Ottawa Writers Festival: Beverley McLachlin opens a new chapter in her writing career

Beverley McLachlin. Photo: Jean-Marc Carisse

There have been many firsts in Beverley McLachlin’s career. She was the first female Chief Justice of Canada for one thing. And now she’s published her first novel which is, what else, a courtroom drama.

Full Disclosure (Simon & Schuster) is the story of a feisty, independent thirtysomething female criminal defence lawyer in Vancouver named Jilly Truitt. McLachlin was in Ottawa for a full day of events with the Ottawa International Writers Festival when this interview happened.

“I had always wanted to write fiction and I had actually started a novel before I became a judge in 1981. At that point I had a choice to either accept the offer to be judge or continue dabbling with fiction. And I decided, and I think it was a good decision, that the best choice was to be a judge,” she told ARTSFILE Tuesday morning.

“I’ve been a judge for 36 plus years and as I was nearing the time I had to retire I started thinking about this old dream that I had.”

“I still felt the urge to write and I started playing around with it a little bit. I would get up early in the morning and start writing. Lo and behold pretty soon I had something.

“I thought nothing would ever come of it,” but she had a friend who suggested an agent and helped make the connection and “here we are.”

The uniqueness of the novel is one thing, but, as anyone who has read her decisions for the Supreme Court knows, McLachlin knows her way around the English language.

“I have always liked writing and I have always felt that if I have any strengths that is among them. But writing a judgment is a very didactic affair and I always felt I was writing for my audience … the parties involved and the scholars and the lawyers and the people who have to apply the precedents and so on.

“So I always wrote (judgments) in a very didactic style, as clearly as I could. I tried to make sure I was not introducing any fiction into my judgments.”

That’s fundamental to the job, she said with a laugh.

The thing about stories that play out in court is that they are very human. The courtroom is full of drama and conflict and human failing.

“This is what came out as I was thinking this book through. As a judge you are witness to all these stories that tell you about suffering, triumph, greed, about all the human foibles and passions and disappointments. I have been listening to those stories now for almost four decades.”

The law deals with these dramas in one way and fiction deals with them in another way, a more personal look into the flaws of the characters, she said.

“All my characters are flawed even the heroine.”

Having a young female lawyer as the protagonist makes sense when one learns “she was a character in that first effort before I became a judge. It was a very different novel and long abandoned but this character has been with me for a very long time.

“There aren’t a lot of strong women characters in fiction, even with the recent run of books such as Gone Girl … they are all kind of weak people who have a horrible problem who ultimately come through it. I wanted to create a heroine who was strong and feisty and good at her job. She has her own problems and flaws but she’s also very positive and very strong.”

The heroine is very different from McLachlin on many levels, but, she did create her, with the implication that there is some of the former chief justice in the character. Still, McLachlin said, Jilly is not modelled on anyone in particular.

There is a second character who was Jilly’s mentor and then her courtroom foe.

This is a fact of life for lawyers, McLachlin says.

“It’s not personal, but sometimes it can feel like it is getting personal. We are all friends in the law,” she said, “but there is a real combat there. There are disappointments.”

The character is a Crown attorney who takes on Jilly in a couple of cases recounted in the novel.

“He is a tragic character in some ways. He is struggling with a lot of stuff. He has a disability, his wife has not been well. He is a product of what has happened in his life.”

In the space of McLachlin’s career, women have taken a more prominent role in the legal profession. The novel seems to reflect that change and the tension it can create, especially between the older man and the younger woman.

There is still a little bit of tension about the place of women in the practice of law. But for the most part it’s moved on, she believes. Jilly Truitt is a full-fledged warrior on this battlefield.

The profession is a much better place now for women, says McLachlin, who remembers what it was like in 1968 when she started her career.

McLachlin is aware that when Jilly Truitt has an opinion, people may wonder if this is something that the former chief justice also believes.

Not so. The point, she says, is to make readers see Jilly as a character and her opinions as just that.

“I tried not to be preachy. People might even think ‘Why isn’t she preachier? Why doesn’t she admit there are flaws in the justice system and this kind of stuff.  I think that this is not the genre to do that in. You have to be true to your characters and their flaws and the facts they confront.”

The characters take over, she said and become themselves and “everything you write about them has to be true to them and how they interact with the world.”

McLachlin reads eclectically. She does like reading legal thrillers, including, for example, books by Scott Turow. And she liked writing this one. It’s a natural connection given her own passion for the courtroom and the law.

“It’s what I know better than anything else, so it is natural for me to want to do that. If I were to write in another genre, I’d have to do a lot more research and think about something else. This feels natural to me.”

The novel is not as gritty and as raw as some mysteries can be, and that is definitely a reflection of her own views on professional civility.

“I think that being a lawyer is a courtly business in both senses of the word. There is a sort of politesse that goes with being a lawyer. You are an officer of the court as a lawyer and you should conduct yourself accordingly.

“I think Canadian lawyers have a tradition of civility that’s quite strong. They don’t go about swearing and having verbal slugfests with each other. I’m sure that happens, but it’s not my world. It’s not how I have seen lawyers behave.”

One of the things she was interested in, in writing this novel, was how to show strong conflict within that overarching civility.

“Perhaps it may seem a bit quaint but I think people in the legal profession will understand it.”

There are other sides of McLachlin’s worldview in the novel including her passion for visual art.

“I love visual art and I love music too, but I didn’t put music in this one. I had this theme of art and sculpture going through the book which pleased me enormously. I thought it was nice to put some great Canadian artists (such as Joe Plaskett) whom I love in there as well as a Botero who is not Canadian and there is a Barnett Newman mentioned too.”

The visual art is the one thing that Jilly Truitt has outside her legal practice, she said. It is also part of the life of the man accused of murdering his wife that Jilly defends in court. The accused is a lifelong collector of Indigenous art.

She isn’t saying yet whether she will write another novel.

“The publishers would like me to and I have an idea that will get me started. But the next thing I am going to do are my memoirs. I have started that and will continue to work on that to get it out in the next year or so.

“In the memoirs, I want to tackle my life and the narrative of my life, but also how these different passions that have occupied my legal career fit into that.”

This, she says, will give her a forum to discuss some of the issues that have occupied her life. Because of her former position, it won’t be a day-by-day tell-all however.

“I can’t ever talk about what went on in our conference room in the court or how different justices reacted to things. It’s all very confidential and I take that very seriously. It, I hope, will still be interesting even so.”

In addition to writing, McLachlin will still do a little “judging.” She has taken a post with the Hong Kong court of appeal starting in 2019 that will involve her for about a month every year.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.