Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Through the Magnifying Glass: Grace O'Connell on Writing, Women and Magnified World

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Grace O'Connell (photo credit: Derek Wuenschirs)

When bookworm and Can Lit–lover Grace O'Connell began penning a meta-fictional meditation on reading and writing six years ago, she had no idea she'd be poised to launch her debut novel, Magnified World, with Random House's New Face of Fiction this spring. "It happened fairly quickly for me," acknowledges Grace, agreeing that any realistic writer will embark on the publishing process with a healthy does of self-doubt. "But I was lucky in the people I got to work with." Agents and publishers have had to become increasingly selective when choosing to support new writers, but even Grace's early readers recognized a unique and engaging voice in her work. Her agent, Martha Magor Webb, accepted Grace as a client on the strength of stories the writer submitted — two of which were recently nominated for a National Magazine Award and the Journey Prize.

Although every writer could use a handful of positive energy crystals from Pierce Gifts and Oddities, the New Age shop where Magnified World opens, luck only gets a novelist so far. Writers need perseverance, inspiration, style and good old-fashioned talent — and Grace would have called upon all of these alchemical elements as she moved the novel and its characters through numerous re-writes.

Grace entered the MFA program at Guelph with a partial draft of the manuscript that would become Magnified World. Under the mentorship of Lisa Moore, Grace experienced a level of creative output that she hasn't matched since. "I'm a huge, huge fan of Lisa's, so knowing that somebody who you've read for years and been star-struck by and whose stories you've cried over is going to be reading your writing is surreal. The potential for humiliation is huge motivation...but it felt effortless as she drew it out of me." Grace also worked with the "savvy and detailed" novelist Catherine Bush and poet Dionne Brand before moving on to revise the manuscript with Random House editor Michelle MacAleese, who Grace describes as "fiery avenging angle of literature [who] saw a finish line I couldn't imagine."

The bones of the plot for Magnified World didn't fall into place until Carol, Maggie's recently deceased mother, emerged as the heart of the story. Maggie's voice evolved to become the first-person narrator, and Gil — the companion who may or may not be a hallucination — changed entirely as Grace developed a more complete understanding of just how crippled Maggie was as a result of her mother's suicide.

Mental illness and suicide are heavy subjects, but Magnified World explores them with such honesty, tenderness and humour that readers may wonder (even if we don't like to admit to it) if the author is writing from a personal experience of grief. Writers tend to get their backs up over these sorts of assumptions, but Grace chooses to take these questions as the highest compliment of her work. She admits that she felt anxiety about taking on the voice of a bereaved daughter, especially knowing that some readers will have experienced this particular grief first-hand. But she took the plunge anyway, researching carefully and extrapolating from other, smaller losses. What she really wanted to explore, and what forms the foundation of Magnified World, is the effect that mental illness has on the most intimate relationships.

"Mental illness is something that casts such a wide net around the person who's suffering and shapes the lives and the growth of everybody it touches," she says. "After that person is no longer there, the void is not only one of loss and love, it's also very, very personal to the ones who are left behind in the sense that they no longer know where they stand because they have filled a role for such a long time, and with such need... Like Maggie, they really end up questioning absolutely everything in their lives. It goes beyond the loss of a healthy family member because you'll always be wondering whether you behaved in the right way."

So we've said it: Magnified World is about relationships — the twisting, flipping cat's cradle of connections between Carol, Maggie, Maggie's father, Chris ("I know you're not supposed to have favourites," says Grace, "but he's mine"), her closest friends, even the city of Toronto. Writers such as Meg Wolitzer have noted that "relationship novels" tend to be ascribed more literary weight if they're written by men, whereas they get firmly tucked into the "women's fiction" shelf if written by a member of that gender. Grace agrees that novels written by men are often understood to be a representation of something bigger than the relationships they explore, although she argues that if we were to read fiction without knowledge of the author's gender there would be no perceptible difference in the way men and women write. She observes that there are stylistic choices made equally by men and women, but "it's amazing the way people will contort themselves to take a novel and try to force it into those categories." Though we may have come a long way since the days when Mary Anne Evans published as George Eliot, reading habits and marketing practices still frustratingly assume "the male as the default mode of humanity."

Grace now finds herself in the early stages of a new project — so early that she really only calls it the "suggestion of a possibility of an idea". It's somewhat disheartening to know how much work lies ahead of her, yet she finds the complete freedom exhilarating. She's like a marathon runner who knows just how tired she'll get...but also how good she'll feel at the finish.

You can catch Grace reading from Magnified World at Harbourfront on June 13th. In the meantime, you can follow her at her blog and on Twitter at @yesgrace.

Erin Knight is Open Book: Ontario's Contributing Editor. Chaser, a collection of poems on tuberculosis and manic economy, has just been published with House of Anansi Press.

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