Some people are compelled by a restlessness from within; others are shaped by the unwieldy forces around them. In Miriam Toews's poignant new novel following two sisters raised in a small Canadian Mennonite community, siblinghood is a bond strengthened by this dynamic. Elf is now a world-famous concert pianist with a happy marriage, while her sister, Yoli, is a scattered, stalled writer in the middle of her second divorce. Yet it is Yoli who serves as protector for her fragile and impulsive older sister, a woman so crippled by depression that she repeatedly tries to take her own life. Says The Guardian
's Stevie Davies, "I can think of no precedent for the darkly fizzing tragicomic jeu d'esprit
that is Miriam Toews's sixth novel." Daring, propulsive, and deeply affecting, All My Puny Sorrows
is indeed in a class of its own. We're honored to have chosen it as the featured title for our 50th volume of Indiespensable
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Jill Owens: You're known for drawing from your own life in your earlier work, and All My Puny Sorrows sounds like it's very autobiographical as well. Can you talk a bit about how this book came about?
Miriam Toews: Yes, it's definitely the most autobiographical of my novels. Four years ago, in 2010, my sister committed suicide, and before that she had made several attempts. All My Puny Sorrows is an attempt to describe that or shape some sort of narrative from that experience.
Jill: How did you think about this process? It's fiction, but it's so strongly drawn from your own life. Was that any different than your previous work?
Toews: It was more or less exactly the same as my previous work. I think often that all my novels are like one big novel. One is just an extension of the other. With this one, while I was using my own experiences and that of my sister and my family, I also wanted to have the freedom that fiction would give me to impose a kind of narrative on those events and on my feelings about those events. That's one of the reasons why I write fiction. It's the freedom of it, being able to set the pace and tone, and to make stuff up when I need to in service to the theme.
Jill: In almost all of your books, the relationship between the two sister characters is extremely important. It's always been pretty central to your work, much more than most people write about sibling relationships, and I was wondering what interested you about that dynamic specifically.
Toews: It's interesting that you mention that because, a couple of days ago, I was doing an event here in Canada at a writers' festival, and the woman I was doing it with said, "I've been reading your stuff, and it seems to me that your sister is actually your muse." That really hit me because, of course, it's true.
I had never really thought about that. I was just writing the stuff that I wanted to write, that I needed to write. Then, of course, it made me think, Oh, and my sister is not here anymore. But a muse doesn't necessarily have to be alive or even a real person, I guess.
All of my life I only had one sibling. My sister, Marjorie, was six years older than me. I grew up in her shadow. She was larger than life. She was very articulate and eloquent and elegant and well spoken, very fun and glamorous. She did things that I dreamt of doing one day. Like reading — that was at an early age [laughter]. Then traveling, going to university, having boyfriends. So I was always examining her from a bit of a distance.
But there was also something else about her. There was something that I couldn't quite catch, or connect with. That so intrigued me. There was a mystery about her. I think that was, in retrospect, the beginning of her suffering, of her despair, of her depression, of her mental illness, whatever you want to call it. That was the place that I couldn't go to and was so compelling to me, so fraught and so dark. It was scary but kind of intriguing at the same time.
Also, she was a huge support. Later in life, by the time I was 12, she was 18. She had left home, left our little town and went off to the university and had an interesting life as a young woman. I was back at home in our small religious community that I so desperately wanted to leave.
Then, when I also grew up and became an adult, she and I were very close. She was very supportive of my writing, for instance. She didn't have kids of her own, but she was a huge influence, a huge part of our family, my family with my kids and my partner. She babysat and helped me out. There was a close bond. And yet there was always that thing about her, that kind of darkness that swirled around.
Jill: I'm a little more than five years older than my sister, and I feel like we're much closer as adults than we were when we were younger, too. I left home when she was so young. There was that separation there for a bit.
Toews: Exactly. Where you almost aren't even really aware of the other person's existence [laughter]. I'd forget about it in large chunks until my sister would come home from the university. Then the excitement began again at home. I'd think, Oh yeah!
Jill: In Swing Low, you write in the voice of your father, who also committed suicide. I was wondering if you ever considered trying to write in your sister's voice with this book.
Toews: No, I didn't. In Swing Low, writing in my father's voice was like a natural, organic extension of my time and my experiences with him before he died, because in the days leading up to his death, I was writing him notes. I was visiting him in the hospital and writing all of these notes for him so that he could read them when I wasn't there, when my sister wasn't there, when he didn't have visitors. They were just encouraging notes. "You will be well again. We all love you. You'll get out of the hospital soon. You'll get through this." Things like that, typical things that you would say.
Then, after a while, he couldn't really make sense of them that way because his mind was in such crisis. I would have to write the note from his point of view, in his voice. "I will be well again. I will get out of the hospital soon." Then he could understand it when he read it back to himself.
When I wrote the book about him, it just seemed normal and right to me to continue on like that. When he died, it was such a shock. We were all so shattered and so full of questions. With suicide you keep wondering, How did that happen? What happened? Why? Of course, there are very few answers, so writing the book in his voice helped me to get a little bit closer to answering some of those questions. Not entirely, of course, but it just made sense at the time to examine his life and become him, in a way, so that I would understand his actions and why he chose to die the way he did.
When my sister died, again it was just kind of a feeling I had at the time. Maybe for a week or two I thought, Maybe I'll write a nonfiction book. Certainly not in her voice — that never crossed my mind. But then it just became clear to me that I wanted to write fiction. That's what I normally do. That's what I feel natural doing. I wanted it to be a novel in spite of its autobiographical nature.
Jill: How do you think about voice, in AMPS specifically but also in general? I feel like this comes up in every single interview you've ever done, so apologies, but it is so striking — your tone is such a combination of poignancy and heartbreak, but there's humor, too, and an element of the absurd to it, or at least an appreciation of the absurd.
Toews: Yes, definitely. I think about it a lot. Normally my answer is that it's just how I see the world. I don't see any division between the comedy and the tragedy and the sadness and funny stuff. It's always like that. Life is always like that. The world is an absurd place. It's a ridiculous place. It's a heartbreaking place. It's painful for most people in it, and we have odd few moments of lightness and joy and levity, which are precious.
Now I've been thinking about that question a little more. I keep saying the same thing, but maybe there's more to it. It might actually have had something to do with the way that I was raised and the conditions in which I was raised. We were a close family, a loving family. But my father and then my sister, too, had sort of that free-range, all-encompassing, existential despair, that heaviness, depression that they suffered from.
And I think that my role in the family became the person who could lighten things up a little bit. My mother was very busy. She was and is a joyful, resilient person, but she was busy taking care of everything. So I always worked at that, to try and somehow make things lighter, not even necessarily to be funny but just to create some kind of lighter atmosphere for my father at the very beginning and then, especially, for my sister as well. I think that that just has morphed into the way that I write books, too.
Jill: That makes sense, and that resonates with Yoli in the book. She's desperately trying to entertain Elf, to sort of, if not lighten the mood, to connect with her on whatever level.
Toews: Exactly, to engage her, to say, "Hey, look at me. I'm here. Let's talk." Like you say, "Let's connect. Let's be in this life. Let's be present."
Jill: One thing I loved about that in the books was her letter style. It's a more direct address, and it's also that she's narrating what's happening in the present and trying to draw her into the present. That's what, it sounds like, Elf wants to hear about from her — what's happening in her days in Toronto. Why did you decide to include the letters that way?
Toews: My sister in real life had asked me when I moved to Toronto, she had said to me, "Please write me letters." I said, "Yeah, yeah, I will, of course. I'll email. I'll call. We'll talk on the phone, and I'll come back." She said, "No, please, please, if you don't mind, just write me letters and mail them. I want the physical."
She was a big letter writer herself and always had this beautiful, classy stationery, just good quality paper, pens. That was a big thing for her. I'm not like that. I'm not a good letter writer. When I moved to Toronto I tried to write her letters, but I did email her a lot, too, and phone her. I always felt guilty if I wasn't writing more letters, because that's what she had asked for.
Then, of course, after she died, I felt especially guilty. Obviously a few more letters from me wouldn't have been the difference between her dying or not dying, I know that. It just made me feel like, Why didn't I do that? Why didn't I write more letters? She asked me to. If I could write some letters in the book, that would be one way of atoning for that, I guess.
Jill: Why did you want Elf's character to be a famous pianist? What interested you specifically about her being both successful and a musician?
Toews: With the success, I guess I wanted to make a point that depression, mental illness, and suicidal tendencies can strike anybody. That's why they're terrifying. That's why mental illness is a scary thing and why people — myself included — are so often afraid of it, afraid to even consider that it might be happening. It's so arbitrary, so random. It can strike anybody. I wanted to make that point without being heavy-handed about it.
The piano thing was, again, a way to give my sister the career that she could very easily have had. She was a very accomplished pianist. She had studied a lot and had many offers to play and to accompany. In her early 20s, that's when she began to suffer and to feel the effects of her illness, if you want to call it that. She just couldn't do it. She didn't have the focus, the clarity, the strength to do it. She had all the talent for it, and she loved to play. I thought I could give her this career, at least, in fiction.
Jill: It's interesting the way people in the book react to her music, even strangers. It's very powerful. It almost sounds like it externally validates what she's feeling, in a way. She's managing to get that across.
Toews: Yeah, exactly. That Rachmaninoff piece, for instance, represents the rhythm of her life, the violence and pain and darkness and then the lightness, the moving up and down and in and out of darkness. I think for Elf it was a way of expressing all of that which left her sort of, at the same time, invigorated and exhilarated but also entirely drained.
Jill: Elf's image, which she describes to Yoli, of a glass piano inside her that she's trying not to break is a very vivid and almost visceral one. How did that image or metaphor come to you?
Toews: My own sister told me that. She told me that's how it felt, that that's what she felt was inside her and was using it metaphorically as well.
Jill: There's a strong sense of community, both in this book and in your other books. There's the Mennonite religious communities. Then there's also the very strong community of family in this book and other books. In this one there's Elf's musical community and then, at the end, Yoli's children and her mother starting over in Toronto and all the new friends her mother is making. What interested you in depicting that dynamic, the strength of building your own community as well as the readymade ones of family or religion?
Toews: I think it's directly related to the fear, the terror of being entirely alone in the world, which I think a depressed person can feel — that inability to connect to other people. That psychic pain is so great that connection is impossible.
The desire, the need to form community in whatever way you possibly can is such a survival instinct. I think certainly Yoli and Lottie, her mom, are continuously trying to create those, drawing the wagons together to create those lines, those worlds around them. Support networks, basically, and communities where you feel, Ah, I'm not alone, because of their very intimate knowledge of the other, of feeling absolutely alone, which is seen in Elf and in Elf and Yoli's dad.
For me, too, in life, to be a writer is such a solitary pursuit. You spend a lot of time alone in order to do it. At the end of the day or the end of the novel or whatever it is, there's this desperate, urgent need to be with people, to just connect with real, living human beings. I guess that feeling of mine is also there in the book.
Jill: Yoli and Elf's mom in the book is such a fantastic and almost redemptive character by the end. I did think it was interesting, as Yoli points out, their mom and Aunt Tina are such optimists in contrast with their daughters, and then with Yoli and Elf's dad. How much do they shape each other that way? How much do they have to be optimists to counterbalance the other members of the family?
Toews: That's a good question. With those two characters, of course, again, given the autobiographical nature of the book, my mother is basically Lottie and Tina is my Aunt Wilma, who also died during this time.
My aunt and sister were in the same hospital at the same time. My aunt had come to be supportive, to help my mom and sister and to be with us. All of that stuff happened. Then my aunt died and my sister died. My mother and my aunt and tons of people in their family — my mother has one remaining sister who is 92 — they just have always been these incredibly optimistic survivors, like soldiers, with an incredible capacity for joy and curiosity that has kept them going. The stuff that they've lived through, seen, and experienced, and all the people that they've lost, it's really remarkable.
Whether that's something that's learned — if you continue to lose and lose, whatever-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger kind of thing — or it's just some inherent thing, something that you're born with, some innate quality, I don't know.
In the case of my family, to have that incredible optimism on the one hand and really genuine love for life and curiosity right up against the other, against that despair, the darkness, heaviness, loneliness, those two were always clashing. It's interesting to think about. I should ask my mother [laughter]. She'd be the one to tell me. I'll ask her sometime, whether what I think is her natural resilience and joy and ability to survive is something that she has actually consciously honed.
Jill: In A Complicated Kindness, Nomi, to some extent, blames the Mennonite community for pushing her mother and sister away and for setting her dad up for impossible choices. But she also sees the positive things in faith — the forgiveness, charity, and kindness. What sort of role do you think religion, in this case, plays or played in framing or affecting the mental illness or the despair?
Toews: It's interesting. A lot of studies have been done. I don't know exactly what the numbers are, but depression among Mennonite people is very high. On the one hand, you think, That's pretty obvious. If you can never be yourself, and you have to follow all of these rules, and you're constantly being told that you're guilty of this and you should be ashamed of that and you're essentially going to go to hell, one would get depressed.
Especially in the really conservative, closed Mennonite communities, any act of loving life here on earth is considered to be sinful, certainly subversive. We're supposed to be in the world but not of the world. The greatest joy and the whole point of being alive is to get to Heaven and to be with God forever. If that's the collective stance on life on earth, that it's just basically a test, then it's no wonder. If you're constantly being told that you're worthless and that there's no relief until you die and are met by God and God's judgment and God will decide whether you're good enough to go to Heaven, then if you put the idea of depression and suicide into that context, it seems so obvious.
My sister and I left the community when we were 18 and never moved back. My sister, certainly, and my father, especially, carried that guilt, carried that shame with them. It's just really, really hard to shake regardless of how sophisticated you are. You can move to a big city and call yourself an atheist and you're a disenfranchised Mennonite or whatever, but it's still there. It lingers.
Jill: Elf's treatment in the mental health system is not optimal, to be sure. Yoli is constantly trying to make sure they don't let her go, and trying to get an empathetic nurse, and just really trying to get them to treat her like a human being, as her mom says. How does that reflect your experiences? What would you change if you could?
Toews: I feel that it's an accurate reflection of my experiences with my sister and my father within the mental health system here in Canada. There are, of course — and I've gone to such lengths to say this —individuals within the system who are working really hard, who are genuinely competent, compassionate, who are doing an amazing job. But the system itself is broken and needs to be changed.
What that would be, I don't know. Somebody, again, just the other day asked me if I could change anything with the mental health system here, what would it be. I honestly didn't know. I thought maybe the entire way that psychiatry is taught going back to university, to medical school, to when people specialize in psychiatry. What are they learning? How are they being taught to treat these — like you say — "human beings"? Maybe that would be one place to start.
The allocation of funds in terms of mental health, and how to somehow reduce the stigma, and how to make the care of mentally ill people something that people could easily seek out — without having to worry that, if somebody finds out, they might lose their job, their marriage might break up. Despite all the talk that's going on about mental illness, we're still in the dark ages in terms of treatment and how we fear it and prefer not to discuss it with others.
When I finished AMPS and before it went to press, I wanted my mom to read it. I don't normally do that with my books. I did it with Swing Low and this one. I just wanted her to be okay with it. As you can imagine, she's a really huge fan. [Laughter] She's like, "It's great, it's great." Not a really discerning critic, but a nice, supportive person. I gave it to her and she read it. She said, "First of all, do I drink that much red wine?" [Laughter]
I asked her, "Do you think my portrayal of the mental health care system is too harsh?" She just looked at me and said, "Oh, no. It could have been a lot harsher." Then I thought, Okay, fair enough.
She recently went to Winnipeg for a couple of weeks to visit her friends and her sister. I said, "Have a good time, and whatever you do, do not end up in any hospital in Winnipeg. Because that means I'm going to have to come there, and they're not going to be happy to see me." [Laughs]
Jill: One of the central decisions in the book is the choice that Yoli has to make about helping Elf die, what she's asking her to do. Understandably, that's a decision that feels nearly impossible to make.
That touches on some of the stuff you were just saying, the fear about mental illness and also how much agency do you give this person? Do you say, "They know best. They want to end their suffering." It sounds like, even in Switzerland where it's legal, that option has not been used all that often.
Toews: The whole thing is so fraught, so complicated and complex. There's the weighing of an individual's rights and freedom with the societal laws or ways of being. From a religious point of view, the idea of assisted suicide or any kind of euthanasia is usually not acceptable, and I understand that. Also, the checks and balances that have to be in place are so important for a person who has what the clinic in Zurich called it, a "weariness of life."
That's why it's almost an impossible decision. With my sister it was very clear. I guess that's really the only case that I can speak to. She had made a serious attempt, and not just before she died but at other points in her life. There were indications that we saw later and realized, "That's what was going on there." There was a certain plan that she hadn't been able to execute at that time. It was just so clear that she would be successful. In a case like hers it would require somebody like me, for instance, and she begged me to take her to Switzerland, to go with her, so she could exercise this option. And I didn't, clearly.
The alternative — to die so violently and alone, if we can prevent that from happening, if we can somehow know that that is what is going to happen... Suicide has always existed in society. It always will. Then, of course, we want that option to be able to be exercised.
But how do we get to that place? How do we get to that point where we're willing to say, "We need you to be able to die peacefully and with dignity and surrounded by people who love you, or at least one person, and without pain?" That's everybody's right. It doesn't always happen, obviously, the good death.
That requires so much in terms of how we're going to talk about assisted suicide. Coming at it from so many different perspectives, particularly from a religious perspective, it's just so difficult. It seems like a long way off. Yet there are these clinics where it's possible. It's a really complex issue that requires a lot of thought and discussion.
Jill: How did you decide on the title All My Puny Sorrows? When did you run across that Coleridge poem?
Toews: Actually, I just got an email from my German translator saying they were going to use the original title for the book, Ars Moriendi, which is Latin for "The Art of Dying." As you can imagine, my Canadian and UK publishers, they were like, "Ars Moriendi? No, we don't think so." [Laughter]
I had to change it. I almost always have to change my titles. I was desperate, thinking, What is it going to be? I happened to be reading a collection of poetry and read that poem by Coleridge. It was called "A Letter to My Friend." It was about a letter of comfort to a friend whose sister had died. Coleridge is talking about losing his own sister. It just made sense, "All My Puny Sorrows." I liked the word "puny" in there. I liked the way that it undercuts things in a way that is vaguely comical and also, in my mind anyway, puts us all in the same boat. We all have sorrows and sadness. We all lose. We all suffer these tragedies. If we can minimize it, in our minds, that would be better.
Jill: What are you reading and enjoying these days?
Toews: Right now I'm reading what everybody seems to be reading, Elena Ferrante.
Jill: Everyone does seem to be reading her right now. Like a giant book club.
Toews: Yes, exactly, the universal book club of Elena Ferrante. I'm reading the third book in the Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I'm reading that.
I also just finished reading The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri. I love her style. It's completely different from Ferrante's, but it's just like this mesmerizing drug that overtakes you. I'm reading some Canadian writers. We go to all of these writers' festivals in Canada. If we have books, it's like, "Hey, I'll buy your book," and, "Yeah, I'll buy yours." We end up spending, like, $400,000 on books.
Jill: That's very supportive.
Toews: I know. [Laughter] Either that or we just need to have a moratorium and say, "Okay, we don't have to buy each other's books. Forget about this. This is crazy. This is killing us." But there are some good ones out there.