B.C. writers Stephen Reid and Susan Musgrave were invited to participate in the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival this year as part of the event’s literary couples theme. Musgrave and Reid have a unique status in the literary world because Reid spent two periods of time in prison, during their marriage, for bank robbery. They met and married while he was in prison the first time, in 1986.
About a month before the festival, Reid died. The festival organizers at first assumed Musgrave would not come on her own, but she did.
The presence of Globe and Mail arts correspondent Marsha Lederman was also a feature of this festival. One of her roles was to interview the literary couples on stage before an audience.
The following is a condensed and edited version of Lederman’s festival interview with Musgrave.
How are you doing this? I am amazed that you are able to be here. Is it helping, for you?
I am not on drugs. I had one drink and got a headache from that and had to take a Tylenol, so it seems to be that I need to be clear headed. Stephen always used to say he was daunted because I did so much, and I felt guilty about that. Mostly what he did for the past year was lie on his bed and read all day, which is quite something, but I would be making 10 loaves of bread a day and making granola and yogurt and writing a cookbook. It is the way I stay sane, it’s what I do. You find ways of processing it all, and I have been beating myself up for months saying I could have saved his life, so I am trying to let that go.
Being in Nelson has really been helping. It’s a lifesaver. As I was telling people last week, I don’t have much will to live. I was saying, “Can you die from heartbreak?” I thought I was going to. I am a romantic and should have thrown myself on the pyre, but people would have rescued me and my daughters would have been upset, and my granddaughters. You go on for other people. One of my granddaughters – twins who are eight – is coming to stay with me next week, she said, “I’ll be your grief counsellor, G-Mum.
Being here has helped me. I feel I am leaving as a different person.
They call you G-Mum?
That’s beautiful. You and Stephen met because of writing. In an email to you after Stephen died I called it the great Canadian love story and I have always seen it that way. Can you tell us a bit about how it began?
All great love stories have an impediment. For the last 35 years there have been impediments, mostly prison and addiction and, lately, illness. In 1983 I was writer in residence at the University of Waterloo, and a criminologist who was studying bank robbers brought me a manuscript by a bank robber. He asked if I would read the manuscript, and I did it as a favour. I could not put it down and I fell in love with the main character, who didn’t seem to fit my image of bank robbers. He just seemed kind of lovable and really funny. What I loved about Stephen was his sense of humour.
I sent the manuscript to McClelland and Stewart. It was only 90 pages and they asked if he could make it into a book, and I wrote to him at Millhaven. He had just come to a black place in his life where he thought his life was over. He started writing and that saved him, and he made the book into a 300-page novel, Jackrabbit Parole. I would go to visit him and edit, and he would re-write, and we did that for a couple of years. He was transferred out to B.C. and the book was published before he was released in 1986.
He worked so hard and I was editing in a way that I now know you shouldn’t do. He would spend the whole day crumpling up a potato chip bag to be able to describe it, and I would say that interferes with the forward moving action of the writing, and put a black X through the paragraph. He resented this and finally it all came out one day, and I said, “Oh my God, why didn’t you say something?”
So that is how we met, and then I proposed to him, but I was still married at the time so I had to get divorced. I remember him saying, “We don’t get married,” meaning people in the criminal world. I met his parents and spent time with them in northern Ontario. He has eight brothers and sisters who all own mines and bus lines and that kind of thing. His parents never gave up on him, I am taking some of his ashes to….
That’s beautiful. I picture the two of you in the rooms that we see in movies, where people visit prisoners.
Hand on the glass, sliding down the glass…
He was still in prison when you got married, right?
Yes, it was 1986 when we got married. He re-offended in 1999 after getting addicted again and robbing a bank at James Bay, a hideous thing, lots of shooting. Luckily no one was hurt. He was given 18 years. And at first he would not see me, he was too sick coming off heroin to get out of his cell. My mother did not even recognize him before that last bank robbery because he had become so ill. I thought he was going to die. He had overdosed three times in a week.
I knew he was all right, that our marriage was going to survive, when he sent me a Times Colonist headline: “He went mad, poet says.” Stephen edited it: “He went, mad poet says.”
The humour has kept us together to survive the prison system. He did really well in there. He had been institutionalized so much in his life that prison was where, I hate to say it, a cliché, but he did feel comfortable. He was well respected. Even the guards liked him. He learned to make drums and since his release in 2015 he had become a master drum maker for the Haida Nation. I see his drums on APTN, I can always tell which ones are his. He said he loved giving birth to songs.
The headline story is great. When I was reading about you and Stephen I came across a headline I wanted to ask you about from the Toronto Star: “Canadian poet Susan Musgrave on Haida Gwai food and bank-robbing husband Stephen Reid.” How did you feel about headlines like that, reducing him to that?
I couldn’t do anything about it. I knew the obits would all be about his bank robbing past. The CBC at least changed it to author-bank robber. The best thing about Stephen’s death, which he would love, was that the Haida believe that when a killer whale comes into the inlet somebody in the village, an elder, is going to die, and someone always does. The Friday night when he went to hospital eight killer whales came in, seven and one of them calved, and since then there have been eight deaths in Masset. Someone took a video of these whales. It was eerie. The Haida believe they come to take the soul.
About the headlines, that was not who Stephen was any more. He was another person. He did not like to talk about it. He was a bit embarrassed. He did not like traumatizing people, which you obviously do when you rob banks. I know how guilty he feels, but that does not help the person out there, so what do you do? I still get people putting things on Twitter about being traumatized.
Obviously you taught him a lot about writing. What did he teach you?
He was a generous, good person. I don’t think I am nearly as…. he is a nice person, he genuinely liked people, that is why when he died I got 10 billion cards. My neighbour has a gallery and if her sign blows over he would stop and pick it up. I just drive by and don’t pick it up. Someone said try seeing the world through his eyes and he will always be with you, so I went around to shops last week looking for signs that had fallen over…
Susan, I can’t thank you enough for being here tonight and sharing your thoughts with us, and the beautiful reading. Everyone here tonight wishes you all the best, really, all the best to you.
Thank you again for being here as an audience and as people in this amazing town, and I might move here actually so … I am thinking along those lines. You are not supposed to make decisions for a year or two though. I already decided to burn his wedding ring when he was cremated, and now I wish I had not.