Interviewed by Sarah Ens
Miriam Toews is the author of five bestselling and critically-acclaimed novels and one work of non-fiction. Her novel A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Kindness was also the winner of the 2006 Canada Reads, making Miriam the first female writer to win the competition. Her fourth novel, The Flying Troutmans, was the winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Miriam has received the Writers Trust Marian Engel/Timothy Findley Award for her body of work, was admitted to the Order of Manitoba, and nominated for Best Actress at the Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences’ Ariel Awards for her performance in Carlos Reygadas’ film Silent Light.
A long-time admirer of her work, I was thrilled to chat with Miriam via email about her journey as an author and the haunting yet hilarious characters she brings to life, from Summer of My Amazing Luck’s single mom living on welfare in Winnipeg to Irma Voth’s young Mexican Mennonite woman breaking free from her abusive past. Her highly-anticipated new novel is All My Puny Sorrows.
What was your experience publishing Summer Of My Amazing Luck? What were some of the obstacles you faced as a new novelist and how did you overcome them?
Getting my first book published was incredible. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I was absolutely thrilled. Turnstone Press, in Winnipeg, took a chance on me and I’m forever grateful to them. I’m not sure there were any special obstacles I faced other than the on-going pressure to make a living and still find time to write.
Your novels are very character and voice driven. Why do you choose to primarily write in first-person? Do you have a process for finding the voices of your characters?
First person just feels natural to me. I have a sort of long process of finding the voice of my characters which involves months, years of taking notes, thinking and trying to create a protagonist that resembles me in some ways and is experiencing some type of deep conflict.
A Complicated Kindness was drawn from your experiences growing up in Steinbach, Manitoba—a tightly-knit Mennonite town. What was it like to write about a community that you were a part of? Were you nervous about how readers in the Mennonite community would react?
I’ve always fictionalized my own experiences so writing or “drawing from” my home town was a natural thing to do. I was a little nervous about the reaction to the book but I’m used to a degree of disapproval from the Mennonite community. That doesn’t change. What was really gratifying was all the support I received from Mennonite readers. It was surprising and moving. The book wasn’t an indictment of the Mennonite people or of their faith, but of the fundamentalist religiosity that exists within some of its churches.
Although Mennonites form less than 1% of the Canadian population, Mennonite literature has become a significant sub-group within Canadian literature. Do you think there is something about your Mennonite background that drives you to write?
I don’t know. There are theories. Writing is a solitary, almost secret, sort of subversive thing to do. It’s a safe way of expressing oneself in a homogeneous community. There’s obviously a high regard for the stories of the Bible in Mennonite communities, so that respect for literature and narrative comes early on in life. Also, Mennonite communities are rich in terms of story. There are power structures and rules and rebels and heartbreak and injustice and deep faith, love, thwarted love, a history of exile, persecution, etc. Closed environments are quite fascinating as far as human dynamics go.
After earning degrees in Film Studies and Journalism, what was it that made you want to start writing novels? Were you always interested in writing literature?
I was working on a radio documentary about welfare in Manitoba, specifically social assistance for single mothers, and I decided that the story I was telling would be better, truer, as a novel. I was always interested in literature, but not necessarily writing it. That came a little later.
Does your background in journalism factor into your research process when writing your novels?
Only in so far as it taught me how to listen.
Your novels often grapple with themes of loss and abandonment, but at the same time are consistently funny. How do you go about purposefully balancing humour and grief in your writing?
I don’t do it on purpose. It’s just the way I write, the way I see the world.
Some of your writing pulls from your personal experiences, such as your work on the film Silent Light which inspired Irma Voth. You also wrote Swing Low: A Life, a non-fiction memoir about your father. Do you have a process for navigating which experiences from your life to share or not share?
Not really. I have experiences, thoughts, memories, emotions that need to be “re-ordered” into something artful, something that makes sense and that will hopefully generate a type of conversation between me and my readers. All My Puny Sorrows comes out of an almost unbearably painful time of my life, and that pain, and the yearning for reprieve and joy that comes with that pain, runs strongly through the whole narrative, and yet it is a fiction.
You often write about complex, highly charged subjects, such as religion and mental health. How do you shape your exploration of these topics with your reading audience, and their interpretations, in mind?
I just try to write as honestly and as intelligently as I can. I can’t control what my readers will think or how they’ll interpret my work. I have faith that some people, readers, will be moved by what I write and I know that others won’t be.
When you’re working on new projects, do you show drafts to people close to you? If so, how do you factor in their editing advice? What does your revision process look like?
I only show drafts to people close to me when they’re nearly finished. I take their advice seriously. I trust their instincts. My revision process takes months and usually involves creating more “back story” for my characters and establishing a consistent tone throughout, and rhythm.
What suggestions do you have for aspiring writers?
Read as many books as you can get your hands on. Take your writing seriously but not your role as “author.”
Sarah Ens is an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. Growing up in small-town Manitoba, she was encouraged to pursue her love of writing after being recognized by the Writers’ Collective of Manitoba. She has since been published in The Garden Statuary and Fugue Magazine and looks forward to future projects in fiction, non-fiction and poetry.