Miriam Toews brings road-trip novel to Canadian Writers in Person

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented award-winning author Miriam Toews reading from her novel The Flying Troutmans, winner of the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

Yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she’d been trying to take care of things but it wasn’t working anymore. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn’t know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principal, the house was crumbling around them…

from The Flying Troutmans
by Miriam Toews

As Miriam Toews (right) waited for the evening to begin, appearing for a repeat performance at the Canadian Writers in Person Series, students shyly approached her to ask questions about writing. She kindly received their attentions as if she were a friend’s mom giving advice about life. Taking the stage, Toews carried that same warmth and wit into a reading from her fourth novel, The Flying Troutmans.

As in Toews’ previous work, mental illness plays a large role in the family dynamics of her characters. When the character Min is hospitalized for severe depression, her sister Hattie returns from Paris to take Min’s children, Logan and Thebes, on a quest across North America to find their father. Along the way, the unlikely trio learns how to deal with their inner struggles and each other.

Toews had always wanted to write a road-trip novel, based partly on experiences from her childhood – the whole family contained in one vehicle for the duration. Because her father suffered from mental illness, its devastating effects ripple through her family and her work. Toews said, “We take from our own lives as ‘fiction writers.’ We use everything. I don’t have any imagination at all. I take stuff and rearrange it.” However, this thoughtful “rearrangement” is similar to mapping out a wild journey, which Toews said was a “metaphor for the random chaotic inner landscape of the characters with the ever-changing landscape of the road.”

Acutely conscious of her characters’ pain and their outlook on the world, Toews reflected that people are “screwed over and abused in so many ways, but ultimately I have the belief that we want to be good. Thebes is a vulnerable needy kid trying to keep the family together. Her zaniness is her armour. She presents as a tough little kid but she’s really a hurting little girl…We’re awkwardly striving and groping to make connections with other humans before we die.”

Toews described her writing process as one that involves a lot of thinking and taking notes. She then reads them to discover what’s obsessing her, what needs to be addressed. The Flying Troutmans thus began as a query: “How do we love the people close to us who are suffering from mental illness?” Following that, she creates a voice and tone, getting into the heads of the narrator and characters so that she can write them as honestly and intelligently as possible. Though her characters often struggle with dark themes, she insists that they not be bitter – that they have a thread of optimism in spite of their circumstances. “Anger doesn’t read well, it doesn’t inspire.”

In a similar vein, Toews doesn’t let criticism get to her. “I’m lucky to make a living at writing (more or less) and can only do it if I’m writing something I want to write.” That includes criticism from her daughter who complained about the hygiene of the character she inspired: “I was not that dirty.” Noting that her daughter and Thebes are not the same person, Toews laughs it off: “We’re just a dirty family, that’s all I can say.”

The Canadian Writers in Person public readings at York are free and open to the public, and ar sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. The series is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Oct. 26, in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building, Kim Echlin will read from her Giller-nominated novel The Disappeared

Chris Cornish, a former teaching assistant with the course, has since graduated but continues to attend the readings.