Cures for Hunger by Deni Y. Bechard

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The book suffers greatly from the questionable veracity of the tales told by the father, and it is often unclear where the truth lies.
-Globe and Mail

Synopsis

“As the motor’s vibrations cradled me, I tried to envision my life. I saw the red lines of highways on the map, stretched between cities like threads of torn cloth. I imagined a book that could hold it all together, plains and mountain ranges, dust-drab towns beyond interstates, and somewhere on the far edges, the valley in British Columbia and those nights in Virginia when I snuck out and stalked the highway, trying to fathom where I belonged on this threadbare continent.”

As a child growing up in rural British Columbia, Deni Béchard had no idea that his family was extraordinary. With a father prone to racing trains and brawling, and a mother with interest in health food and the otherworldly, Deni finds pleasure in typical boyish activities: fishing for salmon with his father, and reading with his mother.

Assigned to complete a family tree in school, Deni begins to wonder why he doesn’t know more about his father’s side of the family. His mother is from Pittsburgh, and there is a vague sense that his father is from Quebec, but why the mystery? When his mother leaves Deni’s father and decamps with her three children to Virginia, his curiosity only grows. Who is this man, why do the police seem so interested in him, and why is his mother so afraid of him? And when his mother begrudgingly tells Deni that his father was once a bank robber, his imagination is set on fire. Boyish rebelliousness soon gives way to fantasies of a life of crime, and a deep drive for experience leads him to a number of adventures, hitching to Memphis and stealing a motorcycle; fighting classmates and kissing girls.

Before long, young Deni is imagining himself as a character in one of his father’s stories, or in the novels he devours greedily. At once attracted and repelled, Deni can’t escape the sense that his father’s life holds the key to understanding himself, and to making sense of his own passions, aversions, and motivations. Eventually he moves back to British Columbia, only to find himself snared in the controlling impulses of his mysterious father, and increasingly obsessed by his father’s own muted recollections of the Quebecois childhood he’d fled long ago.

At once an extraordinary family story and a highly unconventional portrait of the artist as a young man, Cures for Hunger is a singular, deeply affecting memoir, by one of the most acclaimed young writers in the world today.
 

About Deni Y. Bechard

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Deni Y. Béchard was born in British Columbia to a loving and health-conscious American mother and a French-Canadian father with a penchant for crime and storytelling. He grew up in primarily in B.C. and Virginia, but an insatiable drive for travel and experience led him to roam widely across North America. Cures for Hunger focuses on the experiences and effects of his nomadic childhood. Béchard's first novel, Vandal Love, (Doubleday Canada, 2006) won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the best first book in the entire British Commonwealth. He has been a fellow at MacDowell, Jentel, the Edward Albee Foundation, Ledig House, the Anderson Center, and the Vermont Studio Center, among others. His articles, stories and translations have appeared in a number of magazines and newspapers, among them the National Post, the Harvard Review and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. He has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, and has lived in over thirty countries. When not traveling, he divides his time between Tokyo, Cambridge, and Montréal. Cures for Hunger and Vandal Love are his first-and simultaneous-book-length publications in the United States. The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Deni Béchard June 22nd, 2012 The Rumpus Book Club chats with Deni Béchard about his book Cures for Hunger, the complexities of memoir and fiction, and the difference between traditional French and Quebecois. Editor's Note: Because we experienced software issues during the chat, we gave Béchard the chance to answer some questions that he couldn't see during the actual chat. These additions are in italics. (This has been edited.)Brian S: Was writing this book significantly different from the other writing you've done?Deni Bechard: Yes. Very different. I never wanted to write a memoir, and when I finally decided that this subject matter was meant to be a memoir, I realized that I would be working with a slightly different set of tools.Kristy E: Why didn't you want to write a memoir?Brian S: So did you start by thinking you would just write a novel and this grew out of it?Deni Bechard: I loved novels, and I had always planned on writing only novels. So when I started writing this book, I intended it to be fiction, and I allowed myself certain freedoms in terms of style, etc. But after about twelve years of coming back to the manuscript, I realized that I needed to write it as a memoir-that I was caught between fiction and memoir, and it wasn't serving the book well.Betsy: It's a little weird to talk about your mom and dad as though they are simply characters in a book, but they are such Characters. For some reason, I cut your mother a lot of slack as I read. She is doing her best, or isn't, and my heart went out to her even when I sometimes thought What Are You Doing? Nooooo! Have you been getting those reactions to your parents from readers? Reading your parents as fictional? I was engrossed from start to finish.Deni Bechard: Yes, I have been getting those responses, more from women than from men. Women have generally been the readers who voice their feelings about my parents' choices and how they both tried to understand them but were horrified to see what they were up to.Kristy E: How much rewriting did you have to do on account of the shift to memoir?Brian S: I was going to ask how long it took to write-12 years? That's a project.Deni Bechard: I rewrote the vast majority of the material, but even as I reworked it, I realized that I could go much deeper into the scenes, and I threw away even the first drafts of it as a memoir. Less than a fifth of the material dates to before Dec 2009.Kristy E: The back and forth was really hard to read. My heart just went out to him being caught in between being who he was and who his dad wanted him to be and who he thought he might be.Brian S: I found myself also wanting to read the father in his own words, which is impossible obviously. But get another point of view. So where were we?Kristy E: Yes, a child's understanding of a parent can be limited.Brian S: Even looking back as an adult, it's tough. I think I find memoir as a genre fascinating because it shows the difference between fact and truth so vividly.Deni Bechard: I agree with this. Writing the memoir, I was very conscious of how everyone involved was constructing their identities, trying to tell their own stories within the context of the book. It made me realize that even while I was trying to record my memories truthfully, those memories contained stories that were certainly often somewhat fictionalized. My father presented his past in such a way as to achieve his immediately goals, and I spent a lot of time both while growing up and while writing the book trying to figure out what was true in his words.Deni Bechard: What I was going to say earlier about the transition between fiction and memoir also addresses this. By the way, most of my comments aren't going through. A little worrisome. I think that my computer is having a problem with this.Kristy E: I was just commenting that it must be difficult to write a memoir about a relationship with a parent, when that parent limits what you know about him.Deni Bechard: That's exactly what I struggled with. The knowledge that my father decided to share with me influenced how I perceived him and whether I respected him. It wasn't in his interest to have me know too much. But the memoir was very much about that search, about trying to unravel my father, trying to figure out what had created him, where he'd come from, what his motivations were.Brian S: I have this sense that you can only ever really describe your relationship from your own point of view, because you can never really know what's happening in another person's head.Deni Bechard: That's true. And in a sense, I realized that my portrayal of my father would ultimately be a self-portrait.Deni Bechard: As I wrote the memoir, I had clear sense of wanting to unravel my father, much in the way that Faulkner would unravel his characters, and to open him up to history and in a sense forgive him. This was much easier to do with fictional tools-or at least it seemed that way. So when I rewrote it with memoir, I found that the process was much more subtle, from showing my perception of him when I was a child to my growing understanding of who else he might have been as I got older.The other literary influence who was very present in my mind as I wrote, and whom I should mention, was Tolstoy. I have always loved how he transformed characters gradually over time, and I wanted both to unravel my father as Faulkner had done with his characters and to transform both my father and myself slowly over time. As I searched to understand what was in my father's head and to know who he was, I increasingly tried to live aspects of his life and changed who I was, getting to know him by becoming like him.R. Rafferty: So Betsy brought up an interesting point about your mother in the story, I know the relationship with your father was much more the focus, but I felt there was a lot to read between the lines about your relationship with your mother. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to not keep that part of your life more veiled?Deni Bechard: I didn't intend to keep that part of my life veiled. My mother wasn't very present during my late teens. However, her influence remained very strong, and the writing that she brought into my life in many ways continues her narrative.What I mean by that is that she valued writing very strongly when I was a child, and I came to indentify myself as a writer at a very young age. The memoir in many ways explores how writing saved and transformed me, and her voice and values often come through my choice to pursue writing.Brian S: Were there ever times when you were writing this that you started to question your memory? That's always an issue with memoir, after all, especially when you start off writing a novel. Especially with the ongoing argument over the issue of truth versus fact in memoir and nonfiction.R. Rafferty: Awesome question Brian, you beat me to it. I kept thinking to myself, especially early on, how can he remember so much about his early childhood and teenage years...and in such great detail!Deni Bechard: Whereas earlier on my mother is speaking to me and encouraging me to live a certain way, later in the story, it is the writing that is driving me to live a different life.Betsy: Okay, well then. On to my favorite paragraphs and line in the story. The most poignant, telling part of the story that gave me the most insight into your father is on pages 256-257, where your dad has been told he can't go live with his uncle and become educated because he was needed at home to work. He is given the silver chain that he ties to a wood chip and eventually loses in the barn. I love that section. And my favorite line/quote is where he says, "That's how pathetic that life was," he explained. "That something like that could matter." I had to pause there and just be silent for a while. it summed it up. Really beautiful. I loved this book - one of the best books we've read, I think.Deni Bechard: This comment didn't come through in the online chat because of the technical difficulties. I just want to say thank you, Betsy. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.David B: If this question connects Deni, I wondered if you felt you resolved some issues with your father in those last days before he died. In your book you didn't mention that you loved him.Deni Bechard: I definitely did resolve some questions that I had regarding him over the seventeen years of writing the book. In a sense, I made him human and found him in myself.R. Rafferty: I see, I understand its obviously your life to tell us but I found myself wondering about your mother and how she influenced your life in those early years, as well as your siblings.Deni Bechard: She had a very strong influence actually, and though she doesn't occupy a large part of the book, she is quite present in the beginning. Her vision of my future very much influenced how I chose to live my life, and she was a master of making small comments that stuck with me and often caused me to make good decisions at crucial moments.Deni Bechard: I often questioned my memory and worried about this a great deal. It is very difficult to know how our memories change with time. But what startled me is that I realized that many of my memories seemed to be becoming more accurate as I got older, largely, I think, because I had more emotional distance and my understanding of people had deepened. It was easier to recreate scenes based on my knowledge of the people, given that it is impossible to recall every word that they said. (continued on therumpus.net)
 
Published May 15, 2012 by Milkweed Editions. 338 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Crime, Parenting & Relationships. Non-fiction
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Globe and Mail

Below average
Reviewed by Brad Smith on Jun 18 2012

The book suffers greatly from the questionable veracity of the tales told by the father, and it is often unclear where the truth lies.

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