One Question Interview: Grace O’Connell

15Nov12

Grace O’Connell is a writer, editor and teacher based in Toronto, with work published widely in places such as The Walrus, The Globe and Mail and the Journey Prize Stories. Her acclaimed first novel, recently published by Random House, is Magnified World.

Toronto is almost another character in your compelling and carefully written novel. Was it a natural fit, with the city lending itself to this process, and what special qualities does Toronto own?

The book actually started out, in its earliest draft, in an unnamed, Toronto-like city a la The Edible Woman. I was struggling with certain scenes and I realised, as I wrote more, that the story really wanted to be in Toronto, properly and identifiably in Toronto. Once I made that switch, the narrative flowed much more naturally, and I was able to get deeper into my character’s mind at the same time. So it was more than natural – it was essential to the book’s development.

Since I was writing in first person, any sort of artificially withheld information only served to block Maggie’s voice. There are so many things Maggie doesn’t know, and couldn’t know, in the narrative, that I didn’t want to withhold anything she did know. And since the city is so important to her, so emotionally charged, I had to be specific about it, the way she is. Maggie is a list-maker – when she thinks of the city, she thinks of it exhaustively, counting up what she loves about it; it’s the same way she thinks of her mother.

In terms of special qualities, I’m not sure I’ve lived in enough other places to answer this in a comparative sense (that is, to say what Toronto has in contrast to other cities). But the city itself has a sort of contradictory feeling of frenetic peacefulness that I really like. There are thousands of unique narratives in every city block – you could zoom in and tell countless stories – but you can still take a quiet walk at night and feel like the city is calm. I think that combination of noise and silence worked well for Maggie’s story. And the quality of neighbourhoods, which are like characters themselves; each little neighbourhood in Toronto has such individual, identifiable qualities, which I love as both a resident and a writer.

The bizarre part for me was trying to extract myself from Maggie and her view of the city after I was finished with the book. For instance, whenever I go over the Queen Street viaduct and see that “This River I Step In is Not the River I Stand In” sign, I feel like I’m in the scene where Maggie learns her mother is dead. It’s like a Pavlovian association, but from a life I never actually lived. A life I made up. It’s kind of spooky – I guess writing does weird things to a person sometimes.

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