In his senior year of high school, Julian has one goal: be invisible. All he wants is to study hard, play basketball, and pretend he’s straight for one more year. Then, he can run away to university and finally tell the world he’s bisexual. And by “the world,” he means everyone but his mom and best friend. That’s two conversations he never wants to have.
When he’s talked into auditioning for the school’s production of Hamlet, Julian fears that veering off course will lead to assumptions he’s not ready to face. Despite that, he can’t help but feel a connection to this play. His absent father haunts him like a ghost, his ex is being difficult, and he’s overthinking everything. It’s driving him crazy.
The decision to audition leads Julian on an entirely different path. He’s cast as Hamlet, and the boy playing Horatio is unlike anyone Julian has met before. Mysterious and flirtatious, Sky draws Julian in, even though he fears his feelings at the same time. As the two grow closer, Julian begins to let out the secrets he’s never told—the ones that have paralyzed him for years. But what will he do if Sky feels the same way?
I didn’t start writing my debut novel I Knew Him with the intention of setting it in a somewhat fictionalized version of my hometown. Riverview, New Brunswick wasn’t a particularly special or memorable place, and growing up I often dreamed of leaving. But as the story developed, I realized how badly I needed to root it there.
I penned the first draft when I was fifteen years old, in 2009. Back then, Canadian content was different than it was now, and the feelings Canadians had about CanCon were different too. I remember being assigned to read a Canadian novel or read a classic novel as part of an English assignment. A lot of people in my class picked to read a classic because, “Canadian books suck.”
In general, that sentiment was prevalent across all Canadian content, from music to TV to books. Canadian content was bad, and we shouldn’t engage in it. But I never really shared that sentiment. There were a lot of Canadian things I enjoyed, and in my teen years, I sought them out. I was trying so hard to understand myself, to find places I was represented. And while there was a lot I didn’t understand, one thing I was certain of was being Canadian. I searched high and low for content that spoke to me, with varying degrees of success.
A lot of the Canadian YA novels I read in high school were barely identifiable as Canadian. Most of the time, the only way I knew something was Canadian was the little maple leaf sticker my local library stuck to book spines. Some of these novels even took place in the states. It was so disheartening to open a book with that little maple leaf sticker only to find it was set somewhere like New England.
When I began to rework the draft for I Knew Him, I realized my setting needed more details. Deciding to follow the age-old advice to “write what you know,” I started adding things I was familiar with, like the pool in the high school, and the river facing town. Soon, the existence of French and English schools found its way in there, and even the beat-up cars people would sell on front lawns made an appearance. I slowly realized that the non-specific setting I was writing about was actually Riverview, so what was stopping me from setting the story there?
Grounding all those little details into a real place felt good, and I hoped that maybe a reader in Eastern Canada would pick up this story, discover its setting, and feel seen. While I don’t live in Riverview anymore, I wanted to write about the place I knew. I wanted to write the story I never got to read in high school, and I wanted it to happen in the place I’d needed it. Even though Riverview could be anywhere, for much of my life it was my whole world. And maybe I needed to acknowledge that.
Now more than ever, I notice Canadians taking more pride in the media produced by Canadians. I read book reviews where someone says “wow! It’s set in Canada! I love that!” I see tweets gushing about the latest episode of Schitt’s Creek or Anne with an E. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I’m glad for it. I want to see more Canadian stories, I want to see places I know in the media I consume. I want to be part of it. We are such a large country with so much richness, so many settings, and so many stories waiting to be told.
Abigail de Niverville is an author and composer based in Toronto, Ontario. Originally from New Brunswick, Canada, she’s often inspired by the places she frequented there and the experiences she lived. She holds an M.Mus from the University of Toronto and is currently working on new music, as well as new works of fiction.