While she has walked catwalks around the world and currently lives in tony Forest Hill, Velvet Haney hasn’t forgotten her humble roots growing up in Alexandra Park in the 1950s and 60s.
Haney was one of six children raised almost entirely by their mother in a small abode they called the Mousehouse.
She has captured her childhood in her new autobiographical graphic novel, The Mousehouse Years.
While times were hard in those early days – Haney’s father was a larger-than-life character but was often absent from the family’s life – she looks back on that time with a definite fondness.
“I really wanted to write a story about growing up in Alexandra Park in that era,” she said. “The adventures my siblings and I had, that’s not something I think a lot of kids have these days.”
The Mousehouse Years serves as a tribute to Haney’s mother, Meg Richardson, who died in 2000.
“It was always my mother’s dream to be published and now, through her letters and words, she is in a way,” Haney said. “As I was writing parts of it, I was laughing because my mother was quite a character.”
While the book looks fondly on some of the good times Haney shared with her family, it also offers an unflinching look at some of the problems they faced, from living in a hardscrabble neighbourhood to battles with alcohol, mental illness and a roving father.
“My first instinct was to write about growing up in Alexandra Park and leave out, as I call it, my father’s yucky stuff,” the first-time author said. “As I wrote it, though, I knew I had to include that part. My family was always pretty open so the story wouldn’t have been complete without it, but as I wrote that chapter, I was sweating all the way through.”
Her siblings were supportive of the endeavour, supporting her decision not to pull punches, supplying some of the photos and letters interspersed throughout the book and helping Haney recall specific details from those bygone days. While their help was invaluable, the book is based on Haney’s own experiences and what she heard from her mother.
“Being alone with six children, she told us a lot of stuff some parents wouldn’t tell their kids just because there were no other adults around,” she recalled.
The Mousehouse Years became a graphic novel completely by accident. Haney had started writing her memoir as a conventional novel but, upon rereading the first 100 pages, she found she hated what she had written. After reading a graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, she had an epiphany.
“It was like a light bulb went on over my head – if I could only draw, this was how I had to tell the story,” she said. “I started out drawing stick figures and saw that it came to life. (With a graphic novel) you can be the director, stylist and cinematographer of your own story.”
The drawings in The Mousehouse Years are simple, which works well in recounting the memories of childhood. Better still, they gave Haney a chance to channel her mother’s voice.
“They allowed me to tell the story in the way she used to tell stories, and to match her sense of humour,” Haney said.
The author is already looking ahead to further graphic novels depicting her days of working as a model and married life. To that end, she has enrolled in courses at Lesley University in Massachusetts – an impressive feat for someone who dropped out of high school to pursue a modeling career as a teen.
“It’s not bad, coming from where I did to going to University now,” she said.
The Mousehouse Years will officially be launched on Oct. 6.
For more information or to order a copy in advance, visit www.velvethaney.com