A state of ugliness, to quote Kim, took hold of me as I wrestled with what I was about to do.
The next evening, I called Kim with a proposal: I wouldn’t gift or lend her the money, but I would contract with her instead, and my payment would be $400, the amount she needed. The job – to grant me two final interviews – would complete a process we’d started two years before, when Kim had been off of drugs for many years. Those interviews, the first of them given for free, were to be background information for Wild and Beautiful is the Night, my third novel, which, 11 years later, has made its way onto bookshelves.
Kim accepted my proposal and after we hung up, I considered how my chosen course of action touched on questions that writers ask each time we interview a research subject. How much should we or can we give those people in return for using pieces of their story? How far will we go for our craft and at what cost? Do the benefits to us and, later, our readers, justify the emotional toll such exploitation might take? Sometimes, there’s no exploitation, no harm and, therefore, no dilemma. Other times, as in my situation, it isn’t so clear.
Kim and I met in 2003, when for more than a year I filled in as executive director at the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. She was the organization’s speakers’ bureau co-ordinator, a job that required her to dig into her past to speak publicly about her former crack-cocaine use and her experiences as a sex worker, an occupation she’d left years before; about the joys and struggles of motherhood; and about being a woman and a lesbian living with HIV.
Her primarily middle-class audiences related to Kim, in part because of her own middle-class background. She was lauded as an engaging speaker with a certain gift for holding a room in her thrall. I began to wonder if a fictional character similar to Kim might make a useful protagonist, one who might be a window into the complex issues faced by sex workers and people who use drugs.
Once I was no longer her boss, I asked if I could interview her in aid of a new novel I was considering. At first, she hesitated, but only because she’d been thinking of writing her memoirs. I encouraged her to do so and assured her that any novel I wrote would borrow details of her life to lend authenticity to more than one fictional character, but none of those characters would be a thinly veiled Kim. With that reassurance, she enthusiastically agreed. Kim wasn’t afraid of identifying information; but she cared who told her story and how it was told. She was no victim. She was proudly resilient and wanted that to be known.
In 2005, she and I met a couple of times and I asked her for specifics and anecdotes, for what it felt like then, as opposed to when she was in recovery. Those first interviews were reflections on a past she thought she’d left behind. At that point, the benefits to Kim seemed clear: She liked being seen as an expert; it made her feel good to help and she seemed pleased when I mentioned she’d be named in the novel’s acknowledgments. Since my writing income is paltry, I didn’t offer to pay her, then. Nor did I pay any of the other people I interviewed for my novel, including other drug users and sex workers. Most novelists don’t.
A few months later, Kim quit her secure job to start a small business. Although she was now too busy to meet for the rest of our interviews, Kim was genuinely excited to have a continuing part in my writing project. I was grateful whenever she brought it up; I was eager to dive into my story, but I still had research to do. I hoped, once things settled down, we’d be able to meet at length again.
Sadly, her business didn’t succeed, one thing led to another and, with the stressors piling up, she relapsed. At that point, someone called Children’s Aid and her son was removed from her care and sent to live with her ex-partner. Throughout this period, Kim and I sporadically kept in touch by e-mail and sometimes by phone. She raised the scheduling of our two final interviews, again, without my prompting, but understandably with her renewed challenges, as she went from relapse, to detox and treatment, to relapse and again into that all-consuming period of early recovery, those interviews were postponed several times.
Then, in December, 2007, came her e-mail asking for rent money. I wondered, was she taking advantage of our friendship and moreover, would I be establishing myself as an easy mark? Would my financial support be used for drug money? But I also wanted her to be housed. I was ashamed to be thinking in such a judgmental and self-protective way, and my next thought was how humiliating it must have been to make the request.
I laid out my possible courses of action, the three real choices I had: to say no, to give Kim the money without conditions or to pay her for her time. I weighed the good that might come of each, and the harm. There was no option that would cause no harm. I grappled with the competing sets of principles, laid them out in front of me, disheartened that so many were in conflict with one another. I tried to put myself in Kim’s shoes, even though I understand the limits to empathy when two people are in such different places.
I had to believe it was more ethical to help Kim, if I could, without subjecting her to that state of powerlessness, that feeling that erodes at our self-worth, when we can’t help ourselves. I didn’t want to be her saviour, nor for her to see me as one, as some parental figure who expected his gift to be used in the proper way. How condescending, how foul that would make me – to her and to myself. I considered that giving her cash without conditions might be taken a different way, that it might be accepted as a show of non-judgmental support, if I framed it right. I was her friend and that’s what friends are supposed to do: help one another without judgment. But she’d asked for that help and her need was so, so great. Would paying her for her expertise leave her feeling better and less like a charity case? Probably, although not by much, and there was no denying that this option benefited me the most; I very much wanted those interviews. I braced myself for her judgment.
On an icy December afternoon, I arrived early to a drafty coffee shop with fogged-up windows. Waiting for her, I contemplated my decision again, and the ugliness of its possible repercussions blew through me with each gust coming through the opening and closing door. Kim arrived on time. Weariness weighed her eyelids down. Her skin was grey. I probably didn’t look much better myself.