It takes days to travel by bus from Montreal to Sacramento, California, and even longer to hitchhike and squat along the state’s coastal highway—the famous California State Route 1. Montreal-based author Ceilidh Michelle’s new novel Vagabond condenses such a quest into just over 200 pages through a series of creative non-fiction vignettes. Vagabond takes readers into the vibrant, yet sometimes unpleasant, adventures that a younger Michelle experiences while wayfaring along the West Coast. Functioning somewhat like a memoir, the stories she tells are genuine and honest, for better or for worse.
The novel follows a 21-year-old Michelle narrating her journey, starting with her departure from an unhealthy relationship in Montreal to Vancouver, after which travels down south to the United States to pursue her dreams. All the while, Michelle reflects on the sights and scenery, transforming the physical distance she travels into a mental expedition of self-growth.
In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Michelle spoke about the multiple journeys encapsulated in Vagabond.
“The only difficult part [about writing the book] was trying to stay true to the emotion of each experience,” Michelle said. “I did not want to make anything too melodramatic or overwrought. I really wanted to try and capture things as they [happened]. Some of it is embarrassing, and some of it seems silly to me […] but it’s what happened, and I wanted to stay true to it.”
Michelle meets new friends along every step of her journey, such as the banjo-playing, train-hopping Half-Peach who becomes Michelle’s close companion, as well as individuals worn down by living without homes. Michelle’s encounters with promiscuous drug addicts and unsavoury street bullies paint a somber depiction of living unhoused, reminding readers that her journey is nowhere near as cushioned as that of a university student’s gap year.
“An undercurrent […] in my writing is affordable housing,” Michelle said. “Home is so important, and it is so essential to feeling human and having dignity.”
Released on Sept. 4 under Douglas & McIntyre, Vagabond is Michelle’s second book. The author’s first title, Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, published through Palimpsest Press in 2020, was shortlisted for 2020’s Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction. While she was busy pursuing her master of science degree in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh and writing other creative projects, Michelle felt an urge to distill her memories into something more concrete, which led to the spontaneous creation of Vagabond.
“I had written a very rough account of what had happened, as it happened, so I already had all of this archival writing to draw from,” Michelle said. “I had [another] project that I was working on with [my agent], and I basically cheated on that prototype and wrote Vagabond instead.”
Michelle’s narrative takes readers to exciting destinations, whether they be the sometimes-comical streets of Slab City, California’s famous squatter community, or the interior landscapes of a young, curious woman as she learns about herself and the world—each place complete with its own beauty and pain.