By CARLY LEWIS
Saturday, August 3, 2019
Mona Awad is a Bostonbased Canadian author whose debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016 and longlisted for the 2017 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. A former columnist for Maisonneuve magazine, where she sharp-wittedly wrote under the pseudonym Veronica Tartley, Awad's new novel, Bunny, was released in June.
Bunny's protagonist, Samantha, is a listless, downhearted young writer enrolled at a prestigious university where her peers, whom she calls "the Bunnies," are "the fake poor and fashionably deranged."
Here, Awad speaks to The Globe about writing the outsider, and the horror - and joy - of letting your darlings take the wheel.
I just finished reading Bunny.
Night after night, I've been kicking my feet under the covers, utterly freaking out.
I don't know if that's a good thing! It is! Okay good. I like to be freaked out, too.
Let's start there. The way characters and place unfurl in Bunny is evocatively terrifying, the villains coming straight for you, told from what feels like the interior of fear.
Is being freaked out part of your process?
I guess it is, yeah, because I'm interested in moments and experiences that are fraught and emotionally charged. I'm interested in conveying feelings that might conflict with each other, and in conveying them in as visceral a way as I can. And I love reading that in a book, because it makes me feel like I'm there. I love stories that do that. So I think yes, I do enjoy freaking myself out, and I certainly did a lot in Bunny.
Usually, when we read about female friendship or cliques, there is some kind of noble epiphany that we're supposed to have.
I kept reaching for a diagnosis.
Ultimately, it is about the imagination. The main character sort of lives in her imagination, and her imagination colours her experience with other people. It colours her experience with herself. It reshapes reality. It can lead her down these really horrific paths, the way our imaginations often can, even for those of us who aren't artists and don't have overactive imaginations, and it can also lead her down incredibly wondrous paths. I wanted the book to be a celebration of the power of imagination, while acknowledging the darkness that can live there.
There's a line where Samantha says, "I've never known what it's like to be in the world without most of my soul dreaming up and living in another." Is there any truth to that for you as a writer?
That is something I connect with Samantha on. I need to have a foot in an imaginative world. It's a way of coping. As an artist, you move around out of necessity.
Your creative life is kind of like home. It's a stable space, even though it's not stable, you're making it up.
You somewhat disdainfully include the hashtag #amwriting in a description of the Bunnies' Instagram captions. Who were you thinking of when you wrote that?
Really, truly, it's nobody. It's just a hashtag that I saw and thought was hysterical. The internet is terrible for my own writing. I can't work and write. I wonder how anybody can. I certainly cannot. But I do think it's very funny. And of course the Bunnies were going to say they were writing when they were clearly not writing. It's very symptomatic of the time we're living in.
It brings up a conflicting sense of anxiety for Samantha. She doesn't want to be the kind of person who uses the #amwriting hashtag. But seeing it makes her feel like she's not measuring up.
I mean, as a writer, I always feel like I'm not measuring up. And I don't think that's an uncommon feeling. Bunny was such a joy to write. It was pure pleasure even though there was a lot of fear, because I was going into unknown territories. I was really excited.
But I was also really scared and didn't think I could do it. I think that's my process.
You were right when you asked if I like to freak myself out.
Yes! I like to freak myself out! Both in the story, and as a writer.
The ideas I have often seem very out of my reach. But they are exciting to me. I'm pretty certain that I'll fail the whole time I'm working on them. But I don't want to give up on them, because they're irresistible to me.
I'm already in love and I have to keep going.
It's a process of being afraid, being in love, being afraid, being in love and not feeling like I measure up to this thing that I want to make.
I'm reminded of Samantha crossing various thresholds of acceptance. She goes from convincing herself that she's undesirable and inadequate to suddenly being cherished, which affords her a sense of safety, however fleeting.
Do you feel any of this in your own work, in relation to your peers or to yourself?
Yeah, it's usually by myself, and by the story. If I get to be inside it, really inside it, not just outside trying to figure out my way logically through it, it's the most exciting thing. It is like being in love. It feels like being invited into something magical. Being accepted by other people doesn't matter to me as much as being accepted by the imaginary world.
What do you do when you're sitting there not measuring up?
You have to wait. You have to wait and see. That's the worst thing about writing. There's no plan. It could just not happen.
That's very possible. So right now, I'm doing what I normally do in these situations, which is I just keep showing up anyway.
As you're saying this I'm thinking about the non-sexual intimacies written into the book: Samantha's close, very nourishing friendship with Ava, her vulnerable relationship to Max, when she cries in front of her adviser. These aren't sexual affiliations, but they might as well be.
It's the intimacy of engaging with creativity, I think, or with your imagination. It's all in your head, you know? There's no physicality. I love getting deeply, deeply intimate in a story without having it be sexual. It's another kind of intimacy.
Speaking of sex, let's talk about the word "borny," a word in the book that describes feeling bored and ... libidinous. Did you coin that?
I wish. I came to it on my own, but then I checked on Urban Dictionary and it was already there.
I looked up some old Maisonneuve columns of yours. There's one for which the subheading is "The Right Cocktail For Your Summer Afternoon Psychoses."
You describe a certain vodka drink as being for the "wearily horny."
So maybe you did arrive at "borny" first.
Wow. That makes me really happy. Thank you. That just felt so right for the Bunnies.
This idea of devouring - consumption as a surrogate for emotional fullness - comes up a lot. What were you feeling toward consumption as you wrote Bunny?
That's interesting. When I wrote "The Girl I Hate" in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, a friend of mine asked me if I knew that a way to contend with your enemy is to eat them symbolically. That happens very frequently in 13 Ways. I guess I'm still doing that to some degree. I think the fact that Max cooks rabbit and the girls eat it says a lot about Samantha's relationship to the Bunnies in that moment. And she wants to eat Cupcake when she first sees her. She calls her "Cupcake." I'm coming to this now as you're asking me. It's definitely there, but it must still be pretty subliminal for me. On a subconscious level, I'm deeply interested in that. When it comes to consumption I love that the Bunnies eat mini food. That was part of the horror of the book for me. It's adorable, but it's also very sinister. The food is so small.
Maybe that does have something to do with its inability to fill you.
And when Ava and Samantha are together, they do eat.
They feed each other.
That's right. You're right. I do think that's a comment about what the Bunnies are able to give her emotionally, psychologically and in terms of friendship, compared to what Max and Ava were able to give her.
Who is your Ava and who are your Bunnies?
Ava is The Torn Skirt by Rebecca Godfrey. It's my favourite contemporary novel. The voice is so fiery and alive. It actually feels like home when I read it. That book takes care of me. It's also so filled with possibility. It feels like anything could happen to this character.
I think the Bunnies for me [are] probably the internet and social media. That's a world that I'm not particularly good at navigating. I just find it draining and it takes away my concentration. I don't write well when I'm on social media. I just don't know how to focus. And I do think it's a fraught world. It's kind of dangerous.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Canadian novelist Mona Awad says she is drawn to ideas that 'seem very out of my reach' and describes her process as 'being afraid, being in love, being afraid, being in love.'