David Giuliano is an award-winning writer of articles, essays, and poems. His book Postcards from the Valley: Encounters with Fear, Faith and God was a Canadian Bestseller. He has published two illustrated children’s books: The Alligator in Naomi’s Pillow and Jeremiah and the Letter e. His most recent book, It’s Good to Be Here: Stories we tell about cancer is a spiritual memoir about his 20-year journey with cancer. The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is the story about the trauma – immediate and ongoing, personal and collateral – inflicted by Rupert Churley, who preyed on boys in Twenty-Six Mile House, an isolated town in northern Ontario. Giuliano lives in Marathon, Ontario with his wife.
How long did it take to put together the novel?
Oh, only about 30 years. Of course, it spent more time pestering me from the bottom drawer of my desk than actually under production. When I stopped working full-time in 2017, I got serious about it.
Who are some of your favourite writers?
I read a bit like some people watch NetFlix – I find an author I like and binge until I run out. I just finished reading everything by Haruki Murakami. Tom Robbins is probably my favourite writer. I also like Paulo Coelho, Richard Wagamese, John Irving, Miriam Toews, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas King and Will Ferguson to name a few who come immediately to mind.
How important do the roles of memory and evidence play in this novel?
We know, from recent research, memories are slippery things, that memories change, evolve, slip away. We remember certain things and forget other. Sometimes, when presented with more objective evidence it feels impossible to reconcile that evidence with the certainty of memory. However, there is emotional and physical memory that tells their own stories in our lives – regardless if the facts. Those memories shape us, haunt us, bless us, even if they never happened. There’s no point arguing the details.
What was the most difficult aspect of the novel to write?
The most difficult aspects were the parts of the story involving Anishinaabe characters and culture because as someone from the settler culture I wanted to be careful not to tell stories that aren’t mine to tell. While I have served and been invited into many Indigenous communities, I’m careful to only tell my own story, of experiencing those communities. I tried to do that with Billy’s and Catherine’s relationships with the fictitious Pickerel River First Nation.
Despite the topic of sexual abuse, there is a lot of humour in the writing. How did you find this balance?
I don’t know if I found the balance. I’ll leave that to the reader. But it seemed important not to portray characters as two-dimensional survivors. Matt, the narrator for example is viewing life on earth from afterlife, I think, he would find humans pretty funny at times. Loneliness, like Catherine’s, leads her naturally to some ridiculous situations. And, of course, Billy’s last name is Buffone – which means clown in Italian. I’m not writing about creepy birthday party clowns, but the kind of clowns who reflect the truth about ourselves back to us—through their vulnerability and from their place of powerlessness.
What are you hoping readers will walk away from with your debut novel?
I hope they walk away with a deeper sense of how forgiveness, mercy and redemption happen, imperfectly, not all at once but over time. That ultimately it can only happen in relationship. Maybe something about the power of love to heal us.
Since the novel takes place in a small town and its very much a small town story, did you find that, as you wrote, these characters knew one another quite well; that a certain fictional intimacy befell these folks as you planned things out?
Most of the characters in The Undertaking of Billy Buffone are outliers. Billy has been avoiding intimacy – even with himself – to keep his secret. His eventual surrender to vulnerability and relationship with Catherine happens when he gets tired of carrying that secret. Catherine, almost the complete opposite to Billy, is hungry for and pursuing a relationship from the start. Secrets and the desire to bury them in the past put walls up around people, even – or maybe especially – in small towns.
Who was your least favourite character to write and why?
Scouter Rupert Churley. It was difficult to find some compassion for a man guilty of serially abusing those boys all those years, but I knew, as Matt says near the end of the story that he too was “some mother’s child.” There was something broken in him.
For those who haven’t spent any time in Marathon, can you describe some of the joys of living in the area? What are some of your favourite places to frequent?
I like that I can walk or ride my bike wherever I go and know most people I connect with on those walks and rides. I like that one of the best cross-country ski trail facilities in the province is less than five minutes away. Like Catherine, one of my favourite places to visit is Pebbles Beach where I too go to consult mother Superior. Twenty minutes’ drive west is the long beaches of Neys Provincial Park, and twenty minutes east is Pukaskwa national wilderness park. I like to paddle out to Pic Island and other places Lawren Harris and other members of the Group of Seven painted.
Are you working on anything new?
Yes, I’m about 100 pages into another novel inhabited by other citizens of Twenty-Six Mile House. I am not ready to share a lot of detail yet, though.
What are you most looking forward to about promoting your debut novel?
I’m more nervous than excited, to tell the truth. I’ve put my heart into this story and now it’s being held up to the world for judgement. And, I’m excited about the same thing, hearing responses and talking about this creature that means so much to me. I suspect I feel the way any artist does when their work is finally unveiled.
For more information on The Undertaking of Billy Buffone, please visit Latitude 46 Publishing’s website. www.latitude46publishing.com