eyes (Random House, 2010). Short stories.
One Good Hustle (Random House 2012)
The Crooked Heart of Mercy (Penguin Random House 2016)
[BCBW 2016] "Movie"
Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston (Random House $22)
Dark, as an adjective, is overused to describe literature, so let’s just say Billie Livingston’s ten stories in Greedy Little Eyes are the opposite of upbeat and she has devised a style of her own.
Invariably incorporating sexuality and alienation, her stories often appear realistic until they veer towards harrowing inventions—vividly wild yet cleverly constructed, confident and riveting.
In the longest story, ‘Candy From a Stranger’s Mouth,’ the reader feels like a slightly changed person by the final sentence, but it’s hard to describe exactly how or why this is so, only that one sees the world differently; askew.
Possibly the creation of these stories has some therapeutic effect on their maker—in the same way that Kafka had to write The Trial or Van Gogh had to paint, whether they sold their work or not—but that is secondary to their value as art and entertainment.
You wouldn’t find Livingston’s stories in The New Yorker. They are too ‘edgy’ to win mainstream literary prizes. They can be grim. No, they are grim. But they are also painfully poignant and often, underneath it all, rather funny... in a dark (oops) sort of way.
In a story called ‘Did You Grow Up with Money?’, a pubescent girl describes a thoroughly disreputable character named Money who is welcomed into the household by grossly negligent parents.
Money is always loud, always drunk, carousing with her father, making lewd flirtations with her mother, while stalking the narrator’s sister, Beth, who is six years older. Beth goes berserk when she catches Money trying to defile her innocent sister; Money pins Beth to the bathroom floor when she retaliates, proving his invincible manhood, his power to ruin.
The two sisters successfully lure the loutish sexual predator, at night, to a river where they stand, scantily clad, siren-like, for a “party,” until the narrator asks Money for a piggy-back. While Beth pushes her tongue into Money’s mouth, the piggy-backed narrator feels the metal in her skimpy dress.
“I pushed myself higher on his hips, pulled the blade from its slot in the handle, and did what my dad took pains not to do every morning—dragged the edge hard into his throat.”
As the girls float the carcass down the river, Livingston’s final sentence is impeccable:
“I held his hand, Beth asked me if I was cold, if I’d like her to wash my hair when we got home, and he let us lead him downriver as if we were taking him to safety.”
The title story “Greedy Little Eyes” is about a young woman named Fern who hands out free samples in department stores and supermarkets. “Would you like to try a Lindt Swiss Milk Chocolate Truffle?” she repeatedly asks. At night she has a series of “egg” dreams about conceiving a child.
Fern knows she is losing her grip. Life is passing her by, and it’s humiliating to boot.
While handing out samples, Fern is forced to talk with a long-unseen high school acquaintance with a baby in a stroller. Fern lies and says she is going to have a baby. She didn’t plan this lie.
Fern becomes fascinated with a performance artist named Martin Flash who has gained widespread media exposure for announcing, one week in advance, that he plans to drive a steamroller over a rat squished between two art canvases.
Predictably, there is an hysterical outcry of public protest from rat saviours, schoolchildren and Life Is All Right [LIAR] led by a sanctimonious spokesperson who also likes to expose abortionists and murderers.
Fern is enamoured of the provocateur. She drives to the planned rat execution for art’s sake where hordes of protesters want to tear Martin Flash to pieces.
Giving away the ending to one Livingston story out of ten is enough. Suffice to say there is a bizarrely romantic union between Fern and Flash, but not before the desperado Martin Flash is “slapped across her windshield like a scrap of paper.”
Like a bride and groom, Fern and Flash will get their fifteen seconds of fame on the six o’clock news. Earlier, there is a passage from which the title of this story and the collection has been derived:
“The problem with voyeurs is they think it’s all about them and their greedy little eyes. They never stop to think about the exhibitionist. Ask any old exhibitionist you like, and they’ll tell you: exhibitionism is by the exhibitor for the exhibitor.”
Try substituting the word exhibitionist with writer.
The story “Do Not Touch” is less outlandish, but perhaps more satisfying as a construct. A relatively ordinary girl who works in a CD music store is flattered to be bedded, and invited to live with, a brainy arts critic for Canada’s largest newspaper. “I should have known something was wrong when Thomas sucked back the better part of a twenty-sixer of Glenlivet before he could kiss me the first time.”
Soon feeling sexually rejected by the impotent Thomas, who is addicted to internet porn and chat rooms, the narrator becomes infatuated with a neighbourhood “watchmaker” [jeweller?] when she sees the way he delicately handles the broken watches she brings him as an excuse to see him. She doesn’t learn his name. She longs for him to touch her, to mend her, to make her tick.
She drives to the zoo east of Vancouver, off Highway One, where she watches a young mother ignore her own child in favour of reaching her hand towards a young orangutan. This woman ignores the DO NOT TOUCH sign and holds the orangutan’s fingers in a reverie reminiscent of God touching Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
If life consists of a series of moments, as Borges has written in a poem, well, this strangely blissful union between a human female and an orangutan child through the metal mesh of the zoo cage in Aldergrove definitely counts as a moment.
“The woman looks back into the monkey’s eyes [orangutans are not monkeys], tears sliding toward her jaw, and starts to sing, her voice cracking, Lullaby and good night… ”
As the human seeker of physical contact ignores the irate zoo attendant, the orangutan, in return, straining his hand to her face, instinctively reaches and touches her jaw, as though she is beautiful.
Okay, two endings.
Life is a carnival. Some like the genteel merry-go-round or the bumper cars; as a storyteller Livingston rides the Tilt-a-Wheel, gets lost in the Tunnel of Love and she rides the gigantic roller-coaster.
Never a dull moment.
The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston (Random House $29.95)
from Jeremy Twigg
In the world of facebook, everybody’s life appears shiny and perfect: happy couples vacation in exotic locales; jubilant families revel in wholesome activities; freshly-baked cookies are pulled from the oven.
In contrast, Billie Livingston’s characters are riddled with flaws and anxieties, but their authenticity is appealing; so much so it’s hard not to like them.
In 2011, Livingston won the Danuta Gleed Award for short fiction for Greedy Little Eyes. Her 2012 novel, One Good Hustle, was nominated for the Giller Prize. The 2014 movie Sitting on the Edge of Marlene was based on Livingston’s novella about an intimate and volatile mother-and-daughter tandem, The Trouble with Marlene.
Her sixth book, The Crooked Heart of Mercy, promises to be her break-out title in the U.S.
In The Crooked Heart of Mercy we follow the struggles of an estranged couple, Maggie and Ben, who come from childhoods not fit for cheery status updates. Theirs is a psychological journey out of the black hole of self-punishment towards healing.
Maggie’s parents died in a car accident, leaving her to be raised by her elder brother whose homosexuality doesn’t jibe with his tumultuous career as a Catholic priest.
Ben’s mom fled his abusive, alcoholic father, leaving him to raise his younger brother who grows up to find himself owing a large sum of money to a drug dealer.
Maggie and Ben embark on the journey of starting their own family, only to suffer an even worse trauma: their first and only child falls to his death from a third-story window. Crushed by guilt, they are unable to forgive themselves, love each-other or hold down steady jobs.
“After Frankie died,” explains Maggie, “I began to feel as though anyone I met must know at once that I was the most contemptible bit of filth he would ever lay eyes on. I felt as if I should be driven into the wilderness.”
Maggie removes her apartment mirrors to avoid her reflection and any soul-searching that might come with it. She is reminded of her son’s death at every elevator ride; even ascending makes her stomach lurch.
Ben puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger during a drug-induced hallucination, only to find himself in a white room, evading a psychiatrist’s probing questions. His dialogue is not denoted by quotation marks, so the reader must deduce which words are spoken aloud.
Maggie tries a job caring for the elderly, but breaks down in tears reading a children’s book—the subject matter hitting too close to home. She eventually manages a return to the workforce, providing driving services and companionship to a spirited and un-politically correct senior named Lucy, who brings a welcome element of levity to the novel. Lucy recounts a promise to her deceased husband to keep him off life support, telling the paramedics not to bother resuscitating him upon arrival. “Don’t bother with that,” she says. “He’s dead. I didn’t call you till I knew he was dead.”
As Livingston’s characters struggle to emerge from the sticky clutches of guilt, the story does not follow a Hollywood-style plot, in which characters strive to achieve tangible or clearly defined goals.
Maggie seeks faith to heal her psychological wounds, experimenting with Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal churches. Not even visits to synagogues or Buddhist temples bring relief, until Maggie accompanies Lucy to The United Church of Spiritualism, where she experiences a positive connection to the memory of her son: “Recalling the sense of him is like rolling in warm cotton.”
Maggie’s spiritual flirtations are cut short when she figures out that a subsequent session with a psychic is rigged. There is no clear path to redemption. Ben’s unforgiving dislike of his abusive father comes across as entirely reasonable, but his psyche remains dark. He calls one of Maggie’s past clients, telling the senior on the other end of the line that sedatives she gave to Maggie as a ‘tip’ caused their child’s death.
Maggie’s priest-brother Francis is plagued by binge-drinking tendencies and a rocky relationship with the church, not to mention a penchant for one-night-stands with men. Following a night of debauchery, Francis finds himself the unwelcome subject of an internet video called ‘Drunk Priest Propositions Cop’ that goes viral. Yet Francis will play a key role in cracking Ben’s shell of guilt-induced purgatory.
The reader sticks with them, wondering whether or not Maggie and Ben will be able to successfully unite and regain tenderness. There’s also a sub-plot involving stolen veterinarian pharmaceuticals.
Livingston’s knack for dialogue makes every encounter believable. Her prose is consistently un-flashy, then suddenly she’ll describe Maggie’s eyes as “Acid eyes, kaleidoscope eyes that tripped and burned and saw it all.”
According to ABCBookWorld, Livingston has worked as a file clerk, receptionist, cocktail waitress, model, actor, chocolate sampler and booth-host at a plumber’s convention. She has sold diamonds, done PR for a beer company, and dressed up as both Garfield for a kitty litter company and ‘Bingo the Banana Split’ for a Teletoons promotion.
As the daughter of an alcoholic mother, Billie Livingston, as a writer, seems to accept that people don’t need to be perfect to be good—a fact that underpins her disturbing but deeply compassionate fiction. She has called Vancouver home since 1965.
Jeremy Twigg, a graduate of UBC’s creative writing program, works in the public relations industry.