Recently, Sarah and Katie sat down with Cea Sunrise Person, author of North of Normal, to ask her about her experience writing such a deeply personal memoir.
For those of you who do not know, Cea was raised off the land in northern Alberta. But unlike most commune dwellers of the time, the Persons weren’t trying to build a new society—they wanted to escape civilization altogether. Led by Cea’s grandfather, they lived in a canvas Teepee, grew pot, and hunted and gathered to survive. North of Normal is about Cea’s deep-seated desire for normality and her journey to find it.
Was North of Normal a project you knew you wanted to take on right from the beginning, or were you encouraged by friends and colleagues to share your story?
Ever since I was a teenager, I knew I would write my life story someday. I knew it was very unique, and everyone who heard even a bit of it was like, “You have to write a book!”
Are there stories from your life you wanted to include in this memoir, but they didn’t make the cut during the editing process?
Totally! My life seems to be this virtually bottomless pit of bizarre stories. In fact, there were so many left out of North of Normal that I am working on a second memoir right now. In hindsight, I’m happy they didn’t make the cut because it kept the focus of my book tighter. But there were also a few that I didn’t even attempt to tell that I think would be ready for paper now!
You have a knack for engrossing and engaging storytelling. Would you ever write another book, this time fiction perhaps?
Writing is definitely my passion. Even though my book was really the first thing I ever wrote, I always knew there was a dormant writer living inside of me. But I am all about nonfiction–I love that breathtaking element of listening to a great true story. Besides my second memoir, I really want to collaborate with others and tell their amazing true life stories.
As you were writing this book, what was the most vivid memory that stood out to you? Which memories were the easiest to recall?
I think the memory that has the most texture for me is when the police came to bust my mother’s boyfriend when I was five. I can still feel the rocks stabbing at my bare feet as I ran to alert my mother that the cops had found us. But there are so many more…the time I spent squatting at the cottage, mushing the sled dogs with my grandfather, the stealing sprees…it’s all right there at the top of mind. And of course the modeling, which is more recent– though ironically, even though those were happier times for me, I feel a darkness around that time that was absent in my very earliest years.
What has the feedback been like from readers so far?
In a word, overwhelming!! When I put my story out there, it was a “for better or worse” thing for me, because I really do candidly reveal all. The initial support I got from friends and family was very encouraging, and then to see it spread out to old friends of both myself and my family, and then strangers, made me certain I had done the right thing in telling my story. People seem to be embracing it and relating it in very personal ways, confirming to me that no matter where we come from, there is a ton of common ground to be found in our emotional reactions.
Were you nervous, or excited to share your story?
A little of both, but I had a long time to prepare for it! It took me 7 years to write and publish the book. I was most nervous to share it with the people closest to me, but their support has been incredible. Everyone is like, “How on earth did you turn out so NORMAL after all that?” That’s how I know I succeeded!
Have you been back to revisit any of the land you lived on in Canada as a child? If so, what was it like to return?
I haven’t, but I’ve certainly fantasized about it! I would especially love to return to the Kootenay Plains, where our first tipi camp was. But there is a part of me that’s afraid it won’t match my memory, and will then be forever changed in my mind. For now, I like the romance of my recollections.
At the end of it all, what did you take away from this writing experience? What do you hope gets across in the book when people read your compelling story?
The biggest thing I took away is that I love to write, and I love a good story. And it must be said that writing about my crazy childhood and extremely dysfunctional family was more effective than years of therapy! Above all, the message I hope to convey to readers is that if they have ever felt alone or like they don’t fit into their family or society, they are not alone. Coming from the wilderness to the city, I felt like the biggest freak of all time, but I managed to find my way. I hope others can take inspiration from my story to go after their dreams. They really can come true!
What led you to the decision of voicing the narrative from your child self? Did you find it easier, or more challenging to write from that perspective?
To me, it just made sense. I wrote my early drafts from an adult perspective, with all sorts of insight and introspection on my childhood thrown in, and it was just a disaster. I sounded like this totally pretentious five-year-old who fancied herself a psych graduate, which was all wrong for the tone and content of the story. I really wanted a natural, nonjudgmental voice, and the only way to achieve that was to narrate the entire story as if it was happening in real time, with the language getting more mature as I grew older. I’m very happy with the result, and as soon as I got into the groove, it just flowed.