Each year STARFest, St. Albert’s major literary festival, offers opportunities for readers to meet bestselling Canadian writers. It’s a chance for readers to hear from the authors and learn about their upcoming projects.
In the festival’s next instalment, festival director Michelle Steinhusen invited two very different writers. Rowan Jetté Knox, an award-winning journalist, writer and human rights advocate for LGBTQ2S+ inclusion, will discuss his second book, One Sunny Afternoon: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing on Monday, Oct. 16.
On the other hand, St. Albert’s own Melanie Gall, an internationally acclaimed soprano, has adapted her concert research into a non-fiction book, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland and the Golden Age of Hollywood. It follows the life of Deanna Durbin, a 13-year-old Canadian girl who became the highest-paid female star in Hollywood. Even as every young girl envied Durbin, controlling studio heads pushed the young actress and Judy Garland into a lifelong rivalry. Gall appears on Thursday, Oct. 19.
Rowan Jetté Knox
Born Amanda Jetté Knox, Rowan always knew there was a little boy living inside him who loved dinosaurs and building forts. Even as a teenager, when girls and boys started crushing on each other, Knox was attracted to girls. This was not something society would accept and so, Knox buried those feelings deep inside.
Throughout school, Knox was abused, with the lowest moment coming when two girls brought hairspray and matches to school. They chased him and sprayed his jacket, then lit a match. As Knox struggled with the fire on his jacket, kids who saw the event laughed.
“It was a really traumatic moment,” he said. “I’m a natural people pleaser. I was mocked at school, but never fought back. I became the school punching bag.”
Knox suppressed his identity, became pregnant at 19 and embraced the role of a wife and mother of three. In 2014, his middle child, who was 11, came out as transgender. A year later Knox’s spouse also came out as trans.
Continuing to love a son who was not a son and a husband who was now a wife was easy for Knox. He wrote a memoir entitled Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family, and the book became a bestseller.
“A group of activists in the LGBTQ community thought I was taking up space and I shouldn’t write a book as a cisgender person on trans issues ... It snowballed into hundreds of people dog-piling on me. It wasn’t just criticism. It was character assassination and outright lies. After a week I thought about suicide and drove to a hospital,” he said. “It was a pretty significant thing that happened, and I felt as if I was back in the schoolyard, and I couldn’t stop the avalanche of criticism.”
In rehab, Knox discovered catharsis in telling stories. He realized it was part of a healing journey for what had been a lifelong trauma disorder that surfaced in the form of anxiety, depression and addiction.
Through treatment and storytelling, Knox allowed his true self to surface. In his followup memoir, One Sunny Afternoon, he points out people may feel hopeless and that it’s too late to change their lives.
“But I was in my 40s,” he said. “The book is more about mental illness than transitioning. People are looking to understand themselves. People talk about family issues, and we just happen to be trans.”
Throughout her soprano career, Gall has successfully created a series of one-woman shows. One of her most endearing to Canadians is a salute to our country’s Deanna Durbin, a child star who rose to the pinnacle of success before turning her back on Hollywood to lead a private life in France.
Gall conducted extensive research to write a tell-all about the Hollywood’s structured movie industry from the 1930s to the 1950s, and how it pitted Durbin against Judy Garland, two young actresses who met on the MGM studio lot in 1935.
“I researched her, but there was very little public information. There was never a biography written about her. She hadn’t wanted a biography written in her lifetime. She didn’t want the public spotlight. People forgot her and she quietly passed out of the public’s eye,” said Gall.
Durbin died in 2013. As Gall researched every possible link to build an authentic show, she visited The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. One of the world’s most extensive research collections, the archives houses thousands of photographs and documents.
“They were sitting in boxes in a giant underground space. She had donated all her personal memorabilia from scraps from fans, to notes from reporters.”
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Gall’s stage career abruptly halted. She had all the research material in her New York apartment and realized there was a book in the making.
She details how Durbin’s arrival in Hollywood changed they way directors worked. A film style imported from Europe was developed about “plucky young teens who were respectful, but precious and could solve problems adults couldn’t.”
The author details how teenage Durbin and Garland were initially friends until studio executives treated Durbin as the star who could do no wrong, and Garland was verbally abused so badly she did stints in rehab.
“Louis Mayer would take people on tours of his studio and call Judy his little hunchback,”
The stars took different career paths and it was this trajectory that fascinated Gall.
Both events take place at St. Albert Public Library on 5 St. Anne Street. Tickets are $7 and are available at starfest.ca.