Super Sad True Life Story: Miriam Toews on All My Puny Sorrows

All My Puny Sorrows, a funny-sad novel about Toews's sister’s suicide, snagged the literary superstar her second Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize. Here, Danielle Groen talks to Toews about translating personal agony into fiction

Miriam Toews (Photo: Alexi Hobbs)

Miriam Toews (Photo: Alexi Hobbs)

The din at this downtown restaurant—cranked-up jazz and loosened-tie suits—is louder than I’d like, and the waitress keeps swinging past to check on our wine levels, but Miriam Toews remains focused while I fumble for words. Her blonde head is tipped forward, nodding slightly; her eyes stay on mine instead of on the lip I’m chewing as I consider another approach. “People struggle to talk about suicide openly,” she says, saving me, after I apologize again for being intrusive. “You’re not alone. I struggle with it, too.”

We’ve met to discuss Toews’ new book, her seventh, called All My Puny Sorrows, which makes the topic of suicide unavoidable. In the novel, one sister, Elfrieda, emphatically wants to die; another sister, Yoli, needs intensely for her to live. One sister succeeds; the other fails. And though this is a novel, the circumstances of its plot mirror its author’s own life. In June of 2010, a day before her 52nd birthday and after a long struggle with depression, Toews’ sister, Marjorie, killed herself. “A large part of Elfrieda’s character is true to my sister,” Toews says. “She was elegant and smart and funny; I loved her very much, and she loved me very much. The mother, Lottie, is very similar to my mother. Our family’s desperate attempts to keep Marjorie alive are true. The idea of going to Switzerland [where euthanasia is legal] is true.” Toews pauses, shifts in her chair. “If people want to draw [the conclusion] that I’m Yoli, then yes. But I didn’t sleep around like that.”

This turn from the dark moments to the light in a single sentence—that punch of humour through almost unbearable, though never self-pitying, pain—is familiar to any reader of Toews’ work. It’s cemented in the first page of her best-known novel, 2004’s A Complicated Kindness, as the wry Nomi Nickel says of her excommunicated relatives, “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing.” Having sold more than 250,000 copies in a country where 5,000 constitutes a bestseller, A Complicated Kindness is that rarest of Canadian beasts: the literary blockbuster. It also won the Governor General’s Award, was a finalist for the Giller Prize and solidified Toews as one of the country’s most promising authors.

That kind of success hangs expectations over subsequent novels—in her case, 2008’s The Flying Troutmans and 2011’s Irma Voth—but Toews says she managed to shrug off the pressure. “It’s very freeing: You realize you can only write the book you have to write.” All My Puny Sorrows was, simply, the book Toews had to write. Early on in the novel, Yoli recalls childhood afternoons spent as the page-turner for Elfrieda, a burgeoning concert pianist. She says, “I took real pride in creating a seamless passage for her from one page to the next.” The book manages the same achievement, offering such a nuanced portrait of her sister’s proxy—her exuberance, her dignity and her despair—that in its pages Marjorie comes brilliantly alive.

Although Toews describes her childhood in the small, predominantly Mennonite town of Steinbach, Man., as “pretty blissful,” as an adolescent she began to chafe against the strictures of her insular community. In the winter, she says, affluent Mennonites would go away to all-inclusive resorts, where they might—here her voice drops to a scandalous rasp—“let their hair down a little bit.” Toews decided to leave, too, the moment she graduated from high school: first for Montreal, where she took French classes and hung around with Québécois punks; later for London, where she worked in a bakery and hung around with British punks; then for a stint in Berlin, where she lived in a battered 1969 VW van. She returned to Winnipeg to finish her film-studies degree and have children, then moved to Halifax to study journalism.

After that, it was back to Winnipeg, to gigs as a reporter, a bookseller and, briefly, a flood inspector. While working on a radio documentary about single women on welfare, she felt she needed the room to tackle the subject in a novel. “I knew a lot of these women,” Toews says. “I myself had been on welfare at one point, and it was just a very fraught and rich time in my life.” Writing in two-hour bursts while her children were at school and in daycare, she finished her first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck, just shy of her 30th birthday. It was her goal to meet that deadline, though she does not counsel such an approach: “It’s a terribly immature and petulant attitude,” she says now. At 49, Toews remains every bit as determined, if less petulant. “As I get older, I realize how little control there is over anything else [other than writing],” she says. “So when everything is falling to pieces, at least I can go into my writing and I can control it.”

It’s safe to say that, in 2008, everything fell to pieces for Toews. After 20 years together, she and her husband—who have three children between them—separated. Toews had also recently passed the 10th anniversary of her father’s suicide. Diagnosed with manic depression (as bipolar disorder was then called) at the age of 17, he managed it with therapy and medication, going on to become a schoolteacher and raise a family. After his retirement, though, he became increasingly silent. His final, whispered words to Toews, a day before he killed himself on the train tracks in a nearby town, were: “Nothing accomplished.”

“I needed a change,” Toews says of that time. “I really, really needed a radical change.” With her youngest daughter, she drove her banged-up Mazda from Winnipeg to Toronto and rented an apartment in the Junction. Then she unpacked a computer at her dining-room table and set to work.

The resulting book, Irma Voth, grew out of Toews’ experience playing the lead in Silent Light, a 2007 film shot in a Northern Mexico Mennonite community. She had never acted before and was hesitant to try, but relented when director Carlos Reygadas promised it would give her something to write about. Still, that novel, like the new one, centres on two sisters’ strong need for each other. “I relied heavily on my sister’s love, the way she accepted me so unconditionally and gave me gentle advice and listened to me ramble on; the way she made me laugh harder than anyone,” Toews says. “She really looked out for me, and I like to think I gave some of that back to her. When I was writing Irma Voth, I drew on those aspects of our relationship.”

Within 24 hours of finishing the manuscript, she received a call from Winnipeg: Marjorie was in the hospital, her body flushed of the pills she had swallowed. Two months later, she succeeded in taking her own life. “I’ve had two members of my family—I don’t have any other siblings—who have killed themselves,” Toews says. “When I think about our lives together, when my sister and I were kids and my parents were normal, busy, loving parents, well, it’s very strange to think that this would be what happened to half of us.”

Soon after Marjorie’s death, Toews brought her mother, a retired social worker and therapist, back to Toronto to live with her in a falling-down Victorian row house she had purchased near Trinity Bellwoods Park. “For two years between the death of my sister and the time I wrote All My Puny Sorrows, I didn’t think about a novel, or anything at all, besides survival, basically,” she says. “It was a period of grieving and making a home in Toronto.” Eventually, she turned to the idea of a new book. Her novels, she says, are “almost always related to the stuff I’ve experienced. That’s how I process it; that’s how I make sense of things.” Late in Irma Voth, a character posits that “every trauma presents a choice: paralysis or the psychic energy to move forward.” Toews sat down at her dining-room table and began to write.

For a committed reader of Toews, it’s hard to resist meeting her with certain expectations. I anticipate that she’ll be funny and self-deprecating, measured and compassionate, curious and frank. I’m not disappointed. There is something almost conspiratorial in the way she speaks: soft but urgent; inclined to laughter; doubling back to a point she made, an hour earlier, to scrutinize it with you; her whole body leaning hard into the conversation.

“Every layer you peel back from that woman, there’s another layer of kindness underneath,” says the artist Shary Boyle, who has known Toews for a decade, first in Winnipeg, then in Toronto. “I don’t mean she’s the happy-go-lucky type, because she has an equal ability to carry depth and sadness. The hardest parts of her life are not something she denies, it’s just that she holds that with some elemental ability to maintain goodness.”

There is, of course, much depth and sadness in All My Puny Sorrows, though it’s wrapped in Toews’ customary empathy and warmth. The novel explores the inheritance of anguish: Characters debate whether family trauma might leave its trace on succeeding generations; Yoli goes so far as to Google “suicide gene,” though she quickly cancels the search. “I didn’t want to know,” Yoli explains. “Plus, I already knew.” Although Toews and her sister never referred to such a gene, they did discuss the idea that Marjorie “came by her depression honestly,” Toews says. “I’ll never forget her telling me, with deep conviction, shortly after our father’s death, that maintaining our mental health was the most important thing that we had to do.”

And while Toews notes that it’s crucial to distinguish between sadness and serious illness, she says, “I do worry, sometimes, about what I have inherited.” She has seen psychic suffering and its effects first-hand. In writing the new novel, she was able to crystallize her feelings around Marjorie’s death. “I feel more than ever there’s an onus on me to appreciate my mental health and my capacity for joy,” Toews says, “but also to understand another person’s inability to experience that same joy.”

Toews recognizes that suicide remains an uncomfortable subject, spoken of in whispers, when it’s spoken of at all. Her intent with All My Puny Sorrows is to shatter that silence, to generate discussion about mental health, about melancholy, about human suffering in a way that, she says, “brings us closer to compassion and to a general sense that we are not alone.” If we can acknowledge the realities of that suffering, and if as a society we feel an obligation to reduce individual pain, then, Toews believes, “there must be cases in which a person should be able to die in a ritualized manner, in the company of others, rather than violently and alone in a cloud of shame.” She knows not everybody will be happy with her answers. She’s counting on it.

In the first chapter of All My Puny Sorrows, Yoli recalls a family road trip to the Badlands of South Dakota,her sister standing before the gouged, rusty landscape in a striped halter top, her thin neck circled by a white-leather choker with a blue bead. “I remember perfectly,” Yoli says, and then she corrects herself: “Or, should I say, I have a perfect memory…” That strikes me as an important distinction. Our memory’s ability to retain the precise details is limited, scraped and eroded like the Badlands by time. So we fill those chasms with other impressions, ones that may play a little loose with the facts but still reflect the moment’s truth. In that same paragraph, Toews pulls a neat trick, lifting two images from earlier novels. The halter top and white leather choker: Tash Nickel, Nomi’s older sister, wore that outfit in A Complicated Kindness. And when Yoli’s mother reminds her daughter how to ward off rattlesnakes (they don’t like kissing noises), she echoes a scene from Irma Voth. “These experiences have shaped me,” says Toews. “I return to them time and time again.”

Near the end of her life, Marjorie Toews found it difficult to discuss the past. She was struggling so hard to escape her psychic pain that any happy memory came as an assault. But the act of writing is, for Toews, an exercise in going back, in hanging on. She can live with the past because, as an artist, she can reshape it—she can create something from her history that contains a more perfect order. For Marjorie, the past provided a complicated torment. For her sister, it offers a complicated kindness instead.

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