All My Puny Sorrows, or “AMPS,” as Miriam Toews calls it when we speak via Skype, is a book that exists in an insular world—a good deal of its action takes place inside the walls of a hospital, and most of its dialogue occurs between two Canadian sisters, Elfreida and Yolandi.
Elfreida, who has everything—beauty, internationally recognized talent, a loving marriage, wealth—is in the hospital after a suicide attempt. Throughout the book she tries multiple times, determined to take her own life, even begging Yolandi to take her to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal, and she can die peacefully, at will, surrounded by family.
Yolandi, in contrast, is scattered: she’s going through a divorce; has a stalled writing career; is the mother to children of whom she’s not particularly in control; and now she’s spending her hours in the hospital, convincing her sister not to kill herself. With Toews’s deft hand, she takes us through Yolandi’s thoughts as she navigates an agonizing moral landscape against which Elf pits her.
Yet, although the book appears to be a small-scale examination of one family’s troubles, with her sixth novel, Toews tips her hand to another world entirely.
I was researching for this conversation when I stumbled across information that completely altered my reading experience—the kind of knowledge onto which you can’t press “undo.” In combing through Toews’s background, I discovered just how autobiographical the novel is. It’s the kind of mirror in which details from real and narrative life are so intertwined they’re inextricable. To learn shards of reality are wedged into a novel with such jagged edges—that these are moments Toews lived—made the tragedy of AMPS cut that much deeper.
The Rumpus: I didn’t know until I was about two-thirds of the way through the book how autobiographical it was in nature. Would you have preferred a reader approach the book influenced by this notion or be blind to it?
Miriam Toews: Wow, that’s a really interesting question that I haven’t even been asked before. I think probably if I just think of myself I probably would have liked to know a little bit going into a book—that there was a little similar background of the writer’s own life. But not necessarily! Maybe it doesn’t matter, because maybe the book should be judged or read or liked or not liked on its own.
Rumpus: Speaking to that point, because the stories are so inextricably intertwined, were there points at which you were able to turn off Miriam’s POV during the writing of Yoli, or was that something you were just not able to ever do?
Toews: I was able to do that because I’ve been writing fiction for so long, it seems, and it’s just what I do, so it was a natural place for me to go to—to create narrative, and to write fiction. Although, yeah, my own lived experiences, the book was so close to that, I could certainly concentrate on the narrative itself and get into that and become Yolandi, who people know me would think, Oh, this is a really close version of Miriam. But not necessarily—not entirely. It’s a combination.
Rumpus: How soon after going through your own experiences did you realize that this would become a fictive narrative?
Toews: I didn’t write anything after my sister died in 2010. I didn’t write anything for two years, and I certainly didn’t think I was going to write about it. I had written about my father’s suicide in a different book called Swing Low. He had died in ’98—I thought at that time I had really said or felt or thought all I could possibly about that subject, and then when my sister died, I thought the same thing. I thought, Well, this has happened again but I’m certainly not going to write about it. But a couple of years later I just realized that it was necessary. That adage that you don’t choose the book, the book chooses you—I realized I needed to write about it. And that I chose fiction—that made the most sense at the time.
Rumpus: In what way did it make the most sense?
Toews: For me, fiction is the freest form and it gave me that freedom to shape the narrative and to take my experiences and use that as the raw material. [I could] impose certain tone or shape to those experiences, but I wouldn’t be beholden to the actual facts.
Rumpus: Which is so interesting to me, because you did make choices where fact and fiction really weren’t so different after all.
Toews: Yeah, exactly. That’s the thing—the story itself held such great meaning for me and significance—the details—that although maybe I shifted things sometimes, like the timeline for instance, what happens in the book happened in life.
Rumpus: Did you feel like there were corridors that you just didn’t want to go down or in terms of the scope of the story weren’t the right fit for the narrative you wanted to construct?
Toews: Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot left out. Often, when people read a book like AMPS, they often think, Oh, this is the whole thing, this is everything. But of course, there are so many conversations, moments, interactions, confrontations in the hospital, things that occurred that I didn’t include. That, again, is the beauty of fiction—you can create the pace and the tone. Those are the things that are so important to me.
The tone in particular was really important to me with this book. It’s such a dark subject that I didn’t want people to be afraid, not to be put off by the subject matter. I could take them by the hand and we could go through dark places together and come out of them together to a more hopeful place or moment, or at least to a place where there was more light, and that they’d feel comfortable doing that.
Rumpus: I think that actually is one of the most successful parts of the book, because the novel sheds light on mental illness in ways that are very different than other books. Partly because the characters are so real and frank, but also because the tone within the sisters’ relationship opens up a conversation that I haven’t really seen elsewhere. Is there a particular part of the issue of mental illness you were hoping to illuminate with that tone?
Toews: Yes, the whole idea that mental illness is something that can affect anybody at any time. It’s a terrifying illness. It’s so cruel. Imagine what it’s like to think, I’m actually losing
my mind. I’m losing who I am. I’m losing myself. It’s terrifying to be that person, and to be theperson looking in from the outside. I wanted to get that across. I wanted to make that real and to make that terror come to life.
Elfrieda is a character who has everything in life—all the so-called trappings of a successful life—love, and a great career, and beauty, and wealth, and all of those things, but it doesn’t matter. She wants to die and that’s the nature of the illness. There’s so much misunderstanding and ignorance around the subject of mental illness, and first and foremost I was just trying to write a story that would move people and make them think—entertain people—but certainly I was really concerned about getting those aspects in. Like you said before, illuminate that world of mental illness.
Rumpus: Because the book came out in Canada first, I got a chance to read a lot about what you said about the book, and I know you said you gained a bit of clarity on your experiences from writing the novel. Is there anything that readers or critics have said that have caused you to evaluate your own life circumstances in an additional, different way?
Toews: A question that I’m asked a lot is whether it was therapeutic to write the book—whether this was a cathartic experience. To be honest, I never know how to answer that question even though by now I should have come up with an answer because I’m asked it so often. It makes me feel all sorts of things. I think, No, on the one hand, of course not. I’m a novelist. But if for me it feels good to write a novel—to have written a novel—then I guess it’s therapeutic. But that’s not the point. It’s to create something artful—hopefully!—and do I feel as though I’ve acquired some sort of closure? It’s a word I don’t even really believe in. No. My sister’s still gone, I miss her, and I’d prefer that she were still here.
I have regrets, I have feelings of guilt, I have a deeper understanding of what she was up against. So, that’s something that has made me think a lot—just the whole subject of: What is therapeutic? Is creating art or shaping narrative from the events of one’s life a therapeutic thing, or is it a necessary process that some people need to go through? I don’t know. Maybe I just need to understand therapeutic means and maybe I’ll know better.
Rumpus: Are you in general a proponent of therapy?
Toews: That’s a good question, too! My mother was a marriage and family therapist for many years, and I know that a lot of her clients got a lot out of it and that she was a good therapist. Obviously, I have an appreciation for it, and almost everyone I know is in some form of therapy. I know how necessary it is to have the right therapist and to be willing to do a lot of work, too, when you’re in therapy. People have suggested, after my father died, that I should see a therapist—especially after my sister died—and that makes sense, right? With these tragic deaths, these suicides, you need someone to talk to besides friends and family.
So maybe now we’re getting closer to an answer for that question!
For me, I’ll write. I’ll do what I’ve always done to make sense of things—to figure out how I feel about things, to try to answer questions that I have even though I don’t assume or feel that I ever come to any completely definitive answers. But I can get closer to answering some questions. So, maybe in light of that, writing is therapeutic for me, and replaces the need to see a therapist. Although maybe I should give it a try and see what happens!
Rumpus: Why do you think readers desire to draw a distinction between what’s fiction and what’s nonfiction when they’re examining writers’ works and lives?
Toews: I know, it means an awful lot to people, doesn’t it? Especially when it comes to memoir; as we’ve seen in the past, when you tell the reader, “This is true. This all happened” and then it didn’t—you get into a lot of trouble. They hate that. They feel betrayed, and ripped off, and angry. And that makes sense. It’s lying it a way. It’s a moral thing—there’s a conventional expectation of what storytelling is, and when people get so upset about things like that—there’s that implication that when you tell us this, it has to be that even though the whole notion of fiction and some creative nonfiction is that you write a story. You write something as honestly and intelligently as you can and if some stuff is made up, it raises questions of memory. What is memory? How do we remember? Your memory of something could be completely different than mine of the exact same thing.
In my case with AMPS, I can say it’s a novel—and it is. That gives me the freedom to make stuff up. But I can also say it’s the most autobiographical novel that I’ve ever written, and people who know me who are familiar with what my family experienced will say, “Oh, that happened, and that happened, but that didn’t happen…” People are better with that. They don’t mind that for some reason. But it’s interesting. It’s just another piece of human psychology. Why do we need to know what actually happened and what didn’t happen? It’s interesting to me.
Rumpus: It is interesting. The angle that most people come into conversations with when they find out a novel is autobiographical in nature is they want to know what parts of the novel are true and to what degree it’s autobiographical. It’s this very human curiosity-driven theme that’s constantly reoccurring that never seems to quite let up.
Toews: Exactly. I like that, too—I want to know what happened, as well. We like to shape our own narrative. Every single book or painting or piece of music exists and we take from it what we need and love and shape it into another narrative that goes out into the world or stays within us, so it’s this great thing of one narrative piling onto the next. It’s hard to define.
Rumpus: I wonder if perhaps in literature we seek truth more often because we have direct access to words. In art, and in some music, we just assume the influence of emotion—but in literature, we can actually imagine real scenes happening and thus draw parallels to an author’s life because of description and dialogue.
Toews: You’re right. When people are listening to a song, people don’t go, “Is this true?” They don’t do it with poetry, either. Did this really happen to the poet?
Rumpus: What do you think the new era of transparency for contemporary writers—things like Twitter and being able to look up writers’ bios and interviews online—has done to change the way people approach writers’ work and their own reading experiences?
Toews: I’m not sure, because I’m not such a good social media user. I’m not on Facebook. I am on Twitter, but I never tweet. I get shy. I get very, very shy. Every once in a while, I’ll retweet someone, or I’ll send out a big message like, “Thanks everyone for your good wishes!” but I never know what to say.
I think it’s unnerving talking to other writers, and it’s disconcerting to think that every time we open our mouths it can be immediately put online and the whole world can see it in a second and it’s there forever. That’s really disconcerting for a lot of us because it dumbs us down a little—it makes us afraid. If we’re in some community somewhere in Northern Ontario or something and taking to a group of people and you’re there and you’re having a nice time, you’re like, What can I say? I think it’s crept into the way we converse with each other and it’s made us a little bit dull because we’re afraid and how it would be interpreted.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear one author’s side of it, because on the readers’ end, at least for me, I think it’s added so much dimensionality to the reading experience—being able to be in touch with authors after reading their books.
Toews: Have you heard of Elena Ferrante?
Rumpus: Yes! The mysterious author…
Toews: Yes, her whole thing. Is she even a woman? (I think she is.) There’s so little we know about her! That’s so cool. That’s so mysterious. We can’t all do that. I mean, I guess we could if we all rose up on our hind legs against our publishers and said, “We’re not going to go anywhere! We’re not going to appear in public! We’re not going to do media! We’re not going to have social media!” But then we probably wouldn’t get any publishing contracts in this day and age.
Rumpus: Only three states currently have that enacted. I know what you went through is different, but I’m still curious about your take.
Toews: It’s such a complex issue. I’m not a legislator or a policymaker or a doctor or a scientist or a religious person—and these are often the people weighing in—but all I have is my own lived, personal experience with my sister. Brittany Maynard was a person with a terminal physical illness, and mental illness is a different ball of wax for some people. More people, particularly in Canada—I don’t know about the States—are willing to talk about the rights of the individual to a “death with dignity,” “the good death,” and that the individual has the right to choose when he or she is going to die. In the same way that we can make the decisions about how we live, we can make the same decisions about how we die. It’s not up to the federal government, it’s not up to the Supreme Court, it’s not up to the Catholic Church, who just recently made a statement that said assisted suicide was “repulsive.”
Going back to my sister’s case, she, like Elfrieda in the book, begged me to take her to Switzerland where she could die with somebody who loved her—me and possibly other members of her family. She wouldn’t have to die violently and alone. We knew she would be successful in taking her own life. We just knew it. She had made many, many attempts. She was serious, she was coherent, she was sane—this is what she wanted. She was ready and she was trying to do it, and she had asked us to take her to a place where it would be pain-free, and loving, and good. I feel that that was her choice, as well. I wish that I had done that for her. It was an untenable situation for me. I felt at the time that it was an impossible choice. I didn’t do it, obviously. Yolandi is in the same situation in the book.
There have to be so many checks and balances and safeguards in place. Especially in Canada, that conversation is starting and more people are willing to talk about it. I’d like to know what it’s like in the States, and I’m looking forward to knowing more about the subject of assisted suicide there. It seems that the people there are also willing to start this dialogue—like you said, you already have three states where it’s legal.
Rumpus: And the legacy that Brittany left with her is that this should be a conversation, which is quite an impactful one. On that token, if there’s one conversation that your book can start, what do you hope that’ll be?
Toews: We need to confront the idea of suicide first of all—to accept that it happens. It’s always existed in society, and that it always will. There will always be people who want to kill themselves. There’s been research done at Johns Hopkins University where supposedly they’ve isolated what the call the “suicide gene”. We just need to accept the fact that it happens, and not be afraid of it.
Hopefully, we can get closer to two things: to better mental healthcare to prevent it from happening; but also to accept that it will happen, and in those cases to say, Okay, this person has made so many attempts, is rational, is clear-minded, wants this—why can’t we allow this to happen?
Feature photo of author © Carol Loewen.