In my late-twenties, I went through a terrible time where I suffered insomnia, depression, and anxiety and ended up in intensive psychotherapy. I began going through flashbacks of sexual abuse I’d suffered as a child while living in various foster care situations. I began keeping a journal to maintain my sanity. I felt that if I could write a few sentences a day, I would not go mad.
The journal entries gradually morphed into short stories. One of those stories was about a traumatized girl who is being used without her knowledge and a transient boy who is abused and photographed by an older man. The story just kept getting longer and longer. I was terrified. Terrified of the subject matter, but also terrified because I didn’t know how to write a novel.
So, my starting point was traumatic memory. The adult me was grappling with how and why the boy had ended up there. I posed myself some questions: why would a boy be lured by this older man? What would be the appeal? What would he be fleeing, what were his vulnerabilities and how would the perpetrator seduce him and convince him to stay? I wrote the book to answer those questions for myself.
There wasn’t much information about the tactics of predators or pedophiles in those days, so I just posed the question, “why?” and wrote a book about it. I was trying to come to terms with my own violent childhood, much of which remained opaque and bizarre and inexplicable to me at first. I wanted to understand what kind of people would behave in such a predatory way and why. I was immersed in that feeling of horror and dread, that you go through as a survivor when you begin uncovering painful truths about your own past.
The times were an inspiration too. It was the beginning of the 1990s and there was a revolution happening, it was the second wave of feminism. My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing had come out by Sylvia Fraser and it was a ground-breaking book. I had also read The Courage to Heal. One of my favourite novels at that time was Blood Meridien by Cormac McCarthy. The evil character called the Judge in that book is the ultimate psychopath. I was coming to the understanding that there were people who were evil in the world. People capable of cruelty and harming children. And also that that cruelty was timeless. I gave Mad Dog an allegorical feel so that even though the events are happening in the 1960s, they really could have happened any time, and probably have happened over and over again throughout history.
Of course, many of the main character Sheryl’s experiences were inspired by mine, but her character was based on another girl I met in a home. I really wanted to capture her sense of unraveling, of unknowing, of reality shifting, of not being able to tell the difference between dream and reality, imagination and fear, memory and vision. It was painful and the writing took eight years. I was very fortunate to get some help though.
I abandoned the manuscript many times. As the short story kept getting longer, I kept putting it aside because I felt I didn’t know how to write a novel. But a friend, a wonderful fellow writer, Madeleine Grey, gave me the book, Writing Down The Bones by Nathalie Goldberg, and gradually doing the exercises in the book, I learned to trust my own voice. Once I had a few chapters together, I signed up for a year-long first novel correspondence course at Humber College in Toronto, working with the late author Timothy Findley. I handed in the last scene of the book to start. Timothy Findley said it was the first time he had ever received the end of a book as a first submission, but that’s how it went.
The mad dog, who is of course, not the craziest character in the book, was also inspired by a real dog. A crippled dog I encountered at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal in the 1970s. He was this fierce mongrel, who patrolled the perimeter of the monastery grounds. Even though he didn’t have the use of his hind legs, when anyone would arrive he would hurl himself through the dirt scowling and snarling. He was a fearsome sight. I was struck by how he compensated for his limitations with greater ferocity.
I was also surprised that the Tibetans let him do this as he scared the wits out of everyone who arrived. But they referred to him as an example of intense suffering, a creature to inspire humility and gratitude. They also told us that he was a protector spirit. He was protecting the monastery in his own crazed way.
In the end, the final book is not much like the initial memory I had of a runaway boy, but the spirit of the experience is there. Writing Mad Dog was primarily about wrestling with my own demons, bringing the darkness out into the light, by finding expression through writing.
It’s the summer of 1964 and the Supremes are the reigning queens of radio. Sheryl-Anne MacRae dreams of running away from her home on an apple orchard in southwestern Ontario to find her missing mother. But the teenager’s plans are put on hold when her uncle and guardian, Fergus, the local pharmacist and an amateur photographer, brings home a handsome young hitchhiker. When Sheryl-Anne meets the guitar-toting Peter Lucas Angelo, she falls in love.
But life in Eden Valley is not as idyllic as it seems. As the summer progresses, Peter is pulled deeper into Fergus’s dangerous underworld–a world of sex, drugs, and porn. In this thrilling tale, Watt captures the ethereal and complex Sheryl-Anne, and with vivid, often frightening detail, charts the destruction of a family. Mad Dog marks the arrival of a gifted storyteller.
About Kelly Watt
Kelly Watt is the author of Mad Dog. Her award-winning short stories have been anthologized, published internationally and longlisted for the prestigious CBC Radio’s Short Fiction Contest twice (2017/2015). She is also the author of the travel companion Camino Meditations (2014). Watt lives in the Ontario countryside with her husband, a miniature schnauzer and three diligent chickens.