His name was Russell the Hermit.
When author Grant Lawrence was growing up on the Sunshine Coast, he befriended a bedraggled old hippie that lived in a beach shack. At the time, he was an awkward nerd with thick glasses, while his father was an uncompromising cross between Indiana Jones and the Marlboro Man. In stark contrast to his patriarch’s conservatism, Russell was a student of counterculture and rock and roll. He taught the young writer how to play chess and introduced him to intellectual pursuits in arts and culture. As Lawrence describes in his new memoir Return to Solitude, he thought Russell was the greatest guy around — until he learned some uncomfortable truths.
“In this book, I discover a bunch of things about him that I didn’t know, secrets and lies, stuff I’m glad I didn’t know when I was a child. He could be a real goofball, but he was an abuser of those around him and essentially a hustler and a freeloader. I didn’t pick up on it when I was a kid, because I didn’t understand how someone could live in the bush, in a shack, for years on end. He was up there in that cove for 10 years, and I thought it was amazing. Like something out of Robinson Crusoe.”
Lawrence still regularly heads up to Desolation Sound, where his family has had a cabin for decades, with his two children and his wife, Jill Barber. Recently he began reconstructing the main deck of the structure, a project that put him at odds with his elderly father. He considers the situation an apt metaphor for their sometimes combative and ever-evolving relationship over the years. In many ways, he wants to be different from him, but in many ways, they’re hopelessly the same.
“The fact it lasted this long is a miracle to begin with, and that deck had to go, but he couldn’t come to terms with that even when people were falling through it. There was that push and pull of a father-son relationship; a 50-year-old man had to take the reins from the 80-year-old and say ‘the deck is going’,” he said.
That cabin has been a unique refuge from the world for Lawrence, who developed a deeper appreciation for its isolation during the pandemic, and it’s located in a place ripe with inspiration. But when his publisher first asked for a follow-up to his 2010 memoir Adventures in Solitude, he couldn’t comply, because he hadn’t lived through enough new experiences to create new material. In the decade since the award-winning book hit shelves, he’s seen his entire life transformed by the experience of becoming a father and husband.
“Jill is my life and partner and best friend. We’re very linked, and we trust each other deeply, and I’ve never had that in my life until she came along. Now with the kids, essentially, I’m responsible for the lives and well-being of these other people, so the days of beer league hockey and staying up all night shotgunning beers, teetering on the edge of the deck and diving into the phosphorescence, has been curbed a lot.”
Desolation Sound is full of comical and larger-than-life characters, but since the first book was published, characters that he once found funny have taken dark turns in their lives, and one particular resident suffered a ghoulish death. They may live on the Sunshine Coast, but as Lawrence puts it: “where there is sunshine, there is shadow.”
“This book is a deep dive into the various scallywags and people I introduced in the first one, and this once traces the colourful barnacle characters right to their bitter ends. And the thing is, if you’re going to live a weird off-grid life, chances are you’re going to have a weird off-grid death,” he said, teasing one of the stories in the book.
“You couldn’t make up how Bernard the German left this world if you tried. It was tragic, and I’m not trying to make light of it because it was horrific and awful, but he lived large and he went out large.”
The funny thing is, the locals are starting to clue in that Lawrence is mining their lives for literary treasure. As he was writing the book, he started to realize that local incidents were being hidden from him — regardless of the area’s penchant for gossip. People were clamming up on purpose to avoid ending up on the page.
“One guy had this crazy incident with his boat, where he was using this crane bolted into a cliff to crank his 10-foot aluminum boat with an outboard motor up into the air, and then swing it into place on the cliff. When it was in midair, the crane ripped out of the rock, caught the guy’s jacket and pulled him and the crane and the boat into the water. They all came crashing down, but as it turns out, he wasn’t badly hurt,” he said.
“I was like ‘how did I not know this story?’, ‘How did I not hear about this?’ And I was told that he didn’t want me to know because he didn’t want to end up in my new show or my next book.”
Return to Solitude comes out on April 30, and then Lawrence will be touring around the Lower Mainland to do live readings. Though some of his subject matter is dark, he promises that the show will be lively and fun.
“I might tell one dramatic or frightening story, but I do tend to focus on the lighter humorous stuff. We’ve had enough heavy shit in our lives over the last couple of years, so for the live show, I want comedy and laughter and a great big exhale of relief.”
Lawrence will be doing a launch and live reading of Return to Solitude at Brackendale Art Gallery on May 7.
This show is part of the Squamish Constellation Festival Little Dipper Concert Series.
Lawrence will perform readings from his latest book and be joined by musical guests Kathryn Calder (The New Pornographers), Ashleigh Ball (Hey Ocean!), and Jay Malinowski (Bedouin Soundclash).
Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/cc/scf-little-dipper-concert-series-112609 or constellationfest.ca
For more on the book go to Lawrence's website.
**Please note, this story has been updated since it was first posted to include that this event is part of the Squamish Constellation Festival series. Where to get tickets was also added.