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Billie Livingston writes dark stories with a light touch in The Crooked Heart of Mercy

“That’s how we dealt with the darkest periods, which was to say something completely outrageous, because how else are you going to survive?”

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Billie Livingston has long been haunted by a family story that happened before she was born. Her father — a con artist whom she fictionalized in her 2012 novel One Good Hustle — and his first wife lost their two-year-old son after the toddler accidentally fell out a second-story window. “The shame and fear and grief. How do you ever get over something like that?” asks Livingston.

In her new novel, The Crooked Heart of Mercy (Random House Canada), the Vancouver author attempts to answer this question by drawing on real-life stories. Following the death of her son, grief-stricken Maggie becomes a domestic helper for a woman who worships at a church that encourages after-death visits from loved ones. Meanwhile, Maggie’s estranged husband, Ben, lies in a hospital bed with an unexplained bullet lodged in his head after taking veterinary drugs. (Ben’s narrative originated with a Florida news story about a young man who shot himself during a bad mushrooms trip, believing he was still asleep.) Completing the triangle of grief is Maggie’s brother Francis, a priest whose appetites for sex and alcohol land him a DUI and the star role in the viral video, “Drunk Priest Propositions Cops.” Bullied horrifically as a child for being gay, Francis — whose character stemmed from a priest friend of Livingston’s in rehab for alcohol — always found protection in the church, and despite his violations, remains planted in some kind of personal faith.

While The Crooked Heart of Mercy could have been mired in bleak hopelessness, Livingston has a light touch, an ability to find moments of humour even in the trio’s heartbreaking situation. It’s a gift she credits to her own volatile upbringing. Beyond her father’s grifting, her mother was a “pretty severe” addict, and young Livingston spent much of her childhood in and out of foster homes. “There was a lot of dark stuff in my family,” she says. “There was always some mayhem going on. That’s how we dealt with the darkest periods, which was to say something completely outrageous, because how else are you going to survive?”

Livingston isn’t a religious person, but does self-describe as a “house-of-worship-hopper,” starting in her teens when she found something resembling family with the born-again Christian kids. She’s visited Anglican and Catholic churches, and observed the act of speaking in tongues with the Pentecostals. She even attended a meeting with the Raëlians, the cult whose members believe that humans are descended from aliens. “They’re all just people trying to touch something beyond the self — the meaning of this existence,” Livingston says without judgment. “I don’t write anything until I’ve been around the people and listen to how they talk, because there’s such a danger of making people into caricatures that bare no resemblance to what they look like in real life.”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.