Shaping the mental health narrative

Justin Crann
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Bestselling author Miriam Toews is at her happiest when she is in the midst of writing a narrative. Toews sat down with the Times-Herald to discuss her process, her latest book, and the life experience that informed the story.

Toews addresses suicide, mental illness in latest novel

Miriam Toews feels her best when she is writing.

 as part of the Saskatchewan Festival of Words.

"The thrill of composition is what gets me up and out of bed every day. There's something about the craft itself — the crafting of a narrative — that is so important to me," Toews said. "It's the thing that makes me feel more alive than anything else … It's when I feel the best, when I'm in the middle of a narrative and creating this world that's making sense to me, at least.

"I can reshape events, and give them meaning," she added.

Between sips of a latte, Toews described All My Puny Sorrows as her "most autobiographical novel so far." It's a blend of fictional scenarios and episodes "drawn very, very closely from my life."

It focuses on two sisters, Yolandi and Elfrieda.

The former is a struggling, divorced writer; the latter is her successful, happily married pianist sister. 

The former struggles desperately to survive; the latter wants nothing more than to die.

At its core, the novel deals with themes of suicide and mental illness, drawing directly on Toews' own life experience.

"My own sister committed suicide in 2010, and suffered for a long time with a deep depression, and my father, too," she said candidly. "The events of my own life formed the raw material for this book … I knew, inevitably, I would be writing about them in an attempt to give it meaning of some sort."

But it isn't entirely grim, and there are moments of comedy interjecting the narrative and creating a duality that Toews said is a reflection of her own perspective.

"I see the world as being a very funny, absurd and ridicuous place, but also very tragic and very difficult for most people," she said. "Those two go hand-in-hand. I don't think they're diametrically opposed. I think that they work together ... in a narrative, one can certainly offset the other so that the comedy becomes funnier and the tragedy sadder."

Though writing the novel did provide Toews with "a bit of a reprieve" from her grief and the guilt she initially felt for not taking action, that wasn't the intended purpose.

For that, she said, she said she's drawn heavily on the support of her family and friends and has grappled with the feelings directly.

"I'm not always happy, and I'm not always moving forward. Sometimes, I get mired in the sadness, and the incredible loss. The violence of their deaths sometimes haunts me, too," said Toews. "But things have to be dealt with — seriously managed — so you can get to the point where you can say, 'I understand why they did this.'

"When you can get to that point where you really feel that understanding, it's a good place to be. It's easier to move forward and appreciate the family and friends who are still here, and your own mental health," she added.

Instead of chasing her own catharsis, or in the very least an escape from what had happened, Toews said she hopes the novel will incite thought in her readers and create a discussion around mental health, suicide, and other related issues.

"It's a chaotic, dark, terribly tragic story — and very common. So many people suffer from mental illnesses and think about death and wanting to die," said Toews. "I tried to bring some of these issues to light."

"That's the hope," she added. "That it will generate discussion, and move people. … I want the characters to come to life and make people feel and think.

"If something good can come of it, I will feel very gratified and that this was a useful thing to have done."

Miriam Toews next appears at 10:10 a.m. on Saturday in the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery theatre.

Find Justin Crann on Twitter.

Organizations: Times-Herald, Moose Jaw Museum, Art Gallery theatre

Geographic location: Moose Jaw

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