Formative Obsessions

What happens when a twelve-year-old girl gets hold of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Winter, 2012–2013 / No. 29
Photograph by Thomas Blanchard
Thomas Blanchard

What becomes of a young girl introduced to adult romance by The Handmaid’s Tale, whose early literary obsessions include the macabre logic of fairy tales, and who, along the way, develops a penchant for the punch of a good short story? She writes, of course. Grace O’Connell’s debut novel, Magnified World, the story of a young woman dealing with her mother’s untimely death, has a knack for revealing how ostensibly ordinary moments can refract into heartbreak, humour, or otherworldliness. O’Connell’s short story “The Many Faces of Montgomery Clift” was nominated for a National Magazine Award and was included in The Journey Prize Stories 24. She studied creative writing at the University of Guelph, and her stories also have appeared in This and The Walrus. Magnified World was published earlier this year under the Random House New Face of Fiction imprint.

“The books that may have had the most influence on me are the ones I read during my formative years. I loved all the CanLit they made us read in high school, like Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, and Robertson Davies. I was into fairy tales, too. Not just when I was younger, but also all through high school. I have a big collection of Andrew Lang fairy tales with all of the really gruesome, violent versions, like people being rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails. But the books I read now—even the ones I love—they just won’t be on the bone the way those books from my formative years were. So I do worry that I’m sort of aping Margaret Atwood, just because I read so much of her while I was growing up. I think I may be a trivia expert on her novels at this point. You know those branded trivia games, like The Rocky Horror Trivia Game? Well, I want the Margaret Atwood version.

The Handmaid’s Tale was actually the first adult novel I read. I was twelve. My sister gave it to me. I guess she’d just gone to a bookstore and said, ‘My sister really loves books and reads above her grade level. What would you recommend? ’ And some insane clerk said, ‘Give your twelve-year-old sister The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Which I loved! But I actually didn’t understand a lot of the plot points. I just thought, ‘Oh, she’s in love with the chauffeur, how romantic!’ And then, when I was old enough to understand it, I re-read it, and I remember going, ‘What the…? ’

“I taught a short fiction workshop at the University of Toronto this fall, and it was really exciting, because I love short fiction. I think it’s actually one of the most interesting forms of fiction to talk about. The craft of short fiction is often overlooked in terms of how hard it is to create a great short story. It’s sometimes more appreciated by writers than by readers. It’s a bit of a tightrope act in that it looks really easy, but it’s really incredibly hard to do. I find it interesting that some writers feel an obligation to write novels, but they don’t feel that same obligation to write short fiction. It’s as if novels are the default form of fiction, which I don’t think is true, necessarily. A good short story can pack a real emotional wallop.

“I really like the workshop environment. It’s something I did in my undergrad and during my M.F.A., and I really enjoyed it. It gave me the ability to have a perspective on my work. I realized that I’m never going to please everybody, and I’m always going to please somebody. I have a handful of first readers, people I trust and whose opinions I really respect. Keeping them in mind is really helpful. Good readers are worth their weight in gold.

“When I wrote Magnified World, I had to decide fairly early whether or not [the protagonist] Maggie would be diagnosed with a mental illness. And I really struggled with it. But I decided I only wanted to know—and by extension I only wanted readers to know—what Maggie knows, because it’s not really the story of what happened to Maggie, it’s the story of Maggie happening. I thought it was more compassionate to talk about mental illness in a way that would probably be more familiar to people who’ve experienced it or who’ve had loved ones experience it. It’s just totally disorienting and painful.

Magnified World opens with a death because I wanted to see what happens afterwards in the sometimes very banal circumstances that accompany very bizarre situations. Life goes on. What changes is your interiority, your thought process, or your relationships. The way you see the world might change, but your day-to-day life doesn’t. You know who’s really good at that, actually, is Lisa Moore. In her short stories especially, she has a couple of scenes where these big events happen but then she deals with the characters as they live with the consequences. I find that so interesting. Not only interesting, but it can be kind of funny sometimes, even when it’s really dark. Nobody else is coming to clean up the mess. And I think sometimes it can be things that we consider very regular and very ordinary that are actually the most heartbreaking.

“I have a new writing project started. It’s set in a town of my own making. It’s very much influenced by video games, and like a good video game, it needed its own world. I’ve mapped it out, but I have to go back and add in new streets as I go along, because I realize that I need a street here, or I need a park there. That kind of detail was ready-made for me when I wrote Magnified World, which is set in the west end of Toronto. It’s fun to create this new land, and it’s freeing, but it’s also added work.

“Writing fiction without an outline is kind of like walking in the dark with a flashlight. You can see two feet in front of you, but you don’t know what’s beyond that—whether there’s going to be a river or a cliff. It’s actually, I think, a good way to stay disciplined, because the only way to find out what happens next is to write it.”