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The psychic and her son: the scientist-writer

July 23, 2020

(Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Dr. Christian Smith was a scientist, not a creative writer. In 2006, he’d earned his PhD in medical biophysics at the University of Toronto. His day job was research operations manager of the Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

But he was also a reader, had his own fascinating, incredible story to tell and had “always dreamed of writing a book.” In the winter of 2015 during a regular meeting of his book club, he shared some of that story. One of the other members, Gillian Turnbull, urged him to do what she had already done: apply to the University of King’s College Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Nonfiction. He did.

And now Dr. Christian Smith, MFA Class of 2017, is also, officially, a writer.

His first book, The Scientist and the Psychic: A Son’s Exploration of His Mother’s Gift, is available for pre-order and will be published by Penguin Random House Canada on December 29, 2020.

Smith’s captivating, one-of-a-kind memoir introduces readers to the larger-than-life tale of his mother — an internationally famous psychic with a reputation for startling and consistently accurate predictions — and “my quest to make scientific sense of it all.” But the story is about more than just his scientist’s quest. It also weaves together the strands of a complicated mother-son relationship. “Over time,” Smith notes, “the high profile and emotionally depleting work affected my mother’s health and relationships, addiction took over her life, and I pulled away.”

Smith, who calls his two years in the limited-residency MFA program “transformative,” says he learned — with help from mentors Lorri Neilsen Glenn and Ken McGoogan — to employ “the creative techniques found in fiction to ensure my book didn’t read like a dull academic text.” He also met his agent through the program, and that ultimately led to his book deal.

But he says the experience was transformative for other reasons too. “I didn’t just earn a degree; I joined a community. Throughout my two years in the MFA program, I met an extraordinary cast of characters who bedazzled me with their talent, insight, and most of all, their unique stories.”

Smith, in fact, is still in a writing group with some of those classmates, including Gillian Turnbull, who is now a mentor in the MFA program.

Smith has more writing projects in his future. “My brain can’t contain all the ideas I want to write,” he says. His next project: a novel about a skeptical private investigator, a psychic and her scientist son as they try to discover the truth about a murder. It’s a fictionalized account of a recent real-life criminal case in which Smith’s mother was asked to investigate the murder of an Indigenous woman.