By Jessica Vitullo
TORONTO — Donna Morrissey never saw herself as a writer. She was a high school dropout, went to university for social work when she was in her 30s and struggled to find her place in life.
She finally had a glimmer of her future when she met a “grandmotherly figure” while taking a six-week course.
“She mistook me for a writer,” Morrissey, 56, says in a recent telephone interview from Halifax.
Morrissey started writing her letters to impress the woman and says she became fascinated with the whole process of writing.
Thirteen years later, she has written five novels and a children’s book.
There is no shortage of inspiration for her. Her latest book, “The Deception of Livvy Higgs,” is a work of fiction but inspired by true events.
The book opens in Halifax and follows Livvy Higgs, a very sick, lonely 80-year-old woman who faces the lies, secrets and memories from her childhood and tries to understand them through the eyes of her older self.
It begins with an incident involving Higgs, her social-work student neighbour Gen and her son young Ronny. He brings Higgs a picture they took of her, forcing Higgs to examine what she looks like for the first time in years.
The scene is inspired by an encounter Morrissey had with her own son and a neighbour.
“May Halloway was this 80-year-old woman who lived a corner from me in St. John’s,” she says. “She was a recluse. She had about 20 cats in that house.”
Morrissey says the woman related her life story, which she uses as inspiration in the novel.
“I imagine what I thought her life would have been from the little bits she had told me,” she says.
Gen’s character is also inspired by Morrissey’s own life. She represents her younger self when she was studying to be a social worker.
Morrissey says during the four years it took to write the novel, and that the plot was not planned out in advance.
“I had no idea where I was going with it, how it would end,” she says. “I had this Livvy character and the young social work student who was me and my son, David, who was the one who connected us.”
Morrissey says while the book is a work of fiction, the idea of Higgs looking back at her life reflects her own personal journey in life. She suffered a lot of trauma before she began writing, including the loss of her brother, mother and father. Writing gives her the opportunity to walk back to the past and resolve problems or feelings.
“Writing it allows me to just go back and relive and rebuild,” she says. “It’s like Livvy in the book. She has to go back and see her life through the eyes of an adult.”
As a child, Morrissey says you react to what you see around you but when you become an adult, you have the opportunity to understand who you are and why you became that way.
“I’ve gone back to the earliest moments really and put them all into my novels,” she says. “In a sense, it’s what I had Livvy do. Bring life to her story, to understand who she was as a little girl and how she became who she was.”
Morrissey says it can be a rich and prosperous journey for those who walk back into the past, which is why she believes readers connect to the book with their own life and experiences.
“Emotions are universal,” she says. “We all feel love, grief, pain, sadness and sorrow.”
She describes the book as a story of resurrection and being able to see how your life was and how it is today, even if you are not fond of the characters.
“You don’t have to like them,” she says. “You just have to understand them. Once you understand the character, then you’re free to judge.”