Surviving Suburbia

Elyse Friedman followed her lucky star to a successful career as an author, poet, screenwriter, and, maybe someday, artist.

Summer, 2007 / No. 18
Photograph by Mark Lyall
Mark Lyall

Last June, when Elyse Friedman was looking through her closet for something to wear to the National Magazine Awards ceremony, she didn’t realize the event was such a glitzy affair. “I probably looked like a Club Monaco sales clerk, because I was wearing black pants and a white shirt,” Friedman says. “I was afraid all those editors were going to hand me their empty wine glasses.”

Although nominated twice in the fiction category, for stories published in two different magazines (including this one), Friedman had no idea she would end up being her own toughest competition. “I fully expected [the author] Wayne Johnston to win, so it was a surprise,” says Friedman of her first-place finish that evening. Remembering the event’s champagne and sparkling dresses, she grins widely as she adds, “It was my Oscar moment.”

It may not be her last. In addition to having written two novels and a collection of poetry, Friedman is also a seasoned and formally trained screenplay writer. “You have to make [screenwriting] visual,” she says. “Whatever’s going on in a character’s head in fiction has to be made cinematic.” Screenplays must also fit into a rigid, three-act structure. Yet connecting the prescribed plot points required of scripts has added muscle to Friedman’s prose. As a result, she has become an expert storyteller whose work, influenced by the visual emphasis and linguistic economy of screenplay style, offers plot-driven, slyly satirical escapades through cities and suburbia.

Describing her work as comedy with a serious underbelly, Friedman writes with the dramatic-edged humour characteristic of her favourite movies: Harold and Maude, The Apartment, and Annie Hall. And because Friedman often fuels her work with tales from her years of wanderings en route to establishing her writing career, her characters constantly veer into unpredictable territory. Friedman’s fiction is particularly enjoyable because, like film, it contains something too often elusive in what is considered “serious” literature: entertainment.

Friedman was born in Toronto, in 1963, and raised in North York—then a still-growing city of its own on Toronto’s northern border—together with her older sister, Robyn, and younger brother, Danny. When the Friedman children were small, their father, Otto, was a furrier who, to their delight, did most of his work in the basement. When Friedman was a child, her mother, Annette, who had worked as a legal secretary for seventeen years, went back to school to study law. Mature students, especially ones with families, were considered such anomalies at the time that the Toronto Star published her photo upon graduation. “It was amazing,” Friedman says. “Now that I have a kid, I realize how hard it must have been for her. Had I only known then, I would have behaved differently.”

Friedman’s childhood was neither happy nor unhappy. “We were kind of weird,” she says of her family. “I wasn’t ever very fond of suburbia, and I always felt we were out of place there.” Yet in her first novel, Then Again, Michelle, her like-minded protagonist, makes an uncanny discovery while revisiting her suburban childhood neighbourhood: “Most of the families appeared quite normal on the surface—2.8 children, Pontiac, barbecue—but there was some serious strangeness going on behind all those double-paned windows and avocado green front doors.”

Friedman finished Grade 9 at Zion Heights Junior High, but started Grade 10 half-heartedly. She regularly escaped with her boyfriend, who had access to a van through his job refilling office snack trays. While her brother transformed from a problem child at age thirteen by discovering his musical talent and enrolling in the Claude Watson School for the Arts, Friedman stalled, and meandered through what would have otherwise been her high-school years. Although she dropped out partway through Grade 10, she eventually enrolled in an alternative study program and fulfilled her Grade 13 graduation requirements when she was seventeen.

That same year, her family moved downtown, to Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, where Friedman began to flourish. The Annex of the early eighties was filled with Hungarian restaurants and very few cafés—more bohemian (as in eclectic) and far less trendy (as in moneyed) than it is today. “It was a weird thing to do at the time,” says Friedman. “But it somehow seemed like the right place for us.” Friedman soon fled the nest and moved into an apartment, with two roommates, papering over the windows of a tiny sunroom and calling it home. She then attended the media arts program at Sheridan College, where, in an early bid to become a director, she made a few short films. Yet her student finances were such that immediately after finishing her program she needed to find a steady job. Although a few paltry unpaid production-assistant internships were available, she had no luck finding paid work in the film industry.

Like Michelle in Then Again, Friedman took a job as a “slide rat” at a corporate communications company, cleaning trays of slides for visual presentations, a task she describes in her novel as so mind-numbing “a child of four could do it. A dyslexic chimpanzee could pull it off.” As if that soul-destroying job wasn’t enough to deal with, her mother became seriously ill, passing away when Friedman was twenty-two, an event she remembers as the “most horrible thing in the world.” Friedman revisits this tragedy with a steady hand in Then Again when Michelle’s family assembles around their mother’s death-bed: “It is terrible and torturous. Exhale…Now wait and watch and listen for the inhale,” she writes. “Wait and wait too long too long…Then, just as you’re about to leap from your chair, it comes in a short gasp.”

Although Michelle lasts less than a year in what she calls the “golden handcuffs” of her corporate job, Friedman herself stayed shackled for a decade, gradually working her way up the ladder to slide-show producer. Eventually, in an attempt to fulfill her desire to write, she began authoring presentations and other projects of the same ilk. But drafting an annual report for the Four Seasons hotel chain didn’t fit at all with the kind of writing she aspired to. The corporate jobs on her résumé made it impossible for her to shift gears in Toronto and be taken seriously as a writer with any modicum of creativity. Though she was able to find some low-paying work for the youth network YTV, her applications for more engaging, better paying writing gigs were ignored. While she began to accept fewer corporate projects, it wasn’t until 1992, nearing the age of thirty, that she finally found the resolve to quit completely.

That year, wanting to escape from Toronto for a while, Friedman and her boyfriend at the time decided to move to Winnipeg. She responded to a job posting for Brand X, a new CBC radio show based in the city, with a humorous recorded segment about a recently released cookbook of Elvis Presley’s favourite recipes, and became the first contributor hired. Writing and producing up to five segments a week for the show, which eventually evolved into Definitely Not the Opera, Friedman was finally doing what she wanted to do. Living in Winnipeg also acted as a creative stimulant—like Toronto, there was a significant amount of artistic culture, but the theatre, arts venues, and artists in general in Winnipeg were much more accessible. After three restorative years on the Prairies, Friedman abandoned Portage and Main for the mean streets of Yonge and Bloor, returning to Toronto to nurture her fiction-writing talent at the Humber College School for Writers. Later, she would also study screenwriting at the Canadian Film Centre, where she would meet a number of the writers, producers, and directors she continues to work with in the film industry today, including her future partner, the writer-director Randall Cole.

Although she has occasionally had to regress, accepting corporate writing gigs to pay the bills, “I haven’t done that, I’m happy to say, for years now,” Friedman says. “It’s my fondest wish to never have to again.”

It was through the mentorship element of the Humber College program that Friedman was paired with the man she would come to call her “lucky star,” Paul Quarrington. A Toronto-based writer renowned for his book and screenplay Whale Music, and the Giller-nominated novel Galveston, Quarrington was very encouraging of Friedman’s work and urged her to write her first novel. She wrote a manuscript in eight months and gave it to Quarrington, who immediately took it to his agent. A deal was secured with Random House, and Then Again was published in 1999, and eventually nominated for the Trillium Book Award.

At the time of Then Again’s début, Quarrington described Friedman as the most gifted student he’d ever had. “As soon as I started reading Elyse’s stuff I knew she was the real thing,” he says today, adding that while he feels writers can be coached, they can’t be taught to be creative. “She’s the kind of writer that I admire and aspire to be, in that she can be funny, but she’s also got serious intentions.”

Then Again is the story of two sisters who return to their suburban childhood home for a “blast from the past” party at the request of their wealthy brother, who has restored the house to its nineteen-seventies splendor, complete with green linoleum floors and actors hired to play their parents. Writing about a family very similar to her own, Friedman clearly enjoyed the opportunity to embellish. “I do not have a crazy billionaire brother,” she says, but adds that after being away for so long, she has developed “a strange nostalgia for the suburbs.” She was particularly interested in exploring how, even as adults, siblings revert to their childhood roles, a dynamic that, in the novel at least, proves to be very funny.

Unlike Then Again, whose cover boasts a bold, capitalized type emblazoned over the doubled image of a glowering young woman standing on a lawn, Friedman’s follow-up, Waking Beauty, is sandwiched between a delicate white and pink cover with soft italicized lower-case type and a sleeping blond belying what’s inside. Published in 2004 by Three Rivers Press, a U.S. Random House imprint, Waking Beauty was marketed as a chick-lit book. Friedman rolls her eyes at the label. “Don’t get me started,” she says. “Because the premise had to do with beauty, they decided they were going to try and make a whack of dough on it.” Friedman vociferously objected to the novel’s cover design, but says her publisher forged ahead with its marketing campaign anyway. Readers expecting comfortably fluffy chick lit found exactly the opposite, while fans of Then Again were repelled by the girly cover.

Aside from a feel-good prologue that reads like it should be a movie trailer voice-over read by Cameron Diaz, Waking Beauty features the signature snappy prose, quick pacing, and sardonic one-liners Friedman wielded in Then Again. Carefully interspersed dark moments are not candy coated, and chick-lit conventions are spurned. Girl gets guy, not because he loves her for who she is on the inside, but because, for reasons unknown, she turns from overweight and ugly to thin and beautiful overnight. Friedman had the idea for the book while vacationing at a resort in Cuba, where she observed how one family interacted with their painfully ugly teenaged daughter. The teen’s body language and inability to have fun with other children suggested her whole life was ruled by her looks. “Even her parents were having trouble loving her,” Friedman says.

While writing Waking Beauty, Friedman was pouring her own urban angst and everyday frustrations into a collection of poems, titled Know Your Monkey, published by ECW in 2003. With riffs on everything from screenwriting to sex, laundry to naturopath patients, the collection resonates with clear writing and sly, startling observations. With a nod to Friedman’s former life, for example, one poem describes a frustrated real estate copywriter who torches his portfolio and at the last minute, throws his socks into the fire too. The collection garnered a bronze Book of the Year Award from ForeWord Magazine shortly after its release, and that same year, Friedman’s short story “Truth” was selected as a Journey Prize contender and later appeared in the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories.

Having escaped the corporate writing mills to eke out a career writing short stories, poems, novels, plays, and screenplays that led the poet and critic Lynn Crosbie to label her “Canada’s Hot Plot Queen” in the Toronto Star, Friedman’s days of struggling to break into the writing industry are over. Her writing nemeses are now lack of time and energy. Both have been in short supply since her son, Max, was born, in 2004. Though she and Cole share parenting duties, the unpredictability of their artistic lives and the constant juggle of multiple projects leaves them both exhausted. At the time she was interviewed for this story, Cole was shooting a movie, her three-year-old was attending part-time preschool, and Friedman was simultaneously working on securing a book deal for her latest fiction project, writing a screenplay of Waking Beauty for a Canadian production company, and rewriting a major screenplay she penned for a Hollywood film. Perhaps inspired by the memory of her indefatigable mother, Friedman is holding up, humour intact.

Although Friedman’s family life keeps her busy, she has discovered raising a child also has its creative moments. She can now recite Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo and several Dr. Seuss favourites from memory. And she has also been telling her son a series of what she describes as unpublishable stories about an out-of-control child named Ziggy, who is an amalgam of all the naughty traits Max might possess if he could get away with it. Born with her family’s creative genes, Friedman says Max is “already a weird kid,” admitting that if there’s any karma, she’s due for some payback for her teenaged rebellion. Yet she’s looking forward to helping Max find his own creative outlet early on, and seeing where it takes him.

Friedman also says healthy competition with Cole helps keeps her creativity sharp. Though the couple give each other feedback on their work, Friedman admits they also get territorial about ideas. Her National Magazine Award– winning short story, “The Soother,” is about a man who likes being treated as an infant. “We were watching Sextv one night and there was a segment on adult babies,” she says. “I called dibs.”

Constantly working from screen to page, and page to screen, Friedman seems always to be plotting her next story.

So far, Friedman’s National Magazine Award is her biggest literary coup. At the award ceremony, Friedman again crossed paths with Quarrington, who, it turned out, was one of the fiction judges. Even though submissions are judged blind, Friedman recognized the glimmer of her lucky star. “Everything good that happens to me in the literary world has something to do with you,” she told him with admiration.

Friedman’s award-winning stories will appear again this fall along with other works, including a novella, in her new collection. As a result of her experiences publishing Waking Beauty, Friedman this time chose a Canadian press, House of Anansi, which she fully believes will market her work in a way that honours the content.

In any case, Quarrington, among others, is waiting expectantly for Friedman’s next book. “She’s the kind of writer whose easel and palette will keep getting bigger,” he says. Quarrington’s painterly description is apt. With her long struggle to become a writer behind her, it may seem odd, but Friedman’s win-the-lottery fantasy is to have an art studio packed with canvasses and paint in her home to muck around in. “I’m a terrible painter, but I love to do it,” she admits. “There’s something really satisfying about creating something and not using your brain. It’s all gut.”

For a weird kid who escaped both suburbia and the cogs of corporate culture to become an author, poet, and film writer, adding artist to Friedman’s résumé doesn’t seem like a stretch at all.

Suzanne Alyssa Andrew is a contributing editor to Taddle Creek. She lives in Vancouver, where she is an author, writing instructor, and coach. Last updated spring, 2022.