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Telling Stories

Richard LevangieAs writers go, I’m something of a contradiction. I didn’t start my life surrounded by books, didn’t grow up in a family where reading was a sacred pastime. My parents, with seven children over 12 years, worked incredibly long hours, and scarcely had time to breathe, let alone time to lose themselves in a story. Finding a quiet place to read was a luxury my mother was seldom afforded.

As for me, books were mostly dull things, largely reserved for school work. While I do remember trips to the library with my sisters, and I enjoyed reading, I don’t remember many childhood books that truly mattered to me until I started reading The Hardy Boys in grades 4 and 5. Mostly, I read to stay in the good graces of early teachers, a few of whom didn’t much like me.

My early passions were for sports — especially hockey. I was my mother’s son, raised a faithful and unquestioning Catholic; I was taught to be kind, to keep my head down, and never to speak back to authority.

Eventually, I started to see the vagaries of life in the stories we read in English class. By junior high school, Flowers for Algernon, Walking Tall, and Force 10 from Naverone made an impression on me, and I enjoyed reading and discussing them in class.

But who was I kidding? I took classes in English because the curriculum required it. But I didn’t need them. I was going to be a doctor and liked that I could get 100 percent on a science test; I liked that your answer was either right or it was wrong. Not so in English classes, where teachers with (I thought) questionable credentials were sitting in judgment of my essays, finding them good, but never as good as they could be. I was always made to feel that I was disappointing them.

So it’s curious that I now make my living in black and white, with words upon a page.

Two events shaped my future. The very first was a potent influenza: after final exams during my first year of university, I lost a month of my spring to debilitating headaches and a temperature that hovered around 103°F. So I read a book that my brother had given me for Christmas: The Lord of the Rings. I lay (feverishly) transfixed by Tolkien’s heroic tales and a world that seemed more real than the one in which I lived. I dreamed one day of writing a book that was one-tenth as great.

I read it three times that summer.

And then I started writing. Bits and pieces at first. In a journal, or letters to a favorite cousin. Whenever I had a few minutes.

A few years later, my biology degree in hand, I took a year off to work in the restaurant industry while waiting for an opening in the MSc program; I was going to to study immunology before medical school. One fateful night, we had an informal wine tasting to select a new list for the restaurant, which had just received a liquor license. It was an amazing night.

I was hooked by a hedonistic, sensual beverage that tasted of cherries, blackcurrants, almonds and peaches. My career in science and medicine ended that night; it just took me a few years to realize it. I soon found myself inspired by great wine writers like Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, and sought to build a career that emulated theirs, garnering a journalism degree in 1990.

I had several successful years writing about the joys of the vineyard and table, selling regularly to food, wine, and travel magazines, until a bizarre, debilitating illness waylaid me. I suffered through 13 years of daily migraines, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia only to discover that a harmless, benign pituitary tumor seen on my MRI scans had been misdiagnosed, and was anything but harmless. I nearly cashed-in my chips a few times, and underwent five hours of neurosurgery in 2012 to keep from losing my eyesight – and my life.

Long years of illness, pain, and solitude have transformed me. I’ve thought long and hard about the world I want to live in, and it’s not the one we have. I want to work for social justice, to fight hard against climate change, and promote sustainability.

And I want to write — both fiction and nonfiction.

My late middle-grade novel – Secrets of the Hotel Maisonneuve – recently won the Atlantic Writing Competition for unpublished manuscripts, and I’m now looking to place it with an agent or publishing house.

Just as exciting, I’ve just completed my Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College, and currently have two worthy nonfiction books under development.

After everything I’ve endured, I finally feel like I am where I am supposed to be. These days are rich, and thrice-blessed by adversity.

I have much to do, and miles to go before I sleep.

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