"I think as I wrote Her Turn I wanted to combine Shields’ dry wit and a certain ironic distance from her characters with genuine affection for them—especially with the heroine, Liz."
Katherine Ashenburg's second novel, Her Turn, is out this week, a complex, funny and poignant portrayal of a woman at midlife.
49th Shelf: I loved this smart, funny and very sly novel. I have a few theories about its literary foremothers, but I’d love to know your take. Who are the authors who inspired you to write a book like Her Turn?
Katherine Ashenburg: In the 1990s, I had Liz’s job at The Globe and Mail, editing the Facts & Arguments page, which gave pride of place at the top of the page to a personal essay. As happens with Liz, no one outside the Globe except my close friends and family knew who edited the page, and I would receive submissions from acquaintances and out-of-touch friends who had no idea they were submitting pieces to me. That, and the fact that strangers all over the country were writing to me about their hopes and fears, their love lives and more mundane things, made me think at the time that a woman with my job would be a perfect Carol Shields heroine. Shields would have done something brilliant with such a character. Little did I dream that I would go on to write novels, including one inspired by that very job.
I think as I wrote Her Turn I wanted to combine Shields’ dry wit and a certain ironic distance from her characters with genuine affection for them—especially with the heroine, Liz. It was my editor, Lynn Henry, after the book was written, who first invoked the holy name of Nora Ephron in connection with Her Turn. In my dreams.
49th Shelf: Her Turn is very specifically set in the autumn on 2015, when the reality of what might transpire in the US election the following year was beginning to suggest itself and everybody was already talking about Hillary Clinton. Why was this backdrop important to the book you were writing?
KA: I have to back up from the election to discuss the choice of Washington, DC, as the location for the novel first. I thought, because there are some autobiographical elements in the novel, such as Liz’s job, that I would feel more free if I took it outside Toronto. But I needed a big city with a national newspaper for the plot to work. I grew up in the US and am a dual citizen, and the big American city I know best is DC. I was an undergraduate and graduate student there, and although it is never named in the novel (just called “the paper”), the Washington Post is a national paper. So that’s why Liz lives in DC. I also wanted the book to be as contemporary as possible, but I knew I couldn’t cope with Trump as president— he would suck up all the oxygen. So I settled for 2015, when he and Hillary Clinton are running for their party’s nomination. In a city as obviously obsessed with politics as Washington, it was obvious that the presidential race was going to be on everyone’s mind, even that of the apolitical Liz. As a reader, I love the spirit of place in books and it was interesting for me to discover with Her Turn that having running comments on the election was a way to convey the spirit of DC. And in the case of Liz’s continuing absorption in questions of infidelity, the Clintons’ marriage was also on her mind.
Strangers all over the country were writing to me about their hopes and fears, their love lives and more mundane things, [and it] made me think at the time that a woman with my job would be a perfect Carol Shields heroine.
49th Shelf: My favourite thing about Liz, your protagonist, is that she’s already imperfect, and then throughout the course of the novel seems to evolve into a human wrecking ball. She makes so many mistakes and bad calls, and she knows what she’s done wrong, but there are also a few key points where she stands up for herself in spite of all that. There’s no gratuitous guilt or self-pity, and that was refreshing. Was it important to you that she wouldn’t have to grovel? And was it tough to strike that balance?
KA: I love the idea of Liz as a human wrecking ball! Definitely, when her ex-husband’s current wife submits an essay to Liz, not knowing she is entrusting it to her predecessor, Liz’s tidy life goes off the rails. She makes rash and sometimes inappropriate decisions in work and personal life, while at the same time she begins to grapple seriously with the questions of forgiveness and responsibility. So, in answer to your question, she doesn’t feel self-pity, perhaps because she did that ten years ago when her divorce happened. I would say that she does begin to accept responsibility for her own current affair and her part in the end of her marriage, but you’re right, she doesn’t grovel. Maybe I should be telling you how I struck that balance, but I think it just arose naturally from my concept of Liz’s character. It seems that when I write a character, at a certain point I have an instinct for how they would behave. So it seemed credible to me that Liz would move haltingly and sometimes erratically toward an understanding of what was keeping her stalled emotionally, and at the end to accept responsibility for her part in it. But grovelling didn’t feel like Liz’s style.
As a reader, I love the spirit of place in books and it was interesting for me to discover with Her Turn that having running comments on the election was a way to convey the spirit of DC. And in the case of Liz’s continuing absorption in questions of infidelity, the Clintons’ marriage was also on her mind.
49th Shelf: What does it mean to you to be writing a novel set at a newspaper in the 21st century?
KA: It was a lot of fun to relive my years at the Globe. A newsroom is filled with so many driven, obsessive characters that it helped the comic aspect of the book (and most novels set in newspapers are comic). But it also felt elegiac, even melancholy to write about a newspaper when the industry was and is clearly in decline.
49th Shelf: What part of Our Turn (and scene, or character, or both?) are you most absolutely delighted by?
KA: For some reason that it would probably be wise not to analyze too much, I enjoy the relationship between Liz and her university-age son Peter. He's a voice of reason in the novel, as he astutely and none too kindly points out the flaws in his mother’s thinking and behaviour. He can be harsh, in the way of over-confident young men, but Liz can give as well as she gets. Few things are off-limits in their conversation, and I have to admit that their dialogue often amuses me.
For fans of Nora Ephron and Jennifer Weiner, here is Katherine Ashenburg's witty, contemporary new novel about a forty-something newspaper columnist navigating her bold next chapter, set in Washington against the 2015 US presidential primary.
In the autumn of 2015, forty-something journalist Liz is working at a national newspaper in Washington, D.C., where Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency is the talk of the town. The divorced parent of a college-age son, she appears to lead a full, happy life: devoted friends, a job she adores, a breezy dating life. But deep inside, Liz is stalled in neutral, stuck in a clandestine affair with her boss and still brooding on her marriage, which ended in betrayal, hurt and anger ten years ago.
Liz’s job is to edit “My Turn,” a column of personal essays from readers. Her tidy life is upended when a submission about a marital squabble arrives from Nicole, the woman who had an affair with Liz’s husband and is now his wife. Wife Two has no idea that she is sending an essay to Wife One, and Liz keeps this secret as she engages in an increasingly personal critique of the piece. But the existence of the essay destabilizes Liz, and she starts acting erratically—publishing provocative essays that infuriate her colleagues, investing in a pile of unread self-help books about “forgiveness” and indulging in questionable romantic decisions. Soon she is caught in a tangled web of her own making, with no easy escape.
A smart, wise and witty novel with moving depths beneath its delightful surface.