"You need to put your love into action," says novelist Joanne Proulx, one of Canada's refreshing literary voices. Following the interview, I find myself reflecting on the author's motto. With her second novel, We All Love the Beautiful Girls, she presents a seemingly perfect family and the pressures they face when subjected to loss. Mia and Michael are happily married, with a teenage son Finn who is in love with Jess, the beautiful, older girl next door.
Then, one winter night Michael learns that Peter, his business partner, has written him out of their partnership and cheated them of their savings. On the same night, Finn passes out in the snow after a house party—a mistake with devastating consequences.
As the story unfolds, we witness the volatility of marriage, the complexity of adolescence and Finn's belief that love will save us. And there’s the strength of a character like Frankie (Michael's business partner's daughter) who is distressed about the damaged relationship between their families and wants to talk honestly about it. We relate in different ways to the family as they each cope with their losses -- what they do, who they turn to, the choices they make. With Joanne's raw prose, and surprising plot twists, we cling to the pages as she captures the actions and emotional impulse of each character as they are faced with adversity. “I always try to write with real honestly, to think about how the character would be feeling in each moment," reflects Joanne. "And I think when you do that, you get to know them well."
But this isn't a traditional family drama. By rooting us in the emotional tenor of the individual characters, the novel takes us deeper, exploring power dynamics between the sexes, issues of race and class and the consequences of our choices on others. "Because they are a privileged family, I knew they would probably have the resources to survive," says Joanne. "But when you look at how their choices ripple out into the broader world, it's the people who are more vulnerable who are going to be hurt." There is a subtlety to the underlying themes woven throughout the novel. "I'm exploring issues through situations that feel familiar by placing them in a family setting," explains Joanne. And there is strength to this approach. As characters shift, as they struggle, as they find resolve, we find ourselves breaking down these issues through the gradual revelations of the characters themselves.
What started you on the path to writing?
I was a successful banker but every day I would go to work and feel like I didn't actually belong. There was this hollowness in my chest, like something was not being realized. I had received a promotion, my husband and I rearranged our lives…but then he got transferred to a job in Paris. At my going away party, everyone was asking what I was going to do. And writing had always been in the back of my mind. When I got to France, 9/11 had just happened and I’d always had this fairly optimistic world view, and I think it sort of shook me up. It was at this time that I started taking a writing course. By my third class, my heart was so open. It felt like I found what I was meant to do. Within six years, my first novel was published.
How did you become involved in the subject matter of your new book?
It seemed to me that there was a rise in sexual aggression against women, or maybe it was just that conversation moving into the mainstream. At the same time, Fifty Shades of Grey was a big hit, and I just couldn't reconcile these two things. I wanted to investigate the power dynamics between the sexes in a liberal, Western society. A year in, I realized the book was coming from a very deep place.
In your novels, including Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, you have delivered intimate studies of the characters. Did you know the entire plot before you sat down to write We All Love the Beautiful Girls, or did you see where the characters would take you? As a writer, you have to have a lot of unearned confidence. Once you start writing you let your characters live their lives. What do you feel makes these characters so relatable? They’re three dimensional. You know they aren't always right which is true of all of us and you may not always relate to their circumstances but you can identify with their emotional experiences.
There are some similarities between your life experiences and those of the character Mia in this book. How do you draw on your own experiences and translate them into your characters?
My first novel was told through the eyes of aseventeen year old boy and yet there were similarities. People who knew me well saw a lot of me in the book. In We All Love the Beautiful Girls I knew what issues I wanted to explore and I let parts of my own life, my own experiences, influence those issues. I’m now at an age where I don’t worry about what people think…and in the end, the book is ultimately a work of fiction.
Your first novel, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, is being adapted as a feature film. What has this process been like for you?
As a consultant, I reviewed scripts and gavecomments. Then I was invited to Los Angeles to help rework the script. The director and producers have the final say, but I did have a input. I also went out for the filming which was pretty surreal. The first day of shooting was at a high school. Cameron Monaghan plays the main character Luke, and he was out back skateboarding. When I walked into the school it felt like I walked back into my younger life. Until that moment I don't think I realized how much or my own life made into into the story.
What book changed your life?
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It's an incredible multigenerational story set in India. It's about struggle but there's so much joy at the same time. I also really loved Life of Pi. The beautiful ending that changed the whole story. In some ways I thought about that ending when I wrote the final chapter of We All Love the Beautiful Girls.
And finally, let's talk about love.
I think what I learned from writing this book is that Finn really believes in love—that love is going to save us. As I wrote the book I realized that's not enough. You need to put your love into action. I think that's what I'm doing with my writing. And I have to do more in my own community. It's not good enough for me to say, "Oh we have to love each other," when there's so much inequality in this world. It’s easy to love our family and friends, but we have to be proactive and push love out farther. I'm looking at ways I can use my skills in a meaningful way and am setting aside one day a week where I don't write, but help out more directly in my community