Popular culture loves a good road trip. From Jack Kerouac to Thelma and Louise, artists and their audiences have been getting their kicks on Route 66 and beyond - almost as long as the automobile has been around.
With her new book, The Flying Troutmans, Winnipeg author Miriam Toews makes her contribution to the road-trip canon in the follow-up to her smash critical and commercial success A Complicated Kindness.
"I love road trips," Toews, 44, said in an interview last week from Toronto, where she was promoting the new novel. "[You]get into this Zen rhythm; throw sense of time out the window."
She has been on her share - as a child, with her own children and, most recently, by herself. She drove, a year ago, from Winnipeg to Vancouver and back again toute seule after completing the first draft of the novel. It was a chance to mull over what she'd written - while at the same time taking a break from it.
"I was thinking, did I capture the rhythm and the feeling, the light, the shadows, the sort of sense of the road," she says. "But then on the other hand, I was also just trying to kind of get away from it and get it out of my head; replace my fictional road trip with a real one."
Toews's fictional road trip starts in Winnipeg, where Hattie Troutman, 28, returns from Paris, after being dumped by boyfriend Marc, to look after her sister, Min, and Min's two children - Thebes, 11, and Logan, 15. Min suffers from mental illness and, suicidal, has to be hospitalized.
Hattie decides to pile the children into the rundown family van and go in search of their long-gone father, who lives somewhere in the
United States; she's not sure where.
"I had always wanted to write a road-trip story," Toews says. "And I wanted to explore the relationship between the two sets of siblings: the adult sisters and then the younger brother and sister."
Toews wrote the novel in the golden shadow of A Complicated Kindness, winner of the Governor-General's Award and a Giller Prize nominee in 2004; and the victor in CBC Radio's 2006 Canada Reads competition. The book caused a sensation and turned Toews into a CanLit celebrity.
The hopes for her follow-up were high and Toews was only too aware of this.
"The expectations, I guess, were maybe a little bit daunting, but ultimately I had to write the story that I wanted to write and that I felt like writing at the time, and I tried to silence any other doubts."
The doubts emerged from the pressure Toews felt to deliver a certain style, theme, voice - a sort of Complicated Kindness: The Sequel. She worked hard to ignore those expectations - from the industry, from readers - and focus on the new project.
"I wouldn't be able to maintain the concentration required to finish the book if I wasn't just writing a story I felt like writing," she says.
There are similarities between the books, to be sure: in the family dysfunction, in the precocious adolescent and teenage voices, and - front and centre this time - in the issue of mental health.
It is an issue that Toews has returned to again and again in her writing; an issue which has deeply affected her life. When her father was 17, he was diagnosed with what at the time was called manic depression; what's now referred to as bipolar disorder. Toews grew up not understanding why her father was sometimes an intelligent, caring, funny man and why sometimes he disappeared into a "dark heaviness," as she puts it.
Ten years ago, he committed suicide - an event which rocked Toews's world and her family's, and which she turned into a powerful memoir, Swing Low: A Life.
"I have touched on [mental illness]in my writing in just about everything I've written," says Toews. "I guess it was just so much a part of my world."
In The Flying Troutmans, Min is the personification of the "nasty illness," as Toews calls it - a character who can delight her children with a Mexican hat dance in an effort to raise money from fellow passengers to pay an airport tax; but who also, in a dark period, can refuse to see those children - even deny their existence.
"[Min is]a tribute to my father," says Toews, "and to all individuals who suffer from this particular illness."
Shortly after her father died, Toews saw him - a vision of him, anyway - in the hospital, as her mother was going in for complicated bypass surgery.
"I saw him at the far end of the hall, when they were wheeling her into the place where she was going to have her surgery ... and it was stressful and we were all there, and I saw him and it was beautiful and it was comforting."
It was a story Toews never told her own sister, who is six years older, and with whom she is very close. The fairly recent realization that she hadn't shared this story with her sister, even though they were suffering through the same grief, made her think about how siblings share experiences while at the same time dealing with them in unique ways and with different psychological strategies.
It is one of the main themes Toews explores in The Flying Troutmans. Thebes stops bathing; Logan shoots hoops, but they pile their grief into that van every day and find quiet comfort in each other's presence.
They travel through the U.S., through towns Toews chose for their names (Murdo, Moab, Mexican Hat, she consulted a map to make sure the travel times were feasible), toward their father and toward a resolution, maybe.
To create that family road-trip feeling, Toews drew on the experiences she and her husband had with their own children - now 23, 21 and 18 - as they crisscrossed North America, doing crafts, playing music, throwing a Frisbee at rest stops along the way. But most of all, experiencing a different landscape, a different world.
"I remember telling my kids, 'Hey are you bored? Just look out the window,' " she remembers.
"That's the beauty of the road trip: the scenery."
Miriam Toews reads, along with Joan Barfoot, tonight at 7:30 at the Granville Island Stage in Vancouver ( http://www.writersfest.bc.ca).