Community & Current Events

Five minutes with Miriam Toews

By: Jill Buchner

Photo courtesy of Knopf Canada Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photo courtesy of Knopf Canada

Community & Current Events

Five minutes with Miriam Toews

By: Jill Buchner
When Miriam Toews wrote A Complicated Kindness, she invited us into the Mennonite town of her childhood, and we loved it. This time around, the award-winning Winnipeg author shares something even closer to her heart. In All My Puny Sorrows, she explores the enduring love of two sisters in the midst of a hopeless struggle: Elfrieda intensely wants to die, while Yoli desperately wants to keep her in this world. Just a few years ago, Toews's own sister committed suicide, as did her father several years before that. But the heartbreak in her life hasn't overtaken her, or her novel. It's the hilarious moments of humanity her characters share and the transcendental questions they provoke that really shine. We spoke to Toews about the novel.  

Jill Buchner: What made you want to tell this story?
Miriam Toews: "In all my writing, I use my own life and I try to make sense of things—things that have happened to me, things that have happened in the world. Suicide is such a complicated issue, and it leaves survivors with so many questions. Basically, I didn't know what on earth I could possibly write other than a story that dealt with suicide, considering what had happened in my own life."

JB: Why was it important to you to talk about suicide in such an intimate way, without all the usual euphemisms?

MT: There is such a stigma attached to suicide. It's feared and misunderstood—understandably so. It's such a complicated death in terms of how it's done, but also in terms of what it leaves survivors with. I think it scares people. And when you've had people in your life who've done it, you can't avoid thinking about it. It's comforting to be able to talk about it, to drag it into the light. It makes it less terrifying."

JB: How do you create characters who are so devoted to each other, yet so completely at odds?

MT: "The characters are battling each other.  And that's so inherent to the whole suicide issue. When a person really wants to die and then does, you can spend the rest of your life feeling guilty about it—that you didn't do enough, that you weren't there, that you didn't save this person. I'm very familiar with that guilt. But to live with it, to live with the grief and the tragedy and the horror, you have to respect that person's decision. I think Elfie is hoping her family will understand she has to do this. She can't bear the agony of living anymore."

JB: All of your characters are readers, and their favourite authors are mentioned constantly. Do you think reading is integral to how we experience life?

MT: "It is to me. And it was for my sister. She had a love of books and reading. For a reader, a book really can feel as though it's saving your life. Books won't save you in the end. But you can almost be saved by them, and that's worth something."

JB: In the book, you quote D.H. Lawrence: "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically." This is apt, because despite the tragic subject matter, the book never feels despondent. Why do you balance laughter and tears?

MT: "It seems to really be representative of life. I guess I'm at that age now where I have faith; I put a lot of faith into the idea that there is going to be a comic moment at the end of it all."
Check out what other great books you should read this spring
This story was originally titled "Truly Inspired" in the April 2014 issue.
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Community & Current Events

Five minutes with Miriam Toews