The Aunt June Files
It starts as a ghost story. (Tell me that you don’t believe in ghosts, and I’ll tell you that ghosts don’t care whether you believe in them or not.)
It was the summer of 2014, a few weeks after she died, when my Aunt June showed up in my bathroom in the middle of the night. That’s June in the black and white photo above, by the way, and me, and Montreal, where the story takes place.
She said, “Finish my novel.”
I didn’t just say yes right away. I hate being told what to do, especially during my creative time which, as a mother with a day job, is precious and hard-won. I was sorry that my Aunt June had died with her novel unfinished, but I didn’t see why it was my job to do something about it. I had my own novels to write.
We negotiated, there in the bathroom on that summer night. She made some good points, and I softened somewhat. I told her I would try.
A few months later, I learned that I was to inherit all that remained of June’s belongings, and a few months after that, twenty or so boxes of books, papers and photo albums, and two crates of paintings, landed on my doorstep.
The Aunt June Files is the project that has been unfolding ever since.
A real-life mystery, an adventure, an earnest attempt to understand, and perhaps release, the ties of the past. It is the story of two writers: me, a mystery author in a rural mountain town, unveiling the story of my great-aunt, June Grant, who had a long career as a copywriter in an ad agency in Montreal and who wrote novels of her own at night.
The Aunt June Files project is about so much more than finishing June’s novel. It’s about grappling with the weight of family obligation and societal expectations, all while struggling to do the creative work you’ve been tasked with in this lifetime. It is my attempt to fulfill the promise I made to her, in my own way, and in a very different time.
This project is unfolding, month by month, into multiple works in progress. So far, I’ve written a mystery novel manuscript featuring June as a sleuth in post World War II Montreal. I delivered a series of live storytelling presentations (pre-pandemic) and have been writing monthly letters to readers for over four years. I also post regular project updates and summaries to Instagram under #theauntjunefiles.
Through these media I chronicle the project as it unfolds, as I sort through and preserve what remains of June’s life — papers, photographs, diaries, letters, cassette tapes, radio scripts, multiple novel manuscripts typed on tissue-thin air mail paper, (Are they any good? I don’t know yet.) The portfolio of magazine ads she worked on — and convert these into creative fodder for my own work.
The Aunt June Files is an unfolding story, and there’s plenty more to come. Follow me on Instagram, or subscribe to the the email list through the signup form below to receive the monthly updates.
Deryn Collier is the author of The Bern Fortin novels Confined Space and Open Secret, both published by Simon & Schuster Canada. Originally from Montreal, she is a graduate of McGill University. After a very short career as a federal bureaucrat she ran away to the mountains of British Columbia where she has been for over twenty years. She lives in Nelson, BC with her husband, sons and cats.