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'Misfits have the best stories': Grant Lawrence returns to Desolation Sound

Award-winning author, musician and CBC Radio regular will be reading at June 16 Whistler Writers Festival fundraiser 
E-Arts2 Grant Lawrence 29.22 PHOTO BY JULIE MENGHAN
Grant Lawrence returns to Desolation Sound and its cast of unforgettable characters in the anticipated sequel to his debut memoir, Return to Solitude.

An oyster farmer once told Grant Lawrence something that has served as an essential lesson throughout his career as a writer, musician, and radio broadcaster: Misfits have the best stories. 

“The reason is because they don’t quite fit into regular society and there’s a reason for that, whether it be humorous or dark or anything else,” Lawrence says. 

It’s been more than a decade since the CBC Radio regular and lead singer of The Smugglers first introduced the cast of unforgettable misfits he met growing up at his family’s cabin on Desolation Sound, along the Sunshine Coast. A surprise success, 2010’s award-winning Adventures in Solitude breathed life into the zany characters that dotted the inlet and populated Lawrence’s teen years as a self-described “nerdy little kid.” There was The Cougar Lady, Russell the Hermit, and The Spaghetti Bandit, all of whom are revisited in Lawrence’s anticipated sequel, Return to Solitude, published this spring. 

And while his debut memoir also shared the story of Lawrence’s own upbringing alongside his Desolation Sound neighbours, this time around he takes more of a backseat. 

“It’s almost a stretch to call it a memoir now. In a weird way, I’ve almost become a secondary character in my own book,” he explains. “In the first book, I meet all of these real-life characters, like The Cougar Lady, Russell the Hermit, Bernard the German, and in this new book, they kind of take over in a way. Their stories, at least to me, are so fascinating that they warranted more pages and more ink than me.”

At the same time, Lawrence himself has grown since the publication of Adventures in Solitude. He’s older, wiser. A husband and a father. 

“I’ve become a parent. I’m no longer the footloose, fancy-free, beer-guzzling, kayaking dude who just swims and snorkels all day long,” he says. “I have to faithfully look after these little kids with my wife, and so my solitude has narrowed.” 

After the breakout success of his debut—he has since gone on to publish two more bestselling adult books, along with a children’s book released last year—Lawrence’s publisher wanted a quick sequel to bank on the buzz. 

“I come from the music industry and know you have your whole life to write your first record, and then there’s a reason they call the second album the sophomore jinx. It’s usually because it’s rushed,” he says. “So I had to basically wait for the Desolation Sound stories to pile up.” 

And pile up they did. Lawrence highlights the story of the late Bernard the German, whose exploits and untimely demise in the intervening years proved stranger and more compelling than anything he could have come up with himself. 

“If you walked into a Hollywood producer’s office and pitched it, they’d go, ‘There’s no way that would ever happen,’” Lawrence says.  

Without giving too much away, Bernard had a major health scare that convinced him “he had more of the world to see” than Desolation Sound. So he sold his ramshackle cabin and bought a sailboat, determined to sail around the globe. Then, his health issues returned, but undaunted—“He’d rather be sick on a sailboat than sick in a hospital,” Lawrence says—he carried on, eventually landing in a small village on the Pacific Island of Fiji that in many ways resembled his former Sunshine Coast community. It was there that he met a dark and bizarre end. 

“He was a larger-than-life guy so in a way his death was the only way Bernard could have gone out,” Lawrence recalls. “I’ll say this: his death involved the beach, the ocean and Fiji.” 

This latest book was also an opportunity for the writer to explore his own relationship to solitude, something we’ve all been engaged in to varying degrees over the past couple years. 

“It redefined the pleasures and the reward of solitude in situations like that,” he says. “But then at the same time, on the flipside of that, I do these live touring shows where I get to share the stories of solitude somewhat ironically to these theatres that are often full of people and it’s been a joy, a total joy, to be able to get back into a theatre filled with human beings clapping, laughing, singing. 

“I think a lot of people who went up to Desolation Sound thinking they needed to get away from society and thinking that they needed to live alone realized how much they actually missed and needed other people in their lives.” 

Lawrence will be at the Maury Young Arts Centre on June 16 from 7 to 9 p.m. as part of An Evening of Stories & Songs in the Mountains, the spring fundraiser for the Whistler Writers Festival. Also reading are Louise B. Halfe, Plains Cree writer, National Poet Laureate and author of Bear Bones & Feathers; Chad Sayers, author of Overexposure: A Story About a Skier; and Jasmine Sealy, Barbadian-Canadian author of The Island of Forgetting. Woven throughout the evening will be songs by Dustin Bentall and the Blue Wranglers. 

In-person tickets are $25, while virtual tickets are $10, available at whistlerwritersfest.com/spring-reading-series