Mona Awad's debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, was recently published by Penguin Canada. It tells the story of a weight-obsessed young woman growing up in suburban Toronto. Born in Montreal, Awad received her MFA from Brown and is now working on her PhD in English literature and creative writing at the University of Denver, where she currently lives.
Why did you write your new book?
To challenge and complicate our notion of what fat is. To say all the things I wanted to say about body image and how deeply it can affect and shape various aspects of our lives. To tell stories that I wanted desperately to tell and to read that didn't exist.
Whose sentences are your favourite?
Shakespeare's, because they are so open and complex that you can never come to the bottom of them. There is room in them to hold and reflect back any conflicting, hot mess of emotions you might be feeling. I love Jean Rhys's sentences too because they are so honest, urgent and visceral. Finally, Russell Hoban's because they are so wondrous and surprising. It might be because he started as a children's writer that he's able to take such leaps. There is a character in his novel Kleinzeit, for example, who is quite literally handed the morning:
"… The day knocked three times at his eyeballs.
Morning for Mr. Kleinzeit, said the day.
I'm Mr. Kleinzeit, said Kleinzeit.
Sign here, please.
Thank you very much, sir, said the day and handed him the morning."
Which book do you think is under-appreciated?
A Jest of God by our own Margaret Laurence. The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban. Not only is Hoban a beautiful writer, but I love how he conceives that space between what we perceive to be reality and reality – a space that is inherently fraught with our anxieties, desires and dreams – as truly imaginative. In The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, a son's anger at his father is an actual lion stalking the streets of London.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
Fairy-tale collections. I love how they enact our anxieties and desires in complex but really deceptively simple ways. For my master's dissertation in English, I wrote about fear and the fairy tale. It is amazing to me how the wonder, fear and desire they perform remain elusive, regardless of deep study. I also reread short stories, especially funny ones with a dark or melancholy edge – I keep Lorrie Moore, Wells Tower and Stacey Richter collections by my bed and often read them instead of watching television when I want to laugh-cry.
Who's your favourite villain in literature?
Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. I think it's a brilliant, very disturbing and complicated portrait of a monster who is at the same time a product of his culture and his age. What I love about Patrick too is that we're made to feel empathy for him at very surprising moments in the book. He actually influenced my portrayal of Lizzie, the main character of my novel. Certainly Lizzie is no Patrick Bateman, but I do think I was interested in exploring a kind of monstrousness, a psychosis that our body-image-obsessed culture can bring out in us.