Tanya Murrell and the Genesis of Finding Max

Tanya Murrell Disappears

(This article appeared this morning on the front page of The Rap Sheet – www.therapsheet.blogspot.ca/2018/05/the-story-behind-story-finding-max-by.html ) 

January 20th, 1983. A cold winter day in Edmonton, Alberta.

I was fifteen-years-old when Tania Murrell was abducted. She was only six-years-old. Her body was never found.

Tanya Murrell and her brother, John.
Tanya Murrell and her brother, John, shortly before she disappeared. Photo courtesy of the Edmonton Sun.

Tania Murrell’s abduction hit the community hard. Mothers organized walking groups to transport their little bundles of joy. Daddies left work early to pick their offspring up from school. Strangers were distrusted. So were family members. Fear buzzed like electrical wires in the cold winter air.

I was scared to death. Though I was a male of fifteen years, I believed I was as likely a target as poor Tania. Everyone — school officials, parents, siblings and even friends — assured me that was the case. At any point in time, at any hour of the day — I was vulnerable. And such terror came with that understanding! I was too anxious to sleep, too sleepless to dream, too tired to feel rested in mornings.

Forty Years Later

Fast forward forty years later. I wake one morning with a troubling thought in my mind. I dreamed a young boy had been abducted and there were no clues and though he had resurfaced years later, the overall feeling of the dream was one of fear. As my mind began to clear I wondered, “What if Tania Murrell had returned?”

I hadn’t thought of Tania Murrell in many years. As I did now, all the same old anxieties surrounding her disappearance resurfaced. I sat up in bed and glanced quickly around the room. My wife. My dogs. No one else was in the room. Still, I had the feeling of being watched in the dark.

I realized I had been dreaming of Tania Murrell for weeks and had not remembered these dreams upon waking. What a strange and bitter realization. How hard it is to understand that your mind has been obsessed with something and you aren’t even aware. How could this have happened? How could my mind have hidden this from me? How was it that my thoughts could have been turned to Tania without my even being aware? I had no answers to these questions. It was doubly disconcerting.

After breakfast, I retired to the sofa to ruminate. I was suddenly obsessed with the past, specifically that period of time during my pubescent years when Tania Murrell disappeared. For the next two weeks, I sat on the sofa every morning, obsessed with these thoughts. That familiar obsessiveness helped me realize I was gearing up to write another novel, but this time I had no idea where I would go with it. Usually, when I had begun writing novels in the past, I had a clear path in my mind depicting where I would go. With this new novel developing inside I had no clear idea of where these thoughts were taking me. Without a clear understanding of what paths my new characters would walk, I did not really know where to begin. As a writer, I felt I needed a clear understanding of where my book was heading before I could begin to write.

Beginning to Write

But writing Finding Max was different. When I finally decided it was time to get up off that sofa and begin writing, I still had no idea where the narrative was going to take me. Instead, I finally said to myself one morning, “Darren, the only way you are going to understand what happens in this story is if you sit and write it down.” And that was it. That was all I needed, just that one little thought. So without a clear path as to where I was heading, I sat down and began to write.

Writing Finding Max was a painful journey for me. I found myself digging deeper inside myself for original thoughts, memories and ideas than I had ever found myself doing before. Often, during the writing of Finding Max, I was in tears over incidents that I would remember from my own past, rising to the surface unbidden. The material was triggering me in ways I hadn’t expected it to, and it was hard to maintain my equilibrium. Rather, I felt completely unbalanced throughout the whole time that I wrote.

Strangely enough, the first draft of 91,000 words of Finding Max took me only twelve days to complete. Mind you, it needed a lot of editing! Still, it was quite a feat — for me at least — to have written such a harrowing tale in such a short period of time. And it is a harrowing tale. It tells the story of two brothers and the lives they lead after the younger of them is abducted and disappears for seventeen years from his brother’s life.

I did not want my new novel to be a non-fiction exposé of the disappearance of Tania Murrell. That is not the book I wanted to write. But what I did was take that original incident from my past — from my community’s cultural past — and use it as fodder for a fictional novel, a novel about a young boy who is abducted and forced into sexual slavery. It is certainly not Tania’s story, but it was invigorated by her tragic tale.

My primary wish with writing Finding Max was to tell a tale that would accurately depict the repercussions on Max’s life from having lived through being abducted. I knew I had to do research, but did I really? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most commonplace result of living through extreme stress, violence and trauma — and I knew a lot about PTSD. I lived with the condition daily resulting from being beaten mercilessly by my mother as a child. I knew what it was like to fear the dark. I knew what it was like to jump at every little sound. I also knew what it was like to be so alone with your fears that you feel completely isolated from your siblings, your friends, the world around you. Did I really have much research to do on the effects of human trafficking and what it did to Max? No, I suppose not. But what I did have to do was find the courage to transfer those feelings of mine to the character I was drawing on the page.

Translating Tanya Murrell into Finding Max

I found that courage. I found it because I believed so strongly that I had an important tale to tell, and I knew the only way to tell it well was to translate those emotions that I feel from fear and develop them further as Max’s own fears. It is not that hard to do, except it is a very difficult thing to do. During that time, Tania’s story morphed, grew, disassembled and then reassembled itself into Max’s story and Finding Max grew into a fully-formed novel.

I crafted Max in such a way so that he appears to be a well-adjusted young man. But scratch that surface… And that is when Max winds up crouching in the closet, sobbing and stabbing with his five-inch switchblade at demons only he can see. That is when his past rushes into the present.

I have been there myself. I have found myself, mostly at times during my twenties, when I, too, was crouched in a corner, trying to protect myself from the demons that roiled in my mind. My memories of that time period, a time when I struggled to make sense of my own violent past and carve a future out for myself, are somewhat hazy and obscure. After dealing with such traumatic events internally, I tried really hard to forget them afterward. But those memories never completely fade. They remain intact in their own dreamlike way, floating to the surface when you least expect them. These are the memories I called upon within myself to guide me as I detailed the effects of the ardent abuse that Max suffered at the hand of his abusers, and they served me well. These memories of my own carried within them the seeds of any traumatic encounter. In other words, I was able to translate those memories of my own into memories of Max’s.

Facing Myself

Writing Finding Max was an incredible encounter for me. I had to encounter not only the blank page that all writers must face (and all painters, too), but I had to come face to face with myself and demons that I had carried within myself for almost forty years. And that is a long time to carry inside you the seeds of any new novel.

Finding Max is, I believe, a great achievement. It is a novel that truly was written in my heart. I have no other way to describe my approach to writing this novel, except to say that it almost wrote itself. Which is patently untrue. Without my dreams, without my experiences, without my past and without my fingers, Finding Max would not even exist. It is a novel that gives me more than it took to write it.

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