Author Kim Purcell says her new novel draws heavily on the feelings of guilt and loss she experienced after her friend’s body was found in the Fraser River in Prince George, B.C. shortly before she graduated high school.
This Is Not A Love Letter is a young adult novel focused on a high school student whose boyfriend, one of the few black people living in a B.C. mill town, disappears one night after going for a run by the river.
It is told as a series of mental conversations the protagonist has with her boyfriend afterwards, as the young woman hopes that “somehow, they can connect,” through the messages, Purcell said.
Those one-sided conversations, she said, are very similar to the ones she had as a teenager after her close friend, Al Rivas, went missing shortly before the pair were to graduate from Prince George Secondary School.
“I started talking to him all the time, in my head,” Purcell said.
Her novel is fiction, she noted, but added, “I took pieces from my experience, and from the emotion and the loss of suddenly your friend being gone.”
Rivas was a young track star, and one of few black students, at the high school. He was last seen going for a run in June, 1989. His body was recovered from the Fraser River in October the same year.
RCMP said no foul play was suspected, and the coroner said the cause of death was consistent with drowning.
Purcell said she experienced guilt about the death for years. “So many times I’ve wished I could go back and grab him,” she said.
She later learned Rivas had been depressed shortly before he disappeared. She also wondered if he’d faced obstacles she was unaware of, as one of the few black students in the city.
“I think I was a good friend, but did I really look at the bias that he faced? Did I look at how depressed he was? Did I try my hardest to make sure he knew he was loved? I don’t know.”
She said the story should not be seen as a biographical account of Rivas’ experiences.
But she hopes it will prompt people to rethink how they interact with people of colour and confront societal racism.
She also hopes it will connect with young people who have experienced the loss of a friend and are blaming themselves.
“When something like this happens, every single person who’s ever known that person thinks, ‘Is there anything that I could have done?'” she said.
“I hope they will learn to love themselves and forgive themselves.”
Purcell is now based in Los Angeles. She is in Prince George Feb. 21 for a reading at Books and Company and will be at Indigo Granville in Vancouver on Feb. 22.
This Is Not A Love Letter is an early 2018 pick from the literary magazine Kirkus Reviews and NPR. Her first novel, Trafficked, was nominated for multiple young adult book awards.