Published September 2008
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The funny/sad thing
How Miriam Toews’ darkly comic stories made her a star
Last October, Miriam Toews set out from her Winnipeg home on a solo road trip. She packed up her little grey Mazda, loaded up her iPod, and over three days and two nights, she drove to Vancouver, braving some white-knuckle snow in the mountains along the way. On the trip home, she swung through the U.S., which meant long drives through Montana and North Dakota.
Toews had just finished a draft of her newest novel, and she wanted “to get away and chill out a bit and rejuvenate.” She was also itching to get back to the rhythm of the road. She’s loved driving trips all her life – when her children were growing up, the family would take one every summer – and a highway journey was at the centre of the novel she’d just written, The Flying Troutmans. “I wanted to write a road story, that was my main goal,” she says. “I wanted to recreate that [experience] – the thrill and the joy and the excitement and the unknowingness.”
Amid the thrill and joy and excitement, there’s also a tinge of desperation in the events of The Flying Troutmans, out this month with Knopf Canada (see review, p. 49). The novel is about a family in crisis: Min, a single mother, is in the grip of a paralyzing depression and tempted by thoughts of suicide, while her two children, 15-year-old Logan and 11-year-old Thebes, founder and thrash. The novel’s narrator is Hattie, Min’s younger sister, who lives in Paris but is summoned home to Winnipeg to help. With Min freshly ensconced in a psychiatric hospital, an in-over-her-head Hattie takes the two kids deep into the U.S. in search of their biological father.
Like most of Toews’ work, the new novel encompasses both the low-key comedy of everyday life and bleak, numbing despair. And like most of Toews’ work, it shows a preoccupation with departure and return. All of her novels are set in southern Manitoba, and they’re full of young women who are ambivalent about their surroundings. Some yearn to escape, some do escape, some escape and then come back.
Toews herself fled Manitoba as a young woman – living in Montreal, in London, England, and in Halifax – but later returned. Now 44 years old, she’s lived in the same Winnipeg house for nearly 20 years, having raised three children there with her husband. “I probably thought, ‘Well, I could set up my life in any of these places,’ and I would do that, for a short period of time,” says Toews. “But there was always something that brought me back here.”
I meet Miriam Toews at her home on a hot morning in early July. It’s an older house near Winnipeg’s Corydon Village, full of homey clutter, with low bookshelves in the main-floor hall. We sit on the back deck, above a rickety-looking ping-pong table, while Shadow, the family dog, lolls at our feet. Toews’ youngest child, her 18-year-old daughter Georgia, putters inside the house.
This is Toews’ first interview for The Flying Troutmans, and it’s clear she’s still digesting her own book. She’s quick to smile and eager to please, and throughout our talk she keeps herself charged with coffee. She lasts about half an hour before half-apologetically lighting a cigarette.
Over the past 12 years, Toews has written four novels and a family memoir, Swing Low. Her books tend to begin with journal notes – little scraps of ideas for characters and situations. “I’ll read over them and see if there are recurring themes that are obviously affecting me,” she says. Things really get going, though, once she hits on a character and a voice. For Toews, everything springs from that; three of her four novels are written in the first person.
Above all, the typical Toews voice is a wry one. From A Complicated Kindness: “We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” Summer of My Amazing Luck: “As a child I never once dreamed, ‘I will be a poor mother.’ I had fully intended to be a forest ranger.” The Flying Troutmans: “I would have preferred to keep roaming around Paris pretending to be an artist with my moody, adjective-hating boyfriend, Marc, but he was heading off to an ashram in India anyway and said we could communicate telepathically.”
That sardonic quality stands out in CanLit, but Toews’ funny books engage some very unfunny subjects: young women struggling as single parents, grandmothers with secret drinking problems, people young and old knocked flat by depression, wasting away. In Troutmans, Min’s mental illness is a constant cloud over the road misadventures. Toews’ own father, Mel, battled bipolar disorder most of his life, killing himself in 1998 at the age of 62; two years later, she published the genre-bending Swing Low, written as Mel’s “autobiography.”
Toews is well aware that her novels work “that funny/sad thing,” but for her, it’s more instinctive than intentional. “I didn’t think, ‘Is this funny?’” she says. “It just seemed to be the way it came out.” She’ll probably never write a wholly serious book – or a wholly lighthearted one, for that matter. “Life is funny and life is sad. Life is comic and life is tragic. It’s a breeze and it’s hell. It’s all of those things at once. I can’t imagine any other way of writing about it.”
A Complicated Kindness, published by Knopf Canada in 2004, may be Toews’ funniest book and in some ways also her saddest. It’s also the one that made her a star. A coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl stuck in a sleepy and oppressive Mennonite town in the early 1980s, Kindness is the only one of Toews’ novels to address her Mennonite upbringing. (While Toews naturally stresses that she is not her character, the book has clear autobiographical elements.)
Kindness won the Governor General’s Literary Award and made the Giller Prize shortlist, but it was a word-of-mouth bestseller even before those laurels. Carolyn Swayze, Toews’ agent, says the book has sold close to 250,000 copies in Canada alone, and rights have been sold in 15 other countries. Several foreign publishers have also picked up The Flying Troutmans, and some, like Faber in the U.K. and Counterpoint in the U.S., have published Toews’ backlist titles, too.
The surprise success of Kindness did make for some pressure when it came to thinking about a follow-up, Toews concedes. Mostly, though, it ate up a lot of time, as she became ever more in demand. Indeed, in what is undoubtedly the strangest turn Toews’ career has taken, the book even made her a movie star of sorts.
The movie is Carlos Reygadas’s indie film Silent Light, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and comes out on DVD this month. Set in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, the film centres on a troubled marriage, with Toews playing the wife. Non-professional actors appear in the other roles as well.
“At first I thought, ‘This is a joke, he’s some crackpot,’” laughs Toews, recalling the initial out-of-the-blue e-mail she got from Reygadas. The Mexican director had come across Kindness and offered Toews the role primarily based on her author photo. Eventually, Toews signed on, traveling to Mexico in 2006 for the eight-week shoot. Reygadas shot the film in Low German – which his leading actress doesn’t speak. “He said, ‘That’s OK, that’s fine, we’ll just feed you your lines,’” she recalls. “I had a vague idea of what they meant in the context of the story.”
It may have been a one-off fluke – “the beginning and end of my acting career,” says Toews – but the experience offered the author a fascinating inside look at the moviemaking process, however unconventional in this case. Toews majored in film studies at the University of Manitoba, and says she often thinks in brief, cinematic scenes when writing her own fiction. (In the U.S., Counterpoint is pitching The Flying Troutmans as reminiscent of the movie Little Miss Sunshine – a comparison at which Toews shrugs helplessly.)
Appearing in Silent Light may also represent Toews’ farewell to the Mennonite milieu. Kindness, she says, was both her first and last Mennonite novel. “I’ve exhausted that subject, I think,” she says. “I’ve said what I have to say about that experience.” Michael Schellenberg, Toews’ editor at Knopf, isn’t quite ready to give up hope on that, though. “The questions that most obsess writers are the questions that are most essential to their lives,” he notes.
For Toews, Kindness’s breakout capped a circuitous tour through the realm of Canadian publishing – with the usual authorial travails leavened by occasional flashes of serendipity. She began writing seriously when Georgia went to nursery school, and her first project became her first published novel: Summer of My Amazing Luck, a black comedy about teenage welfare mothers. Toews sent the book cold to half a dozen small houses, and Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press bought it. Turnstone declined its option on the next novel – “they had a policy of not publishing a second book by an author within three or four years [of the first],” says Carolyn Swayze – so Toews moved to Stoddart Publishing for her next two books, A Boy of Good Breeding and Swing Low.
Stoddart also had an option on the book that became A Complicated Kindness, but the firm folded in 2002, leaving the project up for grabs. Schellenberg, then at Penguin Canada, bid on it, but he lost out to Knopf. “I’d been talking to Carolyn [about Toews] for literally years,” he says. “I’m from Winnipeg, I’d read all of Miriam’s books, and I knew she was someone I’d love to publish.” Shortly after losing Kindness, Schellenberg got his wish – he moved to Knopf himself and became Toews’ editor.
The advance for Kindness was “modest,” says Swayze, but with Troutmans, the stakes had risen considerably, and the book commanded well over $100,000. (Knopf bought both titles in single-book deals; post-Kindness, the firm has also bought up and reissued Toews’ backlist.) Nor did Schellenberg balk at a tight publishing schedule after first seeing the manuscript only last fall. All of Toews’ books have been published in even-numbered years (1996, ’98, 2000, and ’04), and in a bit of writerly superstition, she wanted the new one out this year, which led to “a very intense couple months” of editing, Schellenberg says.
Toews tends to downplay the change in her circumstances, financial and otherwise. “I gotta keep working!” she cries with a laugh. “Three kids in university!” But with Troutmans set for release and a 10-city Canadian tour in the works for September, she’s taking stock. Georgia is moving away to university, and Toews and her husband, Neal Rempel (he’s the executive director of the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival), are considering selling their house.
They’re even thinking of moving outside Winnipeg, at least for part of the year. With its low cost of living, it’s an easy city for a writer to live in, and Toews has a couple of good friends on the local lit scene in David Bergen and Melissa Steele. But at the moment, says Toews, “everything is up for grabs.” Wherever she goes, though, it’s a safe bet that something will keep drawing her back.