New liver, old demons
- New liver, old demons
Playwright Tom Walmsley has had a burst of productivity since his liver transplant, but, writes GUY DIXON, if you're expecting a feel-good story, you've got the wrong man
By GUY DIXON
The playwright Tom Walmsley is bundled in layers of dark sweaters and sweatshirts. He warily glances from across the table and smirks at the idea that his recovery from a liver transplant could be seen as a holiday story of hope and good cheer.
If it's a holiday, then every weekend feels like New Year's, as the drug he takes on Fridays to try to prevent his body from rejecting his new liver leaves him strung out in a let-me-suffer-here-with-the-Rose-Bowl-parade-passing-by-on-the-TV-screen kind of way.
"With the drugs they have me on to combat hepatitis C from coming back into my new liver and things like that, you've got all kinds of side effects, you know? Depression, this, that and the other thing. So I never know whether or not this is my actual point of view or that I'm just having a reaction to the drugs," he says.
Yet, it seems a far cry from this time last year, when Walmsley, the highly regarded Toronto writer known for his violent, caustically sexual plays and novels, was still hoping for a transplant candidate to come through. He had been hospitalized a number of times with delirium. His liver, damaged from years of alcohol and drug abuse, was failing. Even his relationship with a woman he had lived with for about eight years was coming to an end.
As he describes it now, looking healthy and sitting in a friend's quiet apartment in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood where he has been staying since the operation last April, he had been resigned to the possibility before the operation that he might not recover, as his health worsened and he found it harder and harder to function. "The image that came to mind was a bag of wet laundry that I dragged myself through everyday," he says. This was while he was struggling to complete his violent, small-town novel, Kid Stuff.
"Yeah, it was just from all of the poison in my system, you know? And it was hard to think and hard to . . . " He pauses. "The only thing I could think about, really, was the book. As far as anything else went, like remembering where I put my shoes or returning a phone call or anything, I was completely lost. Once I got the operation, that all went away."
The obvious question is whether his transplant has now changed his outlook on life, whether the violence in his hardscrabble writing will suddenly be replaced with the goodness of man. Immediately, though, there's the realization of how ridiculous it is to ask someone, particularly Walmsley, to create such a neat, made-for-holidays summation of life and death.
Yet he plays along. "Everything is different, but at the same time, not really. It's still life. Life itself didn't change."
Nor has his world-view. "It would have been nice if I would have suddenly looked at the world and thought: Here I've been wrong all along; that the police don't work for the system, they're my friends; that the President of the United States does want to bring freedom to the world; and Mel Lastman was a good mayor. " He breaks out into a breathless laugh. "None of this came to pass."
Walmsley still fits the bill of a tough, 56-year-old writer, once pegged as Canada's answer to William S. Burroughs. It was a label that he fought when he was younger. As he talks, he huddles within his layers of clothes and his voice gives way a little, but so does everyone else's in these first few days of winter cold.
While exchanging war stories about Interferon and other debilitating drugs, Walmsley can't help asking a few razor-edged questions of his own about fear and dying. They immediately cut through the surface politesse, a little like the violence in his writing. Yet the effect, in person, is inviting, not offensive. Maybe there are traces, in that kind of forthrightness, of the Liverpool, England-born teenage boxer and wrestler who grew up mainly in Oshawa, Ont., who then slipped into years of alcohol and heroin abuse, mostly while in Vancouver, who continued to garner acclaim despite long stretches away from the stage and the publishing world, who never settled on the conformity of a 9-to-5 career and a car in the garage.
Then there are Walmsley's self-deprecating jokes about his torn feelings between his fascination with the darker side of life and his religious faith. A little over a year ago, he realized that he didn't want to die without converting to Catholicism. And as he says, his faith has "affected my ultimate outlook."
"I talked to Bill Glassco [co-founder of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre] before he died, and there was a brave man. I asked him at that time what kind of religious convictions he had because he said he just wanted it to be over then.
"He said: 'None.' And I said to him: 'You're a better man than I. I couldn't have gotten through my thing without that.' And Bill said that maybe I had a worse conscience than him." Walmsley says with a laugh, "I don't doubt that was true."
Years earlier, before converting to Catholicism, Walmsley nearly went to a theological school in England to become an Anglican priest. But, like a character in his play Blood, he jokes that the one thing that stopped him was the idea of life as a man of the church in a small English town.
"And you know, you're the confidant for these young women coming and crying on your shoulder. And I thought, man, you won't be able to sustain it, you know? I thought, I have enough trouble with guilt over that kind of behaviour anyway. But not as a representative of the church! I just couldn't. So it was my own sinful nature that kept me out of it."
The theme here isn't shock value or irreverence for its own sake. Walmsley says he's not out to jab people's sensibilities. Instead, it's to rip the lid off bland social niceties and delve, at least a little bit, into the psychological murk.
"What's at the very bottom of it all. . . . How you feel about women, or what you think about your own death, and how it is with your responsibility with fatherhood, the whole thing. Man, it's a swamp, you know? And so I don't know if there's a new Tom Walmsley in this or not, really."
Since his operation, Walmsley has had return stays in the hospital. And like any difficult recovery, this has meant having to find his place again. An initial urge was to return to the church. "In some ways, I still haven't found my feet from that [operation], you know? Like, I didn't make any preparations for living, let's say."
He adds: "Whether it's with the church or my work or anything like that, I'm not contented, obviously. I haven't hit a kind of plateau where I'm feeling that now I know exactly. . . ." He pauses again. "I thought at some age you could kind of stop thinking, you know? You knew what you were doing and what you were going to do, and you didn't have to think beyond it. But it hasn't turned out that way."
After another pause, he adds: "It's the great thing about life, though, isn't it?"
His transplant in April had been a long shot. A sister of his was going to donate a piece of her own liver, but tests showed her liver couldn't be used. Then fellow Toronto playwright Michael Healey, who has shunned publicity for his saintly act, sent an e-mail to Walmsley saying he would like to donate some of his liver. (Liver grows back into a complete organ in both the donor's body and the recipient's after a successful transplant operation.) Still, Walmsley wasn't betting on surviving.
"I had the last rites before I went for the operation. Not the very day [of the operation]. That week though, I had confession. I had the last rites. I was prepared for a poor outcome, you could say." He doesn't say this sadly, but matter-of-factly. "I was so prepared for things to kind of come to an end. My whole direction was just getting the novel published before it [fate/illness/death] caught up with me. I didn't have a plan B."
Eight months later, Walmsley has had a burst of productivity. He has completed three plays and a book of poetry. Two of the plays are a kind of prequel and sequel to his 1982 play White Boys and have been accepted by Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille, which recently staged his mid-nineties play Blood. His poetry book, Honeymoon in Berlin, was published by Anvil Press in Vancouver. And another poetry book, Sin, will be coming out this month, all despite the fact that he has had to continue taking an Interferon-like drug that knocks him out each weekend.
He seems adamant, though, that his work isn't seen as a source of feel-good inspiration. "I think a part of me, I'd say, is optimistic. But I don't think any writer . . . well, I shouldn't say that. . . . As a writer, I don't think my job is to be a shill for mental health." He laughs again under his breath.
"It's not supposed to be the glee club. This idea that people want to see things that make them feel better -- I don't think that's my function. They've got TV for that, or Santa Claus or whatever the hell they want to see. The stuff that moves me the most is, oh God, just dealing with what we all have to deal with in life."
Indeed, his old demons, as he describes them, are still rearing up in his work. When forced to summarize his new prequel and sequel to White Boys in a few words, he says they are about drinking and sex. The springboard for the poetry book Honeymoon in Berlin is a woman on Internet fetish sites who eats excrement. Addiction, however, is one theme that he's less interested in exploring, he indicates.
Yet, "even if I don't write about addiction every minute, I do know that feeling. I need a strong reason to live. Just life on its own, the way it's handed out, just won't do. It has always been like that for me."
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]