When Pat Capponi wrote Upstairs in the Crazy House, her 1992 memoir of poverty and depression, she had no expectation that it would lead to an ongoing literary career. Capponi had spent most of her adult life in hospitals and seedy Toronto rooming houses, and though she had since pulled herself up to become a respected advocate for the poor, she was not inclined to see herself as a likely success in mainstream society. Even her chosen attire – denims and a trademark cowboy hat – placed her squarely on the fringes. Nevertheless, good notices started pouring in, and she went on to write four more non-fiction titles, gradually becoming one of Canada’s foremost chroniclers of the dispossessed and disenfranchised.
Today, Capponi finds herself preparing to publish a sixth book, Last Stop Sunnyside (due in March from HarperCollins Canada), and in many ways it is the most unlikely development in her literary career to date. Though it, too, is set in the slums and populated by the ranks of the downtrodden, it is nevertheless an enormous departure in that it is her first work of fiction. It is, in fact, a mystery, the first in a planned series, and no one is more surprised by this development than Capponi herself. “I never had any thought of writing mysteries at all,” she says simply. Though she’d been an avid fan of the genre for years, particularly the work of Janet Evanovich and P.D. James, the notion
of moving from non-fiction to fiction was “too intimidating.” But then came a chance meeting that changed everything.
Capponi was in a Toronto Indigo store, browsing the new releases, when she heard her name called and looked up to see HarperCollins Canada president David Kent. “He said, ‘What are you doing these days?’” she explains, “and I said, ‘Not much.’ And then he said, ‘Well, remember what my wife said.… you really should think about that.’”
Capponi had met Kent’s wife, Lynne Ford, at various publishing functions, and it happened that Ford was a big fan of Upstairs in the Crazy House. One night she mused to Kent that Capponi’s material would make a great backdrop for a mystery, and the idea seemed to lodge itself in Kent’s brain. “So we talked about it a bit, right there in Indigo,” says Capponi.
Emboldened by Kent’s encouragement, she went home and began working on a spec manuscript, telling no one about it, not even her regular editor Cynthia Good, then at Penguin Canada, or her agent, Beverly Slopen. “I just had to get over that big, huge hump of fear by myself,” Capponi says. She began with the setting: a rooming house in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, very much like the one she had lived in for years. Her protagonist, an impoverished, unwitting sleuth named Dana Leoni, is very much the author’s stand-in, so much so that Capponi frequently refers to her as “me” and then corrects herself. “She’s basically me, only she’s young and straight and doesn’t wear a cowboy hat.”
With the first three chapters in her pocket, Capponi went and told Slopen about her new undertaking – and was met with a not-quite-ecstatic response. As Slopen says now: “I was terrified! Almost nobody should write a novel just because someone says you should!” However, she took a look at the evolving manuscript and was relieved to find that it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Slopen dialled up Kent and, after gently berating him for messing with the head of one of her clients, thanked him and offered him first dibs on the manuscript.
As Capponi continued to write, she tried to emulate her favourite type of mystery novel, the kind set in exotic locations like Venice or Eastern Europe. “I’ve never travelled,” explains Capponi, “and I love those kinds of books. They open up a whole other world, and through the mysteries you can see how the societies work. [Likewise,] Parkdale is not a world many people know. My challenge was to make them want to know it.”
The set-up for the book is that Capponi’s fictional alter ego is recovering from a bout of depression when one of her fellow boarding house residents goes missing. Several days later, the woman’s body washes up on Toronto’s Sunnyside Beach, and the police write it off as a suicide instead of bothering to investigate. This leaves Leoni and several of the other boarding house women to take up the case themselves.
As Capponi explains it, much of the drama and the humour comes from how the women negotiate their lack of sleuthing resources. “They can’t co-ordinate watches because they only have one watch between them; they can’t tail people because they can’t drive; they can’t even tail someone on the bus because they have no bus tickets,” she says.
If Last Stop Sunnyside turns out to be a success, Capponi says she’ll stick with the series and with fiction writing in general for the foreseeable future. She is, in fact, already hard at work on a follow-up. “[A friend of mine] read the manuscript and said, ‘Oh, I see, you can say the same things about poverty [as you did in non-fiction], but you can say it in a way that people will find easier to take in.’ And I think that’s great,” she says.
Capponi pauses for a moment, then adds: “But the greatest thing is that in fiction you can have people win. I really love that.”