Recently, Madeleine Thien won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, honouring the best in Canadian literature, for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The book was also shortlisted for the Man Booker. Last month, Madeleine wrote about the writer’s life in Maclean’s; it’s a perspective that I think we can all relate to, especially now:
“Writers know there is never such a thing as arrival. Only delays and onward journeys, connections, the bending of flight, time and movement, which is also a way of describing the imagination, which brings us to places we weren’t given at birth.”
The work will get us to those places, the work will get us what we weren’t given at birth. So let’s keep working. Thanks for joining me here at my work and letting me accompany you at yours.
Last year I spent a week stalking Paula Hawkins, the author of The Girl On The Train, the bestselling book of 2015. I interviewed Paula four times over a period of days, starting on etalk, then on The Social, then at a bookstore, and finally I moderated her session at Vancouver Writers Fest in front of a crowd of about 200 people. To prepare for that session, I re-read The Girl On The Train twice. When I read it the first time, originally, it was for entertainment, it was for the mystery. When I read it again it was to appreciate the anger, female anger, where that anger comes from, how it’s represented in her book, what it becomes in her book, through her narrator. I asked Paula about her narrator, an unreliable narrator, some would say an “unlikeable” narrator. The year before, Roxane Gay, in a piece for Buzzfeed, argued for the “importance of unlikeable female protagonists” and Paula, like Roxane, told me that her intention was not to make the reader “like” her characters but to offer to her readers instead someone who was real and human. And, as we know, real, human women are often not believed, too often doubted, so that that doubt doubles up on itself, creating an endless loop of insecurity. In Paula’s story, that doubt, combined with the aforementioned anger, builds to a violent conclusion and I talked to her about how satisfying it was to come to that finale, with two women united in their anger and doubt and exasperation finding solidarity in the end which, ultimately, at least for me, was the book’s best surprise: Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train is a f-ck you to misogyny. Like most writers, Paula didn’t answer directly, because she’d rather you find your answers than give them all to you herself. But later on, when a man stepped up to the microphone during the Q&A and tried to tell her why books written by women aren’t taken seriously (yes, this actually happened), she cheekily called back to that part of our discussion when we talked about the feminism embedded in her novel. And the women in the audience smiled back knowingly.
Which is why I’m so excited to announce the release of Paula Hawkins’ next book. From the publisher:
Into The Water is an addictive novel of psychological suspense about the slipperiness of the truth, and a family drowning in secrets.
With the same propulsion that captivated millions of readers worldwide in her debut, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins unfurls a gripping, twisting, layered story set in a small riverside town. Once again in Into the Water Hawkins demonstrates her powerful understanding of human instincts and the damage they can inflict.
Paula Hawkins says: “This story has been brewing for a good while. For me there is something irresistible about the stories we tell ourselves, the way voices and truths can be hidden consciously or unconsciously, memories can be washed away and whole histories submerged. Then two sisters appeared, and the novel began to form.”
Roxane Gay recently tweeted out a link to the full text of the keynote address she recently delivered at Winter Institute about diversity – or, rather, how conversations about diversity have instead become conversations about absolution and will be meaningless without active learning and work, which requires us to be “uncomfortable”. Because change is almost never easy. It reminds me of what Hayley always used to tell me when we were working out: “Be comfortable being uncomfortable”. It makes sense when it comes to your body. You know that if you’re training for that half marathon, or getting up that hill, or losing weight to be healthier, it’s not going to feel good. You accept that it won’t feel good – when it comes to physical pain and struggle in service of positive change. But it’s harder to accept things that won’t feel good when it’s about character and belief. No one wants to confront the places in their minds where they might need to admit that they haven’t done enough. (And to be clear, this is not about mental health but about perspective.) That’s when it becomes, as Roxane says, “uncomfortable” – but, also, essential.
And yet, uncomfortable does not mean “unsafe”. One of my biggest takeaways from her remarks was about the solace she has, for her whole life, found in books. And in bookstores. She describes the act of reading as “sacred”, the bookstore as a “sanctuary”, where ideas are exchanged and challenged, where imagination is encouraged, where understanding feels achievable.
Roxane’s latest book, Difficult Women, came out a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been making my way through it slowly because, yes, it is uncomfortable and also because I don’t think the point is to race through that discomfort. I’m also reading Cat Marnell’s How To Murder Your Life. Cat Marnell used to write for xoJane. Her pieces were entertaining, and uncomfortably entertaining, because Cat refused to apologise for her drug addiction, complicating the writer-reader relationship to the point where it felt like we were trapping her and ourselves in a cycle of provocative enabling. Eventually Cat was fired and she moved on to Vice, and it was more or less the same. Cat is trying to put all that behind her. Her book is about the excesses and the trauma of that old life and how she’s trying to manage her new one. How To Murder Your Life is out now.
Finally, every night for a week or so, Jenny Zhang has been my last read before shutting down. Sometimes it’s been her essays. Sometimes her poetry. Google her and you’ll fall into the Jenny Zhang rabbit hole. And definitely spend some time with her poem I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love. Jenny is the first writer to be published under Lenny, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s imprint. Her collection of short stories, Sour Heart, is scheduled to be released in August but you can get to know her work before then.
When was the last time you saw A Room With A View? For me it’s been years. I forgot most of it. I forgot how funny it was. Or maybe it’s funnier to me now in different ways. TIFF kicked off its 7th annual Books On Film series last night with a screening of A Room With A View followed by a discussion with Zadie Smith. Zadie teaches E.M. Forster, her novel On Beauty (one of my favourite books of all time) was sort of an homage to Howards End. And she says she watched A Room With A View for the first time when she was about 11. I would have been a couple of years older. And if that was you too, if you can remember who you were and what you thought about then, and you hadn’t yet seen My Beautiful Laundrette, wouldn’t you be surprised now to know that it was not Julian Sands’s George who went on to become the greatest but Daniel Day-Lewis, who played Cecil (one of Zadie’s students described him as a “proto-hipster which…EXACTLY)? For Zadie too, it was only later that she realised Julian wasn’t much of an actor. And only later that we realised that Maggie Smith and Judi Dench do most of the acting in that film.
Listening to Zadie Smith speak – about language and books and culture and writing – is going to come back to me in bits and pieces but I know it will be one of the highlights of my year, to have listened to her talk about work for 45 minutes and assess her own work during that time. At one point she was asked about the television adaptation of NW and she recalled that while watching with her husband, after noticing that the show had made a cut in the narrative that made the story work better, she turned to him and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Which reminded her that a novelist has to “get rid of the dainty feelings” about her work. Because it can’t be precious. Writing, as she describes it, is labour – and she didn’t mean it as a comparison to, like, digging in the mines or anything, but as a perspective. If you think of it as labour, you might be inclined to be less delicate with it. And with yourself. For Zadie, work isn’t performed in a trance after inspiration arrives on clouds or wings. It’s hard. It’s unsexy. Even for her.
Have you read her interview with George Saunders yet? George Saunders, improbably (because it’s amazing to think he hasn’t done it until now), is releasing his first novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, next month. (If you haven’t already, his collection of short stories, Tenth Of December, will be something you keep coming back to after your first read.) Zadie and George have a long conversation in Interview about the work he put into Lincoln – she thinks it’s Nobel-worthy – and about “staying in your lane”. It’s fascinating to me what each considers to be her strength and his weakness and how they work within their skills.