Religion, sexuality, death - whatever the topic, writers always rely on the perspective earned from experience to fuel their work. Younger writers often have an understandable absence of such perspective and so tend to use pain and confusion as substitutes. It may not always be the most insightful work but it can often be a thrilling read.
Enter Matthew J. Trafford. His debut collection of short stories, The Divinity Gene , draws from the deaths of multiple close friends to ruminate on the links between the afterlife, sexuality and religion - all of it worked through a sci-fi grater and laced with black humour, surrealism and tender humanity.
"I don't subscribe totally to this writing as a stand-in for therapy school but, yeah, being able to tell stories about death, which I don't think happens all the time in our popular culture, was part of the grieving experience and part of accepting what my life experience had been. That was all I could bring to the page," he says.
The book deals with a young boy unwillingly assisting the amateur autopsy of a mermaid; a grandfather dealing with the sale via a handheld device, of his grandson's soul; and a bereaved young man visiting a gay club owned by a group of renegade angels. Writing the book, he says, was his own way of grappling the toughest issues facing many 20-somethings in the 21 st century.
The book, released in February, has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Prize. He has earned glowing praise from within Canada's literary community and he will be in Whistler this Wednesday to read from his collection.
The 31-year-old Toronto resident submitted the collection as his master's thesis in the creative writing program at UBC. Upon graduating, he sent the manuscript to several publishers, to no avail. In 2010, his short story "The Divinity Gene" - a Hollywood-worthy yarn about the modern day cloning of Jesus Christ - was included in the dystopian sci-fi collection Darwin's Bastards, alongside Canadian literary heavyweights Douglas Coupland, Yann Martel and William Gibson.
The critical success of that collection earned Trafford, a recent graduate from the UBC creative writing program, considerable attention and Douglas and McIntyre offered him a two-book deal.
He says he's currently working on a novel exploring many of the themes explored in The Divinity Gene , including death and spirituality.
"I wouldn't say that I'm setting out with a message, or that people will read this book to get a specific message, but I hope that it's written in a way that will get people to ask a question or reexamine," he says.
If anything, the collection can lighten the load - if only briefly - for anyone dealing with a loss. Trafford offers solace through surrealism. He tackles head on what most tend to duck away from. More importantly, he finds humour where society has determined humour shouldn't be. A homophobic dead man joining a group of men on a camping trip? Kurt Vonnegut would be proud. Or Stephen King, for that matter.
"That's just my way of dealing with things, through humour or satire," Trafford says. "I think that's part of life going for those of us still living - you have to laugh at it sometimes, and you have to find humour in the grieving process as well."