Rogers Writers' Trust 2014 shortlist: Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews on her influences, and an excerpt from her shorlisted book, 'All My Puny Sorrows'

This year, on Nov. 4, the Rogers Writers’ Trust will be the first of Canada’s Big Three fiction prizes to announce its winner. Maclean’s asked each of the five nominees vying for the $25,000 award to comment on a past author “whose influence you feel in your own work, and how.” Their answers, and excerpts from their shortlisted books: 

Miriam Toews, 50, was nominated for All My Puny Sorrows, a novel of two sisters, one of whom wants desperately to die. 

I really admire the late Roberto Bolaño’s writing and I always try to remember his style, the way it’s so direct and unadorned and unsentimental. I love the details that Bolaño brings to light in his stories, the sense of urgency and outrage and his fearlessness, and those are all things to aspire to.

From All My Puny Sorrows:

I left the room and wandered around the hallways and nodded at the nurses at the nurses’ station and walking into a linen closet by accident thinking it was a bathroom and out again, knocking over mops and cleaning products and muttering apologies, and back into Elf’s room, fresh smile, tears rubbed away, my face by now a lurid mess of colours and grime, and I’m trying to comfort myself. I’m singing, not really singing, the Boss (because he’s authoritative). “Thunder Road” … The anthemic tune that lit a fire in our plain girl hearts back in the eighties – serenading our own reflections with hairbrush microphones or belting it into the wind from the backs of half-ton trucks or the tops of towering hay bales – and that I’m calling on to give me hope once again.

I collapsed back into the orange chair and asked Elf to tell me about something. She wanted to know about what and I said anything, just tell me about something. Tell me about your secret lovers. She told me that lovers are secret for the reason that they’re not spoken about and I nodded in agreement, that’s true, that’s intractable, I could take a page out of her book, but tell me anyway. Tell me about that guy, what was his name? Huge Boil. Elf grimaced and moaned and said Hugh Boyle was not a lover, he was a fiend and I said so tell me about him, what was he like in bed? We didn’t go to bed, said Elf, and I said okay, no problem, where’d you do it? On the floor? The fire escape? She shook her head. Okay, what about that other guy, Penis Breath? Ah, now she smiled. Denis Brecht, she said, was lovely but is ancient history. I’m a married woman now. You are? I asked. When did you get married? Okay, she said, you know what I mean, I told her that I am actually a married woman but I have no husband. You, I told her, are not a married woman but have a husband. Whatever, Yoli, she said. She yawned. It was sweet of you to come back but I’m the one who needs to apologize. No, no, c’mon, I said. You must meet so many suave men with exciting accents and encyclopedic knowledge of European civilization, I said. Are you being sarcastic? she wondered.

She asked me about the hotshot lawyer guy in Toronto and I shook my head.

What’s his name again? she said.


What? Oh my god, that’s right. Finbar! I can’t believe you’re sleeping with a lawyer, first of all, and then with a lawyer named Finbar.

What’s wrong with sleeping with a lawyer? I asked.

Well, nothing, she said, in theory. Just that you are, or were, is funny. She asked me if I’m still seeing him and I tell her I don’t know and then I spill all the details of my shambolic existence, that Finbar is not the only guy and she said Yolandi! How many? And I said only two but I’m so tires and overwhelmed and ashamed that I honestly can’t remember if that’s true of not. And one of them is in love with you, actually, and is only sleeping with me by proxy. She asked me if Finbar knows about the other guy and who is he and again I just shook my head no, yes, I don’t think I told him. And besides he wouldn’t care, and I told her okay, I know, this isn’t my proudest moment or anything, it’s some weird animal reaction to sixteen years of monogamy with Dan, so okay I’ve become a two-bit whore, whatever, burn me to death and she pointed to herself and then held her arms out to the psych ward spilling out around her to indicate where she was, empathy and a joke, my big sister, I love her, and we laughed a bit. A tiny bit. Not laughing, really, at all. And she said she hopes I’m using protection and this struck me as hilarious, coming from her.

Excerpted from All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Copyright © 2014 Miriam Toews. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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