Deer Life: Ron Sexsmith spins a fairy tale out of a dream

Ron Sexsmith

About five years ago, Ron Sexsmith, the respected Canadian singer-songwriter, woke up with an idea. But it wasn’t for a song.

“Sometimes you wake up and you aren’t ready to get out of bed,” he said in an interview, “and you lie back down and wake up two hours later. It was one of those times when I woke up for the second time and I caught a glimpse of something.

“I remember telling my wife about it. It was about a boy and a witch and I wasn’t sure if it was something I had read. But it definitely felt like a fairy tale.”

At first Sexsmith thought it might be an idea for a musical or a movie. And no matter what he did, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“I was sort of obsessed about it. And when I’d run into an actor friend I’d say ‘What do you think about this?'”

There wasn’t much else to it, he says, beyond an idea about a boy who kills a dog that belongs to a witch. By 2015, he was thinking that maybe it could be a picture book for children. He was at the Ottawa Writers Festival and asked if anyone knew anyone who was in publishing.

“A few months later, I got a call from a fellow at Penguin who had heard a rumour that I had a book idea. It was just crazy because I know that doesn’t happen.”

With that a process began that would eventually lead to the publication of his story Deer Life. Sexsmith did meet with Penguin in early 2015 and was asked to provide a draft of the book the following August.

“I was just leaving on tour and I thought I could work on the book on the road. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I did.

“I handed it in on time and it was probably about December before I heard from them. They wanted to see me in January and I thought maybe that’s good news.”

It wasn’t. He walked away from Penguin and continued working on the novel. After a few more drafts he started shopping the book around and got rejected. He says he started to feel like a laughing stock.

“There had been all this initial interest and then a tumbleweed rolled by. But by then I was really attached to the book.”

Finally Dundurn came through. They loved the book too and wanted to publish it.

After 16 drafts — some were just tweaks and some were much more extensive — he handed the book in last December.

It’s no surprise, after learning about this, that Sexsmith is a careful writer.

“My songwriting takes a lot of time too. I’m really fussy about lyrics. I don’t want any clunky words. I’m a bit of a perfectionist with the songwriting. I wish I was more of a perfectionist with the recording of the songs.

“There are some of my albums I don’t think I sang that well on but I’m always very fussy about my lyrics.”

Not really a surprise then that Sexsmith would be a perfectionist about his novel too. It has worked for him with his songwriting as he has fans such as Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle.

Deer Life, as Sexsmith says, is a classic kind of “fairy” story.

In a preface to the novel, he writes about having read to his own children when they were small and missing that contact.

“My kids are fully grown now. When they were small they slept in the same room. We had a one bedroom house. My ex and I were on pull-out couch. I would sit at the end of the bed and read whatever they wanted to hear.

“I didn’t have that growing up. I read books to myself as a kid. It’s a nice connection … to read to your children. I don’t know if they appreciated it, but I miss it.”

Those books that Sexsmith read as a young person have stuck with him.

“I’m a big fan of (Charles) Dickens. He’s probably the one guy I’d guess I sort of stole from the most. He was good at having the names of his character’s reflect their personality.”

His fairy tale also borrows a sensibility from the Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl.

“Everything I read about witches as a kid worked into this story. I do love fairy tales. I was a big Hans Christian Anderson fan. I loved The Snow Queen and I loved nursery rhymes. The book begins with a version of one of those.”

In fact, Sexsmith says, the book congealed when he came up with the name of his hero Deryn Hedlight, who is the young man who runs afoul of a purple eyed witch and is turned into a deer. If you want the rest of the story, you’ll have to read it.

Once he got the name, he had a hero and realized, “this is really happening.”

Writing the book and finishing it was a proud day for Sexsmith.

“I’m happy that I went through that and finished it. A lot of people say they are going to write a book and never do.”

It hasn’t changed his approach to songwriting, he says, or his commitment to that craft.

“I’ve always liked to write concise, short songs. But I am branching out from this book. I’ve written songs for a musical based on the book. And I’m working on a prequel/sequel. The first half would talk about the witch’s story and the second half would pick up where Deer Life left off.”

There are a lot of questions that have arisen from writing first book. Readers seem to want to know more.

He says he won’t make any records for awhile, but he will keeping performing live to keep the wolf from his door.

“I’m reflecting on where I am now. I’m 53. Now that I’m living in Stratford, I’m spending the next little while trying to see if I can get the musical idea off the ground.”

Ron Sexsmith’s appearance in Ottawa on Nov. 10 has been postponed. Keep an eye on the Ottawa International Writers Festival website for a new date.

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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.