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Ellen in Pieces: Namby-pamby protagonists, step aside

Caroline Adderson, 50, says Ellen, the protagonist in her new novel, is a dynamo-force despite having been dealt all kinds of blows; infidelity, an ugly divorce, the deaths of her parents, a war with her sister, and an 18-year-old pregnant daughter.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

You dream it and shape it and tussle with it and manage to squeeze it out of your brain and translate it onto the page. You stress and sweat and weep (and bliss out) and lose sleep and lose track and rework it and rework it and rework it through a years-long gestation process. Then you, the author, send your baby out into the world. Now it is at the mercy of the reviewers, prize juries, Indigo's merchandiser and Amazon's algorithm.

Caroline Adderson knows the drill intimately – the anxiety, the terror, the utter helplessness of the just-published moment. A CanLit fixture who does beautiful things with the written word, Adderson, 50, has published four novels, two short-story collections and a bunch of children's books. This is a big year for her, with four releases: three books for children (including her first picture book), and her latest novel, Ellen in Pieces.

Ellen marks a departure in its format, and in its protagonist: no more namby-pamby passive observer types, Adderson vowed during a recent interview. Its release also marks a new approach for Adderson to that difficult authorial postpartum period.

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"I look back on what I think has been kind of a typical Canadian career: B-list Canadian writer, written many, many books, all very well received, many, many, many nominations. Nobody's heard of me." Here she produces a great infectious laugh. "And then I had to say to myself, hmmm okay, let's look at the things you've written: a novel about two hairdressers who make a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz museum [A History of Forgetting]. Wow, everybody wants to read that. Buddhism and spinal-cord injury [Sitting Practice]. People actually recoil in horror when I say what these books are about." More laughter.

If I reduced Ellen in Pieces to a similarly simple one-phrase descriptive summary – and I won't because it would give too much away – its subject matter might also elicit a recoiling in horror. But really this is an unblinking portrait of the realities of midlife – its torments, yes, but its joys too.

Ellen McGinty is feisty and earthy and imperfect, and life has dealt her all kinds of blows – infidelity, an ugly divorce, the deaths of her parents, a war with her sister, troubles with her daughters – one has been to rehab, the other is 18 and pregnant. Life at what you might calculate to be the midway point appears pretty bleak. And then it gets bleaker.

But through it all, Ellen is a take-action dynamo force, the kind of woman you would want for your friend – or your protagonist.

"She kind of came to me fully formed; really I felt like she kicked a door open in my head," says Adderson, over lunch near her Vancouver home.

Ellen was born in part out of its format. Adderson felt the novel form was no longer a struggle for her, and thus less interesting. So she wrote a novel of linked stories. She also borrowed a page from her children's-book career: The child protagonist has to solve his or her own problems; an adult can't step in and do it for them.

"And then I realized, ah! That's really interesting!" (Adderson's enthusiasm means she often speaks in exclamation marks.) "I would say this is almost like the curse of CanLit: The protagonist is usually passive for a long time before they actually act. They're very introspective, they're pondering things. So I thought, wow, in my books, the protagonist is always the least interesting person in the book, right? The person who's watching everybody [else] … who tends to be more flamboyant or original or interesting. So I thought" – and here she pounds the little outdoor patio table that holds her tuna salad – "that's the end! No more of that! And then bang, she just burst in, full form. And I thought this is a person who acts. She royally [screws] up through a lot of it, but she acts, right? She acts and then she has to fix it."

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Our interview took place on publication day, launching a period on the CanLit calendar described by Adderson this way: "I'm sick to my stomach the whole month until the book comes out, and the curse of these bloody nominations. Then the list comes out and you're not on the list. And then you go to the festivals and you should all be having a great time. And all the [authors] are going, 'Ohhh, no nomination, my book sucks.' Everybody's just really depressed."

Now Adderson, who has earned a long list of honours, avoids knowing when prize nominations are being announced. "If I don't know about it, I'll be fine. I won't find out about it until two days later. But there's no need to call me up and tell me I didn't make it."

Adderson is no bitter CanLit survivor. She loves what she does, and feels grateful to scrape by in a two-artist household (her husband is filmmaker Bruce Sweeney). But she has learned to keep her eye on the real prize.

"I've done it long enough to know. I'm not going to get my knickers in a knot any more," she says, before recounting a trip to her cabin in August, 2010, ahead of the release of her novel The Sky Is Falling. It's the time of year for the Perseid meteor shower. Adderson watched the falling stars for hours – wishing on them repeatedly that her novel be successful.

"It's so pathetic," she says with a laugh, embarrassed at the memory. She tells the story freshly back from this year's summer break at the cabin. "This time I sat there, I watched the star, and I said, 'How lucky I saw a shooting star.' And there is my reward: to be able to see a shooting star. I don't have to attach it to some success of something completely unrelated. It's successful. I finished it. I wrote it. I wrote the book I wanted to write. What other people think about it, that's out of my hands. I'm too old now to get all tied up about it. It just ruins your life. It just ruins you."

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