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Tara McGuire's book about death is full of life

In ‘Holden After and Before’, McGuire’s autofiction lets her imagination lead characters through real places and events

Few books that centre on death are as full of life as Holden After and Before.

One of the objectives was to keep Holden alive in some way, explains Tara McGuire of her full-length debut. “That’s why I wrote him in present tense,” she said. “I really wanted to see him just walking around and doing his thing and being who he was.”

Throughout McGuire’s book, vivid situations swirl off the page: a skateboard hangout gone awry, bonding over beers at a New York City Jazz club, a cathartic metal concert punctuated with an unexpected bump of heroin.

As a work of autofiction – a newish literary genre  – McGuire roots experiences in the factual, but lets her imagination lead characters through scenes that ring with truth.

The stories happen in real places, many in North Vancouver, where McGuire and Holden moved in with her sister after McGuire’s divorce with her first husband when her son was three. The chapters follow McGuire on her trips through Turkey and Croatia, corresponding with an adult Holden as he tried to get back on track. They follow him into a friend’s apartment in Gastown where he went to sleep, overdosed, and never woke up again.

McGuire said that she first started writing a purely fictional novel about Holden. But during the course of her formal writing education, mentors encouraged her to write her own story. Then she learned about autofiction, which involves fictionalizing the actions of real people. “I didn’t even realize it was a possibility,” McGuire said. She started looking into the style more and more.

One of her inspirations is Miriam Toews, who wrote about her father’s suicide in Swing Low as a first-person novel. “She wrote about her sister’s death as well and called them fiction, even though everybody knows they’re real people,” McGuire continued. “That gave me more freedom in how I approached the project.”

After many iterations, McGuire finally got the book to a place where she considered it reasonable. But she wants to be clear that everything that happens when she’s not around is fictionalized. On the other hand, the events are based in evidence – a photograph, a conversation, a text message.

“For example, my husband Cam and I went down to the jail in Vancouver, and we got a tour all the way through and saw how everything works in there,” McGuire said. “So I was able to put Holden in that scene, because I had been in that scene.”

Other moments are infused with more realism, like her experience with a psychic, where McGuire recorded their conversation. But that event is also one of the book’s most surreal, as she finds herself floored by what the medium says.

Rebecca angled her head as though she were listening to a faint, far-off sound. She closed her eyes, cleared her throat.

To blame this on yourself is to take away my power. I had choices, too. I’m hearing him say, Don’t worry about me, Mom. I’m fine. You can stop worrying about me now.

“That’s just the way he would talk,” McGuire said, which helped her to believe the psychic’s connection was genuine. “He would just be like, ‘I got this. Don’t worry about me … I’m making my own decisions here.’”

That experience opened her mind to the thought that we might not know what the soul is doing. Maybe our expectations for a lifespan aren’t accurate for everybody. McGuire said it’s helped her take the idea of Holden’s death as something a little softer at times.

“I don’t know what his purpose was. I don’t know what mine is. But I have faith that the purpose of the soul is being met in some way, I guess.”

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