Ray Robertson emerges from between the curtains and takes his place behind the microphone. From his vantage point onstage, he looks out on a room full of family, friends and fellow writers. He thanks everyone for coming, and begins to read. The only source of light is a lamp off to one side of the stage, and as he reads he’s partly hidden in the shadows. A self-described “burly” novelist, he resembles a musician more than a writer, with a handlebar mustache whose ends are singed by grey and a visible tattoo on his right forearm. The tattoo’s words are uttered by Lucifer inParadise Lost, and later echoed by Stephen Dedalus in both A Portrait of the Artist as the Young Man and Ulysses: Non Serviam. I will not serve.
There was a time, only three years ago, when a scene like this might have been unimaginable to Robertson. In the summer of 2008, after finishing the first draft of his novel David, Robertson, who has battled obsessive–compulsive disorder much of his life, fell into a depression that eventually became suicidal. “One night I found myself thinking that if I didn’t wake up in the morning I wouldn’t be happy to be dead, but the idea of not being alive was a relief,” he writes in his new book. “Why not? I couldn’t help asking myself. Why not die?”
Robertson recovered over time, and as his illness receded into the past, he began to think about what it illuminated, what the pain had allowed him to see clearly: not the reasons for dying, but for living. Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live is Robertson’s answer.
“I wouldn’t have written the book unless I was sick,” he says. “I would have written another novel. I wouldn’t have said, ‘What are the wonderful things in life?’ because when you’re experiencing life you tend not to think about them, right? When you have the flu, that’s when you think, ‘Man, solid food would be amazing.’ ”
Solid food is not amongst Robertson’s reasons to live, but work, love, intoxication, art, the material world, individuality, humour, meaning, friendship, solitude, the critical mind, praise, duty, home and death are. The essays are both playful and profound, laced with insight from thinkers across a range of disciplines, from music to history, politics to literature, high to low culture.
“I think there’s a fundamental lack of honesty in a lot of literature,” says the 45-year old, who describes himself as “a wannabe one-time philosopher,” though he in fact graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in the field. “And one of the things that I wanted to do with this book was to be honest. That’s why some sections have a quotation from Alex Chilton, and some of them have Heraclitus — because they’re both important to me.”
The first time Robertson told his eventual publisher, Dan Wells at Biblioasis, about the book, he described it as “15 essays in the style of Montaigne-meets-Nick Tosches.” Wells is a fan of both the French essayist and the American journalist. “How often in Canadian publishing does anyone know who either of those people are? They want to know if it’s like Dave Eggers. It’s like, ‘No, it’s like Montaigne with swearing in it.’ “
He calls the book a coming out party for his mental illness, which he kept hidden from most of the world. His wife knew about his OCD, but was unaware of the extent of his depression until she read the book. “With OCD, you try to avoid those things — you don’t talk about them. She could tell that I wasn’t quite right. So no one really knew. My parents were shocked. Her parents were shocked. My two oldest friends were shocked. I just wasn’t brought up that way, either — and it’s probably not healthy.
“What can I say?” he adds. “I wasn’t walking around moping. Or I do all the time and no one noticed any difference.”
Robertson is much better these days, in part, to a change in diet — gone are former writing staples coffee and Diet Pepsi. And if he needed it, he was likely cheered up last month when Why Not? was shortlisted for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, a surprise considering “I tend to come up with books that just confuse agents and publishers.”
The author of six novels and a previous collection of non-fiction, Robertson certainly has more books in his future — it’s “one of the things that kept me living.”
“I felt like I had more books I wanted to write,” he says. “Whether anyone reads them, or they get nominated for awards, or I’m publishing them at Kinko’s, they need to be done.”
Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, by Ray Robertson, is published by Biblioasis ($19.95).