My debut novel Looking for Jane explores multiple facets of motherhood over the course of several decades, as well as the feminist movement for reproductive choice in Canada. So I'll begin with one of my favourite feminist reads, and one that undoubtedly shaped my interest in reading and writing about the lives of women.
Unless, by Carol Shields
This was probably my first adult feminist read during my formative years. My mother recommended it to me, and it's always stood as an example of truly outstanding, exceptional writing talent to which I can only dream of aspiring! It's also a profound example of the power that exists in writing about the lives of ordinary women. My debut novel Looking for Jane is about exactly that: a group of everyday women who exhibited extraordinary courage in standing up to an unjust system. Unless is also what we would today call a bit "meta" in that it explores the ways in which "women's fiction"—which really translates to any book in any genre that features and speaks primarily to women—is sidelined as lesser than in the literary world. I think there are plenty of incredibly skilled women writers whose works and literary talent are undermined as a result of being categorized as (read: "relegated to") "women's fiction."
Unless is one of those rare examples where a "women's fiction" novel received the critical acclaim it deserved.
Fall On Your Knees, by Anne Marie MacDonald
This novel deeply disturbed me and caused me to lose sleep, but in the best way. It also features one of my favourite opening lines in a novel: "They're all dead now." Talk about a spoiler alert, yet MacDonald's incomparably gorgeous prose keeps you addictively turning its 500-plus pages. Without giving too much of the plot away for those who haven't read it yet, I'm positive the masterful way in which MacDonald explores the nature of family secrets and her skill at crafting devastating plot revelations absolutely influenced my own interest in including these types of elements in my stories.
The Birth House, by Ami McKay
This novel drove my desire to write about the experiences of Canadian women, particularly with regard to pregnancy and motherhood. These themes are explored often in literature, and that's because it's such a significant part of the life experience for so many people. It informs our perspectives, impacts our lives from every possible angle (both good and bad), and for many of us, bisects our lives into Before and After the arrival of our first child. McKay deals with sex and reproduction so beautifully, and all set against the deeply atmospheric backdrop of wartime Nova Scotia. So many books are US-centric, and The Birth House was a great reminder that incredible stories can be set in Canada and still be wildly successful novels. This one stuck with me long after the last page.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Room was, as anyone who has read it knows, an applause-worthy twist on the conventional adult point-of-view in a novel, which caused me to reconsider what other unconventional POVs might tell the best version of my own stories. It's always amazing and satisfying when an author so convincingly challenges your perceptions as a reader, and my experience reading Room is a perfect example of why reading in turn expands your craft and makes you a better writer.
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables was a favourite in my childhood and absolutely spurred my interest in storytelling from a young age. There is definitely more than a drop of Anne Shirley in me, so it was always an enjoyable read with such a relatable character. It's also another fabulous example of a story set in small-town Canada that ended up transcending borders, ages, and languages and becoming a blockbuster international phenomenon, something I can't imagine L.M. Montgomery ever dreamed of when she first sat down to pen those stories. What a legacy.
The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
Those who have read this book will understand why I say it was an invaluable lesson for me when it comes to the craft of writing. Hill delivers an unparalleled, sweeping epic of an historical novel while at the same time meticulously exploring the emotionality of the characters, something I find sometimes gets lost along the way with novels of a similar length and scope. Writers of historical fiction are put in the place of having to decide how closely we are going to adhere to the historical record, and where we are going to take literary license. It can be a difficult tightrope to walk, because while our primary aim as novelists is to entertain, we also want to educate our readers in an accessible way. I think Hill beautifully manages this balancing act in The Book of Negroes.
The Push, by Ashley Audrain
Well, if this one didn't make every reader and mother on the planet squirm in their seat, I don't know what would. It's a car wreck; even though you may want to, you just can't look away. From a writing perspective, The Push demonstrates how a writer can take on a hugely uncomfortable topic that no one wants to talk about and hold the reader's eyes open to witness every devastating detail all the way to a final sentence that leaves you feeling sick. Audrain also creatively explores the grey areas of life and relationships, something I always love in a book, whether I'm reading or writing it.
Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good
There are plenty of reasons why this one is a staggeringly successful bestseller and has received the many accolades it has. Not only is this book beautifully conceived and executed from a literary perspective, but it was deeply disturbing, moving, and searingly educational for me as both a reader and a Canadian. It should be required reading in schools. In terms of its impact on me as a writer, there were times during the writing process of my book Looking for Jane that I very much felt as though I was channeling the stories of others. I once heard Good describe in an interview that at times while writing Five Little Indians she "felt more like a scribe than a creator." This resonated with me because she managed to articulate something I'd been trying to put my finger on with my own book. Her words, both in that interview and her novel, helped me understand why the process of writing historical fiction can feel like a tremendous responsibility to ensure the very real voices of the past are heard and honoured.
2017: When Angela Creighton discovers a mysterious letter containing a life-shattering confession in a stack of forgotten mail, she is determined to find the intended recipient. Her search takes her back to the 1970s when a group of daring women operated an illegal underground abortion network in Toronto known only by its whispered code name: Jane...
1971: As a teenager, Dr. Evelyn Taylor was sent to a home for “fallen” women where she was forced to give up her baby for adoption—a trauma she has never recovered from. Despite harrowing police raids and the constant threat of arrest, she joins the Jane Network as an abortion provider, determined to give other women the choice she never had.
1980: After discovering a shocking secret about her family history, twenty-year-old Nancy Mitchell begins to question everything she has ever known. When she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, she feels like she has no one to turn to for help. Grappling with her decision, she locates “Jane” and finds a place of her own alongside Dr. Taylor within the network’s ranks, but she can never escape the lies that haunt her.
Weaving together the lives of three women, Looking for Jane is an unforgettable debut about the devastating consequences that come from a lack of choice—and the enduring power of a mother’s love.
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