Mona Awad: ‘I felt like quitting many times’

Mona Awad on finding poetic inspiration, scribbling notes—and the long, hard process of writing her book
Mona Awad. (Photograph by Aaron McKenzie Fraser)
Mona Awad. (Photograph by Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

The 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize: Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $100,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the artistic process of the six nominees. Here, Mona Awad discusses how a poet inspired her shortlisted read, and the problem with best-laid plans. Read more from other Giller Prize nominees here.

It was Wallace Stevens’s poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” that first showed Mona Awad how to begin to shape what she wanted to write. But it was her own deep dive into the subtleties of North America’s obsession with body image that turned her 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl into a novel, and into a nominee for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the only debut work on the short list.

The poet’s discrete images were the way forward, says Awad, for a storytelling conundrum with which she had struggled almost as much as with body image itself. “I thought linked stories would let me zoom into moments where the tensions that are under the surface rise up—you can see those body tensions beneath so many conversations.”

Instead Awad, 37, a Montreal-born author who is now completing her Ph.D. in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver, came to see her stories as “chapters in a novel” about a woman’s lifelong focus on viewing herself through the imagined eyes of others. What Awad calls her protagonist Lizzie’s “interiority,” a constant self-aware demand for attention and simultaneous desire for invisibility, marks all Lizzie’s relationships, from parents to lovers to—perhaps most important—female friends.

MORE: Read an excerpt of Awad’s book here

That continuing and evolving interiority is what links Awad’s 13 episodes by more than a theme. “I couldn’t have written 13 Ways as a novel,” she says, “but I came to see how deeply our concept of our own bodies informs us, and our individual life stories.”

BY MONA AWAD · Body image is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life. In my twenties, I realized it was something I wanted to explore in my writing, and I was always taking notes to that end, even as I wrote fiction and poetry on other subjects. Content was no problem: having struggled and having witnessed others I cared about face the same challenges, there was so much I wanted to say. It was form that stumped me for a long time. I wrote a poem on the subject, a nonfiction article, even a screenplay. Each attempt left me longing to say more.

At 30, I had a breakthrough. Driving from Vegas to Utah, I recalled a poem I’d read years earlier: “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens—recalling his imagistic exercises in perspective, I felt real excitement. Stevens’s structuring principle would let me focus on discrete glimpses of a woman’s struggle with body image and explore how that struggle played out in specific scenarios: dressing rooms, a tense lunch with a female friend, a visit with a parent, sex, a cardio machine war at the gym. I could selectively focus on moments, tensions, dynamics, relationships I wanted to explore, creating the sort of multi-faceted portrait I was interested in.

I came home and wrote my ideas in a journal. Doing so made me even more excited. 13 ways, 13 stories. Perfect. Easy. I gave myself the writing deadline of December (it was September then). Maybe I’d be finished earlier than December, maybe in a month.

After a year, I had only two stories. Despite the fact that I wrote every day—often setting myself the ridiculous task of a story a day—most of what I wrote was crap: too neat, too self-satisfied, too demonizing, not complex enough for me. I don’t think I knew that at the time. I just told myself, keep writing.

As I wrote, I kept thinking about those two stories I’d salvaged—what did I like about them? What stood out? They were more complex. They were more focused on relationships than strictly body image. They were also fairly contained in terms of time and place, but expansive and tension-filled in terms of the dynamic they explored. They were funny, but also sad and sort of angry. I’d struck a balance in them that felt true to me, truer than the stories that were merely angry, merely funny, merely sad.

About a year later, I had two more stories, both of which I wanted to throw out, but my husband said “keep them.” A year later, five more. Then two more. Then during an M.F.A. at Brown, I wrote the final two, revised, and linked the stories together into one larger narrative.

In that time, I also wrote a number of stories that I killed in the end. I spent months on these. There were several false starts, tangled rewrites. Where what I wanted to say felt like a fist over my heart that I was trying to unfurl finger by finger. I felt like quitting many times.

Five years later, I had a manuscript.