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Creative research


By Caitlyn Spencer

Some may be surprised to discover that just as much research, blood and tears can go into a novel as into an academic tome, but for Suzette Mayr, associate professor in English, penning her novel Monoceros meant thorough research from many angles.

It’s paid off: this month Mayr was one of five professors to receive one of the Faculty of Arts’s inaugural Distinguished Research Awards.

“I did two main strands of research,” she says. “First, I looked at suicide in general, at statistics around suicide, the psychology of people who commit it, and the psychology of those left behind. The second strand revolved around what I would need to do to set this book in Calgary.”

Monoceros covers the suicide of a gay teen at a Calgary Catholic high school from an unusual angle, focusing on characters who weren’t close to the victim. For Mayr, this departure from the traditional focus on suicide victims and their immediate families was deliberate.

“I looked at novels about suicide and trauma and tried to figure out where mine would fit in,” Mayr explains. “I found that they concentrate on the victim and close friends and family. But suicides brought on by homophobic bullying aren’t just about one person. They’re about homophobia in general, and bullying in general. We’re all affected by it.”

Mayr’s sources for Monoceros ranged from studies of the demographics of suicide in Alberta to news stories on teen suicides to Prayers for Bobby, a non-fiction book written from the point of view of a fundamentalist Christian mother whose son committed suicide after his family rejected him for being gay.

“I wanted to do right by the parents,” she says. “I didn’t want to give a phony portrayal or seem flippant.” In that interest, Mayr also consulted her friends with teenaged children and even the occasional teenager to ensure a faithful depiction of 21st century 17-year-olds.

“I remember being a teen quite clearly, but this contemporary landscape is different,” she says. Mayr revised draft after draft in her quest to accurately represent contemporary use of technology and the schoolyard vernacular. “In some of the early drafts,” she says, “I had 17-year-olds talking like 42-year-olds.”

Monoceros has seen numerous accolades since its publication last year, making the Giller Prize longlist and the Globe and Mail’s list of the Top 100 Books of 2011.